Monday, November 10, 2014

Praise Teams Under Fire in Worship Wars

Worship wars.

They're the fights that have been going on for decades in North American churches regarding the music style and liturgy format each congregation uses for its corporate worship services.

And yes, every church employs a certain liturgical style, even if that church hates the word "liturgical."  Liturgy simply means the process by which a group's religious beliefs are expressed in a group setting.  Some churches have a very "high" form of liturgy, in which grand displays of religiosity are demonstrated, while most churches these days have a very "low" form of liturgy, in which religion is displayed in an everyday, almost apologetic environment.

It's almost as if they don't want to offend their surrounding culture, or appear to be too different from it. 

Depending on the style of liturgy a church adopts to express itself in corporate worship, a style of music usually follows, according to a prescribed - almost perfunctory - assumption; namely, that high liturgy is done with classical music, and low liturgy is done with contemporary Christian music (CCM).

Increasingly, churches are attempting to "blend" music styles, regardless of their liturgical styles, because our culture's worship wars have taken such a toll on congregants over the years.  They incorporate some "old" songs from an indeterminate period of time, and then some "new" songs, which are usually praise choruses of dubious legitimacy, but which sound appealingly modern and "relevant."

Yet, unfortunately, the old scars from our worship wars haven't ever healed completely, since people continue complaining about the music they encounter in North America's churches.  Sometimes, the complaint will be that a church is stuck in the past, refusing to sing music with which today's generation can relate.  Alternatively, however, pundits are becoming more vocal against the contemporary music being sung in their churches, and led - almost universally these days - by what are called "praise teams."

Praise teams are groups of people who are put on a stage, either in groups, or spaced individually at even distances, who ostensibly lead the congregation in singing songs of worship.  Most praise team members have their own microphone, since they've been chosen because of their musical proficiency - which itself is a relative and subjective assessment.  A lot of times, however, musical proficiency doesn't play a significant factor.  Since most CCM isn't written for four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), there isn't a lot of harmony sung any more in churches.

Not that there's anything sinful with praise team members who can't sing.  At least, who can't sing according to traditional metrics of musical theory.  Plenty of church choirs over the centuries have been comprised of people who couldn't sing, either.  In fact, Christianity's history with bad church choirs helped to usher in our modern era of praise teams.  Praise teams are easier to assemble and manage.  And, just like the choir members who came before them, most people who sing on praise teams genuinely desire to help their fellow congregants worship our Savior.  Which makes it hard to fault their commitment.

At first, when praise teams were a new phenomenon, congregations were told that it would take a while to work out the kinks.  Eventually, praise teams would  prove themselves to be a solid improvement over the choirs they were replacing.  But it's been years now, in most churches with praise teams, and judging by the complaints being voiced on Christian websites these days, not a lot of progress has been made.

Some people say that the microphones used by praise teams amplify a select group of voices to the exclusion of the overall congregation; all anybody hears are the voices of the praise team members.

Some people say that praise team members tend to attract too much attention by the way they dress (or don't dress), or sway to the beat.  Back in the olden days, of course, choirs wore robes, so everybody was covered, and looked pretty much the same.  But today, people think robes are either too old-fashioned, or too sanctimonious.

Some people say that praise teams can't possibly redeem the bad music they're leading the rest of the congregation in singing.  Which, of course, isn't really a praise team's fault.  Nevertheless, when it comes to throwing babies out with the bathwater, blaming praise teams for the bad music they're singing seems to come naturally to us churched folk.

So, the worship wars aren't over, are they?

Now, by way of full disclosure, I must confess that I used to idolize classical corporate worship.  For 15 years, I've attended a large, wealthy church in Dallas whose beautiful sanctuary boasts a magnificent multi-million-dollar pipe organ.  All three of our Sunday morning corporate worship services are organized according to a mid-to-high liturgy featuring deeply reverential classical music.  To top it off, I sing in the chancel choir, and while technically, the music selection is what would be considered "blended," it's a blend of Bach and Getty, not 1950's hymns and CCM.

Nevertheless, God is moving me out of my idolization of classical worship, even though I remain convinced that, all things considered, it's the most appropriate genre of worshipping God in the splendor of His holiness.  Indeed, I believe that it's our concept of "holiness" that has been corrupted over the years, along with, to a lesser degree, our dulled sense of musical tastes.   Today's musical tastes endorse much of what CCM gives us as satisfactory replacements for some of the greatest hymns Christianity has ever known.

Although I'm trying not to be idolatrous, I'm still a bit biased.  Shouldn't we be?

This diminution of holiness and embrace of musical inferiority that many congregations perpetrate has combined to give the modern North American church a crisis in worship.  It's not just a worship war.  It's a crisis Satan has effectively exploited to split up congregations and turn otherwise God-worshipping congregants against each other.

People have said that the worship wars are over, and that traditionalists lost, but I say that this is part of the problem:  in the sense that classical music is "tradition," that makes its use - or rejection - more preference than purpose, doesn't it?  And preference is not necessarily a good justification for much of anything substantive, is it?  Especially when it comes to worshiping our holy Creator God in a corporate service.

Instead, what we need to be asking ourselves is this:  what is the purpose of corporate worship?  Once we answer that question, and answer it Biblically, then we can chat about music styles.  After all, God looks inside of us to see why we choose to worship Him in a particular way.  We may argue that in order to present the Gospel as "relevant" to today's generation, we need to use music today's generation enjoys.  But in doing so, are we concentrating more on preference, or purpose?  By the same token, a wealthy, white church like mine could reason that classical music is what most rich white folk expect in their prestigious churches.  But that's preference over purpose too, isn't it?

This means that praise teams, and the music they most often present, are not, in and of themselves, intrinsically wrong.   They can be deployed badly; but then again, so can classical worship.  Besides, most congregations in the USA today cannot afford the huge pipe organ and extensively-trained musicians that my current church can, and upon which most classical music is dependent to be executed to its fullest.

So where does all this leave us?

Rachel Miller, in her article for the Aquila Report, a Presbyterian-centric website, says this about the continued ruckus over praise teams:

"If the words are true and faithful, if the congregation can sing it and be heard, if the focus is on praising the King of Heaven, let us rejoice and worship and remember to be gracious to others who may not share our worship music style."

What Miller writes, of course, encapsulates many of the reasons people don't like praise teams.  Praise teams, and the CCM they broadly deploy, still seem to miss the mark on a lot of levels.  For a while, being gracious towards advocates of praise teams sounded like a Biblical way of reacting for people averse to the style.  However, haven't we given the style enough time to evolve into something better?  At what point can we stop pretending that the product produced by CCM and praise teams really is really good?  Not based on preference, but on purpose?

Personally, I suspect that if churches simply took the microphones away from praise teams, a lot of the problems would go away.

Amplifying individual voices when a congregation is supposed to be singing together doesn't really set a good tone, either aesthetically, or purposefully.  The whole point of congregational singing is, well, "congregational" singing.

If the amplification of individual voices is thought to be necessary because the instrumentalists accompanying the singers are playing loudly, well... perhaps the instrumentalists are playing too loudly!  If any instrument drowns out congregational singing, whether it's drums, or electric guitar, or a pipe organ, isn't that instrumentalist playing too loudly?  Perhaps taking the microphones from the praise team will force other acoustical measures to be taken so that congregational singing can be enhanced.

Hey - I used to worship our church's pipe organ.  Are you worshipping your praise team's drum set?

Microphones can also encourage - however subconsciously - a performance mindset, both for the singer using it, and the audience viewing and listening...  Did you even flinch at my use of the word "audience" for "congregation" in that sentence?  Let's not forget that any Biblical corporate worship service has only one audience member, and that is God Himself.  All the rest of us are merely participants.

Removing praise team microphones will also likely force whomever is selecting the music to pick songs the congregation can actually sing, instead of merely mumble along with.  I've been in worship services where CCM is used, and watched as congregants chatted amongst each other, or on their cell phones, while the praise team gyrated on a fantastically-lit stage, repeating the same lyrics over and over again.  There was the praise team, and there were people in the auditorium's seating area, but they were disconnected.  At best, what was supposed to be corporate worship was a CCM concert with sing-along bits.

Meanwhile, what is God hearing from all of this?

If all He's hearing is a bunch of squabbling from His people in North America over how we like to sing what we want to sing, then does it really matter if praise teams or chancel choirs are setting the tone?

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