Monday, June 19, 2017

Praise teams

I have recently experienced worship with worship music led by praise teams (worship teams). I am speaking of a kind of worship music that is in line with the "a cappella" flavor of "doing church" that is characteristic of the churches of Christ but is not in line with the traditional song-leader led worship.

This experience (with congregational singing led by a praise team) happened to me while I was attending the 2017 Pepperdine University Bible Lectures. Participants in these worship activities came from all over the country.

I had a personal reaction to this experience and I confess that the response was negative. I also had some conversations about it with several of my children, ages 13 to 21, and their own reactions to praise-team worship leadeship were positive. With a lot of thought, I have attempted to work through the disparate reactions. I have considered what would be a reasonable way forward for the churches of Christ with respect to their worship music.

My biggest complaint with worshiping with praise-team leadership is that I felt left out. I knew only about half of the songs. Each song service had the songs' words displayed on a screen so that everybody could read them; but there were no music notations included with the words; so I could not get the hang of any unfamiliar song before it was over.
BUT! I noticed that almost everyone in attendance was singing the songs. They knew them and enthusiastically joined the singing in the usual congregational way. Did everyone sing? No. About 80 of the attendees sang. The rest did not. That ratio is pretty typical any any congregation no matter how the local church handles its worship music. In my case, if I did not know the song, I just kind of sat there and watched the words on the screen. How did all these people from so many different churches know those songs? I don't know; but I suspect that there is some kind of inter-congregational network for the sharing of songs Maybe there is a newsletter, or praise-team retreats or some-such that permits churches to end up with similar repertoires of worship songs.

Other non-singers involved themselves with the song in other ways that buck against my experience. For example, some lifted a hand or two in a kind of prayer posture (as did some people who were also singing). Lifting the hands is not a church-of-Christ thing. Many of the participants who did the hand-thing did not hold their hands in the proper biblical way. The proper way to hold the hands is with palms up towards heaven, or, in a Jewish context, with the palms  facing in the direction of the temple, Jerusalem or Israel (depending on how far away those sites are from the worshipers). So, how vigorously should I criticize people for lifting their hands wrong? Most of us would criticize people for lifting their hands correctly! We do not lift hands up in worship in the churches of Christ. Now, think about that. Is NOT lifting hands a tradition we want to enforce? If so, admit that "not lifting hands" is one of our rules that excludes people who find meaning in lifting their hands.

How strongly do we want to enforce the singing of traditional pew-hymnal songs? Again, we must realize that our cleaving to a certain kind of song excludes some people who find meaning in a different kind of song. For perspective, recall that I said I felt left out of the worship led by praise teams; but my 13 to 21 year-old children felt included in the worship.

What follows are some common criticisms of praise-team style song-leading. These criticisms have been my own criticisms up until very recently. Most importantly, my mind is not closed to the conversation. I am not strictly "on a side." I encourage everyone towards open-mindedness. I don't mean that we should be wishy-washy or that we should whimsically change our minds; but we should be willing to consider the arguments and be willing to change our minds.

Praise Teams lead a lot of hard songs. Since praise teams are composed of some of the best singers in the congregation, they are able to sing some pretty hard songs. Many of those songs may be otherwise beyond the skill-level of an average congregation. To a certain extent, it is a good thing that a church can sing songs that are a little more difficult than they could using the traditional song-leader method. Having several song leaders at once (i.e., a praise team) permits the congregation to hear the song the way it needs to be sung. Thus, the praise team method opens up some songs for use in worship that might otherwise be closed. For example, the song, The Lord Bless You and Keep You, with the seven-fold amen, is beyond the skill levels of most congregations, especially if the song is led by a one-person song leader. It can be done. One solution is to have the praise team intermingled throughout the congregation. They are almost undercover song leaders. They might have gotten together during the week and practiced the song. Then, when it is sung congregationally, there are people throughout the congregation who know the song. That system works pretty well for congregations smaller than 200 members.

The other method is to just have the praise team up front as worship leaders. If that is a problem then my question is, what is the difference between leading from the pew and leading from the front of the auditorium? What is so special about the front of the auditorium that is less special about the pew? I am not seeing a lot of difference.

It feels like a concert. This is the other side of singing hard songs. Some of the songs may be so difficult that a congregation cannot get the hang of them even with a praise team leading it! The church won't learn the song ever! When I witnessed praise teams singing really hard songs, I saw a congregation in which very few people were singing along. Almost everybody was just listening. Interestingly, most of the listeners were still obviously involved with the song. They were paying close attention. I could not tell if they were paying attention to the terrific sound or the meaningful words... or both.

... Except in one circumstance. One of the praise teams sang a song that really had no meaning. Each of the parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) sang a particular line that repeated unendingly. The soprano line was something like, "O Lord, you are my Lord." They sang that line repeatedly for the duration of the song that seemed to go on forever. The song had a real cool sound to it; but there was no content. Many attendees were positively engaged with the song. I have a lot of trouble believing they were involved in a spiritual way since the song had almost no meaning. Obviously, praise teams should steer away from songs featuring weak meaning (as should traditional song leaders).

Now, before we criticize praise team song leading for having a new set of problems, we need to look in the mirror. Traditional song leading has its own set of problems that traditional song leaders usually handle well enough. Speaking for myself (as I am a traditional song leader), I try to stay away from songs that have shallow meaning (Have A Little Talk With Jesus), doctrinally dubious words (Jesus is Coming Soon) or are so difficult the words loose their meaning (The New Song; O Lord, Our Lord). Other questions that are on the minds of traditional song leaders include
  • Do the songs go together in a meaningful flow of thought?
  • Is there a sufficient variety of key and time signatures to thus prevent boredom?
  • Does the congregation know this song well enough to worship with it as the participants prepare for the Lord's Supper?
  • Is this song sufficiently familiar to be sung during the after-sermon invitation?
Praise teams face the same questions but with new trappings. They will want to avoid songs that draw attention on the skill of the praise team rather than on the meanings of the songs.

So, what about those songs that have deep meaning but few worshipers can sing along it because they require a lot of musical skill? How critical should we be of a worship song like that? Is not the point of worship music that all worshipers in the assembly lift his and her voices in praise to God?

I personally know that I am worshiping God when I am singing praises. There is biblical support for worshiping by singing while I am alone (James 5:13), amongst other believers (Colossians 3:16) and in formal worship (Ephesians 5:18-20). Singing together is a way we worship God and also teach and admonish one another. God is attentive to the prayerful communication that is going on in the worshipers' hearts yet fellow Christians are supposed to be attentive to the teaching aspect of the worship songs. Singing is a special kind of teaching. If teaching is the nice thing worship singing does for our fellow believers, then why singing the message. Why not just say it? Experience provides the answer. Songs are poetic, so the words are memorable. They stick better in the memory and therefore have a more lasting affect on the learner. Secondly, singing takes effort. It demonstrates that the singer believes the message is important enough to preach it in the most effective way he can; so it is important to sing with good voice, on key and with good enunciation.

The question that I will now explore is, "Is congregational singing the only biblically authorized way to worship with singing?" I have already answered part of this question by focus on the teaching aspect of worship singing. If singing is teaching then somebody must be listening to the singing. Obviously, everybody can be singing and listening at the same time. There is no problem with that; but is it scriptural for one person or for a part of the congregation to be singing while the rest listens, enjoying the music and learning from the words?

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul coaches the Corinthian church how to "do church" in a way that is less disruptive and more instructive. He is especially suspicious of exercising the spiritual gift of tongue-speaking in the assembly. He all but says that tongues have no place at church.
Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. (1 Corinthians 14:22)
In chapter 14, Paul is not criticizing the activities with which the members were involving themselves. He is criticizing the way they were doing it. They were sabotaging the teaching aspect of those activities. So, in 1 Corinthians 14:26 he says
What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
This verse shows that some members came to the assembly prepared. They had something to share. The verse describes, for example, a person who has a tongue that he wants to share. The person may have even practiced the tongue so that he does not stammer through it. The tongue-speaker also comes prepared with a partner who has prepared the interpretation. Nevertheless, says Paul repeatedly, revelations are better than tongues; therefore the tongue-speakers may not get their turns to share what they have prepared.

I want to focus now on the particular gift or talent of hymn singing. What was that hymn-singing gift? How was it done? Let us consider the other teaching activities listed in the verse. They include the lesson-giver, the revelation-giver, the tongue-speaker and the tongue-interpreter. Notice that one person (or a person with a partner) presents something to the church and the church is built up by it.

lesson-given ⇨ church
revealer ⇨ church
tongue-speaker ⇨ interpreter ⇨ church

Since the various activities are presented by a single person or a small partnership, the passage strongly suggests that the singing of a hymn was, at least some of the time, presented by a single person or by a small partnership for the building up of the church.

hymn-singer ⇨ church
hymn-singers ⇨ church

To put it in modern church jargon: Some people practiced their songs ahead of time and came to church prepared to sing their song to the church, either as a solo or as a small ensemble.

Maybe they taught the song to the whole church so that they could all sing it together, as suggested by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:15 (which also mentions the worship activity of praying). Maybe, instead, they sang their song and then yielded the floor to a lesson-teacher. One thing we can know with near certainty: At least part of the time, a soloist or a few singers were sang a hymn for church edification while the church listened and was built up.

We return to the question, "Is not the point of worship music that all worshipers in the assembly lift his and her voices in praise to God?" The answer is, "It is a point but it is not the point."

Music in worship may scripturally feature congregational singing when everyone sings. It may also scripturally feature songs that are sung by one or a few members for the building up of the whole church. One may effectively argue that worship music ought to include both types in order to properly model first century church practices.

I grew up in a church experience where the worship music was exclusively congregational and I learned how to worship God and be personally edified with congregational worship music. The closest we ever came to singing while others listened was when there were divided parts in a particular song, as in:
Women: Who saved us from eternal loss!
   Men: Who but God's Son upon the cross?
(James M. Gray and William Owen. O Listen to Our Wondrous Story)
Personally, I have trouble feeling comfortable when part of the church, especially a praise team, is singing and I am unable to sing along. I feel left out. I feel excluded. There is a very good chance that the reason for my discomfort has more to do with my experience than with human nature. My 13 to 21 year old children were comfortable with being sung to without joining in and they believed they were edified (because they were taught, not because they felt adrenaline).

I have, in two different churches, experimented with singing that featured half of the congregation singing to the other half. I took the song Lead Me to Calvary and asked the women to sing stanzas 1 and 3 and I asked the men to sing stanzas 2 and 4. In one congregation (a noninstitutional church, by the way) the method was well received. Almost everybody participated and there were no complaints. In the other (a mainline church) the activity was met with a lot of criticism. At that time, I decided to never try something like that again in that church; but I am beginning to wonder if never doing (again) something that makes some people uncomfortable is the right course of action. Should not occasionally cause a little discomfort for one another as a means of teaching and as a means of inclusion for all brothers and sisters? I will talk about this question more generally before I am done with this article. For now, I want to get back to the main topic of praise teams.

The bulk of my church experience has been with congregational singing. Being sung to feels more like a concert than worship. That feeling is especially noticed if I am being sung to by a group of really good singers who are well practiced.

When I was much younger (a 1970s teenager), I attended a number of concerts of choruses from Christian colleges. The concerts were scheduled on a weekday. Nobody would have ever suggested having one of those choirs perform during a Sunday morning worship service. However, even at that time, I noticed something interesting about those experiences. I was sitting in a pew at the church building and I was being sung to by a choir. The singers were singing to the best of their ability and they were teaching me with the songs they sang. Quite often, a program featured a "Sermon in Song." That was a part of the concert in which a series of song-book-type songs were performed in a meaningful way with a pointed and coherent message. Sometimes, the choir would hum one of the verses while a chorus member quoted a Bible passage. In all of this experience, I was taught and I was edified. It occurred to me that the edification affect was the same as that of a worship time that features congregational singing and preaching. The difference now was that I did not sing. According to our analysis of 1 Corinthians 14, listening to spiritual singing is just as much a worship activity as is singing.

If the praise team feels like a concert, it might be the fault of the praise team for singing a song that is too hard for the congregation—especially if it could be simplified to accommodate congregational singing. It may also be the fault of my own bias—especially if the praise team wants to sing something just once or twice that they hope will build up the church; but they don't see any profit in going to the extra effort to actually teach the song to the congregation because the message is too situation-specific or because, while the meaning is very hard-hitting, the song may be too difficult for the congregation to sing. There may be other good reasons for a praise team to sing a song that is beyond the skill-level of a congregation. Some bad reasons are to show off the skill of the praise team and to get the church's blood pumping.

It is man-centered. A strong criticism of doing anything different from tradition is that the motivation for the change is "because I like it." The assumption in the argument is that if we do anything in a new way because we find meaning in it, then our focus is on ourselves and not on God. There is some validity to that argument. For example, when churches began to introduce musical instruments into the worship services, they did so because they wanted to have something that appealed to the youth of the church. There is something wrong with the argument; but it is not what it seems on first inspection. It sounds like the problem is that the church wanted to feature something in worship that had meaning for a particular segment of the congregation. That motivation is not the problem. The problem is with the willingness to introduce something completely alien to New Testament Christian practice into a modern Christian worship system. We can talk about the wrongness or acceptableness of instrumental worship music in another place. The reason that the churches of Christ do not worship together with musical instruments is because it violates the New Testament model.

The use of praise teams for leading the singing conforms to the New Testament model just as well as does the use of a individual song leader. Furthermore, having a part of the congregation sing to another part that listens does indeed conform to the New Testament model. It violates our experience but it does not violate Scripture. I will put it bluntly. It is not unscriptural to have a choir in the worship of the church. Gasp! Strict adherence to the New Testament model would include some congregational singing and some "singing to one another."

As we have noted above, singing teaches and encourages in ways that regular verbal teaching cannot. Thus, the affect of the music, poetry and sound are a part of the edification experience. Corporate worship is supposed to affect people in a building-up and edifying way. Thus, those who present something for worship do so in the best way they can to drive the point home for the learner. While worship is God-centered, it is man-sensitive. It is something we are doing together; so in every case and in every way we worship together we are concerned that what we are doing has a positive affect on everyone present. Being concerned that people are getting something motivational out of the worship service is not really scandalous. What we do in worship together has some focus on one-another (man-focus). That does not stop it from being God-centered. Should we try to sing on key? After all, God sees the heart. Of course we should try to sing on key. Our brothers and sisters nearby are encouraged by our effort. If my neighbor at church sees me singing while checking my text-messages, my neighbor knows that I don't care if he is edified.

It threatens our identity for how we do worship. Rarely does anybody make this argument; but it is the main reason we are resistant to doing anything in a different way. In the churches of Christ in the United States, for example, the usual way to handle the worship music is to have a lone song leader in front of the congregation. He has prepared a list of songs and has practiced them. He pitches them well and he leads them with what he believes to be an appropriate tempo. That method is not explained in the Bible; but congregational singing is indicated in the Bible, which infers that some system or method be devised. So, we came up with the song-leader method. We have done it that way for so long (generations!) that it has become a part of our identity. Some people may actually think that having a song-leader is precisely the biblical pattern. In reality, it has become our identity. It is a tradition with which we are reluctant to part. The notion of introducing a different method of leading the singing threatens the traditional song-leader model. I feel it too. I have led the church's worship singing for decades and, if I do say so myself, I am pretty good at it. It is one of my hard-honed skills. What is going to happen to that talent if the church moves to a different method of congregational singing? I feel threatened.

Now that I have admitted my underlying resistance, I can handle it and perhaps think about what is good for the church over what is good for me.

(By the way, if a church starts using a praise team in the worship, that does not mean the church will quit using the song leaders. There will probably always be a place for a song leader to lead that church's worship music. I will add that I personally would feel threatened if a church were to hire a full-time song leader and that hire were not me. My song-leading services would be more squeezed out than they would be by the introduction of a praise team.)

On one hand, I do not see a problem with a church having an identity. A church may want to have a really loose kind of worship service in which a lot of members participate whenever they feel motivated to jump in and lead some worship activity. Another church may want to have a more somber and [what they believe to be more] reverent kind of high-churchy type service. There is nothing wrong with either type; but a worshiper may feel uncomfortable in one kind when the other kind is more meaningful. Some churches are devoted to the use of one particular Bible translation while others are happy with a variety. While having a style increases comfort, it has the affect of being exclusive. People often do not feel welcome if they do not fully embrace the style. If your congregation is devoted to the exclusive use of the King James version of the Bible, do you really want to turn away people who do not want to read that particular translation? Is it important enough to you that you are willing to work real hard to convince people that they should embrace exclusive use of the KJV? Your style becomes a means not of inclusion but of exclusion.

While my generation does not "get" praise-team led worship music and while we love and adore song-leader led worship, we should examine the weigh the importance we place on our style. Is it important enough to exclude fellow Christians who actually "get" praise-team led worship and are edified by it? If our style is that important to us, we should just admit it and encourage my 13 to 21 year-old children they should either get all their "building up" from what we traditionally do for worship or they should go find their edification somewhere else (Luke 5:39).

The use of a praise team to lead the singing means the use of woman leadership. I have argued elsewhere that our use of the Bible to keep woman out from in front of the church is a gross twist of the Bible at the expense of half of our membership. Nevertheless, if we try to apply 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (on married women asking questions at church) and/or 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (on woman teachers―meaning woman authoritarian teachers) to leading the singing, we are playing the game in the wrong ballpark. The Bible does not take a stand against woman leadership anywhere. In fact, it supports woman leaders and teachers in a number of places. I am not going to argue the point here. See my other blog article.

Some conclusional remarks
There are good reasons for appeal to tradition. Above, I observed that the real problem most of us have against the use of praise teams is that we feel our identity is threatened by their introduction. The value of doing something in a comfortable way is that those worship activities are not distracting. If we sing, pray, read Scripture, share the Lord's Supper and make our offerings by using methods that we are used to, we can focus more on God, one another and personal devotion. Instead, if everything we do in group worship features some new (to us) way of doing it, then some of our proper worshipful attitudes are distracted by the shock of the new method. Most churches can handle a little bit of the discomfort but it is not fair to push a church too hard to experiment with different methods of "doing church" that, while scriptural, may shock the long experience of many members.

This concern is especially true when considering the fact that every church has members who are under a certain amount of personal anxiety regarding issues in their own lives, families and jobs. Doing something at church that is outside of these members' comfort zones just raises that anxiety level even more. Maybe you and I are prepared to do something differently but there is a good chance that somebody else in the assembly is not able to handle a whole lot of change. There is a very good chance that several members came to church this Sunday morning looking forward to a kind of spiritual retreat from the anxiety of the week. If the worship service consists of a pile of tradition-challenges, these members may be pushed to the breaking point. They may seek spiritual solace somewhere else.

There are good reasons to modify our traditions. The church's worship assemblies are not supposed to be pure spiritual retreat. It is not the spiritual equivalent to a nice mineral mud-bath or a solitary scenic walk. We are supposed to leave the assembly challenged (Hebrews 10:25-26). Doing everything like we did 30 years ago may work for my generation but it has the effect of excluding other, younger Christians. Fortunately, the "Generation Y" are accepting of the old ways of doing things. They find them interesting. They also bond easily with the senior citizens in the church―as long as the seniors show that they value the younger members as brothers and sisters. The Y and Z generations are spiritually edified by scriptural yet nontraditional worship music. Churches ought to promote some measure of the Y and Z styles into the public worship―just enough to make the seasoned members a little uncomfortable and enough to provide a meaningful worship experience for the Ys and Zs. Churches should also promote a measure of traditional material in the worship services―just enough to make the Ys and Zs a little uncomfortable, maybe a little left out, but enough to give the seasoned members a meaningful worship experience.

In my Pepperdine experience, when there was a praise team leading the worship singing, the team led all of the singing for the whole service. However, I did notice something else. Most of the teams were deliberate to lead approximately half of the songs from the traditional church of Christ repertoire. I was able to sing along with those songs. They let them straight. They did not "jazz them up." Thus, while I felt left out some of the time, I felt included some of the time too. Several of the teams asked the congregation to stand for a song. When it became evident that I was supposed to keep on standing for the next three or four songs, I sat down. I did not feel like a nonconformist. I still sang the songs I could sing. After some thought and after several more conversations with my own Y- and Z-generation children, a responsible praise team may be alright after all.