I wish Mumford & Sons Would Play at My Church

So last week I wrote a post about how Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests. Over the past few days, that particular post has been generating discussion in the comments section, on my Facebook page and on Twitter. Worship is such an emotionally loaded topic, especially when it comes to music. Music is a powerful art form and so important in Christian worship. I think somewhere along the way, readers got the sense that I was advocating one style over another – that I was saying ‘Contemporary’ worship is not as good as, or as holy as, or as faithful as ‘Traditional’ worship.

Let me be clear, I was not advocating one style over another.

Image source - blog.ncbaptist.org
Image source – blog.ncbaptist.org

This is not about Contemporary vs. Traditional.

In fact, I didn’t use the word ‘contemporary’ or the word ‘traditional’ in that post. I am no classical music / organ snob, or someone who listens only to music newer than 5 years old. If you look at my iTunes library or the presets on my satellite radio in the car, you will see that my preference is eclectic. There is bluegrass, rock, folk, pop, classical, jazz, organ, soundtrack etc… But my heart music is some kind of bluegrass, folk, pop, rock mix or in other words Mumford & Sons. If Mumford & Sons decided to become a Praise Band, I would have resumes delivered daily to the church they play at. If Mumford & Sons decided to write a liturgy… I would be running down the streets looking for Jesus, because I would be convinced of the end of the world.

So let me say it again, this is not about Contemporary vs. Traditional.

I think I failed to connect the dots in my Praise Band Medieval Priests post. I think I failed to make clear I was talking about the medium of worship. I was talking about the ‘how’ of worship, not the ‘what’.

Yes, I have a strong bias to liturgy, but not because I am a traditionalist. I am biased towards liturgy because it is the agreed-to practice of the community of the Church. It is the vehicle that, for hundreds of years, Christians have agreed says what we believe about God, and liturgy allows us to worship God in an agreed-upon way. Liturgy is strongly rooted in the bible, in the early church, and in good theology.

Now I admit, I do think lots of contemporary music has bad theology in it, and I have done my fair share of ranting about Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs. But I am also the first to admit that a lot of traditional hymns have equally bad theology. There are Jesus-is-my-boyfriend hymns out there too, they just escape our notice because they sound a little more Pride and Prejudice than Sixteen Candles. Contemporary music doesn’t have inherently bad theology, but like hymns, the theology covers a wide spectrum.

That being said, for my evangelical readers, I think I need to explain liturgy as medium.

Liturgy is not synonymous with organ music. The word Liturgy means “work of the people.” ‘The Liturgy’ is the order of worship, the texts that are used for the songs,  the assigned bible readings for each Sunday, the prayers and responses said by the pastor and congregation, the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. Liturgy is the skeleton of worship that Christians have agreed upon for hundreds of years.

But Liturgy can be done with organs, or guitars, or string instruments, or brass instruments, or piano, or drums or a cappella. In fact, I have done liturgy with all those kinds of instruments and their styles.

The style of music in liturgy can be any style, played by all manner of instruments and ensembles. There is some great liturgical music written and played in the contemporary style out there (eg. Steve Bell’s Holy Lord).

So, when I say Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests, I am talking about Praise Bands. And no, of course not all Praise Bands. But the medium of ‘Praise Band’.

It is not way they play, but how they play it.

221313230_640Like with Medieval Priests , the Praise Band medium has become the message.

When Medieval Priests led worship, the language, the secret prayers, the division between the laity and priesthood, the transformation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood became the message. Those things were supposed to be the medium, the means of sharing God’s grace with the people. Instead, the Priests became the message, that only special people were required for worship, that only holy people had access to God. The liturgy of the medieval church had strayed far from the worship habits of the early church. The early church which gathered for prayer and song, to hear the Word of God, to share in the holy meal, to be sent into mission (that’s liturgy by the way).

Now this is completely anecdotal and very well my opinion, but for me the medium of the Praise Band can make the worshipper unnecessary. Just like the medieval priest who said mass by himself, often a Praise Band playing a song would sound just the same whether the congregation was present or not.

I think my objection comes from my experience over the past few years with Praise Bands. It seems like if I stopped singing, if the whole congregation stopped singing, almost nothing would change in the experience of music in worship. Praise Bands are a medium that has everything going against them when it comes to worship. They exist in an entertainment, consumer culture. They are a born of a genre of music that is performative. They even sound the best when played in concert style rather than worship style. They sound really good when the band interprets a song using the band’s own particular style, gifts and blend.

Here is where the rubber hits the road for me; despite all my best efforts to sing along, to songs that I know and that I played when I was in a Praise Band, I feel I like the music is more conducive to me listening than singing along. I am starting to enjoy listening over singing along, and I think I am not alone. I think this has become ‘worship’ for a good many people. Listening to the Praise Band, just like watching the Medieval Priest.

Does this mean I think we should give up on contemporary music in worship? Not at all. But I think, that like the liturgy of the Medieval Priests, Praise Bands will need a Reformation of sorts. I don’t know what that looks like, but some of the comments on my last post are the beginning of the discussion. Read them, see what people who have devoted their lives to music and worship are thinking. It is good stuff, it is smart, intentional and thoughtful.

Meanwhile, I am still thinking about how (maybe even if) Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests. And wondering if Mumford & Sons will come play at my church.

So are Praise Bands a doomed medium? What needs to be done to reform them? Share in the comments, on The Millennial Pastor Facebook Page or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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PS. Just in case I wasn’t clear that I am aware of my own hypocrisy about this stuff, here is a video of a Praise Band playing a song that I co-wrote for the National Youth Gathering of my denomination…

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22 thoughts on “I wish Mumford & Sons Would Play at My Church”

  1. First lesson of my MA in Christian Liturgy studies was this: ‘Liturgy’ does *not* mean ‘work of the people’. Litourgia refers to ‘public works’ or ‘work done for or one behalf of the people’. So in a Greek sense, building sewage systems or roads, amassing a library for the public to use, or being part of the Senate was litourgia. In a Jewish Septuagint sense the Priest undertook litourgia when they conducted sacrifices and the High Priest undertook litourgia when they entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. The reason that litourgia in a Christian context becomes the work of the people rather than one person is because together we *are* one person, One Body of Christ. We are all called to participate because it is by participating together that we enact the one Priesthood of Christ, which is the Priesthood of all Believers. This doesn’t mean we all do the same thing, some of us lead the words, some of lead the music, some of us join in with words and/or music, some of us stand around being befuddled by the whole thing, but nonetheless we do it together not alone, as a community not a set of individuals, because in Christ we are called to be one and as one to undertake litourgia on behalf of the wider humanity and creation which is not yet part of the One Body. I hope this makes sense. (For a very brief explanation in an academic text, see Benjamin Gordon-Taylor’s chapter on ‘Liturgy’ in the Alcuin Guide to The Study of Liturgy and Worship, published in the UK by SPCK).

    Oh, and I get precisely what you’re saying, I just think the language needs tightening up. As for Mumford & Sons, I have a very eclectic taste in music too, and I’d happily have them as my “praise band”, though I’d prefer U2!

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I hear what you are saying in regards to the roots of the Greek understanding of ‘Liturgy’… although I would dispute the idea that Liturgy doesn’t mean work of the people. The two root words are Laos and Erxo, meaning people + work. The ‘historical’ understanding of Greek Leitourgia was something akin to public service, however, I am certain that the early church was deeply aware of the base definite of Liturgy, and no doubt saw the Church’s Liturgy as a public service.

      I would agree with the necessity of different roles in the Liturgy, Martin Luther was clear that some needed to preach, some needed to listen, some need to lead, some needed to follow, some pray out loud, some pray silently, some preside over the sacraments, some receive the sacraments. However, when it came to singing, he saw music as something done by the people. The one addition he made to the Roman Mass was the “Hymn of the Day” sung just after the sermon before the creed. He added this hymn as congregation’s response to what they just heard in the Word. Singing, for Lutherans, is one of the most important aspects of the work of the people.

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  2. A friend of mine who manages a Christian radio station (I don’t like labeling things as Christian either, but that’s the subject of another post I’ve already written, lol) sent me this message/these stats:

    >>I appreciate all of the dialogue. The reality is that 30% of the listener of CCM radio do not have a profession of faith, another 45-50% do not have a home church. Only 20-25% attend church on a regular basis. I want them to connect with Christ in such a way that their lives will never be the same. I know that music can open up people’s hearts to hearing the Gospel. So my challenge is to find the music that touch their hearts.<<

    So the Praise Band movement, while I agree with you that it creates a passive environment, may be a good tool in the 'seeker' experience and introduce others to Christ/the Church. Our challenge then is to deepen that beginning faith.

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    1. Those stats regarding listeners of CCM blow me away. I would have never guessed that. I would love to see the source of those statistics.

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  3. I agree with you that the style of music leadership makes a very big difference to the inclusion of the congregation in worship. I also think that teaching is a very big part of the picture. Teaching for the music team and by the music team and minister/pastor for the congregation about what worship is. The great thing is that we are never too old or too learned to be past learning something new in our Christian walk.

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  4. As one who plays in a praise band semi-regularly, your first article expresses my own frustrations. However, I too don’t see the issue as one related to style of music. I think it is the ignorance of pastors and “worship leaders”. Musicians generally wind up fronting a praise band and leading worship due to their musical abilities and experience playing contemporary music. Generally, this means experience playing rock in bars or other performance settings. They frequently have no theological training, and often are self-taught musicians who have no training whatsoever in teaching or leading others. So they finish up reproducing what they know, which results in the scenario described in the article.

    I will say that I know of some notable exceptions to this trend. We attended a church in Massachusetts with a praise band that actually practiced and worked at keeping the volume low enough to allow the congregational singing to be dominant (with today’s technology this is relatively easy, once you get the drummer under control). The result was that the folks participated very actively. My mom’s church uses a praise band, augmented by orchestral instruments, and they also continue to use a large choir. It all fits together nicely and provides a rich mix of contemporary and traditional musical forms. Again, the volume is well controlled and there is no lack of congregational participation in the singing.

    I might add that my years of experience as a missionary in Brazil showed me that contemporary instrumentation and culturally relevant musical forms can be quite effective at prompting robust congregational singing. I think that Brazilians are more culturally inclined towards public singing than North Americans, but there is no inherent reason for the use of praise bands to create this situation. I would argue that worship leaders need to be trained, and by that I mean both formal training in music as well as seminary training in the relevant disciplines of liturgics, church history, biblical and systematic theology. We need to stop the practice of imagining that being competent at being in a rock band qualifies one for the task of worship pastor. It absolutely does not, and for those who are attempting to lead worship on this basis – please stop and go get the training and mentoring that you desperately need.

    A would be remiss if I failed to note that most Evangelical seminaries do not have a course of study in liturgy and worship, much less do they offer any formal training in music theory, performance and hymnody. This sad state of affairs ought to tell us something about our priorities (and being a seminary professor these past 25+ years, I am speaking as an in house critic). Something needs to be done, but I have to admit, I do not have the stomach for going back to the days of 19th century marching hymns that were the norm when I was growing up. I was part of the high school and college generation of the 70s that fought for the right to use our own musical forms for worship, against a tradition that demonized our music. Contextualization is still an important priority in missions. But it needs to be done with the guidance and wisdom of 2000 years of Christian history and theology.

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  5. Reblogged this on Jim Moon Jr. and commented:
    This post by Millennial Pastor expresses some of my concern of the lack of congregational participation in worship. I’ve been taught and practice worship as all of us performing for God, the Audience of One. What do you think?

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  6. I know that a lot of my Lutheran pastor colleagues love Mumford & Sons. I’m still not convinced that their theology fits. For example, from a popular song of theirs: “Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine, together we’ll see what we can find…” http://www.metrolyrics.com/roll-away-your-stone-lyrics-mumford-sons.html Sounds pretty much like I will do my spiritual work, you do yours…and where is God in that? I don’t think WE roll away the stone. I’m curious why many Lutheran pastors see their music as more of a theological fit than other contemporary Christian bands.

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        1. Thanks Carmen! I didn’t take the comment as critical. However like I said, I wouldn’t use Mumford and Sons songs in worship… while I don’t think it is impossible for a popular band’s songs to be played in worship, I would hesitate. To me, the lyrics of worship songs and liturgical music and hymns is important to me. It is one of the reasons I hesitate to use a lot of praise songs in worship too. But lyrics is for another post I guess 😉

          Thanks for kind comments about the blog! And thanks for coming back!

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  7. I know this discussion is a little bit past additional comments, but I wanted to insert another perspective. For background, let explain that I have been the leader of a Praise Band/Team for the past 6 years. I have always viewed the role of music in the “worship” service as medium for expressing “praise” to God, both as an individual and corporately. Music is by design emotive and, in this context, is meant to provide all involved (the congregation and leaders in front of them) the opportunity to express true, sincere “praise” to God in a manner that cannot be wholely communicated by any other means. The role of the Praise Band/Team is to provide support and leadership to encourage the congregation to engage in this opportunity. I also believe that these roles are the same in traditional or even liturgical forms of music services.

    That being said, I agree that a disconnect can easily occur. However, I am not sure that it is fair to place the blame fully on the form of the service (the Praise Band model, the traditional model, or the liturgical model). I am afraid the problem may go much deeper. If we (any and all of us) fail to praise God during the music service, I think we need to first look at ourselves. God deserves our praise and our worship even when we don’t feel like it, or if don’t like the form of the service. The form of the music service may or may not agree with our preferences, but we should recognize our preferences for what they are and not place the blame on the offender.

    If certain forms of music and music services “turn us off”, or if certain styles or instruments distract us, we should probably find another enviroment in which to praise and worship God, but we shouldn’t be too quick to place the blame on something or someone else.

    Now this does not take the blame away from any leader (be it music related or not) who does not seek to honor God in the position they hold. If a Praise Band/Team is seeking their own glory or pursuing their own desires, then their music is not honoring God and has no place in a worship service. This same thing can be said for a traditional service leader or a liturgical leader. Christ’s lesson to the pharisees was that the outer form was not enough, what matters most is what comes inside.

    Maybe the Praise Band/Team is not great at leading the congregration, maybe they are. I can’t tell you how discouraging it is to look out at the congregation and see so many close lips and folded arms. Is it form of the service or is it the hearts of the people? Why do the same people cheer and praise their favorite sports team, but not think twice about remaining silent when the opportunity to praise God through music presents itself?

    I don’t think there are easy answers to this issue. However, the test is what honors God, not what pleases us.

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