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.
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.
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.
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…