Send This to Members of Praise Bands Before It is Too Late!!!

If only James K. A. Smith had been the editor with whom John Frame worked on his worship books, the world of conservative Presbyterianism might be a lot more liturgically coherent than it is. I (all about me) don’t usually agree entirely with Smith, though I admire his provocations within the world of neo-Calvinism. But his recent letter to praise bands was largely on target — a bull’s eye would have been doing away with bands altogether.

1. If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship. Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular “form of performance”), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there’s nothing wrong with concerts! It’s just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice–and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of “performing” the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can’t hear ourselves sing–so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become “private,” passive worshipers.

2. If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship. In other forms of musical performance, musicians and bands will want to improvise and “be creative,” offering new renditions and exhibiting their virtuosity with all sorts of different trills and pauses and improvisations on the received tune. Again, that can be a delightful aspect of a concert, but in Christian worship it just means that we, the congregation, can’t sing along. And so your virtuosity gives rise to our passivity; your creativity simply encourages our silence. And while you may be worshiping with your creativity, the same creativity actually shuts down congregational song.

3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship. I know it’s generally not your fault that we’ve put you at the front of the church. And I know you want to model worship for us to imitate. But because we’ve encouraged you to basically import forms of performance from the concert venue into the sanctuary, we might not realize that we’ve also unwittingly encouraged a sense that you are the center of attention. And when your performance becomes a display of your virtuosity–even with the best of intentions–it’s difficult to counter the temptation to make the praise band the focus of our attention. When the praise band goes into long riffs that you might intend as “offerings to God,” we the congregation become utterly passive, and because we’ve adopted habits of relating to music from the Grammys and the concert venue, we unwittingly make you the center of attention. I wonder if there might be some intentional reflection on placement (to the side? leading from behind?) and performance that might help us counter these habits we bring with us to worship.

Chances are that readers of Old Life don’t worship in churches where they have trouble hearing themselves while singing. But in case Old Lifers have friends or family members who are either in a band or are having the ear drums blown out by a band, this letter may be useful. After all, our motto here is servants serving servers.

25 thoughts on “Send This to Members of Praise Bands Before It is Too Late!!!

  1. I also appreciated the piece by Smith. However, DG, his case against contemporary worship praise bands (though, he actually doesn’t disqualify praise bands per se) is different from your argument. Smith doesn’t claim that contemporary worship is unbiblical, or unconfessional. He doesn’t claim this unwritten “reformed piety and practice.” He makes practical, theologically-driven arguments….all in love.


  2. Smith says:

    “I wonder if there might be some intentional reflection on placement (to the side? leading from behind?) and performance that might help us counter these habits we bring with us to worship.”

    The OPC’s Directory for Public Worship (I.C.4.a) says: “Because musicians and musical instruments serve the part of worship that is performed by the congregation, it is fitting that they be positioned with or behind the congregation.”

    Does the CRC have a Directory for Public Worship?


  3. OK, time to beat the drum again for the reformed position whatever Dr. John of Orlando believes about pictures, preaching or presbyterianism.

    One of the implications of the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer is that while in the OT temple worship, only certain priests sang in the choir, yet with the coming of Christ, the congregation itself becomes the choir.

    Ergo, to then introduce choirs or any other aspect of the temple worship into NT worship, is to judaize. Not good, even if your intentions are not only pure, but evangelical to boot.


  4. “Chances are that readers of Old Life don’t worship in churches where they have trouble hearing themselves while singing.”

    I check Old Life daily…and we’ve passed out ear plugs on Sunday…


  5. I don’t see how Smith could make these points and not be opposed in principle to praise bands.

    He plays it cagey in the letter, says he’s not against contemporary worship (which is admittedly not the same as praise bands).

    Darryl, do you know if he has come out for or against praise bands anywhere else?

    [And another question… do you know of a good historic Reformed argument in defense of church calendar, and in particular, Lent? I know continental folks aren’t as purist on this as Puritans, but I’m wondering if this is just tolerating things indifferent, or if they think there is a positive case to be made.]


  6. Dan, on the one hand, I’ll take any argument against praise bands. The Confession says the light of nature is to guide circumstances of worship. The light of nature shows that electric guitars are reverent.

    But you’re wrong about Smith. He is making a theological point. Worship is about God, not about attracting attention to the lead guitarist.


  7. Brian, I’d be careful about thumbing your nose at Presbyterians on preparation for the Supper. For many many years, the CRC had forms for the Sunday before the Supper. They were in both the Blue and Grey psalter hymnals. The Dutch weren’t about frequency either.


  8. Brian, check out Leithart’s blog. He has been producing lots of examples of pro-Lent positions among Protestants of late. He even quotes Horton.

    For my part, I don’t know how you pick and choose parts of the calendar.


  9. Yes, I know that form, and I know our hymnal. I wasn’t thumbing my nose… I just know the three forms don’t say much at all about preparation, and my knowledge of Westminster is much thinner.

    So I have to go to Leithart’s blog? Now that’s cagey. Thanks.

    Yes, I read Horton’s material on this. Really cagey.

    I wonder how many of those who ate pancakes this week know where the word “shrove” comes from?


  10. If you want to write for “Christianity Today”, you have to be “cagey”. But if “we” don’t do that and get influence, then “we” will let “them” have the “true evangelical” label? To say that a person’s “best sermon” contains that which is antithetical to the gospel, well, as a fundy, it makes me want to let other folks have that “evangelical” name!

    Over time Horton has learned to nuance what he writes about Arminians—“Wesley began to teach that justification was not purely forensic (that is, a legal declaration), but that it depended on
    “moment by moment” obedience, the Calvinists who had enthusiastically SUPPORTED THE REVIVAL and led the evangelistic cause side by side grew increasingly worried.

    “Late in life, Wesley recorded some very unfortunate statements in his Minutes of the Methodist Conference, including the conclusion that his own position was but “a hair’s breadth” from “salvation by works.” Fearing an implicit antinomianism in the Reformation doctrines, Wesley urged his supporters to warn the Calvinists “against making void that solemn decree of God, ‘without holiness no man shall see the Lord,’ by a vain imagination of being holy in Christ. O warn them that if they remain unrighteous, the righteousness of Christ will profit them nothing!”

    “John Wesley’s favorite writer, William Law, wrote, “We are to consider that God only knows what shortcomings in holiness He will accept; therefore we can have not security of our salvation but by
    doing our utmost to deserve it.” “We have,” wrote Law, “nothing to rely on but the sincerity of our endeavors and God’s mercy.” Was Law an evangelical? If so, someone owes Pope Leo an apology.

    “The doctrine of justification–“simultaneously justified and sinful”–is scandalous to human reason and Wesley is famous for his “Quadrilateral” of authority: scripture, tradition, experience, and
    reason. So much for “scripture alone”! Both the material and the formal principle of the Reformation are at least undermined, if not denied. So much of tradition, experience, and reason opposes this

    “In the Evangelical Revival, therefore, Wesley was allowed to embrace Arminianism while retaining the use of the evangelical label, in spite of the fact that to that time evangelicalism had repudiated the position as the very error of the medieval church that precipitated the Reformation in the first place. In one of his best sermons Wesley nevertheless defined justification not as a purely forensic (legal) declaration distinct from sanctification, but as both deliverance from the guilt of sin and “the whole body of sin, through Christ gradually ‘formed in his heart.'” To be justified means that one does not sin “by any habitual sin,” “nor by any willful sin,” “nor by any sinful desire,” nor “by infirmities, whether in act, word or thought…And though he cannot say he ‘has not sinned,’ yet now ‘he sins not.'”

    “Further, the Minutes for the First Annual Methodist Conference affirm that repentance and works must precede faith, if by works one means “obeying God as far as we can.” “If a believer willfully sins, he thereby forfeits his pardon.” “Are works necessary to continuance of faith? Without doubt, for a man may forfeit the gift of God either by sins of omission or commission.”


  11. Perhaps someone can send Rev-but-not-Dr. Frame to London for a few events, education, reflection, enlightenment and recalibration. Praise Bands won’t be on offer.



    Also, Darryl, since you’re in Hillsdale, MI, it would be worth a 100-mile trip to Mariners’ Anglican Church, Detroit, MI, for one Sunday. Google will give a few leads. No praise bands there either. I get CDs of weekly services there for nourishment. Anglican Cathedral musical tradition with an old 1928 BCP service. Mariners goes back to 1842. I believe this was before MI was a state in the union. It’s the home parish.


  12. I (all about me) have an unfortunate habit of singing in worship as loud as I need to 1) to be able to hear myself, and 2) to be able to be heard over whatever the musical accompaniment is. Fortunately, I can carry a tune, so so far no one has complained to me – wouldn’t want to be distracting to others, of course, that would not be polite. But it shouldn’t take shouting over a praise band to worship the Lord – which is why I might agree with Mr. Smith that even though I can do it, most folks can’t – and likely won’t.


  13. And Rev-not-Dr. Frame shall say? Is John qualified for musical insights? John, who? Frame, who? An experienced man from Canterbury? Not really, how about Chichester? Frame, sorry, we’ve not heard of him. St. Paul’s, ever heard of Frame? Sorry, never heard of him. John who?


  14. Regarding the first point, is it wrong to want the organ to play “A Mighty Fortress” so loudly that I can’t hear myself think? Maybe just on Reformation Sunday?

    Also, for organ and hymnbook congregations I think we usually get the opposite problem: if you can’t hear yourself singing, you need to sing more loudly.


  15. John, quite a bevy of cheap and churlish comments on Lent. Good grief, John, those forlorn, repressionist, ignorant Lutherans and Anglicans (old school types), those gospel-denying “Judaizers!” Horrors, floundering in the heap pile of ashes! Away with them!


  16. An interesting post advertises Carl Trueman’s book, “Fools Rush In Where Monkeys Fear to Tread.”

    Todd offers this excerpt from Dr. Trueman’s book, to wit:

    “When prayers become the equivalent of `Yo, how you doin’?!’ then something has gone awry. Public prayers should lead people into the presence of God, and that should be a humbling, if not crushing experience. When was the last time a pulpit prayer left you in awe of the God who humbles himself so that you might worship him? What about sermons? How many of us sit in judgment on the sermon, grading it for quality, length, clarity, interest, as the minister brings to us the Word of God? If we have any grasp of God’s holiness, and any inkling of the importance of the prophetic task of preaching, we won’t be giving the minister a grade; rather, we will be sitting and listening to what he has to say, acutely conscious of our own unworthiness to hear God as he speaks to us. Then, when the songs we sing can be summarized by the phrase, `Jesus is my best boyfriend,’ we can be sure that something is seriously out of joint. The words we sing to God should reflect the gravity of the words of God first speaks to us. Then, when the church itself becomes a take-it-or-leave-it venture that we can turn up for a time that suits us, perhaps even sipping lattes from Starbucks as we take our seats, something is seriously missing. What is it? Well, the answer isn’t rocket science: a sense of the deep holiness of God. The casual nature of the postmodern world, where all hierarchies are oppressive and the consumer is king, cannot even begin to understand the void that lies at the heart of such slapdash Christianity. Your doctrine can be as correct and confessional as possible; but if it is all just so much of a game, then it is no theology at all.”

    Reminded of two personal affirmations. (1) Not giving up the WCF for the Anglicans. (2) Not giving up the 1662 BCP for the Presbyterians. Bottomline: disfavored by both sides, but all is well.

    (May need to buy this book. Already working Rev. Frame’s volume with the need to order other books related to it. )


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