Quitting the praise band wasn’t easy for me. Nor did I just play in the praise band— I started it. It was my baby. I was a guitar performance major in college, and as providence would have it, my (LCMS) pastor was interested in tapping my musical abilities to “liven up” the worship life of the congregation. Prior to being hired as the part-time “minister of music”, the congregation got by week to week on the faithful service of a founding member (who played piano), with the occasional assistance of her husband on guitar. The early service was “traditional” (mostly hymns with the occasional “praise” song), and the late service was “contemporary” (no hymns).
My job was to expand the congregation’s music program by planning the music for all services, introducing a ton of new songs, leading congregational singing (including plenty of ex corde prayers during song sets), and recruiting a number of volunteer musicians from the congregation. It was a lot of fun and the program was quite successful. People around town began to refer to us as “the church with the good music.” I had the skill set to do this sort of work and I felt like this was my own special way of serving God. I even almost put off going to the seminary so I could continue doing it (fortunately, the congregation wasn’t able to pay me a full time salary). In a congregation where about 90 came to worship on a Sunday, I managed to recruit about 15 praise team members from the congregation (mostly untrained singers, with the occasional instrumentalist).
And then I started studying the Lutheran Confessions.
I eventually came to realize that I couldn’t be a Lutheran and keep doing what I was doing, and I wasn’t about to turn my back on sound doctrine so I could keep doing what felt good. To say this was a painful divorce would be a massive understatement, and it didn’t happen overnight.
The truth is, I continued playing in praise bands throughout my time at the seminary even though I was beginning to have theological reservations about it. Getting involved in praise bands was the natural thing to do, especially since my field education and vicarage took place a large congregations with thriving contemporary services. The culture of Concordia Seminary (St. Louis) also encouraged this sort of thing.
My suspicion of the praise and worship genre began during my time at Concordia Chicago, when Professor Brian Mosemann (who was more than patient with my endless questions and objections in class) introduced Confessional Lutheranism to me without ever beating me up with “what we’re supposed to do because the confessions say so.” He simply and eloquently presented Lutheran theological thought, and it was impossible for me to resist the logic. I wanted to, as my Old Adam wasn’t going to let go of his crass enthusiasm without a fight (he’s still clinging to it, BTW; see SA III:VIII, 9).
One of the things I was most looking forward to about seminary was learning more about the liturgy, as I hadn’t had much prior experience with it. In fact, I even went to my seminary field ed placement director after the first week and asked to be placed in a more liturgically-inclined congregation, but was told I’d be better off at the megachurch where I was. I was essentially told staying would make me more “callable”, that doing field work at the megachurch was a good “career move.” That only made me want to leave even more, but I was told reassignment wasn’t an option. In hindsight, I’m glad I stayed where I was. Not because I enjoyed it, but because there’s nothing quite like a healthy dose of Pietism to make a decent Lutheran out of you.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get much experience with the liturgy until after seminary (thank God for the Denver and Greeley Confessions study groups and, believe it or not, Facebook, which put me in touch with a number of faithful and encouraging pastors). It seemed the praise band was lurking around every corner in St. Louis.
You’d think I would have at least had a small break from American evangelical praise and worship during my cross-cultural module with the Lutheran Asian Indian Church of St. Louis. No such luck. When my supervisor found out I was a guitarist, he invited me to lead all of their (Asian Indian) worship services with American praise and worship music! Looking back on that, it was really quite bizarre. One of the reasons the Asian Indian Church met was so that they could sing traditional Asian Indian songs during worship. I was supposed to be learning how to “become incarnate” in a culture foreign to my own; instead, I was imposing American Evangelical culture on them!
So why did I finally put my guitar down and quit the praise band? It wasn’t easy, but here are some of the main reasons.
3. When we’re at church, we’re on holy ground. The sanctuary is a holy place. In order for something to be holy, it must be different, set apart. Not common. Praise music is common. It sounds like everything else in the world around us today (in some cases, it’s even a cheap imitation of that). Things are supposed to be different in the Church, which is why pastors vest and the liturgy calls for chanting. Most contemporary-minded pastors don’t do those things. Vesting and chanting would be out of place. There’s not much room for the holy in the average contemporary service.
Over vicarage, when I was down in the gym leading the “incredible, postmodern, multimedia-driven, mind-blowing, set your heart on fire for Jesus, burn me alive, extreme worship-experience extravaganza™” (the real name wasn’t much different), I was told not to include a confession of sins, a benediction, or the like, because they are too “churchy.” The goal of this service was to resemble church as little as possible while still being a worship service (!). The keyboard player even left the stage crying one Sunday when we prayed the Lord’s Prayer. “How dare you!”, her husband said reproachfully, “we come here because we don’t want to go to church!”
Granted this may be a somewhat extreme example, but the fact remains that this is the sort of mentality contemporary worship fosters, intentionally or not. Everything has to be common, comfortable, ordinary. Having spent a good deal of time immersed in contemporary worship, it is my experience that most contemporary congregations and pastors have a somewhat deficient understanding of holiness. Holy ground calls for reverence. Praise music may be a lot of things, but one thing it is not is reverent.
As a vicar, I used to put a lot of movie clips into my “messages.” (Whatever you do, don’t call it a sermon! The last thing you want is for the people to feel like they’re being “preached to.” And bonus: if it’s not a sermon, you can even have a woman do it in a pinch. Well, that’s what the District President said, at least.) These movie clips were meant to “illustrate” (i.e., entertain the people) whatever it was I was saying. One of the most popular stunts I ever pulled was to play a clip from the movie “Borat”. The people at the “XTR3ME! postmodern multimedia worship event™” absolutely loved it. Ate it right up. It was so shocking! Now they could go and brag to their friends: “You’ll never guess what we watched in church!” They also loved the time I played a Steve Vai inspired guitar solo during one of the praise sets. I was like a god that day (that’s not a good thing). And then there was the time I conducted the circus, I mean the service, while wearing a Red Wings jersey. These were the things that made the service “meaningful” for them. These sorts of antics are often very much at home in, and even encouraged by, the contemporary worship setting. The things I did there were entertaining and memorable, and nothing in my seminary education suggested there was anything even remotely wrong with any of this (quite the opposite). I did quite well in my homiletics and worship classes.
Incidentally, most of the people who came to services in the gym were baby boomers, and the few teenagers who came to this service (because their parents made them) were more interested in the free donuts and making out in the bleachers than anything else that was going on there.
Recently I was talking with a guy who was complaining because his congregation has contemporary services, and he was upset because they wouldn’t play some AC/DC song he liked. I’m sure the pastor of that congregation would never do something as stupid as include an AC/DC song in a service (though I’ll never forget the time at my field ed congregation when the sax player jumped up out of the praise band area into the chancel and started JAMMING—AND I MEAN JAMMING—away on “Takin’ Care of Business”). Here’s the thing: lyrics aside (which don’t really matter much in praise & worship music anyway), an AC/DC song wouldn’t be aesthetically out of place at most contemporary services. I get why the guy was frustrated. A pastor at a local nondenom congregation near my first parish came out one Easter Sunday riding a motorcycle in the chancel. Granted they aren’t LCMS, but this sort of irreverence would be right at home in many contemporary services.
St. Paul once told the Galatians he wished those who were insisting on circumcision would go the whole way and emasculate themselves (5:12). Something similar could be said about contemporary worship. If you really want the people to feel comfortable, why not go the whole way and play some AC/DC? Otherwise, you’re just teasing them.
4. 7/11 songs are shallow. Now not all praise and worship songs are 7/11 songs (where you sing the same 7 words 11 times), but many of them are. The chorus to one of the popular songs I used to lead back in my praise band days went like this: “Yes Lord, yes Lord, yes, yes Lord. Yes Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes Lord. Yes Lord, yes Lord, yes yes Lord, Amen.” I’m not even kidding.
5. Theology matters. If a praise song is harmless, that’s usually the best you can hope for. It’s better for a song to teach nothing at all then to teach false doctrine. This is why I don’t like most so-called “Christian” radio stations, bestsellers, or movies. Most of them are filled with terrible theology. You’re much better off sticking with the secular stuff. Many praise songs don’t say much about God at all, so a Jew, Muslim, or any sort of theist would be comfortable singing them. Quite often they say things that are unbiblical. Decision theology is rampant in the praise genre (which makes sense, as most of these songs are written by American Evangelicals). Rarely, if ever, is there any Sacramental emphasis. 99% of the time praise songs are so happy they make Pharrell seem like a downer, and it’s easier to find Waldo than it is to find any trace of sin or the Law in them.
Most of the time, however, the songs are about me, me, me, and more me, and how we love, love, love to praise God SO much, and all we wanna do is just praise Him and squeeze Him and give Him our hearts. Many praise songs would work quite well as a love song. Replace any mention of “God” with the name of your girlfriend, buy her a box of roses, and you’re all set.
Ideally, church music would teach us something about who God is and what He has done for us. Hymns teach doctrine and tell the story of salvation. In fairness, there are some praise songs out there that don’t do a bad job of this. But I’ll put up the best hymns against the best praise songs any day. Paul Gerhardt says more about God in a single stanza than most contemporary Christian artists say on a whole album.
6. The Church is catholic. Contemporary worship is trendy, and so it is constantly changing. When something gets old, it is no longer contemporary and is discarded (which may be one reason why the Bible may be minimized or is entirely absent from these services and much “contemporary” preaching). Contemporary worship is defined by its age, not by its theological substance, nor is faithfulness an essential criterion. It’s hard to define “contemporary worship” because it means so many things to so many people. It is also therefore highly individualistic, a quality which is antithetical to unity and catholicity. Contemporary services in one place are often drastically different from contemporary services in another place, even on the same Sunday. Not that we need absolute uniformity (AC VII), but there ought to be some continuity from congregation to congregation, especially if they are in the same Synod.
Oftentimes contemporary services are created from scratch and revolve around a self-chosen theme or sermon series (rather than the lectionary or church year). Creeds (and other essential features of the Divine Service) are often lacking, and quite often when one is present, it’s often one that was written by the pastor (there’s that individualism again). The creeds, by contrast, are the universal confession of the holy, catholic, apostolic Church. Word to the wise: if your pastor spends more time writing liturgy than his sermon, it’s time for a new pastor.
There are admittedly some pastors/music directors that try to remain orthodox while using the praise band, though they are few and far between. Fellow BJS author Miguel Ruiz is a music director who makes every effort to utilize modern instrumentation and arrangements that are reverent and thoroughly Lutheran. But as he recently told me, he sometimes feels like he’s the only one trying to use the so-called “praise band” faithfully, and that usually the introduction of contemporary worship in LCMS congregations is “done for terrible reasons and is driven by even worse theology.”
Based on my own experience with praise & worship music, I would agree wholeheartedly with that observation. The fact remains that there’s so much garbage out there, you have to constantly be on guard when straying from orthodox hymns. Ideally, the music director would re-arrange the hymns for his musicians and not depart from the liturgy or hymnody at all. The praise & worship genre has so many pitfalls and nothing of substance to offer that isn’t already found in the historic liturgy or hymnody, it begs the question: why deviate from it?
There seems to be a parallel between the dangers of the praise band (even when rightly used) and the Reformation. The radical reformers were glad that Luther liberated them from the pope’s tyranny, but they weren’t happy with Luther’s conservative reformation. They didn’t think Luther went far enough. The same danger exists with the praise band. Even if those in charge make every effort to remain orthodox, they are fighting an uphill battle. There will be some who, like the radical reformers, will want to push the envelope even father. Some will be so glad to have been liberated from the “tyranny” of the organ they will want to ditch the liturgy and hymnodoy altogether and use the praise band to rock out. And can you blame them? This is, after all, the most natural use of guitar, bass, & drums. Those who attempt to use them reverently are going against the grain.
The Church consists of the communion of saints, a communion that transcends time and culture. The liturgy has its own culture; a holy, set apart culture (which is precisely the reason the liturgy is often rejected. There’s no room for holiness in many congregations today). The liturgy has been passed down through the generations, embodies the very best of the Christian tradition, and is an expression of the continuity of the Church from generation to generation. Since we are in communion with the Church of every age, it is only natural that the way we worship would not be radically different than that of previous generations.
So, why did I quit the praise band? Because I’m Lutheran.
 I have, on occasion, led congregational singing on guitar in the absence of an organist. I am fine with the use of acoustic or classical guitar in church, so long as it is used reverently to accompany theologically sound hymns, though the organ has many advantages over the guitar. Looking back, I wish I would have studied the organ rather than classical guitar. While I love the guitar, it isn’t nearly as practical for use in the church as the organ.