James K.A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, has written a short “missive” to praise bands, “An Open Letter to Praise Bands,” as “an encouragement to reflect on the practice of “leading worship.” I’m guessing that Professor Smith approves of praise bands, instruments, and uninspired songs in worship, but he has some good reflections about the current evangelical worship scene.
Professor Smith is concerned about the entertainment culture in the church that has been fostered by so-called “praise bands”:
In particular, my concern is that we, the church, have unwittingly encouraged you to simply import musical practices into Christian worship that—while they might be appropriate elsewhere—are detrimental to congregational worship… I sometimes worry that we’ve unwittingly encouraged you to import certain forms of performance that are, in effect, “secular liturgies” and not just neutral “methods.” Without us realizing it, the dominant practices of performance train us to relate to music (and musicians) in a certain way: as something for our pleasure, as entertainment, as a largely passive experience. The function and goal of music in these “secular liturgies” is quite different from the function and goal of music in Christian worship.
He offers three brief “axioms” to encourage reflection on “leading worship”:
1. If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice—and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one… body in Christ.
2. If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship. Your virtuosity gives rise to our passivity; your creativity simply encourages our silence. [See above.]
3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship. 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.
Is it possible to avoid falling into these three “praise band” ruts? I don’t think it is, because of the human mind’s proclivity toward idolatry (see Calvin’s Institutes 1.11.8: “perpetual factory of idols”). Boundless, unrestrained entertainment, narcissism, and creativity rule. But even worse than this idol factory is the Biblical and theological bankruptcy of most “praise bands”; some of them are not even Christians, but hired professional musicians.
So if it is impossible to avoid the three things Professor Smith deems as “not worship,” then there’s only one conclusion:
Worshipping with praise bands is not worship.
Update: Professor Smith’s post got a ringing endorsement from D. G. Hart at OldLife.org in “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.