Tuesday, February 21, 2012

If the leaders are the center of attention, it isn't worship

James K.A. Smith, a philosophy prof at Calvin College, writes "An Open Letter to Praise Bands." Read him carefully. He isn't arguing for a traditional style of worship, nor for a return to hymns. He is arguing that worship teams need to reflect on why we do what we do. He elaborates in the full article.
.... [M]y 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. .... 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.

So let me offer just a few brief axioms with the hope of encouraging new reflection on the practice of "leading worship":
  1. If we, the congregation, can't hear ourselves, it's not worship. Christian worship is not a concert. .... 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. .... 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,".... And so your virtuosity gives rise to our passivity; your creativity simply encourages our silence. ....
  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. ....
Please consider these points carefully and recognize what I am not saying. This isn't just some plea for "traditional" worship and a critique of "contemporary" worship. Don't mistake this as a defense of pipe organs and a critique of guitars and drums (or banjos and mandolins). My concern isn't with style, but with form: What are we trying to do when we "lead worship?" If we are intentional about worship as a communal, congregational practice that brings us into a dialogical encounter with the living God—that worship is not merely expressive but also formative—then we can do that with cellos or steel guitars, pipe organs or African drums. .... [more]
Fors Clavigera: An Open Letter to Praise Bands

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