Can a praise band lead worship?
“An Open Letter to Praise Bands” is the title of a short article written by college professor James K. A. Smith. His comments are too short to be anything like a theology of worship. Rather, his purpose is to provoke reflection on why we worship the way we do.
[I]t seems to me that [praise bands] are often recruited to “lead worship” without much opportunity to pause and reflect on the nature of “worship” and what it would mean to “lead.”
I sometimes worry that we’ve unwittingly encouraged [praise bands] 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.
“An Open Letter to Praise Bands” was posted, reposted, and debated by readers from a broad array of theological perspectives. But interestingly, even among members and fans of praise bands, there was considerable agreement with the three axioms Smith proposed for reflecting “on the practice of ‘leading worship’.”
1. If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship.
2. If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship.
3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship.
Smith’s gracious discussion of these three propositions is followed by a plea for readers to understand what is not being proposed.
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.
In his “Postscript to ‘An Open Letter to Praise Bands’,” Dr. Smith acknowledges that many of the negative reactions to his “Letter” stem from a “fundamentally different understanding of what worship is.” He offers a couple points of clarification and directs us to his excellent book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, for a fuller elaboration of his theology of worship.
Dr. James K. A. Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin College. He is editor of Comment magazine and a Senior Fellow for The Colossian Forum. His writing and speaking span the areas of philosophy, theology, and cultural criticism.