Over at Fors Clavigera, James K. A. Smith‘s “Open Letter to Praise Bands” has caused a bit of a stir I think. At least it has among the group of Evangelical Covenant worship leader, worship pastors, and pastors (who like me plan worship each Sunday). The stir relates to another conversation that has been going on in this group of Covenanter’s: how do we define “Traditional” worship and “contemporary” worship. The responses thus far in my circle seem to have assumed that Smith’s critique was a defense of “traditional” worship and an attack upon “contemporary” worship, or at least a key component contemporary worship the praise band. Oddly in the discussion around the definition of “contemporary” worship we did not include a worship or praise band as a key component to that worship style. Perhaps we should have (and organ and Choir for “traditional). Except, that it was this type of definition that we felt led nowhere, or at least kept us from understanding the significant and underlying differences between these styles.
Hold on, I’ll get us back to James K. A. Smith and his critique in a moment – bear with me. This is relevant to the critique and the responses to the critique.
More important than instrumentation for members of the group was our exploration of attitudes and approaches to worship and God. We were asking do people who prefer one style over another have a differing way of seeing worship and relating to God. Matt Kennedy and Niel Gowan and Rick Lindholtz pushed the conversation to explore how “traditional” and “contemporary” worshipers may relate to God differently. We were seeking tentative conclusions about differing ways of relating to God and expectations of worship manifested in those drawn to “traditional” and “contemporary” styles of worship.
This was driven home for me in Neil Gowan’s analysis of expectations around a “Hymn of Response”, the song or hymn to follow the reading of the Scriptures and the sermon. Neil’s observation was that those who gravitated towards what is generally labeled “traditional”, both pastor and layperson, were looking for an explicit connection between the Scripture read and point of the Sermon and the hymn of response. The song or hymn didn’t need to be thematically connected with the sermon, all the song needed to be seen as appropriate and worshipful was that there be a key word, or a title that directly referenced the scripture text used. Where as, those who gravitated towards what is considered “contemporary” worship weren’t moved by a key word or direct reference but were looking for something more thematic or evocative, and thus could find meaningful a song or hymn that played in the themes of the Scripture or sermon without direct or key word reference to the Scriptural text. In Neil’s observation and experience those who looked for a key word or direct reference to the Scripture text in a hymn or song of response couldn’t find worshipful a song or hymn that was thematically in line with the Scripture and sermon but did not use any key word or phrases in the lyrics or title. In a similar way those who looked for a thematic connection in the hymn of response did not find meaningful for their worship experience the songs or hymns that merely made use of a key word or phrase in the lyrics or title. Matt Kennedy then pointed out how the trend in hymnals (the repository of “traditional” hymns we might say) is more about participation in the proclamation of the Gospel through song while the the the tendency in Hillsong/Vineyard/CCM is concerned with evoking an emotional and personal connection with the Gospel. We aren’t here quite at definitions but close.
Now back to an Open Letter to Praise Bands-
Smiths three points of criticism may sound to those who tend toward the experience of worship above associated with the label “contemporary” as a dismissive of the emotive experience of worship that caries one beyond oneself. A Rock concert where one is overwhelmed by the entire experience is analogous to worshipful experiences I have had. One could get the idea then that the Open Letter is attempting to get praise bands to choose hymns that have a more direct proclamation of the Gospel than evocation of themes of the Gospel. Given Smith’s background and current context in Reformed/Calvinist circles this isn’t an entirely unwarranted conclusion to make. Reformed and Calvinist streams of Christianity have long been concerned that music and instrumentation not obscure the words being sung. However, James Smith’s concerns isn’t for words but people and what people do and how they experience worship and what they think they are doing in worship. His claim in these critiques (a claim that can certainly be disputed) is that Christian worship is the work of the people and not the work of the leaders of that worship. His claim is that if your attitude toward worship is primarily formed by your experiences at concerts and that attitude is encouraged by the use of a praise band then you have a corrupted sense of Christian worship. He is still making a Reformed point, but also a general Protestant point : we are all priests by virtue of our baptism, we are all offering ourselves to God through the sacrifice of praise in worship. Thus, the Praise band should not conduct itself in such away that may obscure or confuse that we all are offering a sacrifice of praise corporately and actively together as the Body of Christ, not passively receiving another’s sacrifice. In worship I am, not part of an audience at a concert, but part of the people of God before the very throne of God singing “Holy, Holly, Holy…” This is at least what I hear Smith saying: the praise band can never have the place the Rock band has at a Rock concert, if a praise band does or even approaches having such a place we are doing something other than Christian worship.
Now we are only half way through this exploration of “Traditional” and “Contemporary” and I have not yet mounted my defense of Praise Bands, this will follow in part two here.