In Defense of J. K. A. Smith, Praise Bands, and Critique- pt. 1

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.

  • Paul Walton

    ‘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…’

    That’s what I heard too. It’s something that relates to all styles of worship.

  • Awesome. Pardon me whilst I lurk. 

  • Benjamin Verble

    I once had the opportunity to play with a worship leader from the UK who wrote many of the songs that we sing in our churches. I remember reacting to an occasion where a fan at a youth festival asked him for an autograph. This worship leader refused. At first I thought he was stuck up. Later, backstage, he vented about the experience. He compared the identity of worship leaders in the US and the UK (generally speaking). In the UK, he said, worship leaders aren’t treated like rock stars. He could not understand why he was treated like a rock star here in the States. This had a profound impact on me. I feel that this worship leader made an accurate observation about our culture. We tend to adore and admire worship leaders. I think that I can actually say, at times, I wanted to be adored as a worship leader (respected? admired?). Anyways, I think that, as with many issues in the Christian faith, we need to respect both the internal and external issues at work  here. We as worshipers and worship leaders must search our hearts and know our intentions. We should also know how external factors (style, etc.) effect things, but not get overly caught up in worrying about externals. Getting overly caught up in externals, in my mind, leads to Christian Pharisaism. There is a balance that needs to be discerned and implemented in each and every Christian community. This is tough work and feelings will be hurt at times. Here’s to hoping that the “worship wars” are not making a comeback.

    • Larry Kamphausen

      Wow that’s a fascinating account.
      On some level I think American obsession with celebrity and being famous plays into this.  Ya being obsessed with externals would be a problem, or I’d say to attend to externals with out attending to our intentions and heart.  Form or external factors have effect and perhaps unintentional ones. I understand Smith as in part addressing the unintentional effects of the form of the Rock band and Rock concerts on some aspects in some settings that may work against what we wish to do in worship. 

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  • Having never heard of Smith, I didn’t come away with the idea that he was lobbying for traditional rather than contemporary worship music and instruments.

    In the main I agree with him on the 3 big points, but I think there are exceptions, and more importantly, I believe each church has to figure out what is best for their people and their neighborhood. For example, we can’t say with absoluteness that if we can’t hear ourselves it isn’t worship. But we do well to think through these issues with honesty, humility, and a willingness to change, even if it is counter-cultural.

    • Larry Kamphausen

      Yes I see your point.  though I’d say that Smith isn’t even himself talking about whether one can hear oneself and other sing, but whether or not we are aware and the forms we use encourage us to be aware that we aren’t supposed to be isolated from those around us when we gather in worship as the body of Christ.

  • Larry Kamphausen, just FYI – Smith was clearly talking about whether the
    band is so loud you can’t hear yourself and others sing. Perhaps you
    haven’t read the original article… 

    *steve millikan is  also music producer* – I didn’t realize I was on a site I had visited previously.

    • Larry Kamphausen

      Steve (AKA Music Producer), my point is that Smith isn’t concerned about the band being so loud you can’t hear your self or others sing, just because he doesn’t like loud music, but because he believes it is antithetical to the nature of the worship of God as the gathered people of God.   So, what I’m trying to say and tried to say in these posts is that I think Smith would be willing to consider a well articulated reason for why a loud band would contribute to the sense of corporate worship.  His suspicion though is that it makes us individual concert goers instead of worshipers. 
      Now also one can say that what a worship band is intending to do is create an individual worship experience for each individual member of the congregation, in which case one has a different understanding of the reason and nature of Christian corporate worship than Smith or I have.