In Defense of J. K. A. Smith, Praise Bands, and Critique – pt. 2

Part 1 is found here

Do praise bands have to be loud and the center of a worship service?  If the band simply, with no frills, leads singing in a congregation does it cease to be a praise band?

I am puzzled that  James Smith’s  critique (“encouragement to think about the what of worship”) was taken as an attack on the use of praise bands and of  “contemporary” worship.  His critique has been taken as just another expression of a disgruntled “traditional” worshiper who saw the praise band as intrinsically antithetical to a worshipful experience.  Even though he said his criticism was intended to offer a way for the praise band to authentically be Christian worship as praise band. He claimed he wasn’t talking about style, nor obliquely mounting a counter offensive for “traditional” worship in the “worship wars”.  I think though that some of his Calvinist assumptions might be mistaken as based in  “traditional” worship style, and his understanding of “participation” was interpreted as down playing things “contemporary” worship values.

Maybe now is the time for the proposed definitions:

“Traditional” style of worship is more oriented to word and theological concepts, it is “modern” in that while it utilizes hymns this worship style emphasizes theological content of the worship and downplays (emphasis here, but not that these things are absent) an emotional connection with God in worship. Thus hymns are prized not necesarily for the experience of worship they produce, but for the theological content of the lyrics. “Traditional” worship is seeking to pass on the content of the faith in a worship service. Due to  “traditional” style to be about passing on content it can at times be expressed as how things used to be done.

“Contemporary” worship style emphasizes the experiential aspect of worship, and is less concerned (emphasis on less, but not unconcerned) about conceptual and theological content. Having an emotional connection with God in worship is what is prized when choosing songs or hymns. One of the ways this is achieved is through use of new songs and format. “Contemporary” style of worship can take on overtime “traditional” elements that can render it traditional when it is about passing on a particular period of “contemporary music, and thus is just how things were done.

‎”Traditional” and “contemporary” styles of worship are forms of worship that have emerged within the Protestant Free Church tradition. While some “traditional” styles of worship may look like services that make use of the ancient liturgical tradition of the Church, “traditional” is not synonymous with “Liturgical”.  

If I am getting somewhere with this definition Smith’s critique of praise bands ( should praise bands attempt to follow his “encouragement”) would not lead to “traditional” worship as defined above.  Smith does not argue for the use of hymns over current worship songs.  He does not argue that the lyrics must have good theological content.  Granted points one and two has a certain resonance of an old man yelling ” turn down that noise!”  And Smith may mistakenly think the only way to participate in a service for the congregation is by singing. Even so, am I to believe that praise bands must be overpoweringly loud for it to be a “contemporary” worship?  And does “contemporary” worship require that a worship band show their virtuosity in every worship service or even multiple times in a service?   I can imagine the use of a praise band/worship band where I could be aware of others singing around me, and where mostly I wouldn’t notice the musical ability of those leading either as amazing musicians nor as horrid musicians.  I can imagine this because I believe I have experienced it in some “contemporary” worship settings.   Though I suppose many of those experiences have been more “Blended” services, where hymns and contemporary worship songs were used together and in which the service wove the music into a set liturgy that didn’t change from week to week.  My point  is that these experiences were with praise bands who had quality musicians using mostly “contemporary” worship songs.  Thus, if I’m to take James Smith at his word it is possible to have a praise band that would not fall under his critique.  I wonder if there isn’t an automatic defensive (understandable) reaction among those who have faught hard to have “contemporary” worship accepted.  I’d say his critique could be read as a defense of praise bands since he wishes them to be truly Christian and not informed by other value systems.

The critique James K. A. Smith assumes the appropriateness of praise band, but calls attention to possibility that praise bands are unwittingly and unecesacerily using “secular liturgies” that are in conflict with what we do in a christian worship service.  So critique here isn’t supposed to argue against but to clarify and improve.

there is another weakness to James Smith’s critique. I have alluded to it already and was brought up in the Covenant facebook Group and is articulated in Gail Song Bantum’s response to Smith:  his assumption of what it means to participate in worship.  In this James remains may still be speaking from the “traditional” worship style because his sense of participation seems to be exclusively focused on the singing of  lyrics, thus focused on words.  In his critique there seems to be a lack of understanding of the non-verbal aspects of worship, that more than the tongue can and does and should worship.  I think this would be a productive line of inquiry to have with James K. A. Smith around his open letter, one I’d imagine he’d welcome

Yet his critique in the end isn’t an attack nor even a counter offensive for a style of worship that is of a particular place of privilege.  He isn’t defending “Traditional worship” but simply offering a critique of an element in having a praise band that may distract from the meaning of Christian worship.  He is not claiming that Praise bands aren’t worshipful.

Smith does attempt to in a very short missive to explain that he really isn’t concerned about the style but that what can happen with worship lead by a praise band is that what people are doing is being an audience at a concert(usually probably unintentionally and maybe mainly in White contexts).  I know these exist, I have been to them,  I will not name names.   Smith’s critique while it has its weaknesses is not inventing something, and granted what he is saying could go for other styles as well, though I think a band lends it more so to this in our context than the use of an organ.  But Kierkegaard’s critique of the Danish Lutheran Churches treating worship as if it was theater or the Opera shows that mistaking worship for entertainment and making the congregation an audience isn’t the sin merely of the praise band, and I think James K. A. Smith would agree.

James Smith’s critique stands, it is a good critique, he’s not defending  organs and choirs claiming that if only we went back to the organ and a choir all would be well with our worship.  If you think he said that please go back reread the article slowly and deliberately. Notice his critique literally does not mention that the solution is a particular music style.  Literally he claims that if  his “encouragement” is followed it doesn’t matter what instrumentation or style of music you use, it will be worshipful.  If someone in your congregation uses this “open letter” to raise the war between “contemporary” and “traditional” politely point that out to them and suggest they read it again slowly and deliberately.  James critique isn’t perfect but it in the end doesn’t side with either side of the worship wars, and it may even be a defense of the praise band used properly.

(After mostly writing this I came across Luke Larsen’s Responce, his post sets off a clearly differing philosophy and theology of worship than I espouse and that I’d guess James K. A. Smith espouses, though I need to read his book Desiring the Kingdom to know for sure.    There may here be in the midst of this, despite my irenic definitions, just some divergent and irreconcilable differences in theology of worship, but that is another post I think.  And as of February 24th, James K. A. Smith published a followup post that more or less makes the point I made about Larsen’s post that this conversation is exposing that there are differences in theology of worship some of  them may be incompatible.)