A Reason to Be Suspicious of Worship Bands

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought13 Comments

Jean-Jacques von Allmen was a Swiss Reformed theologian whose works on worship and liturgy were introduced to the world now almost a half a century ago. His Worship: Its Theology and Practice is still one of the most important worship books in my library (though it is now sadly hard to find), mostly because it feels like his keen observations and articulations have more bearing now even than when it was written back in the mid-1960s. This quote about choirs is a classic example:

We must be very suspicious with regard to what might be called the vicarious representative of the congregational liturgy, namely the choir. The growth of this institution took place from the fifth century, both because the liturgy of the congregation was becoming ever more complex, and also because the faithful became increasingly reluctant to commit themselves to liturgical life. We must basically agree with H. Asmussen when he writes: “A choir as the substitute for the congregation is quite unacceptable’; and that not only because it can upset the normal course of the service, and certainly not because it prevents the community from admitting the mediocre quality of its singing…but chiefly because it facilitates the congregation’s surrender of its liturgical functions. If, then, we wish to have a choir, it should be given a precise duty; not that of supplanting the faithful in their characteristic ministry, but of educating them in the fulfillment of this ministry.*

Now, perhaps this doesn’t ring for you, but substitute “worship band” anywhere you see the word “choir.” Aside from the historical observation which doesn’t fit (worship bands didn’t begin in the fifth century), there’s a pretty powerful observation packed in here.

Passionate About Active Participation

You and I live in a cultural age where the faithful are “increasingly reluctant to commit themselves to liturgical life,” where worship is ever in danger of becoming a commodity of branded consumer goods. The warning von Allmen gives here is that what we do “up there on stage,” whether we’re a choir or a worship band, can contribute to and encourage the passivity toward which many folks are already inclined to lean. “I just want to soak in the great music.” “Man, she has a great voice!” “Wow, that was a ripping electric solo!”

As worship leaders, we must tune ourselves to become hyper-sensitive to anything that discourages the active participation of the people of God in the songs, prayers, and actions of the worship service, and sometimes the performancism of it all–whether lit-stage, rock-band-led or organ-and-choir-led–can be a major deterrent. Von Allmen exposes what’s at stake. To put it directly, we put ourselves in the place of Jesus, the only mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim 2:5). That’s what von Allmen was getting at when he said that those up front can unknowingly become the “vicarious representative” of worship for the people. 

Vicarious Substitutionary Worship

I was at a worship concert a few years ago with a friend who remarked that the leader up front was singing in such a beautiful and un-follow-able manner that all my friend felt encouraged to do was to sit back and enjoy the leader’s worship of God. “Why do I need to worship? He’s worshiping for me, and he’s looking like he’s having quite a moment!” My friend was saying that sarcastically, but fairly, to point out precisely what von Allmen here is illuminating. Sometimes we, as leaders, can get so caught up in either our own special “worship moment” or in the glory of the music or service-structure that we fail to realize that we’ve left on a train that no one else is on. Sometimes, the worship band can either be so amazing or so loud (and I honestly believe, from experience, that these thresholds are context-specific and case-sensitive) that they become, in effect, the only ones worshiping in the room. The rest (the silent majority…the congregation) become passive receptors and spectators.

The irony, especially for modern evangelicals, is that in these moments we end up looking more like medieval Roman Catholics than Protestants. Suddenly, we’re dialed back a half a millennium where Christians were trained that their sacrifice of praise was to sit and observe priests doing their priest-thing up front, elevating the host and chanting their indecipherable “hocus pocus.” Worship, then, was largely watching the priest “worship for me,” and we may be at a similar impasse now as we “observe” our worship bands do the doxological heavy-lifting.

Being Question-Askers and Culture-Shifters

Of course, there’s plenty of blame to go around well beyond the control of the worship leader–cultural influences, individuals’ sentiments, idolatries, and constitutions–but nevertheless worship leaders can and should ask the question of whether what we’re doing up front is helping or hindering the cause of active participation of the congregation. Are our songs singable? Is the melody clear? Is our music descriptive and framing of the text? Do our prayers, readings, and transitions serve to encourage the “we-ness” of the moment, or are they merely our personal emoting to God before the people?

Each week, look out on the faces of the gathered faithful. Open your eyes a bit more often. What do you see? Of course, it will never be perfect. You will always have with you the yawners, the disinterested, and the downright “harrumphers.” But, if you stick it out long enough with a local church, you’ve got the opportunity to observe and affect meta-trends and trajectories. You have the opportunity to influence not just strategies but culture. And over time, if you’re sensitive, intentional, pastoral, and persistent, you will see more participators per capita than a year ago. What kind of worship culture will you influence? 

*Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 196-197.

13 Comments on “A Reason to Be Suspicious of Worship Bands”

  1. Excellently said, and something I've been complaining about for a loooooong time, even as someone who has led worship at camps and at campus ministries. Two tangents I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on (as they relate to this concept of vicarious worship) are (1) the music leader who basically treats the congregation as his or her background vocalists, counting on it to keep the song moving while he or she ad-libs according to his or her feelings or inspiration at the moment, and (2) the popularity of recorded music that duplicates the big worship-band experience, especially in the context of Christian rock radio stations.

    See, the explosion in popularity of large worship bands in congregations where you'd least expect to see them coincided with my getting old, at least compared to the young men and women I taught for so many years, and I was reminded of the mantra I had expressed as a young man myself: If it's too loud, you are too old. I have never been able to tell if my complaints came from a genuine loss of meaningful worship experience, from my own sinful heart's lifelong desire to separate itself from congregational conformity (an issue I'd rather not delve into, to be honest!), or my just being fricking old.

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece.

  2. Thanks, scrivener :).

    Thoughts on (1): From all my conversations with people, when worship leaders ad lib too much, the congregation gets lost, plain and simple. I myself rarely do it for precisely that reason. I've heard from too many congregants how distracting that is. There are moments where vocalizing adds some beauty to the music in the right way, but I think it's very hard to do…at least for me.

    Thoughts on (2): I've come to believe it's way more complicated than finding that proper decibel threshold, and because of that, I punt to local worship leaders to be faithful to both listen to and lead their congregations. There is a place for loudness AND quietness. That said, I think there will ALWAYS be folks who think it's too loud, no matter how low you go, so I tend to operate on averages and vibe. I can't answer for you, though, but it's probably a tough one to thoroughly excavate.

  3. Thanks for this, Zac. An excellent reminder and powerfully relevant parallels to the Roman church.

  4. A wise violin-playing mutual friend of ours has a phrase for this approach to worship leadership… perhaps he's shared it with you? 🙂

  5. Good post.

    It's worth considering names or titles. In the local church (assuming it uses band-type music) what name do we give to the band that leads?

    All too many discussions talk about "the worship group". WRONG! It is in that naming that the rot sets in, albeit subconsciously. Does not the title "worship group" belong to the congregation?

    So next time you hear someone proudly discuss their "worship group", jump in and get them to confirm that they mean the congregation. (Don't they?) And if they respond that they mean their music leaders, ask them why they don't regard the congregation as the "worship group".

  6. While reading this article, I just remembered something that is worth mentioning. The key of the song that the worship leader picks. A lot of the time, I find that it's too high!

    I'm male, and I think my vocal range is lower than the average man. But I'm also trained in classical piano and violin, and I like to think I'm decent technically as a singer. So if I'm having trouble hitting the higher notes, I would assume a lot of the other men are, too? I'm often finding myself straining over the course of a worship set to just sing the melody. And there are parts where I physically just can't do it, and even if I do manage to reach the notes, it's often difficult and precarious. All of which is distracting me away from one aspect or goal of worship – a free and heartfelt expression to God.

  7. I think it's a goal thing – my practical goal on a Sunday is to help God's people sing in worship. I encourage our team to regularly ask themselves "are God's people singing"? There is a joy and a sense of community that comes from strongly singing together. Big band, small band, orchestra, ukulele, organ – let's have them all, or none, but let's SING together. (Great practical pointers from people on volume, pitch, arrangements, etc. Thanks everyone. I'll share this with the team.)

  8. Our musicians are called the worship team. They lead with music, loudly and enthusiastically. Me, while I really identify w some of the current lyrics, I still worship when we are blessed w some hymns of old. I am afraid we are driven to keeping people engaged through short bursts of time w musical lyrics which too often don't require any thought because they are repeated often.
    I will give our pastor credit for stating multiple times…praise songs are not the point of corporate worship. Worshipping God is the highest reason to come together.

  9. This is such an important insight to constantly think about and apply. Our perspective on the worship ministry (or any ministry for that matter) has to constantly be realigned because of our tendency to veer away from Biblical perspective and service.

  10. Thank you for this post! Von Allmen is indeed very good, but sadly almost forgotten (being a leading liturgical and ecumenical scholar in his days). Your application of his thoughts to today's situation is insightful. It's indeed an important reason to be suspicious of worships bands, choirs, and the like.

  11. Great post Zac.
    I'm in a new [to me ] church, even a new "denomination". When I first started attending there I thought it was non-denominational. Then I learned it's Assembly of God. That's fine with me as the music is about Jesus and the Pastor teaches from the Holy Bible. I like it a lot. I'm not all that into the music as I sometimes find it hard to learn the lyrics. Most of the songs I've never heard before. It's a young contemporary band, who must write their own music. They've done a couple familiar songs, then make it their own, with completely new lyrics…using only a few lines/phrases from the original song. It's weird and not easy to sing along with.
    Just my two cents…

  12. Just discovered your blog, Zac. This piece should be required reading for every musician involved with worship. I played in a "worship band" for years and finally quit because I felt like I was part of the problems you are hitting here. My particular sore spot these days is the ad-libbing described in prior comments. It's impossible for a congregation to follow that…and worship is about collective worship, not a performance from a singer.

    On "volume" I have a rule of thumb: if I can't hear myself sing or those around me, it's too loud. One of the most amazing worship experiences I ever had was at a John Piper conference, and it was meaningful not know because of the songs but because I could hear the hundreds of voices joined in worship. I was far more impacted by those around me than by the band/leader.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *