In Lament of Praise Bands

I hear it too frequently from small congregations: [deep sigh] We don’t even have a praise band.

As if this statement sums up an obvious problem. As if it spotlights an inevitable progression of decline-fear-failure. As if a praise band is the sole, out-of-reach cure for empty pews.

And it’s not. 

Let’s be clear. My lament is not about the sound of guitars, drum kits, and talented musicians offering their best worship gifts to God. And my lament is not about competing worship cultures–traditional, contemporary, blended, or . . . anything else. 

My lament is for small congregations that have turned praise bands into golden calves. Ministry idols. 

Here’s how it started. For Protestant congregations, there was a wave of liturgical reforms in the 1980s. Like most movements in the Church, it was not a single, tidy path. But God’s used to our messiness. Some worked to reclaim ancient forms of worship. Some innovated to make worship more relevant. And some tried both. So that old worship patterns better fit the new people doing the work of the people.

One of these relevance-pursuits was in music. And one of its many innovations was . . . (ta-da) the praise band. But somehow this one innovation colonized imaginations. Over time, it quit serving as a tool for relevant worship. And instead became the indicator of relevant worship. A holy-checklist-of-God requirement. For the best way. Proof of relevance. Code for contemporary liturgical orthopraxy. And here’s the troubling part: regardless of context.

Praise bands work well in high-resource large settings with a performance aesthetic. But not in small settings. So the if-only-we-had-a-praise-band sigh is troubling. It risks defining lavish worship in a way that is inaccessible to the vast majority of congregations–those with fewer than 95 weekly worshipers. Plus it overlooks the superpowers of small settings that are unavailable in big settings.

That’s why for small congregations, this isn’t just another worship issue. It calls for lament. Because it’s a cheapening of your distinctive small-setting gifts. And bad theology.

Our faith insists that context matters. Worship should look different in different places. 

We gave up worshiping in Latin 500 years ago. It didn’t fit our incarnational theology. At Pentecost a messy diversity of languages showed up. And the Spirit sent us to all the people. So we changed our worship to the vernacular—everyday words spoken by ordinary people in each particular place. Everyday. Ordinary. Particular. 

The mission of the Church belongs in the vernacular. The best gifts of Right-Here. From every Even-Us group of folks. Context.

We share the Gospel. We share a basic order of worship (or a few of them). But our worship expressions should match our particular communities. 

Your job is not finding folks who can work a drum kit, bass, guitar, and microphones. 

Your job is diagnosing and including the gifts of your particular community. The high school kid who likes to act. The middle schooler who likes science experiments. The banjo-playing neighbor. The third-grader learning the recorder. The local knitter, baker, painter . . . 

Meet folks. See them with the eyes of Christ. Invite them to help. Curate worship with what they have. It’s your great strength! The thing that can’t be done in big congregations! You can treat all worshipers like co-creators of the human-divine encounter. Because they are. 

The holy-checklist-of-God includes an entry for every last one of them. Stop sighing. Start looking.

And thank you for your ministry,