Praise Bands and Priesthood of All Believers (part 1)

Critiquing the Church makes me nervous, because she is the bride of Christ. We should have a healthy respect for how various faith traditions rehearse their belief in worship, and certainly there is no place for pejorative mockery of the Church. All things should be done in loving unity for the building up of the body and to the glory of God.

So I critique not as a critic, but as a servant. And between opening my mouth and beginning to speak, I pause to ask God for help and humility.

This morning I attended a worship service at a local church that left me concerned about how recent worship trends are trampling upon long-standing doctrinal beliefs. And I’m concerned because I recently have participated in several similar worship services.

The church I visited today had a rather large population, and their worship space was a big room with deadened acoustics and lovely stage lighting. (“Do you see the pretty colors?” I asked my two-year-old daughter. She nodded in amazement, eyes fixed on the stage.) Enhancing (or distracting?) visuals aside, here is my issue: The praise band was louder and more polished than the congregation. It was so loud, in fact, that I could not hear any other congregants singing. When I looked around I noticed that some of the folks around me really weren’t singing, but I did see a few mouths moving. Nevertheless, due to the volume, sound amplification, and acoustic properties of the room I could not detect the congregational singing.

In essence, the praise band muted the congregation’s voice. I suppose the band members might have been able to squint through the spotlights to see congregants mouthing the lyrics, but otherwise they would have no way to know whether anyone below the stage was participating. I suspect that the musicians up front would say that they were leading the worship. But if neither they nor the congregants could hear the congregation’s voice, the truth is that the band was worshiping on behalf of the church.

The message from the folks up front, then, was either that the congregation’s voice is not important or that the congregation’s voice is insufficient or undesirable. This is unacceptable, not just to me, but in light of the essential Protestant belief in the priesthood of all believers. This is a doctrine handed down from the Protestant Reformers; Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli each made distinct statements about every Christian being ordained to the priesthood of Christ. The priesthood of all believers gives weight to the participation of the entire congregation in worship, and congregational singing is a visible and aural expression of this significant belief.

I firmly believe that the congregation should be the chief worshiping group in the Church. The role of musical leaders – whether praise bands, organists, or choirs – is to support the congregation’s voice. In his book that I recently reviewed, John Bell writes that “it would be salutary to enquire of church musicians what proportion of their time is spent preparing to engage the whole congregation in song over against the time spent in honing their own instrumental or vocal skills” (Bell, The Singing Thing, 119). This is a good test of priorities. When musical leaders drown out their congregations by intention or negligence, they are demonstrating pastoral insensitivity and irresponsibility.


Please respond with your thoughts on this topic.

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