Pet Peeves Pertaining to the Pursuit of Praise (PPPPP)

December 30, 2011  18 Comments

so, i’m on the hunt – the job hunt!  and i have actually considered a position as a worship/praise director at a church, a role that i have fulfilled a few times before, and i have some experience with.  i have to admit that it will be strange to go from preaching every sunday to leading praise every sunday instead – i would love it if i could split those duties on a 3:1 ratio or something, as i enjoy doing both very much.  but seeing that this is a possibility, i have been putting more thought into the ministry of praise.

but i think that over the course of the decade or so i have been in ministry, i have become very particular about praise and how it is pursued.  part of this is because i have grown more particular (read “cranky”) with age.  but part of this is because it seems that praise at church is done in largely an unthinking manner, and i use that word “unthinking” very specifically, not that praise doesn’t sound good, but that praise teams don’t put the forethought into what their praise accomplishes, or what it teaches.  as a former/future praise leader, i know how hard it can be to put such forethought into a praise set, as it seems like we barely survive week to week.  plus, everyone has particular affinities in praise that it is truly hard to please everyone.  but i think a few important questions can, and should be asked by praise teams every week, and across traditions, to ensure that they are doing what they are truly called to do, which is facilitate the worship of God through praise music.  some questions like…

“what do my words communicate?”

praise leaders are wonderful at arranging music, leading teams of musicians, singing, and playing guitar.  but often, they are not good at public speaking in a worship setting.  and who can blame them?  it’s not easy to be a great praise leader and also a good presider at the same time, it’s not all that common.  but at the same time, praise leaders often must serve in that capacity, leading the congregation in prayer or calling people to worship using not just their music, but their words.

and because of this, praise teams need to be more thoughtful about how they encourage people to praise, and what they say when they do so.  too often i go to services where it’s clear that the praise leader put not even five minutes of forethought into how they were going to call people into worship, or what they were going to pray before or after the praise set.  their thoughts are disjointed, or inconsistent, and sometimes a little off color.  now, i know that there is a place for Spirit-led spontaneity, especially in some church traditions and denominations.  but being Spirit-led does not mean “brain switched off”.  a few moments of meditation and planning does not preclude the Spirit from using you, or saying something through you.  no one accuses a pastor who works on a sermon for hours of stifling the Holy Spirit (unless you are from a very, very pentecostal tradition), so neither should you feel that way.  God guides not just our words, but the thoughts we use to form those words.

so think about what you want to say, about what you want to pray, what songs mean to you, what God has done in your life, just for a few moments at least.  and in both the freedom and the responsibility afforded to those who serve God, speak!  but please don’t speak first and then think afterwards – that’s NEVER a good idea in any context, and especially in the context of church.

“what does my face communicate?”

i’m okay with sandals.  i’m okay with t-shirts.  i’m okay with mohawks.  i’m okay with tattoos.  some churches are not, but as long as it is consistent with the spirit of the church, it’s acceptable.  but i’m not okay with slack-jawed, uninterested faces that do not seem the least bit engaged with the enormity of what is being communicated during praise.  those kinds of expressions, when facing towards the congregation in a church service, are a magnet for people’s attention.  it is okay (somewhat) for a congregation member to have that expression, but not okay for a praise team member to have the same, because everyone’s focus goes to that person, which again, is a violation of what praise is all about, which is for focus to go to God.

praise teams often are under the mistaken assumption that their only ministry is through music, through the playing and singing of notes.  and if you are serving a ministry to the blind, they would be right.  but the fact is that most people are not in that situation, and not only can people hear you… but they can see you too!  and many praise teams are simply not realizing that the congregation is hearing beautiful music, but seeing flat and blank faces, which is a startling juxtaposition.

of course, there is the opposite problem, where praise team members look like they are constantly in a state of paroxysm, and again, the focus goes to them.  but i am more okay with that situation because the questions that that situation begs are far different.  for a person that is super-emotional and super-into praise, that begs the question, “why are they so passionate about what they are singing?”, which, when you think about it, is actually not a bad question to ask.  but for a person that is blank and cold during praise, that begs the worse question, “why are they so dispassionate about what they are singing?”  and the latter is far worse than the former.

so…smile!  sing along even if you don’t have a mic!  but be aware that your face, your expression, your demeanor are part of people see, and so are part of your ministry.  and if you are in a state of heart or mind where you simply cannot smile or bring your face to reflect what the lyrics share, then you probably shouldn’t be up there that week anyway.

“can people sing this?”

okay, this is going to sound harsh, but this is my main pet peeve.  far too often i go to churches where the leader (usually a man), chooses a song that is way too high for any woman to sing, but proceeds to sing it anyway in that key, even when specifically told by their female counterpart that she cannot sing it.  there is absolutely no reason a praise team should play a song that half of the congregation cannot actually sing.  it is not fair, and not consistent with the purpose of praise.  and that means that praise leaders need to be far more aware of what key they are singing, taking effort to choose a key that is somewhat comfortable for both men and women (even if it is uncomfortable for themselves).

it does not do to assume that those who cannot hit those notes can sing lower harmonies instead.  not all have that ability.  it does not do to assume that they can sing an octave down – if you don’t like it, then neither will they.  it is beholden on the praise leader to find the right key, however awkward it is to play, that allows the maximum number of people to sing praise to God, even if that key is B flat or F#.  any decision otherwise reeks of a lack of sensitivity at best, or at worst…selfishness, a trait that is unacceptable for those who lead God’s people into worship.

i share this point most…directly… because it is such a violation of the spirit of praise leading.  praise leaders are not leaders at all, but servants, as all “leaders” are.  and the responsibility of a servant goes not to their own interests, their own comforts, their own ranges, but the comforts and ranges of those they serve.  what good is it if a preacher speaks in a language that only he or she can understand? (as was the case for hundreds of years when the mass was conducted in latin, a language that no one understood)  now, if musical performance and singing in a particular non-universal range is that important of a facet of your ministry, then it is probably better to create other environments in which to play songs that are more for performance than praise – coffee or cafe nights, outreaches, clubs, stuff like that.  but please do not bring a self-centered attitude into church on sunday – no matter your tradition, that is not really acceptable.

now, probably a lot of you non-praise leaders are furiously nodding your head in agreement because you see the same things at your church, and are glad that someone said something.  but you praise leaders are furiously scowling at me through your computer screen, asking, “who does this guy think he is?  by what RIGHT does this guy have to say these kinds of things?”  it’s a good question.  and i do have that right.  it’s called the “right of regret”, the fact that i myself have been guilty of all of the above, and regret it very much.

i have a higher range than most people, and have stubbornly refused to change a key because it was too low and uncomfortable for me.  why did i do that?  to make me feel comfortable, so i could sing more impressively.  i was that praise leader.  i have gone into praise sets with hours of musical preparation, and yet, not a minute of meditation or real prayer, calling the congregation into worship with words that were unedifying, generally negative, and anything but worshipful.  i was that praise leader.  i have been the joyful praise leader, with a passionate expression fixed on my face when i led… but when i was playing guitar, or bass, or shaker – i looked like i was on depressants.  in fact, i WAS a depressant.  i was that praise leader.

and i have to say, that those memories of what kind of praise leader i used to be make me cringe with regret.  so often, praise was a thoughtless and selfish endeavor, when it could have been so much more.  it could have brought people right into the presence of God, when instead it created the Cult of Peter.  it could have prepared people for the Word of God, so that it could be planted deep and firmly and brought a great harvest, but instead, it  divorced people from it, creating a type of rift between what happened in the first half of service, and what happened in the second.  with just a little more thought, with just a little more selflessness, my ministry in praise for the last decade could have been so much richer, and i hate to see any other praise leaders walk that path that i have, especially when that path is so easy to avoid.

but honestly, i’d like to hear your thoughts – do you agree with these questions, or did i miss one?  was i way off base on any of them?  i’d like to know so that i can prepare myself if indeed i re-enter the wonderful world of praise ministry!

peter

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Husband and Father of 4. Pastor of Peace Fellowship Church in Washington D.C. Aspiring Writer, Former Musician

18 responses to Pet Peeves Pertaining to the Pursuit of Praise (PPPPP)

  1. well, first off, i’m so glad to hear you are re-entering the world of praise ministry. you are so talented at leading, and i think God will really use you in this season. that’s a lucky church! :) secondly, amen amen amen. and i only say that because i can say “guilty as charged.” one thing i would add, though, is that we, as praise ministers, should be wary of casting judgment on the congregants’ reactions or lack thereof to the worship music. too often, i hear praise leaders complain that the congregation is so dead, and that their lack of response is an indication of their spirituality. in reality, we often pick songs that are difficult to sing, new songs to often, or sometimes people just express themselves in different ways. so what if they don’t raise their hands? or if they don’t sing loudly? or at all? who are we to say how worship should look? even sometimes *i* don’t sing words as a congregant because i’m trying to digest what the song means…or i’m singing in my heart, ’cause my voice can sometimes just get in the way. just my two cents. :)

    • yeah! oh man, was i SO guilty of that last one. but more than just being unfair to the congregation, i think that attitude is self-destructive as well, because an undue burden on the leader to get people to engage, which is not the praise leader’s responsibility. good one…

  2. great observations Paster P! one answer to the “which key” problem is to sing multi-part songs (usually hymns, but we could write some contemporary ones), which usually have separate soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts. then everyone can sing something. of course, this typically requires focused instruction of the congregation, but my old church (http://www.christkirk.com/) pulled it off pretty well. In addition, I noticed that where possible, the praise leader attempted to keep the melody line (usually the soprano) at an “easy” key, so people who had not practiced the song before could “coast” on the melody.

    • yeah, that’s a good point. it was nice back in the day because everyone had hymnals, where they could see which part they should sing. but making up a harmony on the fly is not easy for most anymore. i think that last point is pretty vital, where if there is a choral part, the melody is at a singable key. and, HEY WHAT’S UP MAN?? i haven’t heard hear from you in forever!!

  3. I find it assuming that people with limited vocal ranges sing their hearts out to “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi at karaoke rooms. That song has notes that even females can’t hit. Yet both males and females do their best to scream it out. To make it more relevant to our discussion, some of the most popular hymns have ridiculously wide range of notes and octaves. They also have difficult vocal inflections and word phrasings. Take for example, “How Great Thou Art” by Carl Boberg. You really have to belch the chorus out. The funny thing is people love singing that song and they just go for it. Your head gets a little light headed from lack of oxygen. You know, the same thing that happens when you try to sing the verses of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2.

    So can people sing ridiculously hard songs with extreme octave ranges and vocal inflections? If “you are living on a prayer”, then apparently yes.

    • hm, some really really good points, and i’ve heard chris tomlin make the same argument. and maybe a few that could be considered in turn:

      - hymns are written typically in four parts, and have vocal lines written in actual musical form, printed for people to follow, giving the congregation all the means to sing in a key that fits them. modern worship music is typically arranged in only a single part, with no printed music besides the lyrics, and so it is up to the congregant to develop a harmony completely on their own, in the moment. some can do that, most can’t. the situations are not equivalent. also, i don’t consider hymns to be sacrosanct. maybe how great thou art should have been written in a lower key. i have no problem saying that.

      - also, there is a significant difference between vocal ranges from men to women – they are not at all identical. if a song is high enough where a man has to belt it to hit the highest notes, that same song for a woman is almost unsingable unless she goes down into the same register as the man. even songs that are comfortable for men tend to push women’s ranges quite far – that’s how different they are. some praise leaders actually know this and assume that women can just sing harmony, or sing down an octave, or should just sing louder. but i don’t find any of those assumptions are particularly servant-like. no one would appreciate it if i wrote sermons assuming that half of the congregation just needed to be smarter or have a bigger vocabulary, would they? why should praise leaders do the same?

      - it’s dangerous to take what happens in a karaoke room and apply it to a church. the culture, attitudes, assumptions, community, and expectations are not the same. karaoke rooms are dark, where you are among your best friends, and usually beer. you take turns singing fun songs, usually waiting a couple of songs in between. churches are open, and you are among friends and non-friends, people you know and don’t. you sing all songs together, in a way that is corporate and God focused. there is also, for better or worse, an expectation of respectfulness in many churches. some churches are like karaoke bars, but some are not.

      - lastly, i would be careful about making assumptions based on “people”, that “people” love belting out living on a prayer or how great thou art. surely there are people who do, but it would be going too far to assume that ALL do. because many don’t. many would just change the key down on the karaoke machine, like i would – probably D minor for living on a prayer. many don’t go to karaoke bars at all, and for exactly this reason, that they don’t like being put on the spot and singing songs that are too hard for them, exposing them to embarrassment – if they don’t do that for karaoke, what chance will they do that at church, in front of many they don’t know? many are distracted by the effort it takes to sing praise music, both old and modern.

      in the end, i feel the job of a worship leader is not to take their predilections and experiences and apply them to the worship of God. it is to listen, both to the Spirit and to their brothers and sisters, and create a ministry that allows for the most possible people to engage in the beauty of worship.

      but these are my two cents, and are worth exactly that amount! like i shared in the last paragraph of the post, no one has been more guilty of selfish thoughtlessness than myself…

  4. What is worship? To glorify God. What is music? An expressive art. What is worship music? Art of glorifying God? Perhaps it’s the art element that allows creativity and subjectivity. Should everyone worship? Yes. Should everyone express it in the same way? I see a baptist choir in the Georgia, and I see a rock band in Hillsong, Australia. They both worship in Spirit and in Truth.

    I’m purposefully leaving the discussion open because you can go so many ways in picking this apart. I understand that music can invoke such passion and prejudice (whether you admit to it or not). Who’s to say you can’t worship at a loud rock concert compared to a silent worship hall with organs? Is it that much more holy for worship music be to nice and pleasant?

    Ultimately, if I can picture what worship sounds like in Heaven, I would say it’s a mix of R&B, jazz, classical, rock, rap, with a twist of country in all keys and then some wave frequencies beyond human vocal and ear spectrum. That would pretty sound cool.

    • Yes! I would say that no matter what, thoughtfulness and consistency trumps all, and allows for many different styles. I’m okay with nearly any style, as long as conscious thought has been put into the process, and it is consistent with the greater vision and culture of the church. So I would be okay with incredibly high and spontaneous praise, if there is greater purpose and intent, if that is what the church is going for. I don’t think Hillsongs has a bigger fan than me…

  5. Hi PP! I agree with all your points! In regards to #1, I feel like it’s usually because it’s really hard to strum chords and speak from the mind without having something….”rehearsed”. Or unless you are a bawse and can do both haha.

  6. PP, i’m not a praise leader and i’m a former karaoke buff. at one time in life, i didn’t go to church because my parents wanted me to join the korean service where the korean pastor would speak korean and i would understand only 50-60% of it. well, saying this, i wanted to voice out as the “people” that you are talking about.

    recently at the church, i hear a lot of new songs which is good in some ways. but i don’t hear that new song again for awhile and forget that the new song is a song that i heard before. there’s a new song after a new song to me. it’s like getting beaten up with 10 hit combo from some video game character. maybe i’m an old school that’s refusing to learn new songs or something. somethimes i think newer song should be repeated in the following weeks. i understand that praise leaders need to carefully choose the songs that relates to the sermon, but for the “people” to follow, i think it is the praise ministers to introduce the songs before they actually play it during service. maybe put it up on the website in the coming week. i don’t know.

    this is the way i see it. praise team is a band that plays to uplift the sermon. so if i compare this to a concert, praise leader is the cover band that plays before the sermon that’s the feature. now, if the cover band plays a music that the crowd didn’t know, then would you like that? isn’t that why cover band plays other band’s popular music??? am i interested in the cover band’s new song? not really, especially when i’m interested in the feature bands performance, the sermon. just a thought…

    i was late to service on christmas, so i decided to go into the korean service even thought i wouldn’t understand the complete sermon. but the crazy thing was that when i went in to the service, EVERYONE was standing and singing, hands lifted high…. i was scared! i was like, “whoa! i only see this in southern baptist churches or in the movies!” but as soon as i went in, i knew why. the songs were the older praise songs that i heard many times and i could follow. As the deer pants for water…. what??? lol!!!! i haven’t sung that song since like the 6th grade!!! but it was so refreshing!!! actually, it was amazing! i didn’t know that song was this great! i don’t think i ever sung this song so passionately… until TWO WEEKS AGO! it might be one of the best praise session i’ve had in a longest time and it also helped me focus my attention to the service!

    like i said, it’s just a thought and please don’t take this as a criticism. i’ve been wanting to be a member of our praise team ever since i saw the team. like i said, i want… i don’t think i’m prepared… anyways…. just a thought guys. happy new year to all!!!

    • there is just something good about singing praises to God, and what really helps is if you can actually SING that song, you know? but if it’s too new, too high, too hard, it can be really hard to connect with the words. and i LOVE the 10 hit combo reference…

      • well, maybe it’s not the “people” thing but “me” thing as well. when i usually listen to a song for the first time, i listen to the music, and the beat – not the lyrics. it’s an old habit that i had so that i can sing along with the song (i really don’t recommend anybody doing this because it has some serious side effects – not understanding the true meaning of the song and what it’s actually saying and when you do sing it, you sing without heart. really really bad!!!)
        but when i’m at church, i try to focus more on the lyrics more than the music and that’s when i get all confused (i think, but sounds very logical). but i don’t think that i’m the only one that feels and acts this way. today’s music in general is nothing like the music in the past. when i was a kid, i loved to listen to all the “hip” music and lyrics didn’t matter because if you wrote it out, it didn’t make sense anyways. as i got older, i started to appreciate the older music, like eagles, beatles and etc. the older music told you a story and the lyrics… IT MADE SENSE!!!
        it seems to me that today’s music is more focused on musicality and not the lyrics (kinda of validates the fact that there are more people like me in this world… lol) i think musicians change lyrics to the “song” to make the “music” sound better! am i the only one feeling this way? i was hoping that CCR music industry wouldn’t turn this way but i’m seeing it. the guitar playing is fancier, the drum beat is complex, and music is great, but the lyric… well… i’ll stop there. i don’t want trouble.

  7. I have some obeservations from trying to lead a worship time for small group. I am not sure if it scales to a large service or not, but here are my thoughts:

    Key: I agree. Being limited in range and skill, I generally can only lead in a particular keys, which are, unfortunantly, higher than comfortable for my members. I am pretty aware of this, and maybe because it is a more intimate setting, you can definitely feel the difficulty up close. Esp. when you know people want to worship, and they are trying, but it’s just really hard for them to fully engage. This is part of the reason I try to delegate this responsibility out. :)

    Song choice: Another thing that I have noticed is that a lot of the newer songs these days are very much “response” songs, without giving a reason for the response. “I will …..” (Surrender, follow, worship, love… etc). It’s hard for people to sing a response song about how “I will live/love for you”… without context of why. Unless people are already in touch with the joy of their salvation and/or the greatness of God, it’s hard to come in off the street and sing those songs. When praise leaders lead off with these songs, and then “reprimand…errr…. encourage” people to worship, I feel like it’s a little unfair to the congregation. My limited opinion is that we should start off with songs that remind us about God Himself (who He is, what He has done, Why we are here), before we enter into songs of response (what we are going to do). In the past, I feel like praise songs did a good job of having both elements in the song (verses about God’s character/actions/etc, and choruses that tell of our response), but if the songs themselves no longer give the context, we probably have to make sure that the set does, rather than just going with what is currently popular / sounds good / fun to play.

    Song Complexity/accessibility: Chan and I went back and forth about this, but one of the reasons that I could engage in worship when I was in college was because I could play them at home and use them in personal worship. I find that harder to do as the songs get more complex with the rhythms and strumming patterns. Of course, I can try to get better… but for the “home worshipper”, I just wonder if our corporate response is hampered by the skill required to “take the songs home” and use them in our personal times of worship. Catch 22, because I am not sure if the answer is to just go with “old songs.” And I wonder if the same argument could have been made for Hymns vs. Contempary Praise.

    • i think you are hitting the nail on the head, which is that praise requires thoughtfulness. little touches, like using a song that describes God before you use a song that praises Him may be subtle for many, but it is vital for both the praise leader’s attitude as well as the few that actually do pick up on things like that. i think musical praise can be expressed in a myriad of ways and still be great, unless it is done thoughtlessly – that just doesn’t do…

  8. wow, i think that’s what i meant on saying!

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