I use to be much more involved in music than I am now (though I did join the ensemble singers recently at my church.) Several years ago, I served on the worship team for 4 years back in my Charismatic days (keyboards/vocals). One thing that was emphasized, which I still hear quite frequently is to bring excellence in worship, i.e. make sure the music sounds good. And by good, that means professional quality.
The past several years has experienced a diverted direction though I tend to reflect on things related to corporate worship (namely from a practical theology perspective). So in reflecting on the question does the music need to be good, I wonder if that does not overshadow the purpose of corporate worship. In other words, does it detract from the primary purpose.
T. David Gordon, thinks so. I came across his article a while back from the Aquila report, The Problem with Praise Bands. Now I’ll preface my thoughts on this article with the issue of preference. It does seem to me that we need to distinguish musical preference from its purpose in corporate worship. I find far too often music gets criticized because of issues of preference rather than function. As I wrote about in A Critique of Worship Music Criticism, we need to be careful about being too critical of music just because its one style or the other.
But Gordon gets at something significant in his article regarding music in corporate worship. He states the problem with praise bands puts the attention on the band and in some cases overpowers the congregational singing.
Congregational praise is a commanded duty that can be audibly discerned; we should hear congregational praise when it is sung, and nothing else (choir, organ, marching band, bagpipe) should be permitted to obscure the thing that is commanded.
He goes into a lengthy discussion on the nature of corporate worship as evidenced in Scripture and observes these three essential components;
1) That the singing be congregational
2) That it be done together
3) That it be vigorous (loud and robust)
Our earthly assemblies are anticipations of the heavenly/eschatological assemblies, in which the redeemed cry out songs of praise in loud, united praise. Therefore, our present assemblies should look and sound like those assemblies insofar as it is possible; we too should cry out in loud, united songs of praise. Such vocal exuberance is natural to our social nature. Nations have national anthems which they sing vigorously at appropriate occasions; British soccer fans sing the anthems of their respective teams across the field, attempting to drown out the voice of the opposing fans. Effectively, in worship, we declare robustly, publicly and unitedly our allegiance to our Creator/Redeemer, and we effectively “shout down” all opposition. But it is the congregation that does this, not a small ensemble with artificially-amplified voices. The amplification should come from the great number of redeemed voices joined together.
This is what Paul expresses in Colossians with the singing hymns and songs to one another. So its not that praise bands/worship teams are wrong per se but that they just might defeat the purpose for which we sing corporately. A natural rebuttal to this would be that the band should lead worship. But is that what is really going on when you have a professional quality band, on stage upfront and typically singing cool songs? I recently came across this wonderful article, Are We Headed for a Crash: Reflections on the Current State of Evangelical Worship, that affirmed music in corporate worship should not be performance driven, less about the band and more about Christ.
So getting back to my question of whether the band has to be good, I’d say no it does not. Actually, when I hear something a little off it reminds me that we are fallen creatures desperate to worship a sovereign God. Music preference is nice. But honestly, I’d rather sing a theologically robust song that reminds me of my identity within the body of Christ and with poor music in a style that’s not my preference, then shallow nonsense with a slamming band. Besides, I have plenty opportunity to listen to good bands with music styles I prefer outside of corporate worship. Our primary preference when gathering should be Christ and the fuel of his grace, not music styles or good professional music.