A huge part of it is theological. There is no way to do “praise band” without turning the service into a “show.” Disagree? Find me one praise band that plays from a loft behind the congregation, where no one can see them except the pastor. A core purpose of a pop-rock performance is draw attention to the performers. I have watched and played in praise bands. I’ve never seen one that didn’t want, no, need to be seen. A guy with a guitar does not have the liturgical significance that an altar, a Bible, a crucifix, a font, or even a simple pulpit does. And I find it ironic that evangelicals tend to label as “idolatry” any and all significance attached to physical objects, yet their service is completely fixated on the power of the personality of the performer.
I had a strong reaction to this post. I have played in, and led, praise bands. I was reminded of an experience I had a year and a half ago. I was leading the worship team for the service we would have every Friday night on campus. We had lost the location we had played in the year previously, and I wanted to take the opportunity of a new space to get the band out of the way. The president of the Christian Fellowship and I decided to move the band to the side, facing the screen and words along with everyone else.
People did not like it.
The reaction was one of the toughest moments I went through with Christians, and is probably one of the reasons I have had little desire to try leading a team since. In discussions with other leaders of the group we moved the band back to the front, and reengaged the show. I have struggled with that whole experience for the 18 months that have passed since. I know I let my anger and the insecurity of being a new leader get in the way of properly explaining why I felt like having the band at the front was not the ideal. I also wonder to what extent we have been trained to mimic the leader at the front. The modern congregation feels lost when all they have are the words and God to meditate on, thus the worship leader serves as the model for engagement. I don’t think this is necessarily correct, but is it wholly incorrect? To what extent are sermons, liturgy, and prayers any less a moment where the leader’s ego can get in the way of God?
As a person who still plays in a worship band, and enjoys it, I don’t believe that the spirit can’t move when a band is at the front. I believe people can have a legitimate encounter with Christ. I do believe that there is a danger of idolatry in this current iteration of “church.” I believe though, that on the opposite end there is a danger in idolizing an irrelevant, or worse incomprehensible, liturgy and hymns at the expense of a meaningful service for the participants.
I thought about what Nakedpastor said about this recently:
Abraham Heschel once said that the first commandment… to not have any other gods before me… is the first one because idolatry is the root of all the others. Calvin said our minds are factories working around the clock in the production of idols, and labyrinths of idolatrous thinking. The church is constantly setting up idols for people to believe in. Then when these idols, these small gods, don’t deliver, and the people for good reason lose their faith in them, we blame the people for it.
I think to some extent idolatry lurks in every corner, and it is only with a Christ-centered team with strong accountability that any church can overcome this. Egomaniacs and psychopaths survive in personality dominated churches or movements; teams and accountability prevent them from ruining everything.