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The ‘Praise and Worship’ Problem

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Introduction

I’m not one of those people who gets hung up on every little detail in life. The serviettes (or napkins for you US folk) don’t need to be perfectly folded, the toothpaste doesn’t need to be squeezed from the bottom (even though that is my preference), and some rules do indeed seem to be made to be broken. Having said that, the label ‘praise and worship’ has disturbed me greatly for a good twenty years, but am I just getting hung up on something ultimately unimportant? ‘Praise and worship’ commonly refers to both the genre of popular-music-oriented-songs-with-Christian-lyrics sung in contemporary churches, and the practice of corporate musical expressions of worship (often the first 15–45 minutes of a service). Additionally, somehow ‘praise’ has come to mean fast songs, and ‘worship’ has come to mean slow songs. Which, I suppose, means medium-tempo songs are neither ‘praise’ nor ‘worship’, or perhaps both ‘praise and worship’!

Here’s the problem: Both the terms ‘praise’ and ‘worship’ have a rich heritage in Scripture, theology, and even simply in the English language. Usage of them that perpetuates a narrow, and in many cases warped, definition ultimately damages our Christian faith. I’m covering two fronts in this article that utilise the same language. Both fronts are related, but also unique. The description of the practice of congregational singing as ‘praise and worship’ has its own set of issues in terms of Christian theology and semantics. The use of the same term, sometimes embellished as ‘praise and worship music’, refers also to the musical style in which congregational songs are written. That is to say, it describes a musical genre. Here, the term also is problematic, but for different reasons.

‘Praise and worship’ practice

So the use of the term ‘praise and worship’ potentially damages Christian faith? Is that too over-dramatic? In terms of practice, congregational singing that Christians engage in, is indeed an act of worship. However, given the way churches often articulate this act, are Christians worshiping who don’t/can’t sing? If the preacher gets up before we get to the slow songs, have we ‘worshiped’? Similarly, if fast songs are ‘praise’, then are we unable to praise when we’re feeling contemplative, or sad? Was it a slow ‘worship’ or a fast ‘praise’ song that Paul and Silas sang in prison, in order for the prison doors to be miraculously opened and their shackles loosed, and their freedom provided (Acts 16:16–40)? I’m not trying to be facetious. It seems to me, there are Christians walking around today who are genuinely stuck with a practical theology where worship equals music, and perhaps a certain type of music.

Consider the typical Sunday church service language: “Let’s enter into a time of worship” (typically said after the fast songs have been sung). “The praise and worship team is going to lead us this morning”. “Worship team”, “Worship leader”, “Wonderful time of worship” (said straight after congregational singing). While none of these phrases are inherently wrong, they are potentially misleading if that’s the only time that Christians hear them!

As already stated, when we gather together and give our focus and attention to God – who He is, and what He’s done – it is undoubtedly an expression of our worship. So, it is valid and even important to use the term worship for such activities. However, we should equally use it for the time of giving, for the listening to the Word, even for the fellowship after the service, and most certainly to areas of our life dedicated to God outside of the four walls of the church. At the same time, we should avoid the use of ‘praise and worship’ unless we literally mean ‘praise’ and ‘worship’, and not all of our songs fit in those categories (but I’ll return to that thought later). I’m guessing most Christians wouldn’t have any problem with what I’ve said so far, but let me go one step further.

‘Praise and worship’ music

We have initially explored the problems of the ‘praise and worship’ terminology used in relation to the practice of congregational singing as an act of worship. It is the more difficult aspect to address given the complexities of both Christian activity and Christian language. However, it is equally problematic as a label for the genre. It’s not accurate. It’s not consistent with other genre labels. It does not aid our understanding of these songs. So, let’s give the genre a new name.

A number of scholars have proposed ‘contemporary worship music’.[1] While this is better, I still think it falls short. Once again, we have the word ‘worship’ which while not inaccurate perpetuates the worship-as-music paradigm. Also, while music is the general descriptor, it is more precisely ‘songs’ which identify the content of this genre. We are not talking about music used generally for corporate (and personal) acts of musical worship. We are talking about songs used for corporate (and personal) acts of musical worship. I believe the best option we currently have to label this genre would be Contemporary Congregational Songs (CCS).[2]

Within the music industry, this style of music is already an acknowledged subgenre of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). Why not maintain the ‘Contemporary’ label, as it acknowledges the popular music orientation of these songs. ‘Congregational’ then becomes in important distinctive, as these songs are not primarily for performance by professionals/artists/bands, but rather they are primarily written to be co-performed by congregations. Integral to this genre is its communal and cooperative musicking.

‘Congregational’, while not an inherently Christian word, certainly carries strong associations with Christianity. Furthermore, in the Macquarie Dictionary the contextual example given for this adjective is ‘congregational singing’, confirming the colloquial connection of these words.

Finally, as I mentioned above, ‘Songs’ would differentiate this as a specifically song-centric genre, and aligns it with the overwhelming number of voices identifying singing as a preeminent form of Christian worship.[3]

Possibilities for lyric categories

Finally, if we could settle on the label Contemporary Congregational Songs (CCS) to describe this genre of song, then we could use the words ‘praise’ and ‘worship’ for better purposes.

Figure 1- Four CCS Lyric Categories

FIGURE_graph

  • Praise/Thanksgiving – to or about God (or any Person of the Godhead), His character and/or His acts; acknowledgement, testimonial (in terms of God’s role), invitational.
  • Prophetic/Declarative – directed to the singer, the congregation, the unsaved, the wider community, or even the Devil; addressing revealed truth, reality (present or future), testimonial (in terms of our reality, or promised reality).
  • Worship – directly addressed to God (or any Person of the Godhead); defined by intimacy, surrender, relationship, dedication.
  • Petition/Prayer – request directed to God (or any Person of the Godhead); the request may take any form, but are often personal, corporate, evangelical or eschatological[4]

Some of the CCS we sing are specifically ‘praise’, so this can become a lyric category for CCS. Similarly, some CCS we sing, truly live up to the specific notion of ‘worship’ with its intimacy and reverence. I propose that there are ultimately four types of lyrical categories that cover the spectrum of CCS.

With this tantalisingly sparse introduction to lyric categories, I’d like to finish this article by promising to give another full article exploring its possibilities. I simply introduce it here to reinforce my argument for the removal of ‘praise and worship’ from our Christian vocabulary as a synonym for contemporary musical worship, because those words are too useful elsewhere. Let’s start calling them Contemporary Congregational Songs (CCS), while accepting that the term ‘worship’ will have a place in our practice of congregational singing, as long as it’s not limited to that, or only referencing the slower songs. And, in love (of course), let us correct anyone who dares transgress the new nomenclature!

 

About the Author: Rev Dr Daniel Thornton is the Head of Music and Creative Arts at Alphacrucis College. He and his wife, Kris, pastor Mountains Church, in the Blue Mountains, Australia, and Daniel travels extensively ministering in churches and training worship teams around the globe.

 

[1] Frame, John M. 1997. Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub; Redman, Robb. 2002. The Great Worship Awakening: Singing a New Song in the Postmodern Church. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.

[2] This term was originally proposed by Mark Evans in Open Up the Doors (2006).

[3] Best, Harold M. 2003. Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; Corbitt, J. Nathan. 1998. The Sound of the Harvest: Music’s Mission in Church and Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books; Guthrie, Steven. 2011. “United We Sing: Music and Community.” The Christian Century 128 (1).

[4] Thornton, Daniel. 2016. “Exploring the Contemporary Congregational Song Genre: Texts, Practice, and Industry.” PhD, Sydney, Australia: Macquarie University.

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