Using Praise Teams in Intergenerational Worship Services

I’ll admit it; I use Praise Teams in my church and my church is VERY pro-choir. I see  praise teams as an extension of the choir and not a replacement of them or an elite group better than the choir itself.  I use praise teams to augment congregational song, but I don’t currently use them to augment the choral anthems we sing, although it is a practice in some churches that I’m not philosophically opposed to. According to my research, my colleagues use praise teams for enhancing the choral sound for practical reasons, not simply to make sure only “quality product” is heard. I think many of the reasons to use praise teams for practical reasons can line up with the philosophy of being intentionally intergenerational. Let’s look at what I found in my own research and then I’ll offer some personal insight on the subject.

Many of those I interviewed use praise teams in services for a variety of reason, such as enhancing congregational singing.  However, only 15 percent of the church leaders I interviewed used praise teams to enhance the choral anthems they sing. Before you begin thinking that these leaders must be anti-intergenerational philosophy, remember that I only interviewed those who lead intergenerational worship ministries.  Further, all but one leader had intentionally sought to learn more about intergenerational worship in addition to leading an intergenerational ministry. These leaders believe, as I do, that enhancing the choral sound is not necessarily contrary to intergenerational philosophy. Here is some other interesting data on these leaders’ churches and choirs:

  1. 2/3 of the leaders’ church had average attendances of 500 or more in worship
  2. Almost 56 percent of these leaders’ choirs had average attendance of 26-50 persons. The larger worship attendances indicated in the leaders’ interviews suggest that the worship centers of these churches are fairly large, while the choir sizes are not necessary as large. By the way, all of these leaders had one choir in one worship service.
  3. NONE of these leaders led choirs with average attendances of more than 76 persons
  4. 2/3 of the leaders indicated the praise team functioned to provide guide vocals for the choir while lending vocal support and enhancement to the sound.
  5. All but one of these leaders use orchestra in their worship services and many indicated that the orchestra was just too loud at times for their choir attendances so they use the praise team to enhance and augment sound. So, when used in practical ways…ways that DO NOT negate the importance of the whole choir and its function in worship leadership, praise teams can enhance the vocal sound of choral anthems when the need arises, no matter the size of the choir. 

 

However, praise teams have, and probably will continue to be used, in contrary ways. There are many ways that the praise team is mis-used in worship services. Beware of some of the dangers and avoid them if at all possible.

THE DANGERS OF USING PRAISE TEAMS ONLY IN THE INTERGENERATIONAL CHURCH:

Using praise teams in general can be tricky if certain criteria are not engaged. Many churches have replaced the choir entirely in favor of the praise team, which often functions like a choir, but smaller and more flexible. These churches may involve multiple praise teams that rotate, but because most vocalists are probably auditioned, the moderate level or developing singer is most likely never selected. Some leaders (although they might never admit it) are subconsciously listening or looking for a “young, pop-sound” in their vocalists, which means many older singers are simply left-out. This is in direct contradiction to intergenerational philosophy.

Not much academic research exists on the benefits of choir vs. praise teams. Most of what is written on the topic is in trade magazines and internet articles/sites. In the one academic study I could find on the topic, Tara Christiansen (see citation at the bottom) affirms that leaders utilizing choirs have the greater potential to involve more people in worship leadership when given the “primary” role in worship leadership.

Here are some dangers in sum…

  1. Praise Teams may be seen as elite and “better than” the choir member. I’m sure a LONG list of how this is played-out in churches could be made. But, anytime one group is perceived as more important than another, problems may arise.
  2. Because praise teams are auditioned, the moderate or developing singer is likely not given a place to serve.
  3. Leaders are often looking for singers that have “young” or “flexible” voices. Sure, who doesn’t, right? But your best tenor in the choir may be a 70 year man, who is starting to get a little wobble in his former lovely voice. Might be better to go with the 25 year old rather than include that generationally diverse option?
  4. Not considering faithfulness over talent. This is a tough one, folks. Sometimes your best singers are not always the most faithful ones. Early in my ministry at Ivy Creek, I lost an incredible male singer because I wouldn’t use him due to his lack of faithfulness to the choir. It was hard, but I had to set an example that faithfulness was more important than simply being a good singer. Let’s remember who we are as teacher/musician/ pastors and choose Praise Team members who will represent Christ and model worship the best with their hearts. Go with that…

 

HOW TO USE PRAISE TEAMS IN THE INTERGENERATIONAL WORSHIP SERVICE:

  1. Praise Team members MUST be active in your choir if you have one. There are always some extenuating circumstances to this, but if the other choir members sense that praise teams members are “divas” or only there when they can be on the front of the platform, then feelings get hurt and you as a leader are not showing value to each member. The praise team is basically an extension of your choral ministry. Faithfulness over talent…every time.
  2. Praise Teams members must be committed believers and active in other areas of the church. As up-front leadership, these vocalists are representing the choir and orchestra and should have represent Christ and the body of believers at that local church.
  3. Praise Team members should be selected from all active adult generations in the choir.
  4. Praise Teams should be used strictly for enhancing of choral anthems and/or congregational song as long as these praise teams include generational diversity. Granted, every team might not include a person from every generational cohort, but figure out who sings well together and do your best. Make the effort! Praise teams should never replace the choir altogether long term. 
  5. Praise Teams should be open for new team members by audition at regular intervals. As new members join your music ministry, there should be opportunities for them to become a part of the leadership. Vocal auditions, as well as a spiritual evaluation, should be included in this process.

 

At Ivy Creek, we use praise teams ONLY for congregational song to add depth and rich harmony to the overall sound of the congregation. At present time, we do not have to enhance the vocal sound with the praise team for choral things; we are fortunate to have enough choir members balanced with our orchestra not to need to enhance the choral sound with individually enhanced voices for choral anthems. I prefer to only use the choir as a whole for choral things anyway, but if we had balance issues with the choir and orchestra like some of my colleagues do, I probably would use the praise teams to enhance the choir for that reason only.

You might find it interesting that due to our Sunday morning schedule, in order for us to use the choir and orchestra in BOTH of our morning worship services, our whole choir is only in the loft for the first ten or so minutes of each service. It’s not ideal, but it’s the trade-off we must employ in order to have most of our choir present for both services. The praise team (and remaining choir members from each service) continue to lead in musical worship.

In addition to the overall suggestions posed, I employ a few more criteria when selecting praise team members at our church.

  1. All praise team singers must read music, but also have a good ear for harmony. We use musical scores for 90 percent of our songs, but often we will change things on the fly based on what might fit better. I need members who can go with the flow quickly and can read another part (alto might read tenor part, for instance.)
  2. All praise team members must be willing to sing/lead portions of the congregational music alone. We do a variety of music at our church. Some songs I choose to be led by the female voice over mine or another male voice for variety or other aesthetic reasons. Our singers know to be willing, and able, to lead a verse or whatever, when the time comes.
  3. All singers must do some prep work for each week. Our praise team members must make sure they are familiar with every song on the set list for the week.
  4. All singers should be able to communicate when singing with appropriate facial/body expression without bringing attention to oneself specifically. The goal is to model expressions of worship.
  5. Our praise team members are also encouraged to wear clothing on praise team that is not too distracting, stand-out, or bring too much attention to oneself. I actually bring this up with the choir members (we do not wear robes) as well, but it is even more important when singing on the front of the platform area.

 

 

Tara Dawn Christensen, “Choirs vs. Praise Teams: A Historical and Descriptive Account of Worship Practices in Large Evangelical Protestant Churches in America,” (M.M. thesis, University of Missouri-Kansas City, 2002), ii.

To robe or not to robe…that is the question.

Think choir robes are a thing of the past or only found in very traditional churches? Think again. I realize my data of very narrow sliver of the church choir pie is all that is represented here, but I wonder if the data is similar in other types of church choirs?

In my study on intergenerational choirs in GA Southern Baptist Churches, I found that there were a variety of types of choir attire in our churches. There isn’t anything about these churches being intergenerational that causes them to decide what to wear. What I DID find out was interesting. AND because my study was descriptive only, there really isn’t anything to explain why these churches choose to wear, or not wear, robes.

  1. Almost 60 percent of the leaders reported their choir members wear Sunday attire every Sunday.
  2. Not even 25 percent of the leaders reported their choir members wear robes every weekend.
  3. Not quite 20 percent use a combination of both.
  4. Almost 75 percent of the leaders whose choirs do wear robes every weekend are Boomer leaders. Perhaps this might suggest older leaders lean more towards their use?
  5. Of the choirs that wear robes every weekend, 64 percent of those choirs have average choir attendance between 26-50 persons.
  6. The largest and smallest choirs (by average worship attendance) are more likely to wear Sunday attire only. Anyone shocked that some of the the largest churches still wear robes? Large churches (which for some unfounded reason) are assumed to be “growing” and therefore should look contemporary i.e. NOT wearing robes.  Obviously those who think that should re-think their assumptions!

I realize this is quite a bit of information. What do we do with it? Does any of it surprise you? Does any of it scream, “I knew it, burn the robes…”  Here’s what I think…You must know the culture of your church and community. In some communities, robes seem too formal or stuffy—we want to mirror what our people look like. In other places, robes indicate a uniform look where Sunday attire might be seen as a distraction.

Personally, having served churches with and without robes, there are advantages to both, which I’m sure we could enumerate long lists of. What my research suggests is there is validity and examples of how any combination of attire on Sundays is found throughout our state. Go with the culture of your church, your community, and your personal preferences on what helps limit distractions (stumbling blocks) in worship leadership.

I’d love to hear from some of you regarding your thoughts on robes vs. Sunday attire or combination. What do you think and why?

You have a place here to sing…

Yesterday we had our bi-monthly lunch meeting with those interested in joining our church. It’s always a great time as we get to know our new folks and those new folks get a chance to meet the staff and other leadership of our church. I’m always amazed at the diversity of talents given to each group of people present. Yesterday’s group was larger than normal because we hadn’t had a lunch like this since May.  My role is not only to mingle and get to know the people gathered, but to to also talk about the mission and vision of the music and worship arts ministries here at the church. For me, it’s a perfect time for me to explain the intergenerational nature and philosophy of our music ministry. I try very hard to articulate that anyone with passion and gifted-ness in music has a place to serve in our church. Granted, not everyone will be singing solos, singing on a praise team, or playing instrumental solos, but everyone has a place. I don’t know why it gets me every time, but just about every time I talk about how important it is to value all persons in music ministry, everyone in the room is either nodding in agreement or some are visibly moved to the point that I see their mind churning…I have a place here if I want to serve.

It brings me great joy to talk with several of the families and individuals after the lunch is officially over. One couple, who was present with their recent college graduate daughter, told me about their background in music. The wife hasn’t sung in a group in some number of years, but used to sing in a professional group. Those of you that know me know that my face is the window into my mind. I probably looked stunned as I asked, “why haven’t you been singing in the last church you were in?” The story was familiar…I wasn’t pretty enough, or my voice wasn’t edgy enough, there wasn’t a choir, etc. I shook my head in understanding although after hearing this similar story, I’m still shocked. The word I get (well, most of us here at Ivy Creek) is, “Will, we didn’t know you guys existed. We didn’t know there were churches that not only had a choir and orchestra, but that also valued musical excellence.” I literally hear this story ALL the time. In fact, the next family I spoke with after them basically said the same thing to me. Our previous church’s music was so loud we couldn’t even hear ourselves sing, so we just didn’t sing—WOW! In this family, the husband (who had his children there—all of whom are in their twenties) said that he used to do vocal competitions, yet hasn’t sung in years. My heart sank…and I said, “sir, you have a place here to sing.”

Here are a few observations I’ve picked up, not only from yesterday, but over the last few years as well.

  1. If we do not provide FULLY graded/graduated ( children through adults) musical groups and experiences in our churches, soon our churches will have a severe lack of musically skilled leadership. To me, it’s like saying…only those children and youth that seem to be most spiritually mature should study the Bible; the rest of you can just listen to us talk about it. Or, who cares you spent all that time learning to play your instrument in the band growing—it’s all in the past now.
  2. If we don’t have opportunities for all skill levels of musicians to serve, then we really are saying that only the truly skilled should be valued and used in worship leadership. This is accomplished easily through choral/orchestra ministry, but not entirely necessary. There are other ways to use others to serve in music ministry.

  3. Don’t think that all Millennials and younger Gen Xers value band-driven, modern worship settings only. If I had a dime for how many times I’ve heard a pastor say (or teach or brain-wash their church leadership) into multiple musical styles or changing it entirely, I’d be rich. Point in case: both families I talked with extensively yesterday had children in their 20s. A total of five 20 year olds right in front of me. EVERY single one loved the musical diversity and excellence with which it was presented. We talked about how limited we are in terms of lighting effects and other topics I thought might be interesting to get their 20 year old opinion on, and they said that the musical itself set the mood. One said they felt like they were on a journey to the cross and communion table (which we did have the Lord’s Supper yesterday). I was thrilled that the Holy Spirit had worked in our preparation and it allowed them to worship. Further, I have several Millennials in our orchestra and choir—some of the MOST committed to our ministry in fact. Same for my youth choir. Those kids don’t miss rehearsals and they LOVE to serve in worship!
  4. Be authentic as a church. Figure out who you are and be that. Ivy Creek is unapologetically intergenerational. We know the DNA of our church and who we are. We make no bones about it. There is no surprise if you join our church what you’ll be “signing up” for. Does this mean that we aren’t changing and morphing? Certainly not—we change all the time based on what God brings and develops in our people. But, our intergenerational philosophy, commitment to expositional preaching, and YOU ALL GOSPEL-centered approach guides us firmly. It means we say no to some things that probably would make us “cooler” for a time. It may also appear that we are “stuck” in a previous decade (which is false). We are sure of who we are and the people who walk into our doors get that too.
  5. When leading congregational singing, watch to see who is singing and who is not.  Some refuse to sing…period.  Some songs are so new, only a few who live on Christian radio will be singing—keep singing it however, but do it judiciously. Always, always, always sing something in every service you know just about everyone knows…even if it’s a hymn you really don’t like. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but remember the Holy Spirit can work through you even when a song is not your “jam” to pierce the soul of someone in that room. Personally, there are hymns and choral things we do that just grate on my nerves, but our folks LOVE them and you know what? I believe in mutual submission (Phil 2:4)

    One final note…Because our commitment to be intergenerational, my job is to figure out what is the best of the old and the new, musically and otherwise. It’s NOT easy. The term “blended” worship is tossed around, but to blend there needs to cohesion…musically, textually, rhythmically/meter, etc. Worship pastor, don’t be afraid to take some risks when creating the musical journey each week. Just remember your context!