Initial Reactions: a Visitor's View of Praise and Worship

The first time I took part in a Praise and Worship service I was the guest minister. The pastor of the church and I took our places on the pulpit at the beginning of the service. When the organ prelude ended, the pastor stood, welcomed the worshipers and me, proclaimed our dependence on God, and blessed the congregation. He then introduced not an opening song, but an opening time of praise.

I made my way to a front pew as several musicians took their places around the piano and on the platform. Two played guitars; others played violins, oboes, and a trumpet. One of the guitar players took the lead and began singing. The congregation immediately joined in, using words printed in the bulletin. That first song led into five others. They were short praise songs, several of them simply Scripture passages set to music. Some had fast, hand-clapping melodies. Others were more subdued, quiet, meditative, moving people to raise their hands in praise. The time of singing ended with a hymn from the Psalter Hymnal, and the rest of the service proceeded much as the services I was accustomed to.

More than a "Song Service"

Since then I've discovered, through visits to several different congregations, that such service openings are typical of P&W, a movement that is shaping worship in many churches. If you're not familiar with P&W, think about a traditional song service. Many congregations who have adopted the P&W approach use a "song service" either before or immediately after the formal beginning of worship. A song leader provides a list of three or four songs from the hymnals in the pew or solicits numbers from the congregation. The leader may make a statement or two between each song, select which verses will be sung, and then let the organ lead the congregation in singing.

P&W has raised this "song-service" pattern to a new level. Not just the organ, but a wide variety of other instruments as well, lead the congregation. Organ and piano are often joined by electronic keyboards, guitars, drums, brass, violins, string bass, electric bass, and tambourines. There's very little, if any, turning to this number or that in the hymnal. Instead, words are printed in the bulletin or projected on a screen in front of the congregation. And the leader doesn't  simply announce the numbers and the verses; he or she will quite often actively encourage the singing, and will intersperse Scripture texts, personal testimony, and motivation to praise.

The most elaborate use of this P&W approach that I've experienced took place in a congregation already influenced by the black gospel tradition. That influence, combined with P&W music, led to an exuberance that set the tone for the entire service. In addition to instruments and an enthusiastic leader, a choir offered its talents to generating an excitement for worship.

The music, singing, and leadership created a flow and a momentum that encompassed and affected most of the elements of the service. Between musical numbers, the pastor pronounced the blessing and read the announcements, a member stepped forward to speak a personal testimony, and the choir performed selections of its own.

It was in this service that I especially noticed a sense of expectancy. People seemed to come into the service anticipating that something good was about to happen. While I'm sure that those responsible for leading the service had carefully selected the songs to be sung by the choir and the congregation, the leader and musicians worked to create a feeling of spontaneity, a flow that sought to move us all to greater praise and worship of God.

Spontaneity Vs. Order

That sense of spontaneity, of energy, is part of the P&W experience. Various elements contribute to a sense of freedom and joy. Words to the songs are printed in the bulletin, sung from memory, or projected on a screen. Consequently, hymnals need not be held. Page numbers need not be found. Singing need not be directed down to the page. People are free. Hands clap, or lift in adoration. Voices soar.

In contrast, the traditional worship service tends to emphasize a step-by-step orderliness, a kind of sober process leading up to the sermon. Step 1, we sing the opening song. Step 2, the pastor declares our dependence on God and blesses the people. Step 3, we confess our sin or listen to the reading of the law. Step 4, we sing another hymn of confession or assurance, followed by the congregational prayer and the offering.

Praise and Worship is not so tame, so restricted. One song leads into another. The praise service usually begins with jubilant praise and celebration songs—two or three of them, with musical bridges between. These are followed by two or three songs of a more quiet, contemplative quality, and then one or two others of adoration and magnification of the Lord.

But P&W doesn't begin and end with singing. It's a style of gathering together. The music simply sets a mood, or creates an atmosphere, lending a flavor to the entire time of worship.

Traditionally, a worship service reaches its high point at the sermon. We even call our services "preaching services." P&W doesn't change that,but it does provide a different context, a different dynamic, in which the sermon takes place.

We place a lot of weight on the sermon. It determines whether the worship service succeeds or not. In our traditional approach, hymns may be sung well or not so well. Congregational prayers may be expressive and evocative, or dull and boring. Confession of sin and assurance of pardon may be thoughtful or perfunctory. The celebration of the sacraments, which in most churches happens only occasionally, may be meaningful celebration or thoughtless ritual. But if the sermon fails, the whole service fails. If the sermon is good, the "preliminaries" are redeemed.

Praise and Worship reanimates and reinvigorates those "preliminaries." It gives the worshiping congregation an opportunity to offer something that will be as meaningful and moving as they hope the offering of the sermon will be.

Furthermore, P&W opens the way for congregational participation and involvement. Traditionally the role of the congregation is well defined and restricted in worship. We sit quietly; occasionally we sing.

And what do we do when we sing hymns? We voice words. We may think about the words, or we may not. We may have some emotional response to the words, or we may not. It's up to the individual. But as long as we stand and sing, we've performed the right action for the liturgy.

P&W seeks to draw the individual into something bigger. Involvement is the name of the game—physical involvement, with hands raised or clapping; emotional involvement, with shorter songs, Scripture phrases repeated, upbeat music, and the words of the worship leader.

Who Are We Aiming to Please?

Praise and Worship encourages participation, not merely observation. It calls the congregation to get involved—heart, mind, body, and feelings. The framework is spirited, spontaneous.

It's easy to imagine why such an approach is very attractive to many people. Here's something new to the person turned off by traditional worship services. Here's new exuberance for those who left the church years ago. Here's joy and celebration for the one who has never been in church before. P&W, for many churches, is what's happening now.

Providing new energy for worship, as P&W seeks to do, is a worthy goal. However, it's important that we examine and evaluate this new direction. I've found a lot of positive elements in the P&W style of worship. I've also found myself asking some questions.

Reflecting on some of the services I've attended, I've wondered exactly what this approach is trying to accomplish. On the surface it seems apparent—the praise and worship of God. But beneath the surface, I wonder, is P&W also a means for personal emotional gratification? Are we being encouraged to give ourselves up to God, or to get involved in the emotion of the crowd? Is the focus on God alone, or are we focusing on God's glory in order to create a pleasing emotional experience for ourselves?

That leads me to a related question. What exactly is worship for? Why do we do it? And how do we know what authentic worship is? Does P&W foster the idea that authentic worship occurs only when a person is "moved," "touched," or "blessed" through an emotional experience?

Traditionally, we err on the side of approaching worship too intellectually. The prominence of the sermon reflects that emphasis. P&W offers a corrective. But I hope it doesn't go too far. Emotions aroused do not automatically equal the movement of the Spirit, authentic worship, or God glorified.

Traditionally, to put it bluntly, we've been told that worship consists of pretty much sitting still and listening to the sermon. That's really what it's all about. Opening hymns, confession and pardon, prayer and offering, simply prepare us for the "really important" sermon. That's what we've all come for.

The P&W approach recognizes that we are more than brains in skulls and bodies in pews. We are human beings with thoughts and emotions. And all that we are should be utilized in the worship of God.

But we have to be careful. In moving toward more emotional worship, we may also be moving toward subtle manipulation. And we may find that our worship has undergone a subtle change of focus. Instead of seeking and responding to the mystery of God's presence, we may be attending church to receive "warm feelings." Of course, worshiping in order to receive intellectual stimulation is not any better.

The question remains: how do we construct our worship activities in such a way that we arrive at the balance between giving and getting? How do engage in worship that honors God and the whole human person?

Silence or Joyful Noise?

One thing we cannot escape, of course, is that we worship as individual people with various personalities, various likes and dislikes, various gifts and needs. How do we find a style of worship that respects all of that variety?

In my case, for example, I feel rather strongly that worship ought to have room for silence. I have participated in a few services in which moments of silence were integral to the liturgy. I found it so very refreshing. Maybe you yearn for silence too. So I can't help but notice, negatively, that P&W has little place for silence. In fact, most worship services, innovative or traditional, have little if any place for silence. The psalmist says, "Be still, and know that I am God." But you would never know it from our worship services.

And you certainly wouldn't know it in a P&W service. The music starts and stays, foreground or background, but it's always there. Yes, I know there's a time and a place for glorious, joyful-noisy praise. But not all the time. There should be silence too.

Then, reflecting further, I find myself asking, "Why this praise and worship approach at all?" By what criteria or understanding of worship, by what standards, have churches decided to adopt this particular approach? Is it to praise and worship God? Is it to attract larger crowds? Is it to provide "holy" entertainment? Is it all of these, and more?

In time, P&W may become the traditional worship style for some churches. When it becomes the tradition, will it need to be replaced by another approach? And if we replace praise and worship with the next new approach, by what standards do we determine what is appropriate and fitting for worship? And further, reflecting on the time-bound nature of worship, is P&W an authentic development of the church's worship, or is it the latest trend, the newest fad?

Talking to others about P&W, I realize that for some it is a most sublime experience. I also know of those who have moved to another congregation to avoid the P&W approach that threatened to replace their traditional worship experience. I find myself in the middle—enjoying it when I attend such churches, but happy not to be confronted by Praise and Worship every Sunday morning.

I also find myself with a stack of unanswered questions. How do we evaluate the P&W style of worship? How do we come to terms with its strengths and its weaknesses? And behind Praise and Worship, or any innovation in worship, what exactly are we doing during those one or two worship services on Sunday? By what criteria shall we decide if we're getting it right?

Robert A. Meyering is assistant director of marketing and admissions in the accelerated program for adult degree completion at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.