Praise in the Psalms

from WELS Topical Q&A

Q: As Christians, we are told to “pray, praise and give thanks”. All three are important, and all three are emphasized in both Traditional and Contemporary Worship. However, I have observed that at our congregation as well as others, praise is given extra emphasis in Contemporary Worship. For example, we have a Praise Band, a Praise Team, etc. Why is this so?

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A: Input from the Psalms

The hymnal of the Old Testament – the Book of Psalms – includes worship texts that range far beyond the single category of praise, even broader than the trio you mention: pray, praise and give thanks.

While it is true that not all psalms fit neatly into one category, we can still identify several basic types. Some scholars list seven: 1) hymn; 2) song of thanksgiving; 3) individual song of thanksgiving; 4) community lament; 5) individual lament; 6) royal psalm; and 7) wisdom psalm.

A specialized and important type of lament is the penitential psalm. Some thanksgiving psalms are especially strong on recounting salvation history or expressing trust.

The People’s Bible series (Psalms, vol 1), available from Northwestern Publishing House , gives the five main types of psalms as Martin Luther understood them: 1) Messianic psalms which speak of Christ (2, 22, 110), 2) teaching psalms which emphasize doctrine (1, 139), 3) comfort psalms (4, 37, 91), 4) psalms of prayer and petition (3, 137, 143), and thanksgiving psalms (103, 104, 136).

While the term “praise” does not occur in these descriptions, elements of praise can be found in all psalm types.

What Is Praise?

One flaw in the contemporary worship movement is an imbalanced focus on praise at the expense of other themes found in the psalms (and also in the topical index of a good Lutheran hymnal.)

Another flaw is focus on praise as an act of honoring, glorifying, praising, or thanking without also substantively rehearsing the reasons for the praise. Many popular modern songs are strong on words of praise but weak on the kind of teaching or proclamation found in the psalms and in the best hymnody of the church, past and present. Such hymnody is not only praise but also proclamation – preaching, teaching.

“Theologically understood, music in worship is akin to the preaching ministry in its liturgical setting. It is to proclaim the word of God to the people of God. Sometimes this is done through the single voice of the cantor or minister, sometimes through the combined voice of choir or instruments, and sometimes through instrumental music alone. And then there is that unique proclamation of the whole people of God when they join their voices in one, in psalmody and hymnody, as they proclaim their response of faith to God and give witness of that faith to each other. All the Church’s great composers have understood the proclamatory nature of their art, that through it the eternal sound of God’s grace focused in Jesus Christ is made known and shared with his redeemed people.” (The Theological Character of Music in Worship, by Robin A. Leaver. p11. CPH 1989.)

To better understand the difference between a narrow understanding of praise and a broader understanding that includes proclamation, see the following resources.

“Worship the Lord,” issue #3 – Praise and Proclamation.

The Augustana and Lutheran Worship. Especially section four of this longer essay.

Proclaiming the Gospel in Worship

Being Faithful with Law and Gospel in Contemporary Worship

Better Terminology

With this review of the psalms and a broad concept of praise, let’s return to your question. The simplest explanation for the terminology – Praise Band, Praise Team – is that this terminology is widely used in the contemporary worship movement outside of Lutheranism and has been imported into Lutheran churches.

But the nature of praise/proclamation and the breadth of variety in the psalms may suggest that Lutherans search for better terminology. The musicians who assist us in worship do far more than assist us in praise. The assist us also in proclamation, lament, prayer, confession, and more.

Or maybe we don’t need any term at all, especially considering the baggage that can be attached to some terms. To describe worship as “traditional, with an organ” or “contemporary, with a praise band” might suggest a false polarization. Or, if not polarization, this terminology might imply unnecessarily restricting the kind of music to be heard in the worship of ‘both’ types.

A previous Q&A offered these comments:

Since there are many styles of music appropriate for worship, it’s unfortunate when some talk about “traditional” and “contemporary” as if there are only two options available to us. Churches that have pursued greater variety may in some services use only piano (with optional guitar, hand percussion, wind instruments) while relying on the organ in other services. Or they may regularly make greater use of piano and other instruments in a service that still uses the organ for some songs. For example, the piano might play music during the offering or communion distribution, as well as accompanying choir or soloist and some hymns or psalms.

. . . equal energy and creativity should be applied to enriching so-called “traditional worship.” There is a common phenomenon among some churches eager for variety or change: they devise a new/contemporary/blended worship strategy and pour tons of creative energy into that service – while leaving the “traditional” service to languish in the uncreative patterns that contributed to a desire for something new in the first place.

In some denominations one can find congregations with a contemporary service led by a dedicated “praise band” of several competent musicians, highly motivated, practicing diligently. Then at the “traditional” service there is the lone organist who, according to an all-too-common expectation for that role, plays relatively simple (uninteresting) music. And she plays alone, without any other instruments.

How would people perceive the traditional service if the same number of highly motivated musicians as found in the “praise band” contributed their skills on a regular basis? Imagine such a service with: a qualified organist; regular use of song leader or choir; trumpet descants on some hymns; occasional brass quartet; piano, flutes, guitar, and hand percussion on the psalm and another hymn; and other combinations of various instruments regularly accompanying choir selections and playing service music.

A lot of work? Sure. But God’s praise and his people certainly deserve it.

Praise band? Maybe we should just call them musicians.

link to this WELS Topical Q&A

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