O Lord, open my lips, That my mouth may declare Thy praise. (Psa 51:15 NAS)
Praise. This is such a broad and deep topic that I’m afraid any treatment I give of it will either be incomplete or regrettably shallow. I’ll just address a couple points about praise today, and promise more in the future.
What is praise? How is it different than worship?
Let’s start with worship. Worship as a biblical theme is the act of ascribing worth or value to a thing. It is the creaturely response, after perceiving something, of evaluating it. When it comes to us and God, it involves man’s demonstration of recognizing God’s beautiful/worthy/holy character, and bestowing upon Him proper exaltation and honor. In the OT, this was predominantly confined to the covenant sacrificial system, in which sinful man is allowed to approach holy Yahweh despite their sins. Worship was therefore institutionalized by, and offered for, God. In the New Testament, with Christ being the ultimate worship sacrifice to the Father which atones for all the sins of the elect, worship takes on a much broader application. No longer is it something performed in the temple, offered up by a sinful priest, but rather in Christ all of our life is to demonstrate recognition of God’s worth and value. The way you work, the way you play, the way you clean up church, the way you talk to your friends, the way you spend your free time, etc. Everything is to be consecrated unto God. Your body is the temple, your life the worship.
Praise as a biblical theme is more narrow in its function. If worship is a vertical activity between you and God that involves every sphere of life, praise is a horizontal activity between you and creation. Praise is the act of encouraging others to worship. You see this most clearly in Psalms. Psalms is one of the best view-ports we have into Old Testament praise. It involved written poetry, liturgical praise songs, stylized prayers of both celebration and hatred, and many other expressions of corporate worship. Despite having multiple words describing the English term “praise” in Psalms, whether accompanied by music or not, the basic idea is that of exhorting others to worship. The word “Hallelujah” is a simple way of saying, “Hey you- praise God!” It’s the Hebrew version of “PTL”! Praising God means you’re commanding others to worship God. It is the act of “Hallelujah-ing”. In one sense, you can be an effective “praiser” of God while having an anemic worship life- you just have to be a good hypocrite and faker. Sadly, some of the best praise leaders you see could also have a terrible life of worship personally. King David still knew how to play a mean harp and lead a good praise song even while he was fooling around with Bathsheeba. Maybe he even led some to tears through his music while his integrity was in shambles.
Ideally, anyone praising God (helping others to worship) is also personally worshiping (he himself adoring God). This may not always be the case however. This isn’t just true of a praise team, but also true of the congregation. During the praise time (you know, the 2-3 songs during every service), it’s not just the praise team that’s encouraging you to worship God, it’s the entire assembly of saints. Meaning, the guy standing next to you, the woman in the back with a baby, the high school students to your right, the Korean grandmother in the quilted floral coat, and YOU. The whole congregation is participating in this worship-synergy act- everyone in there is telling one another to worship God and to give Him your heart. The joy, peace, sincerity, beautiful music (we hope!), bodily expression, everything, adds to the individual believer’s encouragement to actually worship himself. It’s not about you and your worship to God, it’s about us and our worship to God, which is given exponential power when the church is gathered together and everyone is adding to the momentum of praise. Think about it- why is praise so powerful at events like Urbana, PCB, Retreats, etc? It’s because the praise time has a far higher level of participation and preparation. More people are involved more fully, and the presentation of the time is geared toward helping everyone in the room worship, and to help each other worship.
1) Praise team membership should strive for excellence in skill, not just in heart. If your primary responsibility as one who helps to lead a time of praise is to help facilitate worship of others during that time, than the communication of the “Hallelujah” needs to be clear and persuasive. In the musical context of praise, that means, quite frankly, that your ability to sing or play needs to be not only meaningful for yourself, but also beautiful for others. Your ability to sing, play guitar, drums, piano, bongos, whatever, needs to be good before you even ask to join praise team. That means instrumental or singing auditions for praise team are not only appropriate, they’re biblical. When Saul found David to play the harp for him, we find that David, the greatest praise leader ever, not only was a “man after God’s own heart”, but also had skill!
16 “Let our lord now command your servants who are before you. Let them seek a man who is a skillful player on the harp; and it shall come about when the evil spirit from God is on you, that he shall play the harp with his hand, and you will be well.” (1Sa 16:16 NAS)
That means that David actually knew musical theory, had an ear for music, practiced often, etc. This is a model for truly godly praise. This doesn’t mean that you can just stick Slash from Guns N’ Roses into a praise band and everything is gravy. No, it means that musical skill is a necessary but not sufficient requirement of being in praise team. It’s part of the whole of what you need to truly effectively lead praise. I believe that the church therefore has a responsibility before God to not only protect its members from false teaching, but also from bad musicians! (Sorta joking, don’t get all enraged you aspiring praise peoples!)
2) Praise is about everyone, not just about you, so it should be orderly and unified. It’s primarily the westernization of corporate worship that says “it’s all about you and God”, so do whatever you want. Rather, in both the OT and NT, worship in an assembled setting always needs to be orderly, dignified, and unified. Meaning everyone is on the same page, everyone knows what’s going on, and everyone is generally doing the same thing at the same time.
40 But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner. (1Co 14:40 NAS)
This is in reference to corporate worship and the controlling of the speaking in tongues. Now whether this is human foreign languages, ecstatic speaking of angelic languages, or whatever you may believe, Paul made it clear that whatever is happening in corporate service is to be orderly (i.e. arranged, disciplined, not simply spontaneous and random). This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be boring, or inactive, or “frozen.” This is dependent on the local congregation. A black revivalist church would, appropriately, clap, sway, dance, speak to the pastor (“Preach on brother!”), and worship according to their own culture. But everyone is unified in it, so it’s orderly. It’s also disciplined and arranged in a way. In more conservative churches, orderly means there are appropriate times to sing, appropriate times to speak together, etc. But everyone has the same expectation and activity.
In local church praise, that means you can’t simply cite “freedom in Christ” to mean “I’m going to do whatever the heck I like during praise time”. That’s a total twisting of the kind of freedom that being in Christ gives us. Because to be in Christ means to be a beneficial member of His body, which includes the idea that you’re in harmony with the other parts. So if you’re the only Asian person inside a black revival tent meeting, you better be ready to two-step and clap joyfully during praise time. If you’re the only charismatic person in a senior citizen liturgical worship service, you better be ready to be quiet and join the order.
If anything needs to change to be more biblical and Christ honoring, (whether you’re convicted of the reality of Charismatic awakenings, of liturgical reverence, of blended worship, of modern mega-church accessibility, etc), you need to do the actual hard work of reforming the church through greater love for and understanding of the biblical teaching on the matter. It’s not as easy as just starting to pray in Latin and hoping the church copies you. That is not orderly, and therefore, not of God. If you can’t approach discussion of the matter in humility and unity, but rather simply feel disdain for a particular worship style, it’s far more likely a symptom of pride than it is genuine zeal for worship of God.
3) Watch your face! Sometimes the clearest communication of praise is your physical posture, facial expression, and body movement. Although a greater challenge for praise team (you’re on the eyes of most of the congregation!), everyone should consider how their physical involvement is influencing the entire praise experience. Is your face sour because of some recent conflict? FIX IT! It’s not being fake. Yes, we all know that no one is on spiritual happy-drugs all year. That’s ok. Do everything you can to prepare physically and emotionally anyway. Sleep well. Listen to some good praise songs before coming to church. Resolve your conflicts before entering the worship time (hm, sounds like a Jesus saying doesn’t it? Matt 5:23-24). Make it a habit to resolve conflicts and resentment and bitterness.
Sometimes, part of the presentation factor means just preparing your stage presence. Dressing appropriately so as not to be distracting (no tuxedos, but no shorts and sandals either). Watching that your eyes are not glued to your music sheets during the entire song. SMILING.
For congregational praisers, COMING IN ON TIME. Singing the actual song instead of just observing or whispering the words. Seating yourself strategically for the benefit of others rather than always opting for the back seats.
Let’s all practice better praise, wherever we may be! Hallelujah!