Church praise bands hardly seem to be the most controversial topic in a world grappling with global warming and gay rights.
But for centuries, parishioners have fought for – and against – everything from an innocent 18th century organ to the ‘70sera “demon drums.” Even today, churches still struggle to find a musical sweet spot for parishioners seeking new ways to worship … or the comforting traditions they grew up with.
Traditional or Contemporary
Some churches try to play it both ways. At Gaylord E-Free Church, Worship Arts Director Joshua Rupp says they try to accommodate worshipers who favor contemporary music as well as those who find traditional hymns more fulfilling.
To do this, the church has two separate services that meld into one.
Rupp leads a praise band that includes guitars, bass, keyboards and drums, occasionally accompanied by the flute, trombone or dulcimer. At the same time in another part of the church, a more traditional service takes place with piano and hymns.
The two come together midway through the service, so all those attending can hear the pastor’s message.
“Our motto is ‘Meeting and moving,’” Rupp said. “We want to meet people where they are at, and move them to where God is.”
Tim Miller, Rupp’s friend and counterpart at Walloon Lake Community Church, said his church thought such an arrangement could work there, and they tried it this past fall through January. They had hoped it might serve to bring in people who weren’t currently attending church.
Miller says his church is now deciding on whether to institute such an arrangement on a permanent basis.
“We didn’t bring in those we targeted; but for others, it’s the voice of their heart,” he said.
Walloon Lake Community Church has a fairly typical band: piano, keyboards, bass, drums, lead guitar, rhythm guitar and several vocalists. Every three weeks they also enlist a small choir.
Prior to Walloon, Miller worked at a church at the University of Illinois campus.
“We had a full orchestra, a choir, a giant organ, we had bands,” he said. “Nothing was off the table musically.”
At New Hope Community Church in Traverse City, Worship Pastor Rick Stewart oversees bands ranging from a group incorporating bass, guitar, keyboards and drums, to one with brass and woodwinds, even strings.
“Our normal praise band is a rhythm section and vocalists,” Stewart said. “Once a month we have a choir and a pop orchestra.”
The orchestra includes flute, clarinet, oboe, alto and tenor sax, trumpet, trombone, tuba and violin and cello.
In addition to the Traverse City location, New Hope also has a church in Bellaire. There the praise band is not nearly so large, but the service and the music are virtually the same. And the music they play? “Most of our music is modern,” says Stewart.
Whatever the instrumentation or music, Stewart says the goal remains the same.
“We sing songs to God and about God,” he said.
Still the Organ
Not that every church has gone the praise band route. Peter Bergin, the music director at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Empire, says the Catholic Mass ties directly into a more traditional style of worship.
“It’s a little easier in that it provides a guide to every celebration,” he said.
While he typically bases the worship music around his organ or piano with a cantor, he occasionally includes other instruments. Bergin says the decision about what to select and how to best present it starts with prayer.
“It’s about the readings, how relevant it [the music] is to the scriptural theme,” he said is decisions also are based on what’s available.
“Sometimes it’s pragmatic – I have a flute, I don’t have a flute,” he said.
Bergin says he does find ways to incorporate more modern sounds into the Mass.
“There are times in the service for a solo or duet,” he said. “That might not be as traditional.”
He also plays for occasions such as weddings and funerals at other churches where he works with their style of music.
“At another church I follow their tradition, what they’re most comfortable with,” Bergin said.
Depending on the church, its service may include technology such as video or PowerPoint presentations in addition to the music. Stewart says whatever the means, the message remains the same.
“We’re here to give praise to God,” he said.
The age of the worshipers also may impact the perspective and selections. Rupp says younger members of a congregation grew up with a more syncopated style of music that they find very natural, while older people are most comfortable with the hymns based on the downbeat.
Bergin puts it more succinctly. “The millennials look at music composed in the 1970s as traditional,” he said with a laugh. “Older people think of music from the 70s as contemporary.”