Music has been a major pillar of church ministry since before the time of Palestrina and Bach from faith-inspired works like Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” to “Amazing Grace.” Today, traditional church music still stands as the gold standard for services across most Christian denominations, but the last twenty years have seen the rise of the praise band. Equipped with electric instruments and rock-leaning sensibilities, praise bands draw sounds and arrangements from contemporary pop music to offer a different way for churchgoers to connect with the service.
The Norman campus of Journey Church, (journeychurch.tv/) hosts hundreds of worshipers every week for worship events. From the church’s website:
“Weekends at JourneyChurch are filled with Spirit-led worship, creative media, humor, fun and a life-giving message from the Bible ... all in an inspiring and beautiful environment. Our worship experiences are friendly and engaging for all ages, and JourneyKids offers an incredible and fun experience for the younger members of our family.”
A “mega church” in size and reach, it employs highly-skilled musicians and top-shelf equipment to achieve its goal of creating an experience. It’s a large production, with a larger aim according to executive worship pastor Trent Langrehr.
Fundamentally, he said, it’s a way to connect with God. Growing up in the Methodist tradition, the son of a minister, he moved around every two years. Living in small towns, across Oklahoma he was conditioned to a traditional service.
“We lived in small towns and (my father) pastored churches of 100 or 200 at a time and traditional service was my wheelhouse. That was my experience,” Langrehr said.
Then, after attending contemporary church music youth groups and camps he came to the conclusion that he wanted to play praise music.
“I wanted to do that. I didn’t want to play guitar and be in a rock band … I just started leading worship for my youth group and thought ‘this is really cool’ and thought my friends would like it. I didn’t want to be a rock star. It was something cool and different from Sunday morning.”
After about five years with Journey Church, he’s seen a lot of growth.
“It’s contemporary. It is rock and roll, for sure, not choir and organ,” Langrehr said. “As far as connecting inter-generationally, I think it’s important for the voice of your church to be broad spectrum … You want to speak the language of, not appeal to, different generations. We want to create an environment where people feel comfortable with God. We try to speak their language and create normalcy for them. So, for someone my age — I’m 31 — I’m not going to connect with God the same way with an organ. It’s not that I won’t. It’s that I’m not going to have the same reaction that I would with a drum set and electric guitar. It’s not that one is better than the other.”
Music is an inseparable part of our lives. From earbuds and car radios to elevator music, it’s everywhere. That plays a part in the thinking behind the praise band at Journey Church.
“Why wouldn’t we use that vehicle, that mechanism to connect with God? It’s the universal language and if we’re going to use it as a vehicle to create that environment and make people feel comfortable to connect with God, then we probably ought to use music that creates a sense of normalcy for them. So, let’s use drums, let’s use guitars, keyboards and thick synthesizer sounds. In some sense it is a kind of ‘what is Coldplay doing?,’ because that seems to be palatable for people,” Langrehr said.
They stream services on the web, too. The whole environment is crafted to engage the congregation and see it grow. The praise band movement is woven into the pillars of Journey Church’s presentation philosophy.
Then, there are churches that offer more traditional services as the norm and have a separate praise band service. First Baptist Church in Norman utilizes two locations in an attempt to reach more people, with its traditional location at 211 W. Comanche St. and its Lifelong service at Common Ground, 324 W. Main St.
For the youth and young adults that pack Common Ground on Sundays, along with a fair number of other age bracket representatives, it is a refreshing experience centered on music as a means of inciting a religious experience.
“I think it gives people a chance to show their talent. Quite a few of the adults and senior adults in the church had wanted to play with the praise band previously, they just never spoke up or had the opportunity,” Lifesong music minister Chris Canary said. “Right now, we’re working with a multi-generational band. I think the style we use can encompass modern songs all the way back to the hymns, so it makes room for everybody. Our style leaves room for improvisation … instead of going straight by the sheet music. It leads a lot of room for expression.“
That expression brings in a diverse group of patrons every Sunday, though it might seem exclusively aimed at younger generations. It has a broad appeal.
“There are quite a few youth and college students, but there are also young families with their children and then there are also a lot of senior adults coming. They’re there to see it continue through the generations, to be a part of something that’s going to be passed down.”
For churches like First Baptist Church and Journey Church it has created a positive effect and fostered an inter-generational inheritance and opportunities for their missions to expand. For some churches, the effect has not been as dramatic.
“I don’t think it guarantees that it brings youth in at all. There have been a lot of articles and surveys done that show that more and more youth want to be in a place whenever they worship that is not like what the world gives them. Which is why there are some that are coming back to the more traditional services,” OU professor and accomplished church musician Vicki Schaeffer said. “Sure, there are some that want that, whether they’re playing in a praise band or that’s what they want to hear. I’ve been in two or three churches here in Oklahoma, and in Indiana where they tried to start a contemporary service with a praise band, thinking that would automatically bring the young people in, that they would just flock to it, and it didn’t work. I think there are so many things that go into why young people want to come to church. Of course, the preaching has something to do with it too. I think it’s a whole package put together.
“I’ve talked to some young people, high school-, college aged people who say ‘why do I want to come on Sunday morning and hear things that I can hear on the radio or on my phone?’ I want to hear something different and take myself to a different place,’”
As an Episcopalian more comfortable with a traditional, structured service, Schaeffer said that she views contemporary services as more of a performance.
“In some places it’s called an event. It’s not called a worship service … It’s that kind of the quick, soundbite, lights … It’s more of a performance, I think, because I wasn’t raised that way. That’s a personal opinion.”
The way and circumstances under which people worship is behind many violent clashes across the globe. Here in Norman, it comes down to personal choice and preference.
“It’s personal. Everybody wants to worship in their own way. So, the churches where (the contemporary movement) is already happening, that’s what they’re used to. It will keep people there, because that’s what they like.”
For Schaeffer, it goes back to music’s role in the church. From her perspective, it should be used as a teaching tool, to relate biblical stories. From the praise band perspective, the trance-like qualities and repetition of contemporary music allows for a powerful spiritual experience.
“It’s a great point for discussion, which is why I love teaching the course I do at OU. But I still think it goes back to a personal thing.”
No matter what kind of worship service someone prefers, the broad Christian community in Norman offers plenty of options. From choirs and organ to electric expression, the goal seems to be the same: Getting people to connect with God through music.
Mack BurkeMackBurke@gmail.comFollow me @TranscriptNTown