I dislike Praise Bands. Now, I haven't always disliked praise bands. In fact, there was a time when I wanted very much to be a part of the praise band. I wanted to be up there singing and leading prayer. I really felt that leading a congregation in song was my calling.
Well, it was...but not like that.
I was raised in the 1970's and 80's in a fairly progressive parish. As a child, I attended the 9 AM Mass with the folk group. I loved their music. It was catchy and it stayed with me all week. I would get really excited when I caught the lyrics in a reading or a psalm that was read at Mass. I wanted to sing with them very much. So much so, that I sort of became a "groupie".
As a second and third grader, I'd go to their practices and help them assemble their worship aids. I'd hang around up front right after Mass and hope that they'd ask me to sing with them. Finally, when I was in fourth grade, I got up the courage to ask to join the group. The leader laughed indulgently and he may have even patted me on the head and said, "Well, you're too short to reach the microphone, honey. You can join when you can reach the microphone." Everyone chuckled. I didn't get the joke. I took them seriously.
So, by the time I was 14, I was tall enough and more than skilled enough to join the folk group and I asked again. This time, I was "just too young, honey." In my 14-year-old brain I thought (and I kid you not), "I thought this music was supposed to be for the young people. You people are all my parents’ age!" I wanted to sing at Mass, so I went to the choir practice on Thursday night. Needless to say, the Traditional choir welcomed me with open arms. I never looked back.
Fast forward 25 years -
My kids became involved in the new youth group at our parish. This parish had great catechesis, great liturgy and beautiful music ranging from chant and polyphony to more modern works - all beautiful and always appropriate to the Liturgy. The new youth minister however, wanted to start a praise band. He wanted something that would "reach the kids" and "get them involved". Some of the kids kind of looked at each other perplexed. Many of them were already involved in the choir and those who weren't kind of bristled at the idea that they were not involved enough. It is interesting to note that when the Youth Minister suggested a Praise Mass the kids rose up as one voice with a resounding, "No!"
So the Praise Band was born and only played at the youth group meetings.
My son is an exceptional singer and a skilled guitarist and wanted to play in the praise band. He hung around and jammed with them. He went to their practices. He helped them set up and kind of functioned as their roadie. He finally asked straight out when he could get a chance to play and he was told, "Well, we kind of have our set up already. Maybe another time, man." Every. Time.
So, at 16, tired of being turned down repeatedly, my son asked to join the choir and was welcomed with open arms.
My problem with a praise band is not just that it violates the ethos of the Mass by drawing attention away from the Eucharist and putting the focus on ourselves, our experience and the music that makes us feel good. It is also exclusionary in the most insidious way. While saying, "We're inclusive. We bring the youth to Mass," praise bands disallow any growth from the box they've put the youth into: Your job, as a youth, is to appreciate my gift to you and don't get in my way while I share that gift.
Praise bands, like the folk groups of the 70's and 80's, are an exclusive club that allow a limited number of people to fully and actively participate. Even without showmanship and even with the most humble leaders, the congregation listens and appreciates, but it is only welcome to participate on a limited basis which makes it a performance. Like Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jefferies famously said, "We're aiming for the cool kids. Some kids don't belong and can't belong." Some would argue that a choir excludes in this fashion, too. I would counter that anyone can join the choir; not everyone can sing or play with the praise band.
After all, how many guitarists does a praise band need? A maximum of two.
How many basses can a choir have? As many as you can cram in the choir loft.
There are a lot of people who see nothing wrong with having a praise band at Mass. After all, it's just music. And even better, it's music inspired by the love of God. Praise band backers will tell you that Praise and Worship music is designed to encourage participation of young people in the Mass by meeting them where they are in their experience of the culture. It speaks to them in a way that nothing else can speak to them. But of course, the problem is that it leaves them there. It never brings them to the remarkable collection of 2,000 years of Catholic musical tradition.
By cutting off the rest of musical tradition, we cripple our youth. We teach them that Mass should engage and entertain them. We spoon feed them the most basic messages of Christianity: God loves you and He wants to be part of your life. But we never tell them that sometimes it's going to be hard and will involve tough choices. We teach them that the liturgy should conform to them. And, if the liturgy does, then why not the rest of Catholic teaching?
By separating the youth out of the rest of the congregation, we isolate them the beauty of the music that the saints listened to. We segregate them from the universality that the Church offers. They lose the depth of a hymn text that can be heard over and over, with more and more layers of meaning brought forth, because that takes concentration and dedication. To give them the gift of music that is drawn from ancient and new sources is to give them the gift of their faith reflected in art. It teaches them that the world did not begin when they woke up this morning. It teaches them that there is wisdom in the people who went before and have walked this road.
Sure, Praise and Worship music is fun and engaging, but when it is no longer fun to be Catholic, then what? The youths leave. They find some place where they are entertained.
So, now, 40+ years into the experiment of opening church music to "something more engaging for the youth", we have two fully adult generations of people who cut their teeth on this music. Two generations of people who believe that the Mass should be fun and engaging are leaving the Church in droves.
Isn't about time that we asked ourselves if the music has anything to do with that exodus?