Praise Team or Worship Team?

A friend of mine once commented with some wit about the recovery of liturgical lament. Dryly he asked, “Does this mean that churches will begin forming Lament Teams?” I smiled as I considered the implications: a team clothed with sackcloth and ashes, moaning and wailing “How Long, O Lord” as the repeated refrain. But at the same time I heard in my friend’s humor another question. Why do some churches call their worship leaders a “Praise Team?”

Typically other kinds of “teams” are named for what they do. For example, a football team plays football, and a basketball team plays basketball. In each case the name signifies the totality of what the team does. It would strike us as odd if we heard a football team referred to as the “Tackling Team” or a basketball team named the “Slam-Dunk Team.” Such titles would, after all, reflect only part of what those teams do. So what about the term “Praise Team?” Are songs, scriptures, and prayers of praise alone all that such team members lead in? What about thanksgiving, dedication, redemption, or the ever-growing frequency of including biblical lament and confession in worship services?

In this sense, praise, like slam-dunking in basketball, is only one element of an entire worship service. For example, in praise we give God glory for his great name. In confession, we lay at God’s feet the great burden of our sin. In lament, we ask God, “Why?” And in dedication, we pledge our life and service to God in joy and gratitude for all his goodness to us. The element of praise is essential, but defined in this way it is one piece of a puzzle forming an entire picture of Christian worship.

As we consider the role of such teams in our churches, it may be that praise in this restricted sense is the only element in which such teams lead. Often in many churches the worship leaders in the “Praise Team” actually are limited to two or three songs at the opening of the service during a time traditionally devoted to praise. At the same time, some of our services may not incorporate elements other than praise. For example a service might be divided into a time of praise and a time of teaching. And it is often the case that the song repertoire is selected from a small stream of publishers that are really well publicized but emphasize popular songs of praise over less popular confession or lament songs. In light of this, perhaps Praise Teams in many churches are appropriately named, but what does that say about worship practices overall in such places?

On one hand there is great value in the name “Praise Team.” We do come to worship to give expression to the praise for God that wells up in our hearts. In fact, many Praise Teams are formed in order to revive more exuberant and authentic praise in services that had perhaps become a bit staid. Praise is a priority and our highest goal. But I wonder if, on the other hand, the name of such teams shapes also a congregation’s priority and goals. A name gives identity and communicates a purpose and role. Perhaps involvement in Praise Teams has molded our understanding of worship as consisting of praise alone. It is true that we are created to praise, but aren’t we also created for so much more? Isn’t it true that our relationship with God can embody praise, but also the posture of confession, dedication, and lamentation? The name of our teams could reflect all of this as well. The name of our teams can shape our understanding of how we are to relate to God and deepen our practice of Christian worship.

Perhaps the name “Worship Team” embodies the totality of all that such teams of leaders can do. Often worship is synonymous with praise. But in truth worship is multilayered. It can characterize a time of singing at the beginning of our service and it can characterize our lifestyle before God (Romans 12:2), describe the event of our Sunday morning and evening gatherings (John 4:20), and express our most reverent posture before God (Psalm 95:6). Worship in this expansive sense challenges us to a broader role. It calls us to participate in more than the opening two or three songs. It motivates us to search for songs and scripture with a diversity of biblical themes. It inspires us to be lead worshipers 24/7.

I believe that our great calling is to lead worship in this broad sense. Even as a football team plays football, so a Worship Team leads worship. Praise is essential to worship, just as tackling is essential to football. But there is so much more to our relationship with God! Participating in and leading those so-much-more elements is a great privilege we have as worship leaders and a great gift we have to offer congregations. It is a passion and goal week to week. As Worship Teams, leaders can teach the congregation about the fullness of worship and what it means to lead all its parts. The name can expand our common calling and challenge in worshiping God in the fullest sense. Such a name shift may seem subtle, but the impact on Christian identity may be great.

Paul Ryan is resource development specialist for Worship Teams for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the coordinator for Christian Formation through Worship at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At Calvin College, Paul directs the Sunday evening student-led worship service LOFT (Living Our Faith Together) and mentors students in the Worship Apprentice Program.