Jean-Jacques von Allmen was a Swiss Reformed theologian whose works on worship and liturgy were introduced to the world almost a half a century ago.
His Worship: Its Theology and Practice is still one of the most important worship books in my library (though it is now sadly hard to find), mostly because it feels like his keen observations and articulations have more bearing now than when they were written back in the mid-1960s.
This quote about choirs is a classic example:
We must be very suspicious with regard to what might be called the vicarious representative of the congregational liturgy, namely the choir. The growth of this institution took place from the fifth century, both because the liturgy of the congregation was becoming ever more complex, and also because the faithful became increasingly reluctant to commit themselves to liturgical life.
We must basically agree with H. Asmussen when he writes: “A choir as the substitute for the congregation is quite unacceptable; and that not only because it can upset the normal course of the service, and certainly not because it prevents the community from admitting the mediocre quality of its singing…but chiefly because it facilitates the congregation’s surrender of its liturgical functions. If, then, we wish to have a choir, it should be given a precise duty; not that of supplanting the faithful in their characteristic ministry, but of educating them in the fulfillment of this ministry.”
Now, perhaps this doesn’t ring for you, but substitute “worship band” anywhere you see the word “choir.”
Aside from the historical observation which doesn’t fit (worship bands didn’t begin in the fifth century), there’s a pretty powerful observation packed in here.
Passionate about active participation.
You and I live in a cultural age where the faithful are “increasingly reluctant to commit themselves to liturgical life,” where worship is ever in danger of becoming a commodity of branded consumer goods.
The warning von Allmen gives here is that what we do “up there on stage,” whether we’re a choir or a worship band, can contribute to and encourage the passivity toward which many folks are already inclined to lean.
“I just want to soak in the great music.”
“Man, she has a great voice!”
“Wow, that was a ripping electric solo!”
As worship leaders, we must tune ourselves to become hypersensitive to anything that discourages the active participation of the people of God in the songs, prayers and actions of the worship service, and sometimes the “performance” of it all—whether lit-stage, rock-band-led or organ-and-choir-led—can be a major deterrent to true worship.
Von Allmen exposes what’s at stake. To put it directly, we put ourselves in the place of Jesus, the only mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim 2:5). That’s what von Allmen was getting at when he said that those up front can unknowingly become the “vicarious representative” of worship for the people.