Praise This Review: God in the everyday

Praise This is a refreshing take on the gospel choir competition movie and the prodigal child trope. It’s hilarious, but it’s also real. The music in the film is great, and Chloe Bailey’s voice is truly amazing. Yet, my favorite thing about the movie is the way that God shows up in unexpected places and the way God is able to use those we might not consider to be “traditionally religious.” I love the way that people find God without an official altar call and people encounter God without ever hearing a sermon.

In Praise This, we first encounter God at the praise team competition that takes place the year prior to the main storyline. There are two presentations of church offered. There is the wealthy megachurch praise team. Both the praise team and the pastor seem to have big egos. They show up in designer clothing, the praise team in matching outfits and the pastor in a nice suit. It is clear that the praise team competition for them is all about winning, making a name for themselves, and flaunting their gifts, talents, and money. How does this reflect the gospel? How does this reflect a savior who had no place to lay his head? It doesn’t, but it does reflect a prosperity gospel rooted in capitalism and materialism. 

In this film, we find God in the church that is set up as their rival with the Oil Factory Praise Team. This pastor, PG, is judged by the other pastor because he comes from a small poor church and doesn’t look like a pastor. He is young, has tattoos, and shows up wearing jeans. Yet, this reflection is less about his attire and more about what PG comes to represent. PG’s church may not have a lot of people or a lot of money, but it has a loving and welcoming spirit. Like Jesus, PG is willing to welcome all in his church, including many who would be judged in traditional church spaces. He welcomes the men who party on Saturday night and show up in the same clothes at church on Sunday. He lets the young people use the church space as a place for congregating and a skate part. The praise team includes a young man who is a pyromaniac, a young woman who at one point starts an OnlyFans, and a young man who sells weed and also freestyles about sex and drugs and curses at the previous year’s praise team competition that the film opens with. PG enters into community with them, welcoming and inviting them in. In fact, the church has a sign on it that says, “You Belong Here.” God shows up in this space that doesn’t quite look and feel like church and in these people that don’t quite fit the trope/stereotype of what Christians “should” look like. 

God shows up in this space that doesn’t quite look and feel like church and in these people that don’t quite fit the trope/stereotype of what Christians “should” look like.

God shows up in the building of relationships outside of the church space/building. The First Lady never preaches to Sam (played by Chloe Bailey), and yet she gives Sam a word. When the film opens, it is clear that Sam is a struggling teenager. She is still coping with the death of her mother and trying to figure out who she is, yet she has gotten lost along the way. Her father, concerned for her safety, has sent her to live with her aunt, her uncle, and her cousin Jess. The First lady first speaks with Sam at the bowling alley that the young people in town hang out at. Same is challenged to turn “secular” songs into gospel songs, and she succeeds, and yet, Sam seems emotional. She speaks to Sam afterward. Sam doesn’t let her in and is clear that she doesn’t have a relationship with God at the moment. The First Lady does not push her. The First Lady does not try to offer her some scripture or platitude. She simply leaves it at that. Sam’s journey of faith is her own, and she must have agency and ownership in it.

Still, the First Lady is there for Sam when she is ready to talk. Sam doesn’t meet the First Lady at the altar. Instead, she happens to go in a lounge, looking for a drink even though she is underage, and finds out that the lounge is owned by the First Lady. The First Lady opened the door for deeper conversation prior, and Sam is now ready to walk in.  Sam shares that her relationship with God hasn’t been the same since her mother passed and that she felt like a fraud singing about God. The First Lady invites her to find the blessings in her life, to find the reasons to praise. In meeting Sam where she is, the First Lady opens up a space for Sam to encounter God, whether at the bowling alley or at the lounge. She doesn’t give her some long speech or sermon about why she’s wrong. She doesn’t throw the Bible at her. She doesn’t try to scare her into being saved by telling her about hell. She simply shares her own testimony of God changing her life and what praise means to her.  This is the work of the church, that people will come to know God through our lives and testimonies, even if they never ever enter a church building.

This is the work of the church, that people will come to know God through our lives and testimonies, even if they never ever enter a church building.

God also slows up in the relationship that Sam (develops with Ty the Rapper (played by Quavo) who she hopes to work with in pursuit of her dreams and aspirations of becoming a singer. They first meet when she and her sister-cousin Jess sneak into his party. She draws his attention by singing his song. She returns to his house later, and he lets her in because he says that “there’s something different about her.” What is it that’s different? The church folk would say that it’s the anointing. It’s as though God is already stirring in her life, even though she is yet to step into who she is called to be. After coming off desperate (saying that she’d do anything for a collab with him), she regains his trust by remixing one of his songs, changing it into a gospel song as she’d done at the bowling alley. When she sings the remix: “Don’t worry ‘bout me. Imma be alright. Got G.O.D. all over my life,” he tells her that she has helped him. She does so unconsciously and unintentionally. She has given him comfort, a comfort that comes with knowing that God is in control. That night, they work together on a praise song. God is able to use Sam to meet Ty where he is. To keep it brief, Ty comes to the gospel choir competitions, and he and Sam are able to build a friendship. Ty doesn’t get saved, but we see how the Spirit is moving in both him and Sam. They encounter God in the music and in relationship, not at the church but in the studio in Ty’s house and also at the praise team competition. There is no traditional salvation scene where either of them walk down the aisle, tears and snot running down their face, hands up, and give their lives to God, yet God is present and God is working. 

God uses Sam again at the final praise team competition. At this competition, we see a new Sam. She has reconciled with her father, and she is confident in who she is as an individual and who she is in Christ. The Oil Factory Praise Team is only able to make it to the final competition because the leader of the Promise Ringtones, Kelly, (the all women praise team known for their “sexual purity”) is caught on a sex tape, which is against their church rules. As such, they are unable to compete. (Sidenote: Maybe if the church promoted a healthy sexual ethic rather than purity culture, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but that is beyond the scope of this blog post.) PG sits the Oil Factory Praise Team down to tell them that they made it to the final competition but more importantly, that there are no rules at his church that would result in them being kicked out the praise team. He extends grace to them knowing that they are teenagers, and they will make mistakes but letting them know that he will be there for them regardless. It is this act by the pastor that emboldens Sam to extend that same grace to Kelly in giving her the mic and permitting her to sing with their Praise Team at the final competition. Whereas Kelly was silenced by her church for her mistake, Sam gives her a voice. Sam goes on to invite members of the various praise teams to join them in song. This is because it is not about winning a prize. It is not about her showing off her vocals or getting a record deal. It is about these young people coming together in praise as they encounter God in the songs.

In sum, Praise This gets right what the traditional church often gets wrong. The church spends a lot of time talking about sin and hell when it should spend more time showing love. The church spends a lot of time judging people when it should be welcoming them as beloved children of God, extending grace to those who make mistakes. The church spends a lot of time inside of the walls of the church when it should be meeting people in the community, meeting people where they are. The church spends a lot of time talking about salvation when it should be focused on building relationships because it’s in the relationships where God really shows up. Sam is changed by the people in her life and in turn, changes others. If more churches followed the example set by the fictional church in Praise This, maybe there wouldn’t’ be a growing number of millennials and Gen Zers leaving the church. 

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