Attention journalists: Want reader reactions? (Heed Doug's post)

This may seem like a strange thing to do, but I want to encourage readers who are working journalists to do something after they have read Doug’s latest post on music tends in the church. Google the following words and then hang on — “worship wars.”

You see, North American churches don’t just fight about sexuality. Many of them — oldline Protestant, Catholic, megachurch evangelical, you name it — are also fighting about music (and other forms of post-Matrix worship media, to a lesser degree). This topic will turn into a theme on this blog for a simple reason — the cultural issues related to music are symbolic and all of this stands for larger doctrinal and liturgical issues in this era.

As the old saying goes: What’s the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.

This is news. Of all the topics I write on year after year, the “worship wars” columns generate the most reader response. And there are similar stories in Judaism and other faiths. Check out the “flexidoxy” subplot in David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise. Or note that some of the wildest acts of doctrinal deconstructionism are taking place in some of the most conservative churches. Let me share a hint of this from five years ago:

The worshippers may gather in a candle-lit sanctuary and follow a liturgy of ancient texts and solemn chants, while gazing at Byzantine icons.

The singing, however, will be accompanied by waves of drums and electric guitars and the result often sounds like a cross between Pearl Jam and the Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. The icons, meanwhile, are digital images downloaded from the World Wide Web and projected on screens.

The people who are experimenting with these kinds of rites aren’t interested in the bouncy Baby Boomer-friendly megachurch praise services that have dominated American Protestantism for a generation. They want to appeal to teens and young adults who consider “contemporary worship” shallow and old-fashioned and out of touch with their darker, more ironic take on life. They are looking for what comes next.

The plasma-screen-ready theology of tomorrow is evolving. But the music wars are the heart of the matter right now. The whole world of mainstream evangelicalism is turning into an FM radio dial packed with consumer niches. Pollster George Barna talked with Protestant pastors, “worship leaders” and other church professionals and discovered that 90 percent of the conflicts reporting in their congregations was rooted in music.

“What we know about Americans is that we view ourselves first and foremost as consumers,” said Barna. “Even when we walk in the doors of our churches what we tend to do is to wonder how can I get a good transaction out of this experience. . . . So, what we know from our research is that Americans have made worship something that primarily that we do for ourselves. When is it successful? When we feel good.”

Welcome to Oprah evangelicalism? It’s snappy, it has a beat, and you can dance to it. With your hands lifted into the air.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Karen B.

    For those conservative Episcopalians reading this blog and any others who might know what the “Plano (Dallas) meetings” were all about last October, Terry’s final comment about hand raising reminds me of the VERY vocal and spirited debates that ensued on the Yahoo ECUSA Apostasy discussion board following the publication of some pictures from the Plano meetings that showed many attendees lifting up their hands in worship.

    There was less talk about the content of the talks by Bishop Duncan, or Kendall Harmon and what Plano might mean long term for renewal and repentance in ECUSA than there was arguing among the “charismatics” and the “anglo-catholics” about handraising and worship styles. Some of us were shocked & appalled…! We agreed on so much basic to our faith, but worship styles threatened to divide us!! Now I can laugh, but at the time, I was very discouraged.

  • Jeff Stewart

    Jesus drew crowds (oclos) during his ministry on earth. Unless our culture has changed the internal drive of what causes people to deviate from routine, it can be reasonable to conclude that there was also self-interest in 1st century human beings. “Consumerism” is not a “C-word.” It comes from the word “consume,” which correlates to hunger (bread) and thirst (water). The Messiah certainly knew that and made use of this need metaphorically.

    Barna’s generalization that we succeed when people feel good, is very simplistic. “Feeling good” is better defined by “feeling safe” (“sanctuary”). Growth, without compromising message and mission can be done, if the latter takes precedence above the former.

    Even with Jesus and the Apostles’ sensational draw, there were those who heard and either drew nearer or departed.