In this day and age, it is almost a relief to find a church fighting about something other than sex.
Yet, if you look at the congregational level, most Protestant churches that are experiencing internal conflict — as opposed to conflict with national structures — are fighting about issues linked to music and worship. This is a topic that comes up from time to time on this blog, the so-called worship wars.
All of the key elements of this story are on display in a new story by Associated Press reporter Gillian Flaccus, which The Washington Post featured this weekend (and posted on its website, which newspapers often do not do with wire stories, which makes wire service guys like me smile).
This battle in the worship wars is in an oldline Protestant setting — the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — which means you have familair elements — declining numbers in the pews and the financial tension that this causes. But this time, the conflict is at the famed Hollywood Presbyterian Church, which is actually known as a center for a solid, traditional approach to the Christian faith.
As Flaccus crisply notes: “The decline has been especially painful at Hollywood First, where the congregation helped launch evangelists Billy Graham and Lloyd Ogilvie, who is now the U.S. Senate chaplain. It was home to Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, and Henrietta Mears, author of the popular Sunday school curriculum Gospel Light.”
This only highlights the cultural nature of the conflict, which has led regional presbytery officials to yank the Rev. Alan Meenan out of his senior pastor role. What’s the problem?
Here is a glimpse:
Now, hundreds of new worshipers are flocking to an alternative service staged by the church at a nearby nightclub that offers live rock music and a casual atmosphere that doesn’t frown on flip-flops and nose piercings. The service, called Contemporary Urban Experience, has bolstered membership at one of the most storied Presbyterian congregations in the country. But it has also created a deep rift between old and new members that threatens to tear the conservative church apart.
Responding to numerous complaints about Meenan, regional church officials, in a rare step, took control of operations at Hollywood First last week and put Meenan and his executive pastor on paid administrative leave to restore the peace. The turmoil in the 2,700-member congregation reflects what experts call the “worship war,” an identity crisis that has beset many mainline Protestant denominations as they struggle to survive in a culture that puts less importance on the traditions of organized religion.
On one level, as the story notes, this is simply electric guitars against the pipe organ. On another, its clearly a generational battle between those who built a great church (probably G.I. Generation folks) and those who are trying to “save it” (probably Gen X and Y) and the new establishment that is caught in the middle (probably Boomers). As always, there is money involved in the conflict.
This report did leave me wondering if doctrinal conflict has soaked in here somewhere. Flaccus keeps quoting people about issues of cultural style. Like this: “I could go into any coffee shop in Los Angeles and go up to any artsy, crazy guy and feel totally comfortable inviting him to this service,” said J.C. Cornwell, 34, a church member who volunteers to produce CUE each week. “It’s just a really cool service — but it’s still the truth.”
But these style issues often come packaged with hints at change in teachings and emphasis. The so-called “emerging” evangelicals are not the same as the previous generations. This story may have another layer or two hidden in there. I will keep my eye on it.