Worship, Wars, Presbyterians, Hollywood

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.

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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.

  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    Having looked through all the links, it seems the issue boils down to control, namely, who has it?

    How unfortunate that Christians forget, over and over, that God has it. The only control we have is self-control which is the cornerstone to discipleship and often the first stone thrown in a dispute.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    I don’t know that I’d want to call this a generational issue. My experience is that this is really a battle within the generations that have control over the parish. There’s one group of 40-60 year olds who value a solemn, “traditional” service and who think it will appeal to young people if done well; there’s another group in the same age range who think that a revivalish/camp-style “contemporary” service is the only thing that young people will like. Actual young people rather often don’t get a voice in this, so that those 20-year-olds who find “praise songs” juvenile are like as not ignored.

    It seems obvious that the actual vigor of a parish of either style is more important than the style itself. The problem is that with electric guitars one can subtitute volume for vigor, at least in the short run.

  • M

    I’ve seen this kind of situation unfold too often before: a handful of dependent people can’t stand that the church’s life no longer revolves around them, and they lash out at a capable but human pastor whom they blame for their loss of power. I am angry about it in every situation where it happens, and in this one also. Those 108 dependent gripes (out of 2700 members) need to be offered a chance to worship elsewhere or support their pastors and Session, and should be encouraged to get therapy.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Ah, but Flaccus has done something very commendable, if you will read the article carefully.

    It’s extremely tempting to read this article through one’s prejudices and get a vision of gray-heads in dark suits and republican dresses bemoaning the loss of their church to the younger set. The “conservative” in this article, though, is the youngest person mentioned, at 20. The leader of the new service is 14 years older. The pastor, I calculate, is at least in his late 50s– more likely over 60.

    So what this is really about, it appears, is the old fellow who runs the place engaging in his notions about younger folk without really bothering to ask them. That’s my experience too. Leaving aside that all those young people are going to grow old anyway, and thus may well outgrow what is patently a juvenile service style, the striking issue is the fear that traditional services will be suppressed. The real embarrassing problem seems to be that the mainlines have forgotten how to do their traditional services right.

  • M

    Well, all that may be, and I agree in principle with what I take to be your overall perspective on church life, but I agree with Molly above that this is fundamentally about control, not worship style.

    Generational issues, worship style, financial questions, theological disagreements all can be (and are being) used as camouflage, but you could give the complainers everything they want along these lines and the conflict would only get worse.

    The drivers for such conflict are in the families of the people doing the complaining. As soon as they find that the kind of manipulating or whining or screaming by means of which they get their way in other dimensions of their lives stops working at church, they go ballistic, over-focus on the pastor, and this mess is what you get. It happens in churches with dismaying frequency.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Sorry, M, I call that a rationalization.

    It’s more rational to presume that these people want control in order to get things the way they want. And more to the point: the fear being expressed isn’t that the new service has been created; it’s that they expect that the old service will be suppressed.

    Their fear is justified. The “church sales people”– those who think about worship style in terms of bringing in the unchurched– assume that people who prefer a traditional service will come anyway. Or if they won’t come– well, they’re probably old people who aren’t raising children anyway, so they’re no great loss.

    This theory that some people are just complainers has become particularly pernicious as a tactic for dismissing them. Some people do complain about everything, but most complaints are specific and most specific complaints have some real basis. And if I may say so, some of the perpetual complainers are simply those who have the stomach to keep up the fight in the face of cavalier dismissal by the powers-that-be.

  • Delight Dinopoulos

    Ah, but look closer, Gillian Flaacus has done something straight out of C S Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. Check out the slant of this article which appeared in the LA Times, Washington Post, Miami Hearld and across the nation on the wire. It is the only story most Americans have read on the situation at Hollywood Pres. It is, however, not the story. The devilish irony here is that the “old man” leading the CUE worship service held in a former nightclub, whose name is Rev. Alan Meenan – he is the CONSERVATIVE! And get ready for this, the almost 400 “tattooed and piereced” Hollywood industry types that attend this service? THEY too are the conservatives! Hollywood Pres has been hijacked by the liberals. Now that’s a story. Why then, one has to wonder, would the national story be written with such a non-existent angle. There IS a real backstory to this. There is a real story and it’s as juicy and sinister as a wire reporter could hope for. It’s documented extensively at the Layman’s website here: http://www.layman.org/layman/letters-editorials/_recent-letters.htm. The congregation is in fact suing the Presbytery of the Pacific. The details of that lawsuit can be found here: http://www.savehollywoodpres.com/RemedialComplaint.pdf. Last Sunday, the rockers, almost 400 of them, walked because they couldn’t bear to participate any longer in a public hanging of two pastors who have had no charges brought against them. I’m no journalist, but I know a good story when I hear it. Now why, I wonder, would Flaacus reprint a tired old story like this: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/05/13/AR2005051301268.html.

    Delight Dinopoulos
    Hollywood, California

  • r

    Hollywood Pres has been doing things differently for over 100 years. It is my opinion that most people of the congregation have embraced the deision for the contemporary urban service and they are not troubled by the music or the people who go there. Some are upset that their beloved blended service of contemporary music and hymns had been elliminated three years ago.

    The church is located in the middle of Hollywood. There was a time when it was a communter church and people literally got off the freeway and then got back on after services. The church has been able to reach the community under Alan’s vision and I believe that is a good thing.

    The problem is the old and the new in a way, but I don’t think it has to do with music. It has to do with why a person goes to chruch and the proposed changes that were being made to fix the budget issues. It has to do with secrecy and a lack of honesty. Most importantly it has to do with trust. Some of the older congregation simply can’t trust Alan to make decisions which they agreed with. The newer part of the congregation doesn’t understand who the Presbytary is and why they have a right to come in and do what they did. They don’t trust PCUSA, the POP or the AC.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Well, actually It’s not clear that it is a real story. I am familiar with the Layman and, given that it is the mouthpiece of a lay advocacy group, I’m uncomfortable with using it as a sole source. But in any case its own reporting doesn’t justify the casting of this as a liberal vs. conservative issue; that seems to mostly come out in the letters. Indeed, I sense the assumption that, in a conflict between the “evil” liberal presbytery and the “good” conservative congregation, the matter must be motivated by some theological dispute. I see no evidence that this is real. What really puzzles me is the sense I get of a congregation in which the session was never really in control.

  • Delight Dinopoulos

    This one goes out to C Wingate — I “sense” that you’re an “evil” liberal. Really, I wouldn’t be posting to a discussion board if the extent of my involvement in this was speculation. My days are not spent looking for a way to play out Magnum PI fantasies and get the scoop and have interesting debates. Hollywood Pres is my church. Alan Meenan and David Manock are my spiritual leaders. They have been treated worse than our government treats common criminals. When you tell two grown men who have spent a lifetime in their profession to clean out their desks within 12 hours when you have no formal charges against them…when you do this in the middle of the night after tellin 500 congregants that all is well and their pastors will not be asked to leave…when the “stockholders” do this, despite losing a vote to do so…no one has to guess who’s wearing the black hat and who’s wearing the white hat. This is not a “worship wars” issue. Nor is it a topic synonymous with American Idol that we get to “chat” about online from our comfortable offices. It’s undue persecution of two Christian leaders. It’s been going on for a long time. Don’t think that because it’s happening under the banner of the hallowed Presbytery of the Pacific that it’s anything short of “a real story.” And a sinister one at that.

  • William Blake

    The real facts have not emerged yet from this mess at FPCOH. The real story is not concerned with liberal or conservative or young or old or persecution or white hats or black hats. I’ve been hearing about this situation for years. Wingate is on the right track. If you get below the fog of emotion and shrill assertions you will find the facts. In the past two fiscal years, the church has gone into the red $150,000 and $850,000. There may a real ongoing fiscal mismanagement problem here. I suspect that there has also been mismanagement of the church staff and church business. Stay tuned for these true stories.

  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    Dang! It’s really about MONEY? I thought I had it pegged at the beginning with the issue of control.

  • Dr. William N. Johnson

    I grew up at Hollywood Presbyterian and deeply love my roots. But, I am a firm believer in the responsibility of the Presbytery to respond when there are complaints. This is not a “liberal” vs. “conservative” question; it is a question of propriety; of accountability; of leadership. It seems, as I read all about the actions of both the church and the Presbytery, that too many “conservative evangelicals” want to “blame” the so-called “liverals” when, in fact, it seems to be a problem of leadership and accountability to both the membership and the Presbytery; let alone to the Lord. My humble suggestions is: allow the process to continue; trust God; recognize that the leadership of the Presbytery seeks only the best for Hollywood as they work to resolve what is, quite frankly, a major conflict among members – young and older – and cannot be passed off as a theological conflict.
    As a “retired” Presbyterian Pastor I am deeply appreciative of being part of a denomination that takes their responsibility seriously and, irrespective of theological positions, seeks the best for our member congregations.
    If there is irresponsibility, or whatever, on the part of the two pastors, move them out; if not, re-instate them. But, if we truly believe that God is sovereign and Jesus is Lord, then trust that God is at work and God’s will will be done and that this whole question will be resolved.

  • Bill Jones

    Very interesting article and insights. I wish that more people would consider the fact that cultural styles are NOT value neutral. That is to say, the “style” of worship or the “feel” of a particular worship service is not value nuetral. I’d write more on this, but it would probably just fuel the fire…I’d like to fuel some thought, but don’t know how.

  • http://bdennis3xox.net Bill Dennis

    I am always disturbed by conflict in the church and the pain that follows, and I can’t help but believe that it could have been avoided some way. But my prayers will be constantly with what I consider to be one of the finest churches in the nation.
    Bill Dennis
    Retored United Methodist Minister

  • Member of Hollywood Pres.

    Our problems at Hollywood Pres. have nothing to do with worship style. We have four different worship services each Sunday to appeal to the blended congregation we are. Many peaple attend more than one. The congregation is primarily conservative, regardless of age or which service you attend. The conflict is with the Presbytery of the Pacific, which I am learning does not have our congregation’s conservative values and our Pastor Dr. Meenan has been vocal about his discontent with them. The Presbytery wanted to change the definition of who Jesus Christ is from “The Savior” to “a savior”. It was with the help of Hollywood Pres and our pastors that this definition was not changed. No wonder The Presbytery took whatever opportunity they could to disband and try to take over our church. When a few of our members had complaints of personality conflicts with the pastor, a problem any dynamic leader has, the Presbytery did not help heal the conflicts when they were new, rather they withheld the information from our church and waited for the problem to grow into what it has become. Yes, the real storey of Hollywood Pres. is far more important than what the Associated Press would have you believe. I am encouraged however that our Church will thrive despite all of this, because we are united. Regardless of whether you attend the Classical sevice, The Contemplative service, The Celebration service, or The Contempory Urban Experience service.
    All services are lead by profesional musicians who volunteer their talents.

  • Dr. William N. Johnson

    To the “anonymous” member of Hollywood Presbyterian Church. Before you claim that the Presbytery of the Pacific wanted to change the definition of Jesus Christ from “the Savior” to “a savior” you had better check your facts and the processes of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Maybe someone in the Presbytery wanted that watered-down definition, but that is NOT something the Presbytery could do on its on; and, I believe, the vast majority would not support that kind of definition – if any would! Frankly, I personally doubt that either of the “removed on Administrative Leave” pastors are enough involved in the Presbytery to have made any difference. In the future, if you are to make unsubstantiated claims, or claims that make substantive changes, at least identify yourself and stand up as a believer not just as an enamored follower of one or both of the “removed on administrative leave” pastors.
    I am personally tired of the “urban myth” mentality of those who know little and say much, much too much.
    Allow the Presbytery, under the guidance of our Lord, get to the facts and deal with them as is appropriate, just, equal, and right.
    The Rev. Dr. William N. Johnson

  • Thomas Wagner

    Its an amazing story all around isnt it? I too am a member of FPCH. And the only reason I became a member approximately 6 years ago was Dr. Meenans preaching and teaching. Yes we have 4 services. Whatever style of worship you like, chances are we have it covered. And yes I would say that overall as a congregation we are tradional – even fundamental in many ways. As far as I know there is indeed a management issue at the church. And yes there is a small and very vocal group of people who did not like the way things were going. Be it that the CUE service was attracting too much attention, or that Dr. Meenans management style was abrasive. I don’t know. I’ve heard all sorts of stories. Some of it maybe music related. Seems that Dr. Meenan stepped on the toes of several choir members. In the end it doesn’t really matter to me if Dr. Meenan made mistakes. Whatever it is, its between him and God. I am not in a position to cast stones. I can tell you however that there are a few things that are true and yet hard to reconcile for me. As a congregation we have failed to run our church properly. There are rules that govern how a minister is to execute his office. So we as a group bear some responsibility here. On the other hand, Dr. Meenans preaching has had a greatly positive impact on my life and that of my family. Even when some his actions appear contrarian. Chalk that one up to “we are all human” I suppose. Secondly, the Presbytery has handled this entire situation very poorly. It looks terribly political. Meenan was initially given only 24 hours to tender his resignation. Amazing. A preacher being sacked like that without due process. That doesnt sit well. Finally, its painful to see my church in so much turmoil. The members of the CUE service have taken their entire group elsewhere. Its a big loss. I suppose every organized group of human beings (church or otherwise) will eventually live up to its own level of dysfunction. I wonder where our high watermark is? We are all broken in some way arent we. I just wish it didnt have to be like this. I miss my church, I miss the preaching of Dr. Meenan and I miss the sense of community we used to have. Hope you can sympathize. Please pray for us.

  • Alexei Brenot

    As a member of FPCH and one of the 108 who signed the petition sent to the Presbytery seeking intervention and a change of leadership, I can say that my issues with Drs. Meenan and Manock had nothing to do with worship style. My wife and I, and many others who signed the petition, attend the CUE Service and also the traditional service with our wonderful choir. Both are great services. The issue is also not one of a liberal Presbytery versus conservative evangelical pastors. I know that many of us who signed the petition are far more conservative, reforrmed and evangelical than either Drs. Meenan or Manock.
    The bottom line is that our church, Christ’s church, FPCH, was being run into the ground. FPCH was at the brink of financial collapse, and many good and faithful servants of Christ’s kingdom were being abused and run out of FPCH by Drs. Meenan and Manock’s management style. Further, neither Drs. Meenan or Manock were being candid to either session or the congregation about our financial condition. The fact that we experienced operational budget deficits over the past 5 years totaling $1.5 million to $2 million is significant and substantial. Our financial condition was not disclosed until there were no more reserve funds to tap. While there are many, many other issues, this alone highlights the mismanagment that has occurred under Drs. Meenan and Manock’s leadership. I don’t place full responsibilty at their feet. However, proper accounting was not being exercised, and Dr. Meenan admitted that the church’s accountant was answering only to him.
    Equally important, the Book of Order was being ignored by Drs. Meenan and Manock when it was convenient for them to do so. Whether to follow the BOO was a situational question. Dr. Meenan also usurped the ONC’s (Officer Nominating Committee) role in selecting church officers by prescreening and eliminating proposed candidates who might not be in favor of his policies or who would ask hard questions before the names were even submitted to the ONC.
    There were and are some deep rooted issues facing FPCH. One is highlighted by those who have ardently supported the pastors and who have worked so hard to divert attention away from the real and internal issues at FPCH and directed attention towards the liberal vs. conservative, presbytery/PCUSA or worship style issues. These are a smokescreen, infused to promote passion and controversy. However, none of those who have passionately supported the pastors have offered any solution to fix the problems internal to FPCH other than to demand the return of the pastors. This exhibition of blind allegence towards the two pastors, while admirable in terms of loyalty, is not necessarily spiritually healthy and evidences the lack of spiritual maturity being promoted and fostered under their leadership. It’s cultish in its ferver and emotion. Some have openly called Drs. Meenan and Manock the “heads” of the church. “No, and a thousand times, No!” Jesus Christ is the head of His Church. Why has this allegence towards men been tolerated, and the attention not re-directed towards the One deserving of our obedience, Jesus Christ? We have heard words bantered around like “foregiveness” and “reconciliation”, but I wonder how many truly understand those words in a biblical context or understand that forgiveness doesn’t necessarily eliminate all consequences.
    Drs. Meenan and Manock are men, gifted men who in my opinion were not working within the gifts God has given them.
    There are many other issues which have led us to this point, but after analyzing the data and reviewing the pastors’ past ctions with some additional clarity created by being able to work autonomously and apart from the pastors’ oversight, FPCH’s session has asked Drs. Meenan and Manock to resign. Session has stated that having the pastors resign would be best for FPCH and for the pastors themselves.
    FPCH’s Session has begun to regain authoritative control over FPCH, and is working very hard to redirect and guide our church towards the future and to all that Christ has called us to be.
    We are thankful and covet your prayers.
    Alexei Brenot – FPCH Member

  • http://www.commonsaints.blogspot.com Dan McGowan

    I have been immersed in this ridiculous battle long enough. I don’t mean the one at Hollywood Pres… I mean the one in the Land Of Christians, where I live and dwell and work. Having served in music ministry for nearly 35 years, I’m a bit sick of all this (pardon my non-christian-ese) bullshit. That is what this is. In the end – that is what Christ thinks of it. You think Jesus cares one little bit about whether or not we sing fast or slow songs or hymns or choruses or if our hands are raised or if our eyes are closed or any of these TOTALLY INSANE, COMPLETELY SELFISH rants and rages we continually shove into the viens of our church? Talk about CHOLESTOROL! This is such a waste of time – it really is! Why don’t we (and, yeah, I said “we”) choose to get off our high-horses and just grow up?????

    Wait, I know the answer…


    It’s way more fun to slam each other and shove our so-called “theology” in each other’s faces… trying to FORCE worship! What a hilarious concept, when you think about it – - we are going to FORCE YOU to WORSHIP THE “RIGHT” WAY!

    You know why people have, as George Barna has so correctly stated, STOPPED coming to church?????

    Because they SEE what has been WRITTEN on this, and other blogs, and they VOMIT!

    Those of you who choose to remain stiff=necked on this and view me as a zealot… I feel bad for you. And I feel worse for your churches. Not until we learn how to LOVE and ACCEPT one another will the church BE the church – and actually, finally, make ANY sort of lasting impact on the world or city around us..

    Yeah, even Hollywood!

    Gosh, I could barf…………