Back in the late 1990s, I opened a Scripps Howard News Service column about trends in megachurch worship and music with the following:
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.
Welcome to what church historians and worship experts have — for a decade now — been calling the “Worship Wars.” In reality, most of these battles are about the role of music in contemporary and post-contemporary worship. The roots of these battles run back into the “Jesus Music” era in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when born-again rockers began fleeing real concert stages and plugging in their electric guitars in church so that they could be heard over the drums.
The bottom line: Sunday morning has become ground zero for an entire industry built on “praise and worship” music in a variety of pop, rock, country, hip-hop and even metal styles. Don’t take my word for it. Check out the New York Times feature on the topic by Ben Ratliff, which ran with the headline “America’s Music — Plugging In to Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord.”
It’s a great story, even if it’s about a decade late. Here is a sample, set in the High Desert Church auditorium in Victorville, Calif.:
This was Sunday night worship for the young-adult subset of the church’s congregation, but it was also very much a rock show, one that has helped create a vibrant social world in this otherwise quiet desert town.
There has been enormous growth in the evangelical Protestant movement in America over the last 25 years, and bands in large, modern, nondenominational churches — some would say megachurches — like this one, 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles, now provide one of the major ways that Americans hear live music.
The house bands that play every weekend in High Desert Church — there are a dozen or so — scavenge some of their musical style from the radio and television. They reflect popular taste, though with lyrics about the power of God, not teenage turmoil.
They are not aiming for commercial success. Church-based Christian rock — often referred to as C.C.M., for contemporary Christian music — does not exist primarily to compete in mainstream culture; it exists first to bring together a community.
But there is a mistake there, you see. CCM is an actual industry that has existed for a few decades. The whole church-based praise-and-worship scene is part of that industry, but it is not the largest segment of the CCM world. There is a fundamental misunderstanding there.
But here is the thesis statement, the part that the Times story just nails down solid. This is an amazing quote, and, I am afraid, spot-on accurate:
“When you start a church,” said Tom Mercer, 52, the senior pastor, “you don’t decide who you’re going to reach and then pick a music style. You pick a music style, and that determines who’s going to come.”
At this particular church, the result is rather like an FM radio dial.
High Desert Church holds three different large services over the weekend for three different age groups, with music tailored to each audience: Seven (so named for the number’s positive associations in the Bible), the 18-to-30-year-old set that made up Mr. Day’s audience; Harbor, the 30-to-55 group; and Classic, for people 55 and over. The church also maintains even more bands for services at the junior high, high school and elementary school levels. Each band carefully calibrates its sound toward the pop culture disposition of the target age group.
So is there anyone in the church older than Boomer rock? Are there any ties that bind this congregation to the church of the ages? It would seem not.
Which is why it is so important that Mercer said music is the key to starting a church. What happens to the churches that already exist and have to compete in this atmosphere?
That’s leads us to the “Worship Wars,” and that’s what the Times needs to look at next.