Music Wars Pushing Out Historic Elements of Worship

From Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith, ed. Timothy George, a Baker Academic book:

Elizabeth Newman provides some clues as to how a Nicene faith might be lived out, and David Nelson shows how it should shape worship among Evangelicals, for ‘reading the Bible is simply too dangerous to do without the liturgical community’ (page 149). It may, as well, provide an antidote to the current obsession with music, that has crowded out prayer, the reading of Scripture, confession of sin and much beside, that have been the traditional staples of Christian worship. The ‘music wars’ of the church have been fuelled by our current disconnection with the great tradition of doctrinal orthodoxy.

What say you? What is your list of elements of a worship service that need to be present most (or nearly all of) the time? Do you think churches are “spending” too much time on singing?

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  • AHH

    I don’t know that it is “spending too much time on singing” as much as it is the attitude of the singing.
    When the singing is something in which the whole community is participating and being drawn together, a good dose of that can be a healthy part of a worship service. But when the “singing” is a band-centric performance that makes those of us in the pews individual consumers rather than participants in community, then it works against the purpose of the service. My wife and I stopped attending our church’s “contemporary” service a few years ago after its style changed from the former community singing style to the latter rock concert style.

  • Without the creed and the liturgy I find myself wandering off into what I WANT to believe – rather than focusing on applying the Truth that is not determined by my emotions or feelings for the day….

    A lot of music found in Evangelical churches focuses too much on stirring up emotions – which are not truly trustworthy when it comes to the application of spiritual truth. We sing songs like “I feel good” – when we really don’t feel that way. Or we sings about how much “WE” love Jesus – with the emphasis on the “We” part. Worship music is most honest when it is addressed to God as praise about the nature of God – and not at my personal feelings about God.

  • Milton Pope

    I knew I was in crisis when I started systematically getting to church twenty minutes late to avoid part — part! — of the music. This was at a large community church, and we’d been staying because the kids had grown up in it. After the kids all grew up (and ALL left that church), the two of us finally moved over to the Anglican church we’d been interested in for some time. We attend the Rite I service, with almost no music, and a beautiful, beautiful liturgy. It’s heavenly.

    In the previous church, songs would be retired within five or so years of their copyright date. Even the twenty-year-olds were being left behind.

  • Barb

    I’m a Presbyterian–so we do care alot about our order of worship–must have–call to worship, confession and assurance of pardon, Lord’s prayer etc. At our old church the music crowded out the Lord’s prayer. We moved across the state and now our worship is led by the most talented and best church worship leader that I’ve ever heard (we are a small church (250 people). His stated goal is congregational singing–if we can’t sing it he doesn’t use it. He carefully plans every song each week to go with the sermon, season, etc. All tunes are singable even by me 🙂 He is very consistent in the amount of time devoted to music–and we don’t sing choruses that seem like they will never end. Many people who experience our worship service comment on the music and how they enjoy it. I think the fact that we can all sing along is main reason.–but also we sing in different languages, and often music from different centuries! He often mixes unfamiliar words (that fit the sermon) with very familiar tunes–so that we can readily sing them. Needless to say we have never had a worship war at this church.

  • Chris

    When the first 30-40 minutes of a typical evangelical worship service is taken with music I would say yes, we are obsessed with music. It seems to me that music has become the main event (along with the sermon) rather than serve the liturgical movement of the service. Much of this we inherited from our Revivalism roots and some IMO was somewhat forced upon us by the CCM industry. If we ever hope to restore a solid worship liturgy in our evangelical churches we will most definitely have to ask some hard questions about music ministry.

  • Chris

    As a follow up to my original post I also believe that our obsession with music is primarily responsible for pushing the weekly observance of Communion (Eucharist) to a monthly and even quarterly frequency in so many of our churches. Not a wise trade off IMO.

  • T

    I really enjoy the BCP and Common Worship of Anglicans as well as other liturgical forms out there. That said, I don’t buy that liturgical “worship” is even worship for many, nor is liturgical practice any kind of silver bullet for making disciples or doing effective spiritual formation, even for simple things as teaching folks how to pray and/or commune with God.

    I think a Renovare-type of approach that looks at the benefits of multiple streams, but including contemporary and less contemporary singing (along with other practices) is the thing to shoot for in many cases.

  • My take: Read through the Psalms with coloured pencil in hand. Underline all references to song and singing. Read it again and take note. Is OT Temple worship our template for NT church worship? No. But singing seems to have an important place with God’s people.

    I became a Christian into a happy, clappy, folk-infused Charismatic scene. Am I discouraged by some aspects of that? Maybe. But I can’t in good conscience pendulum-swing all the way over to somewhere where expressive singing isn’t a big deal. Communion, prayer, and other stuff we need more of (and can have) but not to the neglect of corporate song. “Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”

  • rob

    I think some Roman Catholic churches get it right (I’m not Catholic). We took our middle school (protestant, evangelical) Sunday School classes to a varieity of different churches to study worship, and I was surprised by the modernity of music in the Catholic church we visited. Of course, it existed side-by-side with the traditional liturgy. I asked a friend who went to that church, and he implied that although this was not pervasive in Catholicism, but it still is fairly easy to find Catholic churches that use modern music. He was surprised to know that my church is still wed to Charles Wesley and Fanny Crosby hymns.

  • Stan Fowler

    Scripure reading and corporate prayer have certainly been crowded out of typical evangelical worship. How can evangelicals who pride themselves on their commitment to the Bible spend so little time reading it together? And I doubt that those who minimize prayer in the corporate gathering actually maximize it in private. Time for a new reformation.

  • Jerry

    A lot of contemporary churches don’t even take time to pray–if they do it is probably an “organ recital” of physical needs. Where is the broader intercession for growth in faith, the lifting up of those in authority, the cry for justice for the oppressed?

    In many contemporary churches half the people don’t even sing. That said, in some Episcopal services the people don’t sing either.

  • TJJ

    Too much worship in music? No. I usually wish there was as much worship after the sermon as before. Praise and worship in song fuels my connection with God, my confession, my praise, thanksgiving, my recognition of Lordship and deity, commitment and discipleship, not detract or distract from it. Those who find that in liturgy, good, pursue that, but don ‘t judge those who do indeed find it in praise music, and prayer music, and worship music. Different things speak and edify different people. Avoid the attitude that what speaks best to you is superior to what speaks to others.

  • RP

    I come from a Pentecostal background where traditional congregation was a high-point of the service. Yes, we sang most gospel songs, a little weak in theological expression, but full of praise and adoration to The Lord. Very few, if any, were spectators. We all knew the songs (as they were expressions of our pentecostal beliefs and expressed out love for The Lord), but the music never overrided the lyrics. We knew what, or whom to whom we were singing. As a man in my 60’s now, these are the songs (and the great hymns of the church) which bring me the greatest comfort. I now occasionally attend a charismatic Anglican Church. Readings from all of scripture, the liturgy, reciting the Apostles creed, and the eucharist (love the sip of real wine), and a well prepared homily, make me feel connected to the whole world wide church, both living and dead. (Yes, I believe in the communion of the saints). This church also encourages extemporaneous prayer, which keeps me connected to my Pentecostal roots. I’m weary of rock concerts, replacing the great truths of our faith, sung together, believed together, And most of all God Centered.

  • Perhaps a good way to gauge this would be to challenge pastors to plan a worship service. Then tell them that there will be no music (maybe even no preaching). If the lack of music makes one freak out at the challenge, then the answer is clear.

  • Dan

    Wrong to blame the music. I believe the shift occurred when the Sunday service started to take on the trappings of the evangelistic outreach event or the revival meeting. Then came the seeker emphasis and nothing was left of the original structure of “apostle’s teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer”. Music, like language, changes from culture to culture and era to era. The shift occurred when worship changed to a buildup to an altar call.

  • Nathan

    This isn’t a problem of worship qua worship in low church traditions. This is a symptom of a larger deficiency related to ecclesiology.

    When you privilege the local church and the individual for centuries, you undercut the value of history and The Church.

    I’ve found over the last 15 years of ministry that it is getting increasingly easier to reintroduce historic forms and historic content, either as received OR adapted to the context while signaling the historic origin. I think this is because the further churches become more and more hyper-local (and yes, I know there are strengths to this development too) the less and less connected to inherited antipathies and dogma.

    In other words, the more “secular” the churches become, the more room is actually made for the riches of christian worship to slip back in…

    So.. here’s what I think needs to generally be present:

    The fourfold pattern of Gathering, Word, Thanksgiving, Sending.
    Prayer (oriented toward others)

    The following would be blue sky (if i had my druthers) every week…and we do use some of these cycled through our worship year:

    The rubrics for eucharist in the BCP. Start to Finish. Full stop. done. 😉 (oh, I wish, I wish, I wish, but it will never be… haha)

    The Lord’s Prayer
    Psalmody (we do updated renditions of antiphonal psalms)
    Responsive Prayers
    Scripture Readings
    Eucharist (and call it that…)
    The Collects

  • Good topic and good questions. One of the issues isn’t simply how much music but what kind. Modern praise and worship works best on 2-4 sets. Hymns do very well in stand alone spots. And then the service music itself–Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, & Agnus Dei–serves in their respective places.

    I’m very excited that many churches without traditions of formal liturgies are interested in incorporating liturgical elements. It took me some years of practice to discover that the elements are parts of a larger whole. Word and table are the two principle parts, with other subsections. Now, those of us in traditions with formal liturgies need to reciprocate and rediscover evangelistic preaching and practices!

    For those interested, one of the best books on the liturgy from an evangelical writer is Simon Chan’s “Liturgical Theology.” Also, one of the best books on the overall rule or liturgy for life (weekly liturgy/mass, daily office, private devotion) is Martin Thornton’s “Christian Proficiency.”

    Grace and peace,

  • Josh T.

    I tend to favor more traditional music in church. Music, of course, is much more than mere style. Hymns (including the not-so-good ones) seem to have more content (in terms of telling a story or describing God’s actions, similar to Psalms), while much of contemporary worship music is somewhat shallow or geared to stirring up emotions (rather than having something significant to actually say). Also, it seems that a lot of the contemporary stuff is very “me” focused. “God I want,” “God I need,” “I’m desperate.” There’s not a lot of story telling or basic praising; it seems that there’s an overabundance of supplication songs. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with praying for things in music; it just seems there’s too much of that going on in contemporary music (goes along with the emotional stirring) and not enough talking about or praising God.

    The band focus is problematic, too, and in my own church (they have traditional and contemporary services) things have changed. Now it seems there’s more of a “show” with spotlights on the band and congregational lights turned down low. Earlier it seemed more participatory. Frankly, with the internet culture, I suspect changes like this are due to churches have been taking their cues from “successful” mega-church methodologies and ambiance.

  • It seems to me that our obligation is to fulfill the purposes of worship which include service to God and submission (lit. “bending the knee”). One could say: what has to happen in this room for God to be able say later in the day “I was worshipped in that place.”

    William Temple gave a great statement on this:

    “Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose—and all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all original sin.”

    With a bit of imagination and creativity, we can ask, what does that look like in my context?

  • RJS

    Josh T.,

    I don’t think that it is the internet culture. But it is taking cues from “successful” mega–church models.

    Many of these megachurches hold fancy conferences where they actively sell their methodolgy (and materials) to pastors – and preach that the only way to achieve “success” is to take the full plunge (adopt their method and form).

    I think these mega-churches themselves tend to fill a valuable mission niche. I’ve nothing against any of them. I think their evangelism of method and the preaching that bigger is (always) better is doing devastating damage to the church.

  • I’m concerned when something peripheral in scripture (the use of music in worship) becomes central to gatherings while something central (like the Lord’s Supper) is marginalised. I’m also concerned at the ethical issues now we know that the uses of music in many big churches lead to neural and biochemical effects with addictive consequences. And what of the visual foregrounding of the worship band? What is the semiotic effect of this iconography on the tacit theology and ecclesiology?
    Bit more here:

  • Josh T.

    RJS, while I’m sure that megachurches’ pushing their ministry models is a big factor, I think the ubiquitous videos of megachurch worship services available via YouTube, etc. is giving worship leaders easy access to a detailed example of how worship “ought” to be done. I don’t necessarily think that the conferences explicitly instruct “dim the lights” and “don’t forget the spotlight;” I’m betting people are taking their cue from the church videos out there without having to attend any conferences.

    I have worship band experience dating back to 1997-2004 in an AG church, an SBC contemporary service, and a couple of times recently sitting in as a substitute. In my experience, there tends to be a faulty theology of worship-equals-music and music bringing in God’s presence (one of evangelicalism’s sacraments, next to the sinner’s prayer/altar call) , but with my most recent experience, it seems that alongside the faulty worship theology there’s the perfect rock show concept and dimmed lights, which I find to be a new thing, at least at my church. If the original recording has electric guitar in it, then by golly we have to have electric guitar. And drums are essential for everything (I think this is absolutely crap, and I’m a drummer). And I find it kind of nauseating–after doing it twice I’m not going to do it any more.

  • Phil Miller

    A lot of hand-wringing going on here. I personally don’t think modern worship music is to blame for the lack of historic liturgical elements in Evangelicalism. I think if you want to blame something, you have to back further to John Wesley, George Whitefield, and others like them. I guess the thing that’s interesting is that there seems to be a constant back and forth between the two poles of continuity and renewal.

    I have learned to appreciate things like group Scripture reading, reciting the creed, and celebrating Communion every week, but that being said, I don’t think that churches that do that necessarily have a leg up on others that don’t. If spiritual vitality of the church is what our goal is, I don’t see a cause and effect relationship between having these historic elements and having Christians who take the mission and life of the church seriously.

    Really, the thing I’ve found as I’ve gotten older is that God is at work in all sorts of expressions of the faith. This probably pisses some people off, but so be it. None of has a monopoly on the Spirit.

  • TJJ

    Andii, worship music is peripheral? Really? How about one of the largest books in the Bible, the book of Psalms….what about Col. 3:16? I respectfully disagree!

  • TJJ: aye, but that’s not NT (which is what I primarily had in mind when I wrote, trying to be brief) but temple worship which is fulfilled in Christ, so we need to be careful about making the cross-over from OT. And we actually tend to use Psalms as scripture not song, do we not? They’re there in scripture as words not as tunes.
    Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy music as much as anyone. I sing in a choir and have led sung worship occasions with a band (though I tend to weave them with more ‘traditional’ liturgy). So I’m not against singing. But I am for keeping it in perspective.

  • Oh sorry: Col.3.16. (and there’s one other epistolatory reference). It seems to me (hence my remark) that these aren’t very weighty a basis for the kind of thing we’re talking about here. Compared with ‘Do this in remembrance …’ and the way that is taken up many of the same churches… While I was indulging in some hyperbole, I think the main point I was making remains -especially if you read it against the background of the other posts I referenced.

  • Dianne P

    Amen to Dan at #15. To paraphrase Sheldon, in what universe is sitting back and watching a lead singer and a band (or standing and clapping along to a band) worship???

    I attended a stunning Episcopal service this morning. Stunning because I experienced the movement of God toward me and the movement of me toward God… in other words, a more focused moment of my daily faith walk. It was gloriously beautiful as well – in all of God’s creative glory. In the springtime of Washington DC, in the shadow of the magnificent National Cathedral, on a mount overlooking the city and the National Monument. Taking some sabbath time to appreciate the beauty with which God blesses us.

    But the beauty of God was also inside the church. Psalms and hymns sung by an inspirational choir and enthusiastically joined by the congregation, scripture readings, Creed, confession, Lords Prayer, Eucharist. Topped by my 5 year old granddaughter carrying the cross (more than her own height!) up the aisle and up the stairs to the altar – followed by her skipping joyfully back to our pew. Though the service was clearly thoughtfully done and well practiced, none of it was a “performance”. We were all there to worshp the Triune God – and worship together we did. Amen.

  • sdesocio

    Scot – good thoughts –

    As a church planter in the Presbyterian Tradition I took to heart the warning from the Westminster Directory of Worship which warns about one element out weighting the others – I was concerned that basically most of our worshipers were only active participants during the singing. We made numerous changes to bring more participation. The funny thing is that in the end our worship looks very high church