9 Reasons to Stop Dividing Your Church’s Worship over Style

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Let’s face it. The worship wars sucked.

Not because the issue of worship is peripheral. It isn’t.

Not because the content of worship isn’t a big deal. It is.

Not because, as a recent comment stated, “Satan rejoices when we get bogged down with issues of style.”

The worship wars sucked because worship in the church was radically reframed as a matter of preference.

After long years of warring, we decided we wanted peace, even if we never really solved anything. And in trying to keep a superficial peace in our congregations, we’ve completely lost our way. We’ve made the whole endeavor about appeasing our own gluttonous appetites for entertainment. We’re so committed to avoiding tough questions about the content of our worship that our conversations have been reduced to plastic-faced, surface-level parroting of false egalitarian pleasantries.

“God doesn’t care how you worship, just as long as you worship.”

“We just want you to find a style that fits you just right.”

“We all deserve to feel comfortable in worship.”

“Some people like to worship with liturgy and great hymns of the faith. Others like to hear more contemporary music in a relaxed atmosphere. And that’s okay! We’re all different!”

We’ve completely missed the point.

We tried suppressing the dissenters. That didn’t work.

We tried “blended ” worship (not Robert Webber’s blended, but lukewarm praise chorus and hymn medleys). That didn’t work, either. It just hacked everybody off.

In a last ditch effort to stop the quarreling, someone found what appeared to be the perfect answer.

Multiple worship formats!

“It’s a great idea! Now, everyone can worship just the way they want! No more fighting!”

Right. No more fighting. And with the new false peace, we’ve introduced a horrible toxicity into our congregations. Here are a few reasons why offering multiple worship styles is not a good solution.

It divides otherwise healthy congregations. Megachurch wisdom says that unless you’re doing contemporary worship, your church will die. Of course, there are many examples that prove otherwise. And many churches with only contemporary services are closing, also. But since nearly all mega-churches are decidedly contemporary, the message seems to carry some weight, especially with our belief that bigger is better and numbers equal success. And so, out of fear, these churches have splintered themselves into oblivion by adding something that they really never needed in the first place. One mainline church I served was told by its bishop that the new behemoth megachurch that had just moved in down the street would steal all their members unless they focused on a contemporary service. A decade after being scared into splintering over “style,” the mainline church has never recovered.

It often segregates membership along demographic lines. I think this is one of the most tragic points. Children and youth need to worship with their parents and their parent’s parents. The elderly, likewise, need to worship with the young. We all need to worship with those who don’t look like us, don’t talk like us, and don’t vote like us. Usually, different services are offered with the assumption that the contemporary is to hook non-believers and young people, and the traditional is the old-time favorites hour for the older folks. Of course, one day we will all join the heavenly choir, and something tells me we’re not going to have a smorgasbord of corporate worship options to attend. We’ll join in singing the unending hymn, even if we don’t like the tune, even if there are no projection screens, even if the seating doesn’t perfectly mold to each individual backside. Perhaps we should start practicing now.

It establishes a false “old vs. new” dichotomy in congregational song. This is one of the strangest things. Historic Christian worship, which most would now call traditional, has always sung new songs. Now, traditional worship has been equated with nostalgia, and contemporary with pop culture. It shouldn’t be this way. We should all be singing, speaking, and praying new things, incorporating them into the best of previous generations. Worship that is stuck in a particular time, be it contemporary or what was contemporary fifty years ago, always becomes narcissistic, self-indulgent, and trite. Always.

It teaches different theologies. Like it or not, our theology is shaped by what we sing, what we speak, and what we pray. Liturgy has always been theologically didactic in nature. Only now, in many of our congregations, we are no longer united by our theology. Why? Could it be because we are no longer singing, praying, and speaking the same thing?

It equates music with worship. Music is the supreme goal of the worship wars. Though most of us would voice disagreement, it is almost comically evident in our practice. When I was at Baylor, I went to a Wednesday night college service. I didn’t really want to go, but there was this girl, and, well, long story. But the college pastor preached on worship, how worship was not about singing, how it was about how we lived our lives, all that stuff. Then, at the end, he said, “Now, our band is going to come back for a time of worship before we’re dismissed.” That’s how funny it is. No matter what we say, when we think worship, we think about music in church.

It assumes that historic elements of Christian worship are optional. Again, the formative, didactic function of music and other service elements are compromised. “If the Apostles’ Creed means something to you, fine, go ahead and say it. If not, that’s fine too. It’s really all about what makes you most comfortable.” This is a problem. We don’t do what we do because it makes us happy or excited or sentimental, but because it’s important. If our faith tradition has long valued something, does that value go away because it doesn’t necessarily get butts in the seats?

It reduces corporate worship to an activity of individualistic self-expression instead of a gathering of covenant people. If worship services are about “connecting” to God, we might as well just stay home. Comfort and convenience over community and covenant. But that’s not the point. We worship because we are a distinct group bound together by the Christian story. What God hath joined together, let no worship “style” put asunder.

It creates a self-centered atmosphere. Churches that proclaim freedom of choice in worship gatherings would likely lose half of their congregation if one of those choices when away. It’s about me, what I want, and if that’s not happening, I’m going to take my ball or guitar or hymnal and go home.

It bows at the altar of American consumerism. This message of this false religion is that the customer is always right, that you can have it your own way. Of course, that’s a lie. It’s a lie that pits one thing up against one or two others and makes you believe you actually have real choices.

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This isn’t to say that worship should look identical in every congregation. This isn’t about making sure everyone worships like everyone else. Theology, geography, and culture will vary the expressions of faith within a liturgical framework.

This is about getting back to the crux of the issue. It’s about rediscovering the role worship is to play in our ecclesial identity.

It’s about opening ourselves back up to honest evaluations about the content of our worship, so that we can be the church God calls us to be for the world.

(Photos: Flickr: craigfinlay, creative commons license 2.0)



About Jonathan Aigner