The High Cost of the Worship Wars
The worst thing about the worship wars wasn’t the fact that churches were fighting over something that didn’t matter. Worship does matter. How we worship matters, too.
It wasn’t that, as a recent comment said, “Satan rejoices when we get bogged down with issues of style.” If anything, I have to believe that God wants us to use our God-given brains and think deeply about the content of our liturgy.
The worst thing about the worship wars was that worship in the church was radically reframed as a matter of preference.
There’s the real tragedy, because any conversation about worship is fundamentally about meaning, not preference. But we forgot that, and with the emphasis shifted from meaningful liturgy to personal taste, we arrived at the conclusion that worship style must be imprinted on each individual’s personhood.
The solution seemed clear at this point. To keep the peace and end the worship wars, each church must offer varying worship styles. This idea caught on, and everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief. Nothing was really fixed, of course, but it swept the issue under the rug. And this solution that gave us pseudo-peace in the Sanctuary became a de facto church growth strategy.
1. 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 megachurches are decidedly contemporary, the message seems to carry some weight, especially with our belief that bigger is better and that 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 moving in down the street would steal all their prospective members unless they started a contemporary service. A decade after being scared into splintering over “style,” the mainline church has never recovered.
2. 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.
3. Only churches with huge budgets can pull it off.
If your church has a huge chunk of cash to throw at this new service, enough to make it a professional-level performance, you might be numerically successful for a time. Create something entertaining enough, and people may show up for a while. But an untold number of smaller, less wealthy congregations have decided to start a contemporary service with limited resources. And by limited resources, I mean a few men of a certain age who will gladly relive their glory days, when they played in a garage cover band with some psychedelic name, say, the “Translucent Umbrellas.” The pastor, who is probably about the same age, thinks this is a great idea that will really pack in the young people. So they take off their shoes, grab their guitars, plug in their amps, and substitute their decades-old “new” songs, along with a few by Hillsong or Chris Tomlin, for the hymns in the traditional service.
Churches, hear me. Please stop trying this. It will end up failing because, though the novelty might seem cute to other church members, it will be embarrassing to young people and outsiders, and will seem way more out of touch than a traditional service. Don’t add a “contemporary” service, especially if you don’t have the funds to make it into the spectacle like the megachurch pattern demands. Just be yourself. Use your regular old songs with your regular old liturgy, but do it as well and with as much intentionality as you possibly can.
4. It establishes a false “old vs. new” dichotomy.
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. Liturgy that is stuck in a particular time. always becomes narcissistic, self-indulgent, and trite.
5. It assumes that historic elements of Christian worship are optional.
The formative, didactic function of music and other service elements are compromised. If a church truly believes an element of liturgy is important, it should be important for everyone. Because our faith is formed by how we worship, our worship should be crafted theologically. But the multiple service format says elements of worship are only as valuable as an audience finds them meaningful. For instance, “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 worship 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?
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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 another and makes you believe you actually have real choices.