Who Owns Your Worship?

Somewhere in Dallas. A conference room. A worship committee. Hot words about “competition” between traditional and contemporary worship. Worried members, vested interests, no resolution. The worship wars go on. But I wonder if we realize that in the end both sides may have lost.

For most of Christian history worship involved the systematic movement of a congregation, under the leadership of a priest, through a well defined liturgy. The word “traditional” wasn’t applied to worship because, in the end, the word worship defined the word tradition. Worship was the tradition at its core.

That has all changed. Now “traditional” when applied to at least United Methodist worship means the use of several aspects of old liturgies augmented and re-arranged to fit whatever the latest thinking is concerning the “flow” of human emotions in relationship to God. It’s like having a traditional thanksgiving dinner by hanging on to the cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie but serving sushi instead of turkey and quinoa salad instead of bread rolls. And serving the pie first since that gets people in the mood to eat.

This approach to tradition, i.e. “create your own,” has created a vast new Christian media industry. Denominational presses may have trouble making money on traditional worship resources, but all those other publishing companies know how to turn worship into bucks.

Pastors and liturgists too busy or lazy to seek out the rich resources of scripture and their own liturgical tradition turn to commercial sources for topical sermon outlines, pre-selected hymns, and  liturgies and prayers only a step away from the poetic quality of a Hallmark card. Paperback, video, CD, internet – choose your media and you’ll find worship resources for hire.

(Isn’t it amazing that a person with a Masters degree and years of pastoral experience, and whom one assumes is in possession of a Bible, can’t formulate her/his own prayers and outline his/her own sermons? Would you hire a trim carpenter who didn’t know how to make a miter cut and drive nails, or didn’t want to?)

On the contemporary side the business of worship is even more intense. A contemporary worship service requires a constant stream of newly purchased copyrighted music and video, and elaborate computer programs that weave words with videos on giant screens. This in turn demands songwriters, audio production engineers (and their studios), professional singers and actors, all manner of video production artists, graphic artists, marketers, and of course all the PA equipment, video projection equipment, and musical instruments for the inevitable band. Even a startup church can hardly field a contemporary worship team without tens of thousands of dollars in equipment.

Nor are a competent worship leader, audio and video technician, and band going to come cheap. Many are professionals as well, and shop the landscape of desperate churches for those willing to pay the most for their services.

As it stands Christian worship in much of the world is a wholly owned subsidiary of publishing houses, production companies, A/V equipment manufacturers, software producers, and marketing firms. And the best known of the worship leaders and preachers live not on the offering plate, but their residuals and royalties. Indeed, for major purveyors of worship experiences (Willowcreek, Hillsongs, Vineyard, etc.) the church isn’t a body of believers, it is a cherished brand used to market a vast array of worship aids, musical products, and worship leadership seminars. (Other well known brands include TD Jakes, Bob Roberts, Adam Hamilton, Rick Warren, Max Lucedo and Joel Olsteen. Just check the array of products each has on offer.)

So who owns your worship? Do you think that you are selecting the songs you sing and the prayers you pray and the liturgical pattern that best suits your people? Under the guidance of the Spirit? Not likely. They were pitched to you by business interests that control both the production of the product and its marketing through Christian radio stations, Christian TV networks, Christian bookstores, Christian mega-churches, Christian websites (like this one) and (less successfully) denominational agencies.

One example: Fox is owned by News Corp, which in turn owns Zondervan (huge publisher and distributer of Bibles) and HarperCollins, which owns Thomas Nelson, which owns Word Muslc. And Fox owns Fox Faith, that makes and distributes Christian and family oriented video. So when Fox News is outraged about the “war on Christmas” they have good reason; their parent company is pretty heavily invested in the Christmas worship industry.

But look at the bright side. All these professionals, industry groups and brand marketers are rooting for you as a Christian leader. They want Christian worship to succeed. They want folks to attend your service. Their business plan depends on it. And it may be that the business plan will determine who wins, or has already won, the worship wars.

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