Have Church Your Way: The High Cost of the Worship Wars

Have Church Your Way: The High Cost of the Worship Wars January 9, 2022

After fighting the worship wars for a generation, evangelical churches first tried something they called “blended” worship (I used to make people mad by calling it “lukewarm worship”), which wasn’t the REAL blended worship as much as it was an ad hoc order of service usually including hymn/chorus medleys. In the end, nobody was any happier, usually because the medleys were weird and the enmeshment of organ and praise band even weirder. It magnified the disunity.

Larger churches came up with a solution: two services, each with it’s own “worship style.”

It sounded great, and sure enough, there were some results. The emotional intensity simmered.

But it’s cost us in the end.

We try to have it more in heaven as it is on earth. And by doing so, we symbolically make it less on earth as it is in heaven.

The existing service, the one that used to just be called “church,” was reduced to being a sentimental, get-your-blue-haired-friends-together-and-sing-the-old-favorites hour. Some elements may have remained, but they remained as breathless corpses, museum pieces, mere relics that reminded us of a time gone by. The new, contemporary service borrows the commercial Top 40 sound, and often ditches with the difficult, churchy stuff. No need for liturgy, creeds, hymns ancient and modern. Like merchants lobbying for customers, we say “Come to our church. We have choices now! One of them is cool, and the other one is for old people and old souls.” And to dissatisfied current members, it says, “Wait! Don’t leave! You win! You can have church your way now!” Instead of being a “royal waste of time,” as Marva Dawn calls it, it’s a tool to hook unsuspecting entertainment seekers into making some kind of verbal acknowledgment of Jesus and the next building campaign.

Then, somewhere along the line, we decided that corporate worship was really about the art of attraction. The bottom line: butts in the seats.

And we haven’t stopped there. We’ve found that a good show can bring people in. Many churches now offer a “worship experience” aimed at every age-level. Denominations are studying area demographics to determine what kind of style might attract more warm bodies. Then there’s the question of how to get young people back in the church. Everyone should find a worship experience that fits them just right. Take it from Pastor Darrin!

But, and my apologies to Matt Redman, but we’ve lost the “heart” of our worship gathering. And that’s cost us, and the world around us, so dearly.

It’s cost us a high view of corporate liturgy.

The church has long drawn a connection between worship and ethics. How we worship determines how we live. Worship God because God is holy, because God is worthy, because God invites us into the sacred story of creation and redemption. When worship is reduced to a tool, a means to a higher attendance count, it’s functionally nothing more than another ministry area. Another chance to draw warm bodies in, along with the men’s prayer breakfasts, the family life center, and the now compulsory life groups. And, honestly, it’s not really worship. It becomes something else entirely.

It’s cost us participation in corporate worship.

In many contemporary megachurches today, there could be no congregation and it wouldn’t change a thing. Worship is no longer a holy dialogue, it’s an experience. The only decision is what kind of jesusy entertainment you like the most. We show up expecting everything to be done for us. Enter the sanctuary auditorium, find a pew stadium-style chair, sit in the congregation audience, and let worship happen in front of you. Maybe we’ll stand up and sing a few songs, but even that’s not really a requirement. Instead of being a vehicle for congregational response, music is performed by a few as a pseudo-holy warm-up for the sermon.

It’s cost us unity.

Congregations have been splintered. Families are separated. Theological continuity is broken. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. Targeting worship toward certain demographics robs us of the opportunity to be the church together. Christ’s invitation is an open one. Worship together like the motley crew we are, so we can learn to see Jesus in people that don’t look like us, don’t talk like us, and don’t vote like us. So young, eager faces can learn what it means to be the church from those that are wrinkled.

It’s cost us our identity.

There is no time we are as much the church as we are in corporate worship. But we’re no longer free to be ourselves. Look at your average evangelical sanctuary. Borrowing the words of Fred Pratt Green, the symbols that remind us of our life-long need of grace, the table, font, pulpit, even the cross, are strikingly absent. Sacraments – our God-given means of grace – are avoided on a purely practical basis. We have to rely on weak, mundane, vernacular language to tell the gospel story, lest we lose our targeted audience. Ancient rituals are dismissed as silly superstition, instead of embraced as markers in our life-long journey of faith. We organize our churches around all the other busyness, instead of the rhythm of the church year that forms our spiritual awareness. And so we do worship in a vacuum, with no grounding, no history, no eye toward the finished work of Christ, and no knowledge of the age to come.

It’s cost us our mission.

We’ve mistaken evangelism for church attendance. We’ve relied on worship style to do our dirty work for us. So why go out to be the church in the world? Would we even know how anymore?

So, what do we do?

We refocus our mission. We refine our understanding of corporate worship. We recover the beauty of liturgical dialogue. We retell our sacred story. We reclaim our symbols, our architecture, our creeds, and our history We reexamine our motivation. We rethink our concept of evangelism.

But our guests won’t understand! Half our church won’t even understand!

That’s okay. That’s why we’re here.

I once served under a pastor who liked to say that if we don’t change the way we worship to attract each generation, we’re telling the world it can go to hell.


You don’t get it, Pastor Norman. By recreating worship in the image of each generation, we aren’t giving the world any alternative.

I wonder if this isn’t our greatest mistake. I wonder if, by letting go of our liturgical identity and modeling our gatherings after our consumeristic, bloated society, we’re depriving the world of the healthy church it desperately needs, both on Sundays and every other day.

During my years teaching in the public school system, I worked with young children from mostly underprivileged families, and I witnessed first hand the tragedy of childhood obesity that plagues poor communities. And believe me, it is a tragedy. At first glance, it doesn’t make sense. Poverty shouldn’t lead to obesity. But think about it. If you’re hungry and immobile, what’s available on every corner, is inexpensive, and demands very little effort. Carbs. From convenience stores, gas stations, fast food restaurants. And so, carbo-loading is what’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Every day.

So it is with the church’s worship. We’re building Burger Kings when we should be planting gardens and digging wells. We’re further indulging the carb-addicted, malnourished population with the same cheap fluff, instead of offering them a balanced meal of Word and Sacrament. Be hospitable, yes, but don’t dumb it down. Don’t make it easy. Trading the body and blood for donuts and coffee is robbing you blind. It might allow you to survive for a while, but it won’t empower, it won’t sustain. It won’t last.

And we wonder why the church’s muscles continue to atrophy.

No more rock concert with a self-help sermon at the end. Bring back the ancient pattern of liturgy, the corporate prayer, the sacred dialogue, the “and with thy spirit.” No more all-request golden hour, either. Lose the media, the lights, the effects, and make room for the heights of wonder and imagination our creative God deserves from us. Use music that is beautiful and well-constructed. Chose music that carries the beauty of the Christian story with honor and dignity, instead of the creative paucity piped into our lives everywhere else. No more splintering congregations in the name of giving everyone what they want.

After all, what they needed was there all along. The Word rightly preached and the Sacraments rightly administered.

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