The Worship Style Battles have been raging in churches for at least twenty years, from my personal experience. I remember being in high school in the late 80s/early 90s and having younger and more "progressive" worship leaders entering the ministry and introducing praise songs instead of just hymns. But the true heated battle began with the emergence of groups like Hillsong Church in Australia, Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, Passion Worship (which spawned David Crowder Band, Chris Tomlin, Charlie Hall, Matt Redman), and Contemporary Christian Music embracing the trend of popular "praise music" (Michael W Smith, Sonicflood - then grasped by most major artists like Newsboys, Third Day, Mercy Me). People became very familiar with the more "contemporary" praise and worship music being played on Christian radio and sold in stores. Then wanted that style of music to be utilized in church as well.
To define the terms of the battle, there is traditional worship and contemporary worship. There also is a very hazy and nebulous blended worship. All of these terms are defined by the listener and church, since there is no set definition. I have been in churches that defined traditional as all hymns, a choir, and a piano and organ. I have also been in churches that felt that their service became contemporary because they added a praise song and got rid of their organ. [Side Note: A hymn is what is found in a hymnal. A praise song is usually not, and it was probably written in the last fifteen or twenty years. Although some older praise songs have reached acceptable status with hymn lovers. "There Is a Redeemer" and "Shine Jesus Shine" are two of those.] Contemporary encompasses a wide variety of elements - praise teams, praise band, single worship leader on the guitar, orchestra. Since it is so hard to determine what exactly is traditional or contemporary, a new style developed. The Blended style means that you use both styles. You sing hymns and praise songs. You have a piano and choir. But you also have drums, guitars, and a praise team in front on the stage.
Reading this description of the battle, it probably is confusing and slightly goofy. Congratulations. You now see the problem with this entire conflict. Why is this even an issue? But it is an issue in churches all across the country. The church we just joined is going through it right now. This is usually how it plays out. There is one group of people who prefer a more traditional style of worship. They prefer more hymns, maybe an orchestra, piano and organ. This group is usually older, usually more powerful in the church, and usually gives more money to the church. Then there is another group that prefers a more contemporary style of worship. They want praise songs, more emotion, no organ, guitars and drums, and a single worship leader with backing vocals. This group is usually younger - including younger families and college and high school students. They don't put as much money into the church, but they are the precise group most churches are desperate to reach to secure the church's longevity.
The church will usually try to fix this problem by forcing some sort of cooperation. The music minister may have to start pulling more songs from the other style from where he is familiar. There may be an "assistant music minster" hired to bring experience in the opposite style. Eventually, the blending doesn't make anyone happy. So many churches go the route of starting a second service. The traditional service with the older people and older music is held earlier in the day. The contemporary service with the younger crowd and newer music is held later. The other option is to run these two services simultaneously with a video feed of the pastor preaching, or a rotation among the other staff guys.
Basically, that church is now two churches. The two groups are completely independent of each other, separated largely by age. They never interact as a church body. Sunday School classes are almost always age and/or gender based. The older people (the very same people who the Bible says should be teaching and mentoring the younger people) never see the younger people. Proponents of this system say that these groups interact at Sunday night services or on Wednesday nights. I will call "horse hockey" on that immediately. Most churches are ditching their Sunday night services all together. And Wednesday nights, you sit with your family and/or closest friends and never even talk to the other groups. In addition, the older crowd is always at the Wednesday night dinners first and are clearing out by the time the younger crowd wanders in to eat. You have two churches under one roof, plain and simple. Let's take a closer detailed look at the two style arguments.
They like to use the hymnal. Their argument is that their style is more reverential. It has more depth. They hold up the hymns and the great theological and doctrinal truths in them. The simpler music style keeps the focus off of the people on stage and puts it on the music. This can be true. There are some phenomenal truths in the hymns. If you study the back stories on hymns, you would be blown away. The author of "It Is Well With My Soul" wrote it after losing his four children when their ship sunk. "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" was penned by Martin Luther and became a rallying cry for the Protestant Reformation. There are some tremendous hymns with powerful messages. Great Is Thy Faithfulness, Amazing Grace, Jesus Saves. They can't help but move your with their message. But there are some very stupid hymns. Heresy, you say. Ever read "O God of Earth and Outer Space?" Dumbest song ever. How about every invitational hymn that makes Jesus sound like a wet, whipped puppy scratching at the door and waiting for the doggy door to get unlocked? "Oh, how He wants to come in." And there are some Christmas hymns that seem like they were talking about a different event than the one in Luke. The other big problem with the traditional style is that, while it is reverential, it also can be very cold and disconnected. When you have been singing the same songs for fifty years, they can lose their meaning. It can become a rote action. In many churches, these services are dry and hard to sit through - because it seems like everyone is phoning it in.
This group is big on the experience. They want to be moved emotionally. They want to feel something. The songs are newer with more emotive elements, intentional phrasing and crafting to maximize the feelings. They point at the dryness of some traditional services and the life in theirs. This group is easy to target on several fronts. The accusers say they use 7-11 songs, where there are seven words being sung eleven times. Their music is seen as low depth and high manipulation. The worship leaders often are more concerned about appearance and talent. They use lots of product in their hair, pay a lot of money to dress casual. A lot of these groups focus on performance - lights, smoke machines, getting into the music. It is easy to shoot at this group. But, the fact is, a good number of these contemporary songs are very good. Laura Story's "Indescribable" is phenomenal (more famously sung by Chris Tomlin). As is a lot of David Crowder and Chris Tomlin's stuff. Crowder's Remedy album is simply amazing. And a good number of these newer guys are deeply passionate about Jesus. Bill Horn runs contemporary worship at FBC Lakeland. To this day, he is one of the best worship leaders I have ever had the pleasure to serve with. His heart is without a doubt 100% given over to God and it is never a performance for him. He just is drawn to this style. And he has a fauxhawk.
So what is even the issue? Is it all over which instruments and songs are sung? A large amount of it has to deal with comfort level. The traditional crowd grew up with a specific style of worship. They are accustomed to that. There may be room for small changes, like using projected lyrics or the occasional praise song. But they want to experience church they way they always have. They prefer a more reverent atmosphere. The music was a way to get you focused for the sermon. I attended this kind of church from when I was a child until college. I know all the major hymns. I have heard ladies' trios, men's quartets, organ offertories. That is the foundation I experienced in church.
Part of the contemporary crowd grew up in that traditional background, but saw it as old-fashioned and wanted to move past it. The rest of them probably grew up in the more contemporary mindset. This music is more emotional. It is constructed to create a "worship experience" in and of itself. The sermon is to be laid on this carefully prepared "worshipful mindset." (Sermons also are supposed to be shorter and more "relevant" - to not kill the buzz, I guess.) There is a lot of emoting in the worship leaders. Closed eyes, grimaced and painful faces, hands raising. It is more showy in nature - replicating a concert atmosphere. Songs can be extended and sung with multiple choruses as long as "the Spirit moves." Being in college ministry for a long time, this is the worship style I have been around more for the second half of my life.
So which is right? Neither. Yeah, that's what I said. Neither side is right. There isn't a right or wrong in this issue. It is a PREFERENCE. You prefer one style, I prefer another. You like Coke and I like Pepsi. You like beef and I like bison. It is like you may prefer gangster rap while I prefer rock. But it all misses the point. We think that this is about what WE want to do. Rick Warren in his multi-gazillion selling 40 Days of Purpose book made a brilliant point right at the start. "It isn't about you. Worship is not about you. If you walk out of church always saying what you got out of it, you missed the point." I paraphrased that, but that is the general gist of what he was saying. Worship is supposed to be us offering our devotion and allegiance and praise to God. That's what it is all about. We are giving it to Him. It is our gift to Him. And in a church setting, it is a congregation giving God the gift of our unified worship to Him. But we are caught up fighting what the gift looks like. How would you like it if your kids spend the week leading up to Christmas having huge knock-down, drag-out fights about what to get you for Christmas. Finally, they either came and gave you some weird hybrid of two presents - all while glaring at each other. Or they gave you two different presents and kept arguing about which was better. Would you be pleased with that gift?
Both sides have worth. Both sides have weaknesses. But that isn't even the point. It should be about the body focusing on God and lifting Him up. I don't believe for a minute that is it not possible for both groups to worship together. Here's a few stories to illustrate that.
- Todd Stearns was worship pastor at the first church where I served on staff. He was an unmatched talent. He could sing like a national artist. He played the piano. He wrote music. (And he was a good looking and funny guy - could have been a huge star but never felt he should pursue it.) He led a choir, a praise team. He sang solos, duets with his equally talented wife, quartets. Didn't matter. We had three different services with three different styles there. It didn't matter which service you went to, Todd gave equal effort. He led hymns, praise songs, choral numbers. But he also was a true prayer warrior. And the most memorable thing that ever happened was on a Sunday when we were honoring our pastor's fifth anniversary. As the solo before the sermon, Todd sat at the piano and sang Keith Green's "O Lord, You're Beautiful." It was so powerful and moving that everyone sat there like the crowd at the end of Schindler's List. The pastor just walked up to the mic and said, "Well, I guess we should just have the invitation." Contemporary service: nine people got saved. Blended service: same thing happened and five people got saved. No one cared that the song was almost twenty years old.
- Travis Cottrell was leading music at the National Collegiate Conference in North Carolina. He is an amazing worship leader - sings hymns, praise songs, blends them together. He does a version of "In Christ Alone" that is combined with "On Christ the Solid Rock" that had brought me to tears several times. Anyway, one night during the evening service there was a painter doing a big mural. Travis was leading music. He said that there was a big debate about whether it was appropriate to talk about Christ's blood. There were those who said the blood was too gory and violent. So they were pushing for churches to stop. But Travis said that the Bible repeatedly talks about the power of the blood. So he led this group of 1000 college students through about 20-30 minutes of hymns about the blood. Every single one had the word in it. No Powerpoint. No projector. No hymnals. The students knew all the songs by heart - and it was amazing.
- I was in one service not too long ago where the pastor was doing a profile of great people in the Bible. The final service was about Jesus. So all the songs they sang were about the cross. The congregation sang several songs together - two hymns and one praise song. Then the choir did a great song called "Power of the Cross." The choir got down and the praise team and praise band came up for the rest of the music. They played several praise songs about the cross. The pastor preached. And then the praise team leader sang a beautiful solo acoustic rendition of "Beautiful Scandalous Night." The entire service pointed to one person and one thing - Jesus and His death on the cross. They used choir, praise team, solo, congregation - singing hymns, praise songs, choral numbers. It was an amazing blend with a touching unity of purpose. Where was that? Our new church - the same one that in that same service announced they were splitting into two services.
Now, why, I ask you, does it have to resort to a battle? Why must there be splits within churches? Why must so much energy and effort be spent trying to push your own preference? If it truly is about God, and not us, then why must we fight at all? Can't we recognize the worth of all styles? Can't we work together to highlight the message? Both sides should learn to give a little. This isn't about doctrine or theology. This is about song choice and instrument usage and how much product someone uses in their hair. It is ridiculous and it only serves to split the church and dilute the message of the Gospel. And it makes for a lousy gift to God.