The reason worship wars exist is because the church thinks it is fighting for something permanent when it is actually temporary. Musical styles and service preferences are like a jacket that can be taken on or off depending upon the temperature. It is used only when needed. Worship as a theological reality is not fit for such pedestrian arguments. It is to exist in the heart of all people - and it does. When we think we're debating styles and techniques and forms, we are really defending our own affections and deeply felt preferences. Most often we defend what is nostalgic rather than what is helpful. It's no wonder then that even attempts at ceasefires result in more fuel for the blaze.
I will lay my cards on the table: I was not raised in the church or in the subculture of the Bible Belt. I came to Christ at a later age and when I began my ministry it was with the urban poor in Buffalo, New York. I have been called by some "a son of the contemporary church movement." I don't know if that's necessarily true, but I know what it means. I do not have the traditional church DNA in me like so many others I've known, pastored, and appreciated.
So, it could be that it is hard for me to get inside the shoes of the traditional worship advocate. (Though ancient church music has now become a favorite on my iPod.) Or it could be that having come from an irreligious home in addition to my travels observing the worship practices of global Christians that I have a different perspective.
I won't deny I have personal preferences. For instance, it is clear that country and western music is not of God. (That's another joke; don't tell my friend Ricky Skaggs I said that.) Nevertheless, what I try to do is what we all should do in matters of preference and praise - commit to the reality that worship is not ultimately about us.
And because worship is not about us, I don't think we end the worship wars in our local congregations merely by compromise. Compromise is noble; consensus is better. A truce just gets 100% of our church worshiping at 50%. It is not compromise we want, but unity. So how do we get to that ever-elusive goal, that aim Jesus laid out for us in His High Priestly Prayer in John 17? Here are five ideas.
1. Rally around Truth, Not a Truce
In the same prayer Jesus prayed that His church would be one (John 17:21-22), He prayed that they would be sanctified by the truth of God's word (John 17:17).
When we come at the worship discussion we have to back up a bit and adopt a good theological framework for our conversations, because the church too often leaps to the assumption that "music = worship." Or perhaps we frame it a bit more broadly and think in terms of a "worship service." But the truth is that worship occurs in the whole of life. We are never not worshiping; our affections are always oriented somewhere or to someone. Minimizing worship to a one hour experience on Sunday monrings, or further down to merely the time of music in that experience, means many of us only dedicate thirty minutes of each week to worship of Christ. When we practice this minimization, it means that the rest of the time we're worshiping someone else (usually ourselves).
It is a harsh accusation to make, but as our music and production skills have increased, our worship has suffered because we have engaged in them as the outpouring of self-worship. So we must remember that worship is for every hour of every day of every week. Our lives are to be oriented to the worship of God. And the chances are, if we thought of worship that way, we would not put so much personal stake in hearing our favorite style of music on Sunday mornings. The entirety of our worship would not be loaded into that slice of time.
Holding personal preferences loosely allows for greater unity in the body and advancement of God's mission. The truth God seeks is that we rally to the cause of His glory among the nations rather than deciding is we will have two hymns and three choruses or three hymns and two choruses this Sunday.
2. Acknowledge that Preferences are Personal
I have witnessed the angst around worship music firsthand. I think that in some churches, a pastor could get away with preaching heresy so long as he's cool, funny, and has a good video clip. But if a pastor tries to alter the worship style, it is time to start looking for a new job.
This works both ways, for the favorers of so-called "contemporary praise" and the adherents to more traditional worship music. Neither appears willing to give up ground, and they have planted their flags in either Relevance (for the contemporary folks) or Reverence (for the traditionalists). (Hence, the name of the dialog in the video at the top of this post.)
In many churches where a worship war is brewing or is in outright conflict, one group perceives themselves to be pushing forward toward the next generation (relevance) while another is trying to pull back to a once-honored method (reverence). One group thinks contemporary music or a more casual style will suit the modern generation and appeal more to the lost. Meanwhile the other group thinks all of that is just worldly compromise and, furthermore, arrogant to casually dismiss the styles that have served the church well, in some cases, for hundreds of years.
When either of these scenarios occurs it is usually because we have elevated our preferences to the level of principles. We are "taking a stand" for something important: our own comfort, convenience, and concerns. And all the while we're trying to give God his due or the lost people in the pew it turns out we're really just making worship about us.
3. Realize that Relevance and Reverence Are Not at War with Each Other
What those who push forward should realize is that relevance is not a goal; it is a tool. It is not the end, but one (of many) means to the end. Relevance for relevance's sake never helped anybody. Playing a shocking song at the front of your Easter service may get headlines and upset religious people, but that's about all it does. Having rock music fans think you're a cool church is not the "win" you're really looking for. A smart church will be culturally discerning, but always biblically-driven first.
On the other hand, the traditionalists' placement of reverence on external styles is also wrongheaded. Reverence is not first and foremost an outward expression. It is a quality of the heart. Of course, it results in outward expressions, but take the story of David dancing before the Ark, for example. His free mode of worship was a scandal to Saul's daughter Michal, who was watching from afar. David's heart was turned reverently to the Lord, and this provoked a physical celebration from him. It sure looked irreverent to another. Many times today shouting, clapping, and dancing are seen as disorderly or irreverent or self-indulgent, but all three of those modes of worship are seen in Scripture though curiously absent from "reverent" worship services.
At the heart of many of our worship wars is, sad to say, idolatry. Our worship of things other than God drives the way we contend for ways to worship God. When reverence is equated with austerity, it can reveal an idolization of familiarity and comfort and control. When relevance is equated with a production carte blanche or "freedom of expression," it can reveal an idolization of trendiness and self and showmanship. Both relevance and reverence can cloak idolatry of cultural forms and expressions.
In both cases, what is revealed is an idolatry of music. And music is just... well, music. As my colleague Mike Harland, president of LifeWay Worship has said, "You will never achieve spiritual goals with a musical means." We see music as important in Scripture but never a particular form or function as necessary for discipleship. And never does God dictate a particular style, rhyme pattern, or lyrical format.
4. Embrace Humility
The evangelical church needs a ceasefire on fighting over cultural forms. A focus on biblical meanings will add a healthy dose of humility to our churches.
When I was young in the ministry, I was charged with ministry to both youth and seniors (go figure). One day I was going to lead worship at a nursing home. So, I took my guitar. I'll never forget this 92 year old woman, Miss Langley, who put her hand on my arm and said "Don't worry about the guitar, young man, we're just gonna sing and you can sing with us." I was bringing a relevance they didn't need, and I had to be mature enough to see the hindrance I was about to become.
Imagine would what happen if worship warriors actually took on the attitude of Jesus (per Phillipians 2) and did not regard their agendas as something to be grasped but instead took on the posture of servanthood. What if we (per Romans 12:10) actually tried to outdo one another showing honor? Humility is a "win" for every worshiper.
5. Cultivate Consensus, Not Compromise
We have to be mature enough to worship in different ways, even in someone else's ways. The so-called "blended service" has a typical formula of two songs for me and two songs for you and one song for that other guy. I think it is a sign of carnality and a lack of community in worship. Many times the blended worship service doesn't please anybody but maybe the pastor who has given up trying to cultivate consensus. The blended service is an equal opportunity to anger everyone. It can be a sad compromise.
I also believe we need to be careful about multiple services with specialized genres. What is the motivation? Is the division a compromise? We need to be cautious about pandering to the consumeristic side of Western Christianity. We need to ask ourselves what our motivation is, and be honest with our answer. If we're being mission-focused, that's a good and worthy goal. But if we're market-focused (and Christians are the market), we are off track.
If you go the blended or alternative service route, please do so not because you made a truce, but because you stuffed your egos and decided to glorify God for the sake of reaching your community in a language they understand; Spanish, biker, redneck, liturgical, or whatever.
Do the traditionalists appreciate the contemporary songs? Do the relevantists appreciate the hymns? Do they love each other? Do they see these differing forms as acceptable forms of worship?
Pastored well, a healthy congregation will seek consensus on the positives of God's glory and mission rather than settle for compromise on the negatives of personal preferences and styles. A church in consensus would rather have Jesus than the hymn "I'd Rather Have Jesus." A church in consensus will sing of God's greatness rather than need "How Great is Our God" as their anthem. Music will not bring unity in of itself. Worship brings unity. So long as it is the worship of Jesus.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.