Given the amount of attention and feedback we’ve received with regard to removing the “traditional/contemporary” split in worship at Coral Ridge in favor of a blended format (you can read about it here), I thought it would be a good idea to do a follow-up post going into even more detail regarding why we made the decision we made. Later, I’ll do a post answering some of the questions we’ve been asked.
First of all, this was not first and foremost a music decision. It was a gospel decision. In other words, while I certainly don’t claim to know each and every situation in each and every local church, I don’t think a local church can experience the degree of deep, rich unity that Jesus prayed for the night before he went to the cross by having a “traditional/contemporary” split in worship. I think by segregating ourselves this way we miss out on some choice blessings that Jesus intends for his one body to enjoy.
Let me tell you a story.
A couple years ago my wife and I went to my daughter’s end of the school year kindergarten musical. As I sat there watching her sing and dance and laugh on stage with friends she adores-I was surprised by a rush of sadness that overcame me.
Some of Genna’s friends are white, some Hispanic, some black. Some come from families having very little, some from wealthy families. Some come from single-parent homes, others from homes where Mom and Dad are happily married. Some are physically uncoordinated, while others are already remarkably athletic. But to my then six-year-old daughter and her friends, none of these differences made a difference. They didn’t even seem to notice those things that, in time, will tend to separate them.
By the time Genna and her friends are in high school, our culture will have tried to convince them to join “their own kind.” Over time they’ll be informally segregated into cliques: cheerleaders with cheerleaders, nerds with nerds, jocks with jocks, artists with artists. The rich will be influenced to stick with the rich, the poor with the poor, blue collar with blue collar, white collar with white collar. Movies, magazine covers, and TV shows will influence them to believe that “beautiful people” should enjoy life with other beautiful people, leaving the unattractive to their own groupings.
By the time they reach adulthood, many of these young friends will be torn apart by the very differences God intends for us to celebrate and enjoy-differences that make each one of us unique.
During the musical, my daughter’s eyes met mine, and she waved and smiled. I did my best to hold back my tears and smile back. Unexpectedly for me, a time intended for sweet memory-making had brought a moment of sorrow. I sat there groaning inwardly for my daughter, who would soon be pressured to view human life and community very differently than she does now-very differently, in fact, than God intended.
What I experienced that afternoon was the sad reality that this world is irrefutably tribal. In spite of how open and freethinking we believe our society has become, segregation is still fashionable-now more than ever, in some ways.
We segregate by age and socio-economic classes as well as by race, physical appearance, and cultural background. We’re grouped according to likes and dislikes, preferences and personality traits. We form clans of people who all look, talk, think, and act the same. Some of this separation is both understandable and unavoidable. From elementary school through high school, academic institutions separate students according to age, recognizing the benefit of age-appropriate teaching. But for the most part, when people separate from those who are different, they miss out on so many things intended to enhance human life and relationships.
In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis mentions two friends, Ronald and Charles. After one of them died, Lewis realized there was no consolation to be found in the possibility that he and the surviving friend might now actually “get” more of each other as a result. “Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.” He would never again, for example, observe Ronald’s unique reaction to one of Charles’s jokes. Lewis notes, “In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.”
The same dynamic of relational loss is at work when we segregate according to kind. We see and experience much less, not more, when we gravitate toward, and surround ourselves with, those who are just like us. When young are separated from old, rich from poor, black from white, “traditional” from “contemporary”, our world becomes a much smaller and less remarkable place. Our preferences and perspectives remain plain and narrow. We lose sight of the beauty and the brilliance that accompany gospel wrought diversity.
You see, when the gospel really grabs you, something happens.
Some of my closest friends today are people I would never have hung out with in high school. That’s as it should be-the work of God the Son reconciling us to God the Father must also result in our reconciliation with one another. When we come to God through repentance and faith in Christ, we come into a new relationship with God’s people, many of whom are quite different from us. The church ought to exemplify a radically unusual social order because it integrates people who are very unlike one another.
In Paul’s day the world was rigidly divided between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. Those walls of separation were thick, and the groups on each side were hostile. But that didn’t stop Paul from boldly proclaiming God’s intention to establish a new community-the church-that not only included all these but also allowed them to enjoy deeply interdependent relationships. As Paul argued for the Gentiles’ place in God’s redemptive plan, he said, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon him” (Romans 10:12). As Paul decried certain Jewish leaders for teaching that the sign of circumcision was a condition for justification, he wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And when he addressed class distinctions threatening to divide the church, he asserted our newness in Christ, in which “there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). If he were writing to the 21st Century church you could almost hear him say, “There is neither ‘traditional’ nor ‘contemporary’ worship; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul kept affirming a foundational reality that always accompanies true gospel belief: when God makes us one with Christ, he also makes us one with each other, removing the barriers of separation erected by our society. In contrast to the tribal-mindedness of the world around us, the church is to bring together people who would remain separated in any other sector of society. The divisive and fundamentally worldly notions of class, race, economics, and age prove to be painful sources of loneliness, fragmentation, and alienation in the modern world-things the church should strive against in establishing a new community.
The primary reason, though, that stylistic segregation in worship shrinks our souls is because it prevents us from knowing God deeply. The only way to know him deeply is to have many different types of Christian people in your life, since each person will help to reveal a part of God that you can’t see by yourself. This means the great tragedy of segregation isn’t so much that we see less of each other but that in separating from each other we see less of God. All of us need other lights than our own to see more of his myriad facets.
So, we miss out on some great things God intends for us to enjoy when we separate in worship according to musical tastes. The idea to do this comes, not from the Bible, but from American consumerism and we adopt this practice to our own peril.
As my friend Steven Phillips rightly says, we ought to use the best music, prayers, and traditions of our Christian past, so that our worship is guided and enriched by our fathers in the faith. In doing this we demonstrate that our Christian faith reaches back thousands of years. And we ought also to use the best new songs and styles – to “sing a new song to the Lord” as the Psalms say – so that we can demonstrate that the grace of God is ever new. God’s saving power is available now, in the present day, to all who call on Him in faith.
By musically blending things in this way we exercise love toward those who resonate with different musical tastes than us. We recognize that our worship service is a shared time and a shared space, so that if a particular song or style doesn’t inspire us, we can still look across the sanctuary and give thanks from our hearts for the diversity of people who are here. The gospel of Jesus Christ invites us to look across the aisle and say, “Though this song or style may not appeal to me, I see that God is using it to move you. I love you in Christ and I’m glad you’re here.”
Brothers and sisters, this is the way it should be–especially when we gather for worship! And thank God, this is the way it now is at Coral Ridge!