A View from the Pew: Are the Worship Wars Over?

Pew_smIn the late 1980s and ‘90s, discussions of worship styles in churches were ubiquitous, heated, and all too often destructive to church unity.

I was reminded of those old battles last week when I was catching up on the phone with a friend since childhood. He indicated his church, in another state, was having problems about worship style. It struck me, not just because it was disheartening to hear of these issues causing turmoil again, but because it has been such a long time since I had heard such conversation.

For his church, it was a move toward more traditional worship that was causing problems, or, better said, some people in the church were having problems with the move toward more traditional worship. And that’s the key to understanding this struggle in church life from the beginning: its more about people’s differences than the approaches to worship being all that different.

There are so many ways to disrupt the life of a church that it’s hard to blame just one issue as the major divider but, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, worship style was certainly one. Why has the hot war cooled to a simmer? Here are three reasons I think the church has mostly moved on from the worship wars:

1.) The dust has settled. All the churches that were going to split over this issue already have. Or, all the churches that were dealing with worship style have already found satisfactory accommodations, such as blended worship or multiple services. To borrow the language of marketers, worship style is now part of each church’s brand. Most churches have figured out their identity and are trying to make decisions consistent with that identity. At my church, we have prayerfully determined that traditional worship best reflects our theology and approach to faith, but we also have contemporary music sprinkled in on occasion, even with strummy guitars or drums. No church squabbles. No threats to move membership. It’s a non-issue. Thankfully.

2.) Better planning. It very well could be that the issue has been largely settled at churches because the worship planners—ministers of music, musicians, and senior pastors—have been more intentional about the choices they make in ushering the congregation into the presence of God each week. They learned through the vitriol and contentiousness what sets off their congregations, and now they can plan worship that avoids landmines for their members. I admittedly don’t get around to other churches much these days, but I’ve observed a refreshing creativity in approaching worship. Even the most liturgical congregations will accommodate the movement of the Spirit to include testimony, praise and worship music, or prayer practices that are either rediscovered or new twists on centuries-old traditions. This puts the focus on what’s important, regardless of the style.

3.) New threats emerging. There is no limit to the issues that divide congregations. From the cliché argument over the color of the carpet to the wording of the church sign, churches have been distracted from their mission by petty disagreements since the beginning. Rather than fighting about organ music vs. praise band, churches seem to be battling more frequently and severely about secular politics, their finances, declining participation and attendance, and upkeep of aging facilities. Any of these issues can disrupt a church as effectively as the old fights over worship, and it may be that churches have just replaced those arguments with new ones.

I’m sure there are still hot spots in the worship wars, and some of you may be experiencing that pain even now. I hope and pray that’s not the case. I also hope and pray we as believers have learned from the mistakes of the past and have found a way to deal with these issues in productive and Christ-affirming ways.

Maybe the solutions we found to the worship wars can help us deal with the new and future conflicts in better ways. That would be one positive outcome from the decades of fighting over worship style. And we could begin to heal the wounds of a generation of church people.

Lance Wallace_for_webLance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA, does media relations and issues management at his day job, and blogs at newsouthessays.com.

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