I know of a church that is dancing dangerously close to a split.
As I understand it, it began with offering an early “contemporary” service, and then a move to make all of the services uniformly contemporary.
Or at least somewhat contemporary.
We’re not talking anything particularly edgy here. The robes, choirs, hand-bells, responsive readings….all were going to stay. I believe they wanted to add in a contemporary song or two, and maybe update the renditions of a hymn here and there, and perhaps experiment a bit with some new instruments – a guitar, for example, or drums.
Tame by most standards.
The pastor had prayed about it, reflected on it and studied up on it quite a bit. He had a long and trusted tenure of nearly two decades of caring for his people and teaching them faithfully from the Bible. He also knew that the church had not been growing for some time, and that younger folk were few and far between.
But a group within the church erupted. They determined to use parliamentary procedure and democratic rule to return the church to its original format. Specifically, they exercised a clause in the church’s constitution and by-laws which allowed them, with enough member support, to mandate a specially-called business meeting in order to put forward a specific motion for a congregational vote. They were successful, and so the church is now ready to cast their vote on whether or not to force the pastor and staff to turn the 11 a.m. service back to a traditional format.
The pastor is begging them not to go forward with what will certainly split the church, tarnish its reputation in the community and set a dangerous precedent for how the church is to be led spiritually. The last I heard, the pastor was so blindsided by the controversy that he was desperately working for a compromise; mainly, keeping the services the same, but making them even less contemporary to attempt to pacify those up in arms.
Welcome to what is now widely known as the “worship wars.” It’s not a discussion that is particularly relevant to church plants, which by and large started as contemporary offerings. It’s not a discussion that is particularly relevant to those older churches that have reached the mythical megachurch level of attendance, as most of them made the transition to at least a blended style many years ago.
But it is a very relevant discussion to thousands of other churches. Perhaps even the majority.
But are they worship “wars”, meaning a conflict fought on principled grounds, or is it something less spiritual?
Here are five important questions that should be asked:
1. Is it a worship war or a turf war? In many situations, the issue seems more about who is in charge. Often the real conflict is whether or not the pastor has the authority to lead the church toward such change, or if the authority to direct the church rests with the members. Rarely, if ever, does a change in the worship service flow from the bottom-up; it is almost always initiated from the top-down. This can create a power struggle. Adverse reaction may be more about leadership and authority than casual dress and Starbucks coffee.
2. Is it about theology or taste? Negative reactions to changes in worship – whatever those changes might entail – are often stated in theological terms. For example, the case might be made that a contemporary approach to worship is somehow not biblical. But more often than not, this is a stretch. Is there truly a biblical case to be made against, say, drums and guitars? Both instruments are highlighted as part of the worshiping life of the Old Testament. Pianos and organs are not. So is there a real biblical issue here, or are theological fences being artificially constructed around personal tastes?
3. Is this an effort to protect tradition or traditionalism? Tradition is a very good thing. Traditionalism is not. Traditionalism is doing something just because that’s the way it’s always been done, or refusing to consider anything that would involve change. It is enshrining the past in ways that make the past sacrosanct, just because it’s the past, refusing to consider potentially strategic ways of moving forward into a new day. Most have heard of the seven last words of a dying church: “We’ve never done it that way before.”
4. Is this about being turned inward instead of being turned outward? Taking a cue from the apostle Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians about raising their sensitivity to the unchurched who might attend (I Cor. 14), and Paul’s new approach to connecting with the unchurched on Mars Hill when compared to Peter’s address to the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem (Acts 17), most leaders want to make changes to a worship service to increase the church’s ability to reach out to the unchurched. But this means being turned “outward” in your disposition rather than being turned “inward.” Turning yourself outward usually involves an inconvenience to those who are already on the inside, sometimes even to the point of needing those on the inside to die to themselves – or more to the point, their preferences. So is the conflict really about whether you are going to care about the lost, or primarily care about the already convinced?
5. Is this about what you get or what God gets? Many fear a consumer mindset imposing itself on the church where the needs of the unchurched set the pace and theology of the church as it seeks to cater to the world. But what of the consumer mindset of the believer driving the church in unhealthy ways? In truth, this may be where consumerism runs most rampant. If you ever catch yourself saying “I didn’t get anything out of it” about a worship service, or “It doesn’t meet my needs,” then you are on very dangerous ground. Worship is not about you, and even less about what you get out of it. It’s about God, and what He gets out of it. If you are the object of worship, then that is idolatry.
So should we have worship wars? Sometimes. I’d go to the mattresses over such things as the meaning of communion, the theology behind the lyrics to songs and the biblical moorings of the sermon.
But is that what your conflict is about?
James Emery White