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Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I consider myself to be somewhat of a worship historian. Certainly in all of my reading, research, and study I have only just begun to peek over the edge of Christian worship history, but the subject is definitely one of my favorites. By studying worship history, it has allowed me unique opportunities to critique and evaluate current worship models and mindsets. One conclusion I have reached through my studies is that the last forty years (approximately) have been an anomaly. Only over the past forty years has Christian worship been defined in terms of its style rather than its content.
I am sure we have all heard the term “worship wars” used to describe tension in the church over various styles of worship. Interestingly, the connotation of this “war” is that battles have taken place concerning labels for the style of worship within a church, mainly focused on “contemporary” verses “traditional” forms. These arguments tend to center around musical style and instrumentation, or at least that is the connotation when hearing the terms. Other issues include formality verses casual approaches or high liturgy verses simple liturgy. The stereotypical argument accredited to traditionalists is that “this is how we’ve always done it.” The stereotypical argument accredited to contemporaries is that they want to be more “seeker-friendly.” Traditional worship is seen as dead. Contemporary worship is seen as shallow. None of these arguments (at least as I often hear them) take into consideration the content of worship – proclaiming, acting out, and living the story of the Triune God. (Admittedly, I am making extreme generalizations here.) Content has been pushed aside and become a lesser priority.
If the leadership of the church begins to make the content a lesser priority, why then should the people be any different? What does this do to the life of a congregation? Surely living out the story of the Triune God – a life of love, communion, and sacrifice – will no longer be seen between the people of the church.
Ageism is an issue not often spoken of, but one that is rampant across churches of America. Especially in the midst of these “worship wars” has ageism become a concern. Ageism is defined as the stereotyping of and discrimination against individuals or groups because of their age. It is a set of beliefs, attitudes, norms, and values used to justify age based prejudice and discrimination.
            There are many ways I have seen ageism at work within the church. I have seen younger church members denied the opportunity to share music because it uses a guitar. I have seen older generations ignored and eventually pushed out of the church because their style of worship is not considered seeker-friendly enough. I have heard methods of starting new services or church plants based on reaching specific demographics of age. Likewise, I have attended churches where services were split depending on age – children, youth, young adult, and then everyone else.
            What happens when we allow these attitudes to enter and divide our churches? Certainly, we miss out on important elements of kingdom living. We miss out on opportunities to learn from, share, grow, and serve with people of all generations and experiences. Similarly, stereotyping becomes common and congregations are divided, and sometimes split, because of assumed generalizations. Good conversations are not held to work through issues together. Care for listening to, working with, and caring for the other is not considered. Personal preference becomes the ultimate authority. Relationship, unity, and community become lesser priorities. Instead, worship is decided in terms of style, preference, and appeasement. 


  1. Amen! I've been fighting this from both sides for years. I hate that we have "contemporary" and "traditional" distinctions. I hate that we divide over style and most importantly instrumentation. I am a "contemporary" worship leader because I am a guitarist. And yet I am constantly being accused from younger people of not being "contemporary" enough because I find a lack of liturgy in the service to be something that falls short of being church. I've never understood why we need to draw these distinctions. I've never understood crafting a service for a target demographic. Why not just come together and worship God and trust that the act of worship will be enough? There's so much that's broken right now. I just want to scream IT'S NOT ABOUT US! We just want these styles of worship that appeal to us and affirm us and really "speak to us" and whatever that is it ain't worship.

  2. Thanks for the comments Tom! It's a very strange time for worship that we live in and have lived in for the past 40 years. So much of it is reactionary in my opinion, and not focused on delighting in God. Instead, it seeks how to delight more in the service. And I hate it that playing a guitar automatically makes a service "contemporary." We do more hymns than choruses at Offerings, sometimes we chant Psalms, and we celebrate communion weekly, but we are still considered the contemporary service because I play guitar. Again, content is not considered. Instrumentation and style have become the defining factor.

  3. Johnathan, just a couple of weeks ago, a couple who had been at the church just a few sundays sent a scathing email basically accusing us (me) that we were catering to the young generation and leaving out the old (which in itself is kind of funny because I don't even know which one I belong to....I don't play guitar!) Anyways, this was after ONE Sunday that all the music just happened to be contemporary praise. This doesn't happen often but when I'm planning my music I hardly take style into consideration...I think content, and for that sunday the content just happened to be praise music, but it was full of beautiful and rich scripture readings, responsive readings, the Lord's prayer and a more traditional choir piece. Not to mention a sermon that hit itout of the park!
    I was really bothered by the email. They said that the contemporary music doesn't "speak to them". How can singing of being forgiven and thanking Jesus for his amazing love not speak to them? Now this couple who were "church-shopping" have not been back (and our church is growing steadily, so this is definitely unusual).
    But you know, there are plenty of churches around so they should look to find one that they really like....but I think their criteria may be wrong....will they go to a church that sings only hymns but doesn't have any small groups to join, or doesn't have a ministry to the seniors?? (We have both).
    Going to a church is more than sunday mornings....it's more than the programs they offer...and it's certainly more than the music they choose!

  4. I guess I am lucky because I have only fought this one time, for about 4 months. I have been lucky to always play and lead in congregations that appreciate good songs. I will fall more towards hymns, and I am in a congregation right now that is completely fine with that...we even just stay in the hymnal many times.

    I think the greater issue that Jonathan brought up is how this shift has really happened in the last 40 yrs. It is a sociological shift, and my main reasoning for that is this. What happened in the last 40 yrs.....?

    Pop music

    Yeah, there had been forms of popular music beforehand, but it was utilitarian (you listened to this to dance, this to sing, music carried specific acts). In the last 40-50 years we have the rise of radio, MTV, various formats of owning music, etc....We now have the ability to pick and choose exactly what we listen to. Many of us listen to music for hours a day at work, study or just around the house.

    I have a few more thoughts, but I think I have gone on long enough for now.

  5. Great observations, Chad! Thanks for sharing.

    What does it mean when popular music is driven by the single and worship has become its own genre? How does that change things in the church? Should it? Good questions to mull over.

    I feel like I am currently in the same situation as you, Chad. The place where I currently serve is all about content. They trust the leadership for the style and structures we set in place. Sometimes we do 3rd century liturgies. Sometimes our music takes on themes from around the world. I don't think anyone in our specific congregation would consider us contemporary. We've been pushing more toward thinking of ourselves as a service of Word and Table. However, the rest of our church, and the church at large, would most likely consider us contemporary because of instrumentation. I have not had to fight this battle in my current location, but I know it's one that exists and that more fight than not.

    I'd love to hear more of your thoughts sometime! I always appreciate good reflection.

  6. These are some great reflections! I hadn't thought of Chad's point of pop music. Insightful!

    If I may add my two cents, I've seen and heard enough people praising their church because they appeal to "young people" or "people of our generation"...and on the other hand, there are the signs that say "Church: the way it used to be." I think that intergenerational worship, community, and service/mission is a kingdom value that has been neglected or ignored and that largely is reflected in what you've said here, Jonathan. I've heard a bit about the ancient/future approach to worship, evangelism, and other aspects of the life of the Church. That seems to focus on maintaining rich content while recognizing its need to be adapted in style, dependent upon context. Does that make sense? I'm sure you have much more authority on this concept than I do. :-)

  7. Yeah, Jeff, you're right. These are the principles I have taken away from the ancient/future model and made priority for my own approach to worship:

    * Biblical reflection
    * Historical awareness
    * Contextual significance

    I may try to develop a post soon on this approach.