Rant 2: The So-called “Worship Wars”

While teaching a class at Trinity Western University, I gave what I thought was a brilliant lecture in which I explored the arguments of Barth and his contemporaries, and the “God is dead” theologians of their day – challenging my class to consider how the church should engage with its surrounding culture, and whether their own churches are ignoring the surrounding culture, transforming their faith to meet the culture, or translating their faith so that the culture will be able to understand it. When I asked for questions, one student raised a tenuous hand: “So… there are a bunch of old people in my church who only want to sing hymns. What should I do?”

It always seems to come down to that. One group of people wants to sing one type of song in church, while another group would rather sing a different type. Every workshop I’ve given, every class I’ve taught, every lecture I’ve delivered – someone has asked me that same question.

So here’s my response: I’m sick to death of the question.

Because it’s the wrong question.

Oh I understand why people ask it: music causes a deep, personal, emotional, and spiritual response – and music we are more familiar with adds a weight of memories to this response. Think of a song that accompanied a significant spiritual shift in your life – now imagine never being given the opportunity to sing that song again. It hurts, right?

And absolutely every church with any amount diversity at all has this problem – with varying degrees of conflict. (In fact, the problem is so pervasive, that I’ll probably have to deal with it in another blog post or two at a later date).

If this many churches deal with conflict in music choice, why is it the wrong question to ask? Because it’s a symptom question, not a disease question. It’s like asking the doctor to deal with my headaches while completely ignoring the brain tumor that’s causing them. The doctor might be able to make my headaches go away, but unless the tumor is dealt with not only will the headaches keep returning, I’m in danger of far worse.

The worship wars are not worship wars at all – they are music wars. And we can smooth over musical tastes all we want (trying to please everyone, or carving the church up into homogenous groups) – but we will still have a problem if we have no understanding of (or interest in understanding) what worship is and how to employ it in the church.

Yes, I know we still have to deal with the fact that different members of our congregations are familiar with (and love) a completely different era of songs – but please, let’s start asking questions that get at the deeper problems we have allowed to develop. If we do that, some of the symptoms may just disappear along with the disease.

8 Comments

  1. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! I get that question all the time too from my students, and it makes me sleepy.

    Reply

  2. Great rant, Stacey. Keep it up! I couldn’t agree with you more. One of the deepest reasons that I resist multiple service/style formats in churches I’ve ministered in relates to this very issue. What we’re saying is that we will appeal to people’s selfish desire to have the musical style that they want (not what someone else wants–sheesh, that would be “thinking more highly of others,” for goodness sake!)

    Keep on ranting!

    Reply

  3. I really enjoy this blog! Thanks.
    This “rant” hit a spot with me and I found myself wishing it was longer.
    Soooo. What ARE the right questions?
    How does a church without a worship pastor start asking them?
    I would love to hear more about this.
    Thanks again.

    Reply

  4. Love the rant. If we’re going to start being honest here, why not rename worship services “comfort services” since that’s what many pastors and most parishioners are interested in constructing every Sunday? Comfortable music, comfortable liturgy, comfortable sermons, comfortable buildings and on and on…

    Reply

  5. I love how Marva frames this in terms of different musical tastes being an occasion for the church to care for one another by providing music that is hospitable to both groups so that they can both enter into worship.

    Reply

  6. This question shouldn’t be framed in terms of taste (like and dislike). Different types of music are built to do different jobs. What kind of music best facilitates robust congregational singing? What genres can effectively depict a full range of imagery and themes in poetic theological texts? Chorale-style hymnody (old AND new) was and is specifically composed with these purposes in mind. Top-40 style worship songs are not.

    Reply

    1. Hi David, I agree with you that the conversation shouldn’t be framed as one of personal preference, and that different genres of music may perform slightly different functions. Your assumption, however, that choral-style hymnody always encourages congregational singing and a full range of imagery and themes in poetical theological texts while “top-40 style worship songs” never does is a generalization that simply does not hold water. I have seen choral-style hymnody fail abysmally in gathering a congregation to sing, and I have seen top-40 style songs move a congregation to robust singing to the point that the band stops playing and the congregation continues without prompting. And while typically these songs are shorter, and therefore contain less complex imagery and themes, these songs are intended to be joined one to another in a way that (in the hands of a theologically informed and artistically skilled worship leader) allows for complex theological texts and layering of metaphor.

      Reply

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