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When "Worship" Keeps You From Worshiping

I saw this coming.  Maybe I'm a prophet.

Last Wednesday we held the first mid-week service for teenagers and adults.  It's called "The Well" and the intent is to offer a mid-week worship experience and Bible study that will challenge, encourage and equip us as believers to be God's ambassadors in the world.

Our teenager's have a strange weekly schedule this summer with camps, mission trips, and other activities occurring on Wednesdays, so that led us to offer this summer mid-week worship experience for all.  

It's a challenge, but while I know there are special programs and events that should cater to certain age groups (i.e. senior adult trips, parenting classes, youth DiscipleNow Weekends, etc.) stressing over worship can cause division within the body unlike any other thing.  The style and volume become the issue.

For those who came Wednesday night (of all ages) thank you for coming.  It is exciting to see senior adults, median age, young and college age adults as well as our teenagers together for study and worship.  Of course we're going to have to get you folks to sit closer to the center.  This was a shift from what normally is offered on Wednesdays, but knowing our attendance trends in the summer, we felt the need for something new for the next three months.

After the introductory service, our worship leader, Brandon Phillips and I sat down to discuss the first service and where we will be heading.  Brandon made some really incredible observations.  He truly is gifted as a worship leader and teacher and he brought up things I had not considered.  While the music may have been too loud for some in attendance (yes, I've heard from you :-)), and not loud enough for others (yes, I've heard that too), the lyrics to the songs were right on.  These weren't just trite little ditties put to music.  There is a depth to the lyrics that caused me to think deeply about Christ and my relationship to him.

Then Brandon shared this with me.  He stated that though he picked the songs and loves them, they can lead to more of a performance than a worship experience for many.  Our band was prayed up and practiced up and I am confident they were not just performing.  The challenging question is "Was the congregation led to worship?"  Some were.  Others were not.  The mid-week evening service is different than Sunday mornings or other weekend services in that many people are coming off a stressful, busy day.  The invitation from God is "Enter In" and that's what we echo.  We want the peace and joy of God to permeate our lives and the building we're meeting in.  We desire people to encounter Him - that is worship.  Music isn't worship.  It often is called that, but that's not what it is.  Music is music.  It's the heart that worships.  Our desire is not to set up any blocks that would keep folks from worshiping.  Always a challenge.  That's why this service is more than a service.

While a person can be led to a worship experience, they still must individually choose to worship.  

So, as we journey through this experience this summer, I ask first that you pray for our leadership team.  Our heart's desire is to lead people into a fresh experience with Holy God.  

Regarding this issue of worship style, I felt that I should share with you up front the particulars.  We will not allow the Enemy to use worship music preferences to cause any division within the Body.  There's too much at stake.  It's up to each of us to live lives of worship to the Lord and when we do come together, to seek to bless God through our worship.

Recently, Ed Stetzer, Director of LifeWay Research and Mike Harland, Director of LifeWay Worship, held an online dialog called "Worship: Reverence v. Relevance."  I've included it here, but it may be a slow video feed, so be patient.  I think what these guys have to say is key to understanding worship in the 21st century church.

Reverence vs Relevance from LifeWay Productions on Vimeo.

Here are Ed's statements from his blog regarding the "Worship Wars". I must agree with what Ed says except that I like country music and I was raised in the church, so I personally love the hymns.  I am not anti-traditional worship nor anti-contemporary worship. I can worship in both venues, but Ed's descriptions of worship and attitude are right on.

The reason worship wars exist is because the church thinks it is fighting for something permanent when it is actually temporary. Musical styles and service preferences are like a jacket that can be taken on or off depending upon the temperature. It is used only when needed. Worship as a theological reality is not fit for such pedestrian arguments. It is to exist in the heart of all people-- and it does. When we think we're debating styles and techniques and forms, we are really defending our own affections and deeply felt preferences. Most often we defend what is nostalgic rather than what is helpful. It's no wonder then that even attempts at ceasefires result in more fuel for the blaze.

I will lay my cards on the table: I was not raised in the church or in the subculture of the Bible Belt. I came to Christ at a later age and when I began my ministry it was with the urban poor in Buffalo, New York. I have been called by some "a son of the contemporary church movement." I don't know if that's necessarily true, but I know what it means. I do not have the traditional church DNA in me like so many others I've known, pastored, and appreciated.

So, it could be that it is hard for me to get inside the shoes of the traditional worship advocate. (Though ancient church music has now become a favorite on my iPod.) Or it could be that having come from an irreligious home in addition to my travels observing the worship practices of global Christians that I have a different perspective.

I won't deny I have personal preferences. For instance, it is clear that country and western music is not of God. (That's another joke; don't tell my friend Ricky Skaggs I said that.) Nevertheless, what I try to do is what we all should do in matters of preference and praise-- commit to the reality that worship is not ultimately about us.

And because worship is not about us, I don't think we end the worship wars in our local congregations merely by compromise. Compromise is noble; consensus is better. A truce just gets 100% of our church worshiping at 50%. It is not compromise we want, but unity. So how do we get to that ever-elusive goal, that aim Jesus laid out for us in His High Priestly Prayer in John 17? Here are five ideas.

1. Rally around Truth, Not a Truce

In the same prayer Jesus prayed that His church would be one (John 17:21-22), He prayed that they would be sanctified by the truth of God's word (John 17:17).

When we come at the worship discussion we have to back up a bit and adopt a good theological framework for our conversations, because the church too often leaps to the assumption that "music = worship." Or perhaps we frame it a bit more broadly and think in terms of a "worship service." But the truth is that worship occurs in the whole of life. We are never not worshiping; our affections are always oriented somewhere or to someone. Minimizing worship to a one hour experience on Sunday monrings, or further down to merely the time of music in that experience, means many of us only dedicate thirty minutes of each week to worship of Christ. When we practice this minimization, it means that the rest of the time we're worshiping someone else (usually ourselves).

It is a harsh accusation to make, but as our music and production skills have increased, our worship has suffered because we have engaged in them as the outpouring of self-worship. So we must remember that worship is for every hour of every day of every week. Our lives are to be oriented to the worship of God. And the chances are, if we thought of worship that way, we would not put so much personal stake in hearing our favorite style of music on Sunday mornings. The entirety of our worship would not be loaded into that slice of time.

Holding personal preferences loosely allows for greater unity in the body and advancement of God's mission. The truth God seeks is that we rally to the cause of His glory among the nations rather than deciding is we will have two hymns and three choruses or three hymns and two choruses this Sunday.

2. Acknowledge that Preferences are Personal

I have witnessed the angst around worship music firsthand. I think that in some churches, a pastor could get away with preaching heresy so long as he's cool, funny, and has a good video clip. But if a pastor tries to alter the worship style, it is time to start looking for a new job.

This works both ways, for the favorers of so-called "contemporary praise" and the adherents to more traditional worship music. Neither appears willing to give up ground, and they have planted their flags in either Relevance (for the contemporary folks) or Reverence (for the traditionalists). (Hence, the name of the dialog in the video at the top of this post.)

In many churches where a worship war is brewing or is in outright conflict, one group perceives themselves to be pushing forward toward the next generation (relevance) while another is trying to pull back to a once-honored method (reverence). One group thinks contemporary music or a more casual style will suit the modern generation and appeal more to the lost. Meanwhile the other group thinks all of that is just worldly compromise and, furthermore, arrogant to casually dismiss the styles that have served the church well, in some cases, for hundreds of years.

When either of these scenarios occurs it is usually because we have elevated our preferences to the level of principles. We are "taking a stand" for something important: our own comfort, convenience, and concerns. And all the while we're trying to give God his due or the lost people in the pew it turns out we're really just making worship about us.

3. Realize that Relevance and Reverence Are Not at War with Each Other

What those who push forward should realize is that relevance is not a goal; it is a tool. It is not the end, but one (of many) means to the end. Relevance for relevance's sake never helped anybody. Playing a shocking song at the front of your Easter service may get headlines and upset religious people, but that's about all it does. Having rock music fans think you're a cool church is not the "win" you're really looking for. A smart church will be culturally discerning, but always biblically-driven first.

On the other hand, the traditionalists' placement of reverence on external styles is also wrongheaded. Reverence is not first and foremost an outward expression. It is a quality of the heart. Of course, it results in outward expressions, but take the story of David dancing before the Ark, for example. His free mode of worship was a scandal to Saul's daughter Michal, who was watching from afar. David's heart was turned reverently to the Lord, and this provoked a physical celebration from him. It sure looked irreverent to another. Many times today shouting, clapping, and dancing are seen as disorderly or irreverent or self-indulgent, but all three of those modes of worship are seen in Scripture though curiously absent from "reverent" worship services.

At the heart of many of our worship wars is, sad to say, idolatry. Our worship of things other than God drives the way we contend for ways to worship God. When reverence is equated with austerity, it can reveal an idolization of familiarity and comfort and control. When relevance is equated with a production carte blanche or "freedom of expression," it can reveal an idolization of trendiness and self and showmanship. Both relevance and reverence can cloak idolatry of cultural forms and expressions.

In both cases, what is revealed is an idolatry of music. And music is just... well, music. As my colleague Mike Harland, president of LifeWay Worship has said, "You will never achieve spiritual goals with a musical means." We see music as important in Scripture but never a particular form or function as necessary for discipleship. And never does God dictate a particular style, rhyme pattern, or lyrical format.

4. Embrace Humility

The evangelical church needs a ceasefire on fighting over cultural forms. A focus on biblical meanings will add a healthy dose of humility to our churches.

When I was young in the ministry, I was charged with ministry to both youth and seniors (go figure). One day I was going to lead worship at a nursing home. So, I took my guitar. I'll never forget this 92 year old woman, Miss Langley, who put her hand on my arm and said "Don't worry about the guitar, young man, we're just gonna sing and you can sing with us." I was bringing a relevance they didn't need, and I had to be mature enough to see the hindrance I was about to become.

Imagine what would happen if worship warriors actually took on the attitude of Jesus (per Phillipians 2) and did not regard their agendas as something to be grasped but instead took on the posture of servanthood. What if we (per Romans 12:10) actually tried to outdo one another showing honor? Humility is a "win" for every worshiper.

5. Cultivate Consensus, Not Compromise

We have to be mature enough to worship in different ways, even in someone else's ways. The so-called "blended service" has a typical formula of two songs for me and two songs for you and one song for that other guy. I think it is a sign of carnality and a lack of community in worship. Many times the blended worship service doesn't please anybody but maybe the pastor who has given up trying to cultivate consensus. The blended service is an equal opportunity to anger everyone. It can be a sad compromise.

I also believe we need to be careful about multiple services with specialized genres. What is the motivation? Is the division a compromise? We need to be cautious about pandering to the consumeristic side of Western Christianity. We need to ask ourselves what our motivation is, and be honest with our answer. If we're being mission-focused, that's a good and worthy goal. But if we're market-focused (and Christians are the market), we are off track.

If you go the blended or alternative service route, please do so not because you made a truce, but because you stuffed your egos and decided to glorify God for the sake of reaching your community in a language they understand; Spanish, biker, redneck, liturgical, or whatever.

Do the traditionalists appreciate the contemporary songs? Do the relevantists appreciate the hymns? Do they love each other? Do they see these differing forms as acceptable forms of worship?

Pastored well, a healthy congregation will seek consensus on the positives of God's glory and mission rather than settle for compromise on the negatives of personal preferences and styles. A church in consensus would rather have Jesus than the hymn "I'd Rather Have Jesus." A church in consensus will sing of God's greatness rather than need "How Great is Our God" as their anthem. Music will not bring unity in of itself. Worship brings unity. So long as it is the worship of Jesus.

You can read more by Ed at

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