An End to the Worship Wars


“Worship Wars” is an awful term—but an accurate one. On the one hand, it’s painful to describe anything that goes on in a congregation as war. Church is, after all, a place where there should be peace. On the other hand, congregational conflict erupting over musical styles has been so intense in  some places that “war” is the only word that fits.

I’ve heard about the worship wars for years. Most often the war breaks out between those who prefer what they call “traditional” music and those who prefer what they call “contemporary” music. Many a pastor and worship leader knows first-hand how painful the conflict can be. Inevitably, each group feels its musical style is spiritually superior to the other. Those who lean toward traditional music are convinced that the drum beat and guitars of contemporary music are demonic. The contemporary folk just as firmly believe that the old hymnbook is filled with music so antiquated and irrelevant that it kills the spirit of worship. It’s not at all unusual for ministers to lose their positions by getting caught in the no-man’s land between traditional worshipers and contemporary worshipers. Worse, numerous churches have actually split over it. That’s such a tragedy when it happens! How God’s people can’t find a way to get along with each other regarding musical styles is beyond me.

The truth is that the old categories of worship music aren’t what they used to be. Today, church choirs sing the same anthems you hear on Christian radio stations. At the same time contemporary Christian musicians are more and more incorporating traditional hymns into their concerts. David Crowder’s re-arranging of “Amazing Grace” is just one example of what is a far-ranging trend. Funny story: at a recent Passion conference, America’s largest gathering of younger believers each year, one of the most popular choruses was “Because He Lives,” the old hymn by Bill and Gloria Gaither. The younger people there had never heard it before.

I heard of a church recently whose worship leader is a young woman classically trained as a harpist. She sits in front of the congregation in cowboy boots and leads praise and worship with—you guessed it—her harp. Who would have thought it?

Maybe this whole thing about worship music isn’t what we thought. While many congregations have been locked into battles over musical preferences, the whole landscape has been changing. Today, the worship wars are giving way to a new integration of musical styles into a single heart for worship. It’s no longer about “traditional” or “contemporary” or “modern” or “classical” or any other of those words we throw around that try to put worship into a box. Instead, it’s just worship. Plain and simple.
Our church has four morning worship services—two lean traditional and two lean contemporary. We’re blessed because our people embrace both styles. They have the flexibility (and spiritual maturity!) to realize there’s a place for all kinds of music in worship. Still, I’d been feeling for some time that we needed to find a way to worship together in a single service.

So last Sunday night we brought everyone into a single service. We called it A Night of Praise and Worship. It wasn’t “traditional” or “contemporary” or something in between. It was simply worship, utilizing a wide variety of styles carefully integrated with each other. And the people loved it.

The pictures you’re looking at were taken at the service.

I can’t describe to you how I felt as I saw the people flooding into our worship center. The place was packed out. And when the great worship song, “We Worship You With Praise” broke over the congregation like a wave, I wept. The presence of the Lord was so obvious. The service included Scripture, hymns and praise choruses. Our huge choir was awesome and included many from our Student ministry, singing alongside senior adults. Our Praise Team was fully integrated with our orchestra. Both were amazing. Trumpets playing alongside electric guitars. The lead worshipers in front included people from all ages. 

And the congregation? Wow! I’ve never seen so many hands lifted up in a Baptist service. They were so fully engaged that at the end of the 80-mimute service nobody wanted to leave. They stood around in small groups, talking about what they’d just experienced.

The thing I realized that night was that the “Worship Wars” really don’t exist. We manufacture conflict over worship when we lack the imagination to bring together the riches of musical styles in ways that unite people. I’m so grateful to our music leadership that was able to do that. Much more importantly, I’m grateful to the Holy Spirit, who responded to the prayers of many people in giving us that night a worship service that we’ll remember for a long time.

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