Are the worship wars over?
While the answer is not definitive, we see signs that the post-quarantine world may include an unexpected benefit: worship wars are waning. While our evidence is anecdotal at this point, it is still worth looking at five significant trends that have developed or accelerated since the pandemic quarantine.
1. More churches include at least one hymn in their worship services. I resist such terms as “contemporary,” “traditional,” and “blended.” They are usually poorly defined and, even more so, poorly executed as styles of worship. The Millennial generation and their children seem to have a respect for hymnody even if their services have more modern songs as well. The influence of Keith and Kristyn Getty is clear and profound in introducing hymns to a new generation.
2. Congregational singing is as important as the worship style. An important but largely unspoken development in worship is a move toward congregational singing rather than performance-based singing. Again, the influence of Millennials is unmistakable here. They see the act of corporate worship to be one of singing and being able to hear others sing. The Boomers and Gen X brought performance-based singing to churches, but the Millennials are moving us to congregational singing.
3. Hymnals are not rebounding even as hymns do. We see no signs that physical hymnals are making a comeback even as hymns do. While some church members do miss the ability to read the music and to have an encyclopedia of great hymns in their hands, most churches now have their songs on screens instead of in books. The congregation would rather look up at the screen than look down at a hymnal.
4. Churches with multiple styles of worship are fewer in number every year. “The great compromise” has largely failed. Countless churches attempted to appease members who insisted on their kind of music by offering separate worship services, usually with different styles of music. Few churches could do all styles well, and the moves tended to divide churches rather than unite them. We anticipate that only about ten percent of churches will have different worship styles in five years unless they are for different ethnicities and languages.
5. Churches still engaging in worship wars are headed toward steeper declines and death. Local churches cannot afford to expend time and energy on worship style disputes. These divisions render congregations spiritually impotent and missionally ineffective. It does not seem to be coincidental that Great Commission and evangelistic activity has declined in churches as the worship war activity has increased. Churches must choose if their energies will be expended on obedience to Christ or infighting with each other.
More churches are facing significant challenges today than not. And many of the congregations have been divided or decimated by members insisting on having styles of worship their way. In this post-quarantine era, churches can no longer afford to waste their energies on worship wars. If they do, their declines will accelerate, and their death rates will increase.
Posted on October 3, 2022
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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I had been leading the ‘contemporary’ worship service in a large church for nine years before leaving at the end of last year. There were several reasons I left, but one of the more important reasons was the worship style(s). Both services were attended well, and people enjoyed coming and were engaged in worship, but I told my pastor that if our church was going to fulfill our calling to our community to the best of our ability, we were never going to do it with different worship services based on musical preference. I love the pastors and the church I was at and don’t think anyone is disobeying the will of God by continuing with multiple worship styles, but ultimately I felt my vision for the musical worship and theirs was not aligned, so rather than ask them to change to what I thought we should do, I decided it was time for me to move on.
I haven’t done any extensive research and don’t have any special insight into what’s right or wrong in this discussion – if there even is a right or wrong, but what I’ve noticed in my area is churches who have both a traditional style worship service and a contemporary service don’t do either well. They may be ok, but they’re not exceptional (not that our focus should be on what men calls exceptional). In our case, we were unintentionally splitting musicians and singers between services of their worship preference. There may be some pros of having both types of services, but for me, the cons far outweighed any benefits that may be there.
This is a topic that is so annoying to me because I’ve heard it my entire adult life as a worship leader, but I’m thankful it still gets thoughtful consideration because it causes us to think about WHY we do what we do.
All excellent points. Thanks!
From the point in time when I was born-again, I attended churches with music for which the only thing that distinguished it from secular rock music was the words of the song. Once I attended a church with an organ and piano where they sang hymns, I was hooked and have since avoided arriving at a church until after the “worship” via rock band style is over.
So, let’s see. You only want the instruments the Apostle Paul mandated: the piano and the organ. And you refuse to yield to the unity of the church by boycotting the music because you can’t have it your way. I don’t care much for a lot of the contemporary music either. But church is not about me. It is about me serving Christ and others. Such pettiness as yours has no place in the body of Christ.
I completely agree that a church should identify her personality/target and do that with excellence. To say that a single church can struggle to produce quality worship in multiple styles is an understatement, and I have seen first-hand how that approach causes a single body to become two separate churches. If we are to achieve and maintain unity in the body–as we are directed by our Lord–we must get beyond this trend quickly. There is no reason why a worship ministry cannot produce a worship experience that ministers to a range of worshippers, and no one segment of the body should demand their style preference be THE style. Churches should desire and strive to reach and minister to people of all generations and backgrounds…together, in one worship gathering (or multiple identical gatherings). And churches should also realize that one local congregation may not meet the needs/desires of all generations and backgrounds. Don’t be afraid to be unique in your neighborhood and thereby meet a need that may not otherwise be met by all the other churches doing things the same way.
Excellent thoughts, Ann. Thank you.
We have two different services because of different comfort level regarding styles. It is practical for us-allowing more time for more music worshipful to each.
How did you come up with the facts for number two. While I admit that performance based worship teams have been going on for some time, millennials are just as much a part of that worship style as any I have ever seen. If you want to get a good laugh, watch the 2014 Christmas Eve Service of Hillsong London which is nothing but a performance that has nothing to do with Jesus. That is truly geared to that generation. I admit that I am having a knee jerk reaction to your piece and that is because I often feel discarded by some of your comments. The millennials and Z generation are treated as if they are now here to save the church. My church has a handful in worship from both of these generations and we sing video praise songs and hymns. I pastor 30 minutes outside of Cincinnati in Aurora, IN and those generations head across the state line to the mega-churches in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati. Most of those churches have praise bands with the lights and fog. I have had this confirmed by my older members who have joined their younger children and grandchildren in those worship services. They have come back to tell me that it was like being at rock concert.
In response to your question, I noted in the second sentence that our evidence is anecdotal.
What you relate is not at all surprising. I’m quite certain that Dr. Rainer knows that you can’t put a whole generation into a box. It is true that there is not a wholesale move away from performance-based “worship” by any of the generations. But I have observed (anecdotally – there it that term again) that while many Boomers (not all, but many, if not most) pushed for a move to band-driven worship in order to do the new forms of worship music that were emerging from the Jesus People Movement in the 70’s, some Millennials, the children of Boomers, began to push back against Boomer worship values. Some of this push-back was manifested in the “ancient-future” emphasis (including hymns) of the short-lived “Emerging Church” of the early 2000’s. When I was teaching worship leadership at an evangelical college in the early 2000’s, I noted that most of my students were doing contemporary P & W, mostly drawn from the Passion Movement and Hillsong. They didn’t know any different They were coming from their Boomer parent’s churches. But they demonstrated great interest in the classic hymns I introduced to them as they re-arranged them for their guitars.
What Dr. Rainer is asserting in his post is that the move away from performance-based worship is a trend that doesn’t affect all. It isn’t yet a movement. And, yes, the Gettys have been very influential in this trend along with the significant growth of worship studies as an academic and professional discipline.
Thanks, Bob. You explained me better than I can explain myself!
I just said this to our adult education class yesterday. Very few music complaints!!!
Yes! Thank you to the Gettys!
The Gettys are indeed incredible!
Even though it is “only anecdotal,” that’s all good news to me. These developments (if they continue) are what I have been working towards for most of my career. (I do recognize, however, that not having hymnbooks is a loss on some levels as you stated. But it is also reflective of our culture that is becoming less musically literate.)
Thanks for posting this, Thom.
I think that the loss of hymns isn’t the loss of music notation. Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I believe best summarizes the problem (screens/computers don’t smell):
“Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a-a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences… long forgotten. Books smell… musty and-and-and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a… it, uh, it has no-no texture, no-no context. It’s-it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then-then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible. It should be, uh, smelly.”
At the time of the Reformation, the purpose of hymns was to teach core understandings of scripture and the faith. A hymnal book aids in this more than screens/computers do. I’m not opposed to screens, but I do realize they do lose something.