Six Reasons Some Churches Are Moving Back to One Worship Style

You could not help but notice the trend of the past two decades. Numerous churches began offering worship services with different worship styles. It is not unusual to see a church post its times of worship for a contemporary worship service, a traditional worship service, and an occasional blended worship service.

The trend was fueled by two major factors. First, many churches were fighting worship wars. The great compromise was creating a worship service for each faction. Unfortunately, that created divisiveness in some churches as each faction fought for its preferred time slot. Second, some churches had a genuine outreach motivation. Their leaders saw the opportunity to reach people in the community more effectively with a more indigenous worship style.

Though I am not ready to declare a clear reversal of the trend, I do see signs of a major shift. It is most noticeable among those congregations that have moved from multiple worship styles back to one worship style.

So I spoke to a number of pastors whose churches had made the shift back to a singular worship style. I asked about their motivations for leading their congregations in such a direction. I heard six recurring themes, though no one leader mentioned more than three for a particular church.

  1. Multiple worship styles created an “us versus them” mentality. Worship wars did not really end with multiple approaches. In some churches the conflicts were exacerbated because those of different preferences did not interact with each other.
  2. The church did not have the resources to do multiple styles with quality. In many churches, inadequate resources meant one or all of the services suffered. It was deemed better to put all the resources toward one style of worship.
  3. The church moved from multiple services to one service. I heard from a number of pastors who have led their churches back to just one service, a move that naturally necessitates one style. Some did so to engender a greater sense of community; others did so due to excessive space in the worship center.
  4. The Millennial generation has influenced many churches. This generation is much more flexible in its preferences of worship style. They are questioning the need of multiple styles.
  5. Worship wars are waning. Many congregations with multiple worship styles created them as a response to worship wars. Now that the conflicts are waning in many churches, the need to segregate by worship preferences is no longer necessary.
  6. Multiple generations are becoming more accustomed to different types of church music and worship style. Contemporary music, in some form, has been around a while. It is not this strange aberration it once was to many congregants. And many church members who did not grow up on traditional worship are hearing those hymns in new and meaningful ways. Simply stated, there is a much greater appreciation for different forms of church music than in the past.

Again, I am reticent to declare a major trend to be taking place. But, anecdotally, I am seeing more congregations move to the singular worship style approach.

I would love to hear your perspectives. If you have any specific information about this trend, please bring it to this community so we can all benefit.

Posted on August 30, 2014

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’m curious about the churches that originally began multiple styles of services as outreach and whether they are going to one style and if so which one. We are actually, perhaps ironically, about to start that in our church. I’m pastor of a church with traditional worship that has been very ineffective in reaching new people. Certainly worship is not the only reason but it is one reason. In addition, there is not a church that I know of that is less than a 30+ minute drive from us that has a contemporary service. It seems to be a need both for our church and our community. So I’m curious about churches that started for these kinds of reasons and what the results have been.

    • We moved to all Contemporary instrumentation – all modern instruments. But the band incorporates hymns and older music sometimes as well. This was after many years where the Contemporary service was growing and the traditional service was slowly dwindling. It has worked very well although it wasn’t the easiest change.

  • Thanks for this, it is encouraging! I live in what is considered to be the “bible belt” of Canada. My town has a large dutch reformed community as well as plenty of more contemporary churches, so perhaps that is why I still notice more of the “worship wars.” Anyways, I was thinking about this topic recently too, and just posted this article on my blog yesterday: This speaks more to the issue of judging others based on different style preferences.

  • There is one factor that a lot of people over look. People worship differently. Our goal is the same, to glorify God. I was raised on hymns and southern gospel music which always stirs something inside me even when I hear it today. My preference however is what is referred to as contemporary music. To deprive a group of people from worshiping God the way they do is to say to that group, you do matter to this church. Songs stir a response from people and to remove that response just so you as a leader get to sing an awesome praise song, which I love to do, is cruel and selfish. We have to remember it’s not about us it’s about praising God and bringing glory to Him.

  • Thom–in my observation I’m seeing (and hearing about) this as a significant trend. I agree with most of your assessments but I believe one primary reason is that leaders are realizing the multiple styles actually has created generational schisms within the church. I think that much of the impetus for the singular style is to have inter-generational or multi-generational worship again. The style actually becomes a secondary concern to having all ages worshiping together. I strongly believe that, despite probable good intentions, we did an incredible disservice to future generations by trying to customize the worship experience. While I have, in the past, served churches with multiple worship styles and am comfortable leading such, I don’t believe my present philosophical and theological convictions would allow me to work in those situations again.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Randall –

      I’m so glad you noted the issue of a desire for intergenerational worship. I would make that another contributing factor. Thanks for the add.

    • I agree. If you make sure all styles are in the mix without exclusion, then the congregation seems to not notice the difference so much. The key is maintaining the mix consistently from week to week.
      The problems begin when a complete preference for one over the other tosses the other out completely.
      A very important method of calming the music wars since…..yes, we are all different and we all have our preferences. Unfortunately that’s the reality of the church body.

  • Sharon Enright says on

    We’re an evangelical intradenominational church of 220 whose members come from most denominational backgrounds and are seeking a “common ground” mostly because of marriage, and some from disillusionment. We are also a diverse congregation representing multiple regions of the U.S. We also are moving to a single worship service to encourage cohesion within our church family. But we have always had one worship style for both services, but with a twist. Our insightful music director has honed 3-4 worship teams that represent different styles: the rich historical hymns; southern gospel; contemporary Christian praise music; and alternative. Each Sunday, one of the teams leads the service in praise. Our pastor has used this style to teach the Biblical message of embracing your brothers and sisters by not only respecting their beloved styles of music, but learning to love that music as a way of loving each other. When visitors question the music style, we just invite them to “Come next week! It’ll be differrent.”

  • Christopher Nyland says on

    Having multiple worship styles in one church sound much like the relativism (or marketing?) of our society today.

  • David Atkins says on

    If accurate and if it holds, this article marks a very encouraging trend.

    Worship is the great call to unity of sinners saved by grace to bow before God’s throne, not division along personal preferences. In worship God calls us to set aside personal agendas, sin, and self to focus all the mind’s attention and the heart’s affection on Jesus alone, who, alone, is worthy of praise, and alone is God. He alone dictates what happens in worship. Requiring what “I want” in worship is idolatrous and produces vain worship.

    The negative lesson we must now carry away from 30+ years of worship wars is that when you refuse to deny yourself and therefore make concessions to the selfish flesh, the sinful nature is not then satisfied–it is emboldened, and screams for more. (Rainer notes that once separate services were created for people who required particular music styles, many weren’t satisfied. They then shifted the fleshly fight to a preferred time slot, still waging the war of division in the name of worship, but now on a new front.) If we can’t generate enough spiritual passion to deny ourselves when and where it should be the easiest — when we are deliberately gathered to focus on the resurrected reigning Jesus — we will be hopelessly ruined and worthless when much more difficult and harder-to-fight battles are engaged during the rest of the week.

    I think if you continue to allow division over personal preference in worship, you not only defeat the intended purpose of worship, you strip God’s people of the opportunity to experience the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit to deny themselves and put a little bit more of the flesh to death. This will play out in every area of their lives, including other aspects of community in the church. Stop dividing up along musical preferences; unite around the Word and draw near to God, not just with lips making certain preferred music, but with the heart, full of love for God.

  • I am really happy that you addressed this. My church has three different services between 8:45a-12:00p each Sunday. Each service is completely different from the other. One is traditional, the second is abbreviated & contemporary, and the third is contemporary. Our worship wars have been so strong that it has caused our church to go into massive debt by building another sanctuary, of which will sit next to our existing sanctuary. (It’s still under construction). I struggle with this decision. Our traditional service is probably 45-60% full, while the contemporary service is about 80-95% full. I think the middle service has 110-125 attenders. I wish we could unify in a blended service. I think if we had 2-3 blended services, we would have avoided building a second sanctuary.

    Maybe I should note that my husband is the tech director for our church and we probably feel the weight of worship wars more than regular church attenders. I really hope and pray that God opens the eyes of our church leadership to see the division that we are spurring on through the different services. I sincerely hope that churches nation-wide blend their services.

  • Reginald Gabel says on

    I can remember my grandmother fussing about the new music in the church… that music which we call traditional today… sadly it is all about “what I want”…. both sides need to realize we need to ministry to the whole body… if we don’t we will not function as we are called to do…

    • Thom Rainer says on

      When church becomes about “my” preferences, we have ceased to become a functioning body of Christ. Thanks, Reginald.

    • There are some contemporary songs that I really do like and are very meaningful. Very few….but some. But I find that most are very shallow in meaning and extremely repetitious. I mean eight verses of the exact same phrase……I mean c’mon……give me a break. ON…and ON….and ON…..and ON……………
      Many of the old hymns were packed full of well thought out meaning and depth. It was as if the writer actually took more than five minutes to write it.
      I went to visit a very small church is a very small Iowa town a few Sunday’s ago and it was like a breath of fresh air. Every single song we sang was straight out of the hymnal. Ohhhhhh the beauty and meaning of the words of those classics just welled up inside my chest to a point where I had to fight back tears.
      As the small Iowa town disappeared in my rearview mirror……it felt as if I were leaving that Twilight Zone and going back into the reality of mediocrity.

      • Sir,
        I would encourage you to look at some of the newer writers Bethel Music, Kari Jobe, Chris Tomlin, Matt Redmon, and Hillsong United…and read their lyrics. There are songs with very rich lyrics. Some songs that come to mind are the prayer song “Jesus at the Center”; “Open up our Eyes”; “Oceans (where feet may fall); and the song of declaration “Christ is Enough”.
        Yes, I agree there are songs out there that are post 1976 are repetitive; but there are pre-1976 songs that made the hymnal that are equally bad. Remember when men put together hymnals, there was nothing sacred about it. It was the gathering of popular songs placed into a collection for the people to use as a tool by music publishing houses with staff writers. Also remember that when teens went to camp, they published camp books, church revivals had tent meeting books and many other examples. This was a means to teach new music of the time for people to use in their worship. Now, it is the same, we just use technology for visual means as another tool for the congregation. We should be very guarded when we hear people speaking the words “Sacred Hymn”. There is not time era for the definition of the word hymn. A hymn is a song that gives adoration and recognition to God… This includes songs written in 2014.
        I have been seeing a season of many songs written during the post civil war to post world war 2 are foundational songs that predominately direct the lyrics to the process of who God is and what He does- singing about God- very educational (there is a huge place in worship for that). Newer writers have trended to the idealism of the lyrical message of singing to God (more of a message of adoration).
        In my opinion, this has had an effect on our worship back to the foundation that God is our audience in worship, not the congregation. Many times people have attended for years of the lifestyle of “hearing some good music and being fed by the Pastor versus congregational worship resulting from our personal worship overflow that occurred all week. Can you imagine the frustration of only exercising one day a week and not getting into physical shape?
        In all respect to our fore-fathers, I bet that the Gaithers and other bands of my parents youth were viewed the same way in worship wars… I bet even Martin Luther got his share of grief when he wrote his feelings about God that was not scripture in “A Mighty Fortress”.
        It all goes back to familiarity and the comfort of a time and people’s fear of change. God gave us a new song….
        As I sit down to plan worship time each week, my first prayer is to ask God to place on my heart the songs, scripture and message that He desires to hear from His children.
        These are all great comments and I appreciate hearing everyone’s wisdom. It is my prayer no matter what music genre, that we all together remain open to the Holy Spirit moving within us and as His church… helping those who don’t know Christ come to known Him; and those who do to become more like Him.

      • Karen Mulder says on

        Repetitive phrases? Read Rev. 4:8

        Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come.”

        Hymns vs Contemporary
        Psalm 96:1
        Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.

        Singing all types of music?- “speaking to one another” If this was truly our heart and the way we worship, would the style really matter? Would our relationships grow deeper?
        Eph 5:19
        speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord,

        I am a worship pastor’s wife, have been for 35 years. I have heard it all, felt the pain (sometimes due to personal attacks of my husband) of churches arguing over what is truly personal preference (for way too many years), and have experienced incredible worship when our focus is truly worshiping our Savior, not the musical style.

        We are all different, what connects our hearts to God varies. One is not better than, nor more spiritual than the other. But we are all called to love, Love God and Love others.

  • I truly appreciate the insight of Tom Rainier. What Tom describes as a current trend is what I have suspected over my 30 years experience of being on the front lines of worship wars. I have been in traditional churches, blended churches and now in a contemporary (contemporary for 40+ year olds). The contemporary church tried a few years ago to start a “traditional” worship service. This church had never had a traditional service. What a reverse that was! Initially we did this for reasons of outreach but it soon became an internal struggle that led to strong differences over preference. It did not work for various reasons and we have gone back to one worship style. It was an interesting experience on two major fronts. 1) No one could adequately agree what a traditional service would be like that was designed to reach out to non-churched or previously churched people who didn’t care for contemporary music. It became a futile attempt because the ones who came to the service weren’t currently unreached folks, they were current attenders who didn’t care much for the contemporary music. But they were already attending before we provided another option! Then everything in the traditional service became “preference” and more than half the attendees were dissatisfied. Why should this be a surprise? Music style is a non-essential and when we create an option where style becomes more important than it should be (essential for some people) OR make it a primary tool for outreach it will fail. Music in the church cannot sustain the weight of being an essential element or being a primary means of outreach, it was never meant to. Only God’s Word is capable of that. Tom’s 1st point of “us verses them” could not be more true. That was my greatest fear when our church leadership decided to do this. Many of his other insights were true as well. It has always been interesting to me that churches who divide over music style expect to proclaim reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ but can’t practice it with each other over something as preferential as music style. One more thing about the older generation complaining the youth are taking over the church with their ways and music … Stop grouching about it, pour yourself into a younger person in wisdom and love, train them in leadership, be grateful The Lord has not taken the lamp stand in your church away, put ear plugs in your ears and cheer that younger generation on!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you for your kind words to me, Rod. And thanks for the comments.

    • David Atkins says on

      “Music in the church cannot sustain the weight of being an essential element or being a primary means of outreach, it was never meant to. Only God’s Word is capable of that.”

      Well said.

    • I concur with this comment. As a worship pastor of almost 25 years, my experiences have been similar, if not identical, in many ways. However, far too many pastors and church leaders are unaware of the fundamental truthfulness found in your comments.

      This is a highly accurate assessment of what I have seen happen, on several occasions and in numerous churches .

    • “The Lord has not taken the lamp stand in your church away, put ear plugs in your ears and cheer that younger generation on!”

      So in other words, do it the way the younger generation wants and tell the older people to suck it up? I’m sorry, but Scripture commands us to respect the older members of the church. This is what troubles me about the movement toward contemporary worship. It’s about the younger people getting what they want instead of learning from people who have been in the world longer than they have. It’s not the music that bothers me as much as the attitude behind it. They tell us music style shouldn’t matter, but they also say they’ll go to another church if we don’t do it their way. Am I the only one who sees an inherent phoniness in that attitude?

      • Hi Ken, my church is the same problem. If is not what they want they like they keep eyes on iphone, If we let them have what they want they just have good fun. They don’t care about worship.

  • Rebecca Brannan says on

    What i miss more in a church is reverence. Where has the cross gone? It seems there is more focus on the type of worship and getting people to raise their hands . This should be a God led movement…not a band led movement.

    • It is the same thing that I noticed when church became a social event. No one could sit down prior to the service starting even to pray because they were too busy running around talking to their friends and discussing the latest gossip.

  • Mark Skinner says on

    In 2005 I was pastoring a 125 year old church that was divided by the traditional verses contemporary style. I found myself spending the majority of my time trying to please both sides. Needless to say, that never happened and the few power hungry decided it was time for me to leave. It hasn’t been a pleasant experience for me.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I hurt for you, Mark. My prayers.

    • I woke up this morning longing for the type of church service I grew up with. I don’t attend church anymore because it doesn’t seem like church.

      My childhood church was a large congergation, housed in a beautiful building. Church began and ended with a procession, and the ministers shaking hands with members as they left. The ministers also were available to council members, visit hospitals and those shut in. The ministers taught adult Sunday school and served the general community.

      Today, most contemporary clergy, are meeting with their publisher, or television producer, instead of their church. No wonder so many young people don’t know the first thing about the Christian religion.

      Many of these clergy aren’t even trained at a seminary. They run from any clerical duties, which they think should be taken over by the small groups. There have always been groups within the church, but they didn’t take the place of the pastor, pastoring his flock.

      Contemporary music was added to services in the sixties, so that’s not really the issue for me. I’d like to, at least hear the Lord’s Prayer, once in awhile. Communion available in the back, if you want to take it alone, misses the whole point!

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