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The recent worship wars are God’s gift to the church.


During the past half-century God has orchestrated events in ways that compelled the church to rethink everything related to being God’s people. Doing so responsibly leads to deeper religious understanding and new spiritual vitality. That’s why the recent worship wars—primarily over contemporary vs. traditional worship styles—are a gift of grace. Despite fundamental changes in the culture and the church itself, we’ve discovered relevant ways to express the essential, non-negotiable forms of worship.

The Cultural Shake-up

Since the end of the Second World War we have experienced greater changes than at any other time in recorded history.

The most radical developments have been social in nature: New nations have sprung from former colonial holdings. Male privilege has been challenged and replaced with gender parity. Racial equality and multiculturalism are now values. We relate to people with disabilities more sensitively than before. Western economic advantage is giving way to globalization. Communistic socialism has collapsed, and capitalism is becoming increasingly socialized. A sexual revolution has occurred. Marriage has been substantially redefined or, in some quarters, rendered obsolete. Old social hierarchies in education, medicine, politics, and religion have been leveled as we now often address leaders in these fields on a first-name basis. Even parent-child relationships have been democratized. Virtually all human relationships have been scrutinized and redefined. People are not the same as generations of 30 or 50 years ago. Should we be surprised that our relationship to God in worship has also been affected?

More tangible and stunning are the advances we have witnessed in science and technology. From the death of old killers like polio and smallpox to genome discoveries, cloning, organ transplants, sophisticated surgical technologies, and life-enhancing drugs, medical and biological miracles are now routine. Lunar landings, the global positioning system, precision bombing, and steroid-hyped homerun records were unimaginable two generations ago. The effects of global warming, depleted tropical rainforests, chemical wastes seeping into streams, and the extermination of potentially valuable species were disregarded in the mid-20th century, but no longer. The electronic transmission of information is rapidly superseding the printed page. Technology and science have generated almost as many ethical issues as they have cultural changes. People carry new, sophisticated questions into the sanctuary, yet answers are not readily forthcoming in sermons; worship concentrates more on the gospel notes of celebration and corporate solidarity.

Church Revolutions

Alongside the redefinition of human relationships and advances in science and technology, in the past 50 or 60 years the church itself has experienced a series of minor revolutions that have challenged traditional forms of worship.

The discovery of ancient manuscripts of Old Testament books in the Qumran caves and of the Gnostic texts of Nag Hammadi in Egypt fueled new scholarly attention to the Bible. This scholarship crossed denominational lines. Scholars debated and shared insights into the origin, settings, and interpretation of the biblical message, creating new commentaries and new, readable translations of Scripture, both of which were usually ecumenical projects. Preachers became less prone to accent the unique doctrinal emphases of their own confessional legacies and more apt to acknowledge shared biblical insights. Sermons became less polemical toward other Christian traditions, more appreciative of a common gospel. The shift set the stage for shared patterns of worship.

Another highly significant religious development affecting Christian worship was the Second Vatican Council. Convened by Pope John XXIII, it met from 1963 to 1966 and examined every facet of the Roman Catholic Church with respect to its effectiveness in modern society. The council’s report or “constitution” on Catholic liturgy proposed revolutionary changes in worship. The church started conducting Mass in the language of the people rather than in Latin; it introduced preaching and encouraged personal Bible reading and singing in contemporary musical styles. Worshipers became participants rather than spectators. In time some began performing various pastoral duties, especially where the shortage of priests was acute. Sharp divisions between clergy and laity softened.

The modern ecumenical movement also fostered liturgical change. Formed at the close of the 1940s, the World Council of Churches created a comprehensive forum for mainline Western and many younger churches in newly emerging nations. The organization built on older national and federal as well as confessional (such as Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican) councils. Many wary evangelical and theologically conservative denominations, including the Christian Reformed Church, did not join these efforts but formed alternative ecumenical bodies; but even these crossed historic divisions. By encouraging church mergers and fostering consultations, publishing journals and books, and commissioning studies, the World Council sponsored deeper reflection on what the churches shared liturgically. It exposed and reincorporated into modern worship important components of early Christian worship, which constituted a common foundation for churches today. Furthermore, its monumental study “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry” articulated common convictions on the sacraments and ordination, two of the most divisive subjects among Christian churches. It also created the climate in which use of the common lectionary or guide to worship could flourish. Clearly, the modern ecumenical movement contributed to recent liturgical ferment.

Adding to the modern liturgical mix are the more spontaneous expressions of Pentecostal, Neo-Pentecostal, and some evangelical worship. Extemporaneous prayers, charismatic preaching, contemporary vocal and instrumental music, informality, warm fellowship, stirring testimonies, and in some cases faith-healing and speaking in tongues—all make this style of worship especially congenial to those for whom celebration is the pinnacle of religious experience. It is highly compatible with popular culture and has been honed to powerful effectiveness in many mega-churches. It has contributed to a major redefinition of effective Christian worship for many believers today.

Win-Win Worship

With these dynamics operating on and within the Christian church, we should not be surprised that the Sunday worship service has been pressured to adapt. The issue is whether by adapting its worship the church has lost more than it has gained. When does change become compromise? What are the rock-solid elements of Christian worship? How can the church maintain them while at the same time incorporating spontaneity, creativity, spiritual energy, and excellence?

Sadly people in some churches have behaved more like warriors in mortal combat with fellow believers than like disciples learning more about worship in mutual submissiveness. A noted professor of preaching and worship puts it this way: “Some people in the congregation wish    that worship were more immediately relevant, more exciting, more dramatic, more casual, louder, more spontaneous, and more fun, while others wish it were quieter, more reverent, more traditional, more ordered, and more dignified—and no one is completely satisfied” (Thomas G. Long, Beyond the Worship Wars; Bethesda, Md.: The Alban Institute, 2001, p. 12).

The issue, finally, may be whether we are becoming mature Christians who accept one another more readily, understand worship more deeply, and appreciate both its enduring components and its flexibility. Then we will all be winners worshiping more appropriately.     

Getting Back to Basics

What is non-negotiable in Christian worship?

To answer that important question, we must go back to the emergence of Christian worship among the apostles. While it does not prescribe the form or order of worship, the New Testament conveys its main elements: prayer and praise, reading and expounding Scripture, and as appropriate and needed, the rites or sacraments of initiation into the community (baptism) and confirmation of the faith (Lord’s Supper). The basic arrangement of these elements in apostolic worship probably followed the pattern of synagogue worship, augmented by the sacraments. Worship was embedded in Christian fellowship and promoted generosity and service to others.

Expounding Scripture took the several forms of instructing, reproving or warning, and inspiring. Praying and singing were extraordinarily inclusive and displayed such stirrings of the soul as adoration, contrition, confession, petition, and gratitude. The Lord’s Supper was held to remember, to give thanks, to proclaim, and to nourish believers’ union with Christ and with one another. Ultimately all the elements of worship bring homage to God by acknowledging God’s sovereignty and our total dependence on him.

John Calvin in his commentary on the Psalms said that book is the church’s basic resource for worship because it is “an anatomy of all parts of the soul.” By that he meant that all our human moods and dispositions are religiously articulated by the psalmists. In some way, at some time, all of them must be incorporated into authentic public, Christian worship.

The essential elements of Christian worship are non-negotiable—both the New Testament components and the affections of the soul. They have been present through the ages and must be so today.

How the essentials of public worship are sequenced is rather secondary, although like the New Testament letters and a meeting of good friends, worship that begins with a greeting and ends with a good-hearted embrace and blessing just makes good sense. Also, because the Lord’s Supper is both the simultaneous commitment of God to nourish our salvation and our grateful acceptance of it, the sacrament that is the mystical communion of both parties should culminate the service. Confession of sins and reconciliation makes good sense early in worship but are elements that can appropriately emerge elsewhere. Dedication through gifts and pledges of service or recital of creeds fit nicely toward the end of worship, but they also are moveable pieces of the liturgy.

The form that elements of the worship service take is also a secondary matter—as long as that form is excellent. Worship deserves our best. For example, whether the form of music is the organ or an ensemble of instruments, a Genevan Psalm or a praise chorus, classical or contemporary is less important than that it expresses the dispositions of the soul to the living God and revives us in our love and devotion to him. Thirty-five years ago we fumed a little about whether to address God as “Thee” or “You” in worship; now the prevailing pronouns used capture a sense of God’s intimate nearness and approachability, and we have other ways of reflecting our awe of God’s majesty.

Wine or grape juice, leavened bread or unleavened wafers, psalms or hymns, extemporaneous or polished written prayers, kneeling or standing, raised or folded hands, open or closed eyes—variety of form in Christian worship is pervasive. We sing from the heart eighth-century Orthodox, 16th-century Lutheran, 18th-century Wesleyan, and 20th-century Anglican hymns; they are all in our Reformed repertoire, either in the hymnal or on the screen. God must love variety of expression. He has inspired so much of it. And still it is not enough to express what we owe God or all the yearnings of our souls for God.

Where form is concerned today, blended seems best. Churches that tried bisecting the congregation into traditional and contemporary services have abandoned that strategy. Unified worship that is modulated one way or the other from week to week probably helps everyone to give a little and grow a lot liturgically. And giving and growing are motions of the soul that also warrant expression in worship.

A couple of final cautions are in order. The first is that worship is always prostituted when it becomes performance. All the elements of worship are susceptible to this perversion—from the sermon to a choir or praise team number to a baptism to a serve project report to a procession. When the leader or participant becomes paramount and adoring God or appropriating God’s grace gets eclipsed, worship is impeded. Second, those who plan and conduct worship should be thoroughly versed in the theology and history of worship, gifted in doing what their roles require, and sensitive to the spiritual needs and dynamics of the congregation.

The Prince of Peace has died to make our worship live. We should be wise enough not to fight about it and always humble and open enough to learn how to do it better. Then grace will flow.

For Discussion
  1. Discuss the worship style your church has adopted. Is your congregation at peace or at war regarding this?
  2. James De Jong says, “During the past half-century God has orchestrated events in ways that compelled the church to rethink everything related to being God’s people.” He then goes on to say that this is a good thing—it can invite us to “deeper religious understanding and new spiritual vitality.” Do you agree with his conclusion? Discuss.
  3. How can a church maintain some of the “rock-solid elements of Christian worship” while incorporating “spontaneity, creativity, spiritual energy, and excellence”?
  4. What are the benefits or drawbacks to offering two services with different worship styles?
  5. How can your church guarantee excellence in worship?
  6. What ideas do you want to pass on to your pastor or worship committee?

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