Australia invaded America in the 1990’s.
In 1996, it seems like every church in America was suddenly going through an identity crisis because of this singular question: “Should we sing ‘Shout to the Lord’ during our Sunday service?” Sure the words were harmless, and most of the accompaniment is with a piano, but the song wasn’t in the hymnal. That Australian (female!) worship leader Darlene Something-No-One-Can-Pronounce (is it Check? Czech?) had unwittingly stirred the pot, and what would be known as the “worship wars” began. Churches had to decide: are your services going to be ‘traditional’ or ‘contemporary?’ And for the churches that couldn’t decide, they would be ‘blended.’
Some of you are reading this post and are laughing because you thought that the “worship wars” ended years ago.
We now stand nearly two decades after the start of the worship wars, and many churches are still stuck on the issue. At The Malphurs Group, the topic of worship styles is still sensitive and relevant to many of our partner churches. Too many churches have split (and are still splitting) over the issue of what type of music to sing on a Sunday morning. And the churches that decided to be ‘blended’ have discovered that by choosing no firm direction, they haven’t made everyone happy–they’ve made everyone discontent.
But here’s the good news: the worship wars can end today.
It’s simple: be yourself.
As a church leadership team, it’s time that you sat down and asked these questions in order to end the worship wars:
1. What’s our main purpose as a congregation; is it externally focused or internally focused?
This gets to the root of the issue. What is the reason you gather at your church. Is it to attract young families and outsiders, or cultivate the saints? There’s not necessarily a wrong answer here, but there really needs to be alignment between your stated purpose and the resulting actions. You cannot, therefore, say that your services are geared towards engaging young people and young families and refuse to re-invigorate your services with creativity and a fresh approach. The point isn’t worship music style, it’s worship service purpose.
2. Expanding further, if our purpose is to be externally focused, who are we trying to reach? If it’s internally focused, what are our people like?
Again, we’re allowing an internally-focused church service to be an option. This may not result in long-term health and viability, but it is a valid option. With this question, your church needs to begin the process of defining not just the purpose but the intended audience. If you were to write a description of the “typical” or even “idea” regular attender at your church, what would he or she be like? Does our current worship service align with the values and image of this ideal?
3. Based on our target group, what are the most effective strategies to connect these people into worshipping Jesus?
Now that you’ve defined your target group or ideal regular attender, it’s time to be very specific about the make-up of your worship service. Expand your thinking beyond just music. This is where a lot of churches fall flat. It’s why a church can sing a song from this year and it comes out sounding like a song from 1975. The look, feel, pacing, music, preaching delivery, and environment all work in concert to accomplish your purpose. If your actions don’t align with your intentions, it’s time to make changes.
4. What influence should our history and traditions play in determining our strategies for the future?
“We’ve always done it that way.” Believe it or not, that sentence comes from 100+ year old churches and church plants alike. It doesn’t take long for a practice to become a habit and for a habit to become a tradition. Our legacy matters. Though I’m advocate for innovation, I’m not a person who thinks that all tradition is bad and that history should be ignored. The difficulty comes in discovering which traditions leverage the mission and which ones hinder it.
5. Do we want our church to last beyond our generation, or are we OK with letting the church die with us?
This isn’t a gotcha question; it’s an honest one. There are congregations across America who would rather die a slow death doing what they have always done than invest in innovation and revitalization. It’s time to be honest as a church. Do you want to change and grow or do nothing and dwindle. No one should answer that for your church. The decision should be yours, because change doesn’t settle well with those who don’t embrace it.
The questions are simple. The answers may be difficult. The questions aren’t meant to be disparaging in any way. They’re simply intended to identify the heart of a congregation. If a church can answer these questions honestly and build consensus around the answers, then it will become incredibly simple to decide what type of music should be playing during your services and once and for all end the worship wars in your congregation.
Here’s a truth bomb that will set some of you free today:
There’s room in the Kingdom of God for churches who choose to maintain tradition, so long as they actively support and encourage the churches who choose to innovate for the future.