Worship Wars: Having it Your Way Might Be Exactly What you Don’t Need

medieval armor made of wrought ironI have a friend who pastored the same church for nearly twenty years. It almost did him in. He tried to keep everyone happy (always a losing proposition, of course), but they were un-keep-happible. Highly conflicted. Especially around worship style.

“We need contemporary music to reach younger people,” some folks reasonably recognized. OK, so we’ll add a contemporary worship service – praise songs rather than those dry, dusty, old hymns that the grayheads preferred. Some guitars, drums, amps – beef up the sounds system, throw in some lights. Get someone up there who looks a little bit hippish – young, glasses, more casual dress, maybe a tattoo, etc. Kill a bit of the liturgy – go with the evangelical formula of six songs and a sermon – Voila! Worship for a new generation.

In the case of this particular congregation, though, this didn’t result in wild and explosive growth. What resulted was…division. Two factions (at least, a few more than this actually, but two for the simplicity of this post):

Faction 1: The traditionalists – hymns are the way to go. The organ is the way to go (or at least the piano). The choir (with robes!) is the way to go. This is what church is. This is what I know. This is how we’ve always done it. This is the way it should be. Praise songs are too theologically tepid, too loud, too…new. We’re not doing it! Our way or the highway, pal! We’re the biggest givers, those best represented in leadership. You better listen to us!

Faction 2: The contemporaries – praise songs are way better! So much more lively, zippier. More interesting, less boring, less dry, less…dead (“dead” is a big word among the contemporaries – traditional things aren’t just not their preference – they are actually “dead”!). I mean, contemporary music is more spiritual. It touches you at a soul level in a way that hymns never could. These fossils need to get with the program! They’re on the wrong side of history! You’ve got to give the people what they want!

My friend tried to satisfy both factions. Despite not really needing to do so spacewise, he adopted a variety of options to accommodate a variety of tastes: Contemporary, then traditional. Traditional, then contemporary. He even tried Contemparitional and Trademporary. That made no one the least bit happy. Compromise after all isn’t the order of the day; victory is! My side must be victorious! If there is a hill worth dying on, it is the hill of my worship style preference! This is clearly a gospel-oriented way of thinking (as always, please read my posts assuming that at least 50% of the content is sarcastic).

Not surprisingly, his efforts at happy-making failed miserably. No one appreciated his efforts, they resented him for it. Eventually he moved on to greener pastures and the church…has pretty much maintained its dysfunctionality. I’d say they’ve treaded water, but in reality you’re never staying in the same place – status quo is retreat in a spiritual context. They keep aging, keep arguing, keep projecting a ridiculous and harmful witness to a lost world.

This isn’t an isolated incident. In fact, we have a term of art for this bizarre dysfunction: worship wars. It is painful to type those two words in tandem. Worship of the one true and living God on the part of his people should be the one time in human affairs when unity is most clearly seen. The church is God’s people: those of every race, tribe, people, and language who belong to him. The assembly of God’s people for worship should be a taste of heaven – after all, our pictures of heaven are God’s people gathering around his throne and giving him the glory he is due, usually in song. And yet, worship is often a source of painful division, of warfare. Certainly this must be the basis of some hearty laughter on the part of our enemy. Discord, division, faction, slander: this is the stock in trade of Satan. God is a God of order, not disorder. Christ is the Prince of Peace, not the author of discord.

I’ll post a few thoughts on this biblically, personally, and practically. Closing thoughts for this particular post will focus on one aspect of this tragic warfare. The idolatry of personal preference. While often couched in terms of moral absolutes, there is no right or wrong of worship style. There really isn’t. This is true of stylistic preference generally.

In clothes: one person prefers sweatpants, another slacks (what is this, 1976?) – a moral issue? Nope. We could discuss whether the clothes are appropriate for a given context, whether they are appropriately modest, etc. These questions could have moral dimensions, but the preference issue is basically one of “I like this not that.”

It is silly to debate personal preference. If I say, “I love black raspberry ice cream,” it would be nonsensical for you to object, “No way, I like German chocolate cake!” This is simply a statement of personal preference. It’s not right or wrong. I’m no relativist morally or epistemologically, but I do affirm the relativism of personal preference.

Are organs more or less God honoring than guitars? Are projectors more inherently spiritual than hymn books? Come on! We can debate theological content; we can discuss ardor vs. indifference in worship; but why war over personal preference? Good grief, there are enough legitimately important and weighty matters to dispute, let’s sheath the swords of unnecessary division.

Indeed, when I put my personal preference above my love for my brother and sister in this way I am guilty of the sin of idolatry. I bow before the god of my own making. In the name of the worship of the Lord God I bow before myself.   While crooning out my love for God in my own preferred style, I, in fact, worship me.

Rather than dividing over a secondary matter like worship style, we have the opportunity to humble ourselves. Perhaps worshipping God in a style which isn’t my personal favorite will enable me instead to die a little bit to myself and love my neighbor a little bit more.