The new worship war

A number of decades ago, a conflict erupted over the style of worship. Some congregations felt that the traditional hymns were the way to go and others wanted newer “choruses.” This was not the first war, as there had been strong feelings when churches switched from Psalms to hymns.

Has that war ended? I’m not sure. It does not create as much emotion but I still hear some people saying that we need to go back to the traditional hymns and others saying that we need to eliminate the traditional hymns.

My personal philosophy is that we should just go with the best songs, and not get stressed out over when they were written.

But there is a new conflict that I see happening when it comes to congregational worship. In fact, I would say that this is more serious as it goes beyond style and gets down to the reason we sing in church.

I have recently had the opportunity to visit two of the most popular churches in my city. They both had something in common when it came to worship. First, both had very good worship bands that were obviously very talented. The lights in the auditorium were dimmed (or right out) and the lights were on the band. The band only played a few songs and most of the congregation listened instead of singing along. Basically, both churches put on very nice and professional Christian music concerts.

This is different from what I’m used to, which is congregational singing. In my church, we try to pick songs that people can sing to. We see a good morning of worship not in terms of how well the worship team did, but how much the congregation participated in the worship.

This is a different philosophy than some of the popular and growing churches out there.

I understand the reasons behind it. These churches are aiming at seekers who are not necessarily familiar or even comfortable with congregational worship. The context they know is that of the concert and so the energy goes into putting on the best performance, not just in music, but also in terms of lighting, smoke machines, etc.

I’m sympathetic with their focus. I’m also willing to acknowledge that it seems to work as those churches are growing.

Having said that, I think we need to reflect on the purpose of congregational gatherings. Is a Sunday morning service meant to be an evangelistic (or even pre-evangelistic) event? Or is it meant to be an opportunity for followers of Jesus to worship?

I want non-Christians to come to church and learn about God. But my focus for Sunday mornings is to provide opportunities for Christians to worship and to teach them about the Bible and how it intersects with life.

I have concerns about what it means for discipleship if we turn worship into a concert and sermons into an introduction to seekers.

What is the new worship war? Instead of choosing between hymns and choruses, it is now choosing between congregational worship and musical performance.

This is not to say that I think other churches should stop what they are doing. They need to follow what they believe God is leading them to. All I can say is that I will promote congregational singing with the purpose of worshiping God.

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Stephen J. Bedard is an author, blogger and speaker. He is interested in discipleship, apologetics and disability advocacy. He co-wrote the award-winning book, Unmasking the Pagan Christ, which was also made into a documentary. He is the director of Hope’s Reason Ministry and editor of Hope’s Reason: A Journal of Apologetics. Additional writing can be found on his website stephenjbedard.com

  • Neil Bramble

    I’m on board with this. For a lot of my life I led worship, both without and with worship teams. But I have some of the same misgivings expressed here, and I do have definite convictions about church music, why people don’t sing in church, and discipleship. Growing numbers don’t necessarily mean new life nor do they constitute evidence for life transformation or emerging disciples. Churches need to re-think this and make adjustments.

    • Steve Bedard

      I appreciate your thoughts on this. I like excellence in worship music, a concert is not preferable to congregational singing.

    • HpO

      My Better 5-Eighth & I can’t stand worship as-is. 1 of us sits, giving up; the other stands, standing down all the same. Why are we even here? – our tearing eyes saying to each other. Or maybe the melancholic muzak is having a predesigned effect on us; we couldn’t tell. … Then – oh no! – it’s lecture time for PhD’s they pitch as “sermon”.

  • HpO

    Rephrasing’s in order, brother Stephen J. Bedard, if I may?

    Let’s substitute this better:

    “What is the (next) worship war? (Having tension-eased and transcended the unnecessary) choosing between hymns and choruses, it is now (simulating) congregational worship (via) musical performance. (That was the ultimate goal of CCM, Commercialized Church Muzak, from the very beginning, see, via CDs, concerts and pre-sermon ‘whor I mean worship’; and it’s all Mission-from-Gaahdd accomplished now, thank you very much. Chill & Enjoy, ‘yo.)”

    For this:

    “What is the new worship war? Instead of choosing between hymns and choruses, it is now choosing between congregational worship and musical performance.”