*This is the third sermon in a series on Common Worship: Themes for Zion's Worship Life on Sunday, September 2, 2012.
Worship wars. What an odd name to label the conflicts that churches have over worship styles. And the so-called “peace churches” have not been AWOL from these battles! I recently came across an article on the worship wars entitled: Who is worship for? Dispatches from the War Zone. War zone? You would think church members were wearing camouflage outfits and carrying M15s into the sanctuary! Shouldn’t we find it a bit odd and ironic that the church would be “at war” over the worship of God?
“Worship wars” appear to be about the conflict over different worship styles. Imagine this scene. The worship leaders of a traditional mainline church with stained glass windows, pipe organ, grand piano and set liturgy, begin to notice that the young people are becoming more disillusioned with their old style of worship. So, they decide to change things up a bit. The young pastor is all for it. So, on a Sunday morning they introduce the congregation to some new, unfamiliar, but lively songs with the words projected on a screen. They are backed up with electric guitars, drums, and a tambourine. A liturgical dancer interprets a song about creation.
Some older members joyfully join in the invitation to clap their hands, while most have their arms folded tightly around their chests. The tension in the congregation is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Following the service a good number of older members of the congregation approach the young pastor and chew his ear right off the side of his head! Of course, the pastor calls a special meeting to discuss the conflict with church members.
If we were a fly on the wall at this church meeting, we might be able hear snippets of the heated debate:
“We need to keep our sacred traditions and be serious about our worship!”
“No. We need to be more creative, informal, joyful in our worship!”
“I don’t care one bit for those songs we “throw up” on the wall. Huaaah! They make me sick!”
“Oh yeah, we’re tired of those irrelevant, cobwebbed hymns from a hundred years ago!”
“Those drums are still pounding in my head!”
“Well, that organ makes me feel like I’m at a funeral!”
“All I heard was ‘I worship’ my Savior and my God.’ It all about me, me, me. Where is the church in this sappy singing?”
“Whatever. I don’t understand all the archaic King James language of “thee, ye, thou, thine, wouldest, and couldest. If we don’t make our music and worship style more up-to-date, we are going to lose our young people.”
“Well, if they don’t turn down that racket, we’re going to lose our hearing! And what was that monkey doing jumping around in her leotards?”
It’s not hard to understand that deep passions are attached to music and worship. We often get in conflict when people on both sides of the “battle line” feel like we are losing something dear to us, something that was a part of our formative spiritual experiences. Whenever you sing those wonderful traditional songs from the old Mennonite hymnal, you remember when mom and dad brought you to church and you felt secure in God’s arms. And singing the choruses from the 60’s and 70’s evokes warm feelings of the time when you accepted Christ around the campfire at the youth retreat. Music and other forms of worship touch us deeply because they were part of our formative spiritual experiences. They are our language of worship. And let’s all remember, they are part of how we encounter God.
Then, when we are faced with the possibility of change in our worship or we constantly face the reality that worship seems to leave out my music or worship forms that are meaningful to my spiritual life, we feel conflicted, ill at ease, and even ready to fight for what is significant for my worship experience. Worship and preaching professor Thomas Long put it well when he said:
As in any war, the sad part is the casualties. Faithful people in many congregations have been hurt, angered, and alienated. Keep the pipe organ, the old hymnal, the formality, and the thick silence, and young people stay away in droves, leaving sanctuaries hollow and lonely. Bring in the praise band, the Garth Brooks-style microphones, and the soloist singing, "You can't imagine how much I love Jesus," and the grays feel confused and betrayed. Worship changes touch us at our deepest level, and the worship committee in many congregations is now the church's version of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The deep passions about our preferred musical styles and worship forms can blow rational thought out of the water. One side of the aisle says: If we bring in contemporary music, we will lose forever our traditional way of singing. The other side of the aisle fires back: But…if we don’t, we will lose our young people.
A word of commonsense to those on both sides of the Maginot line in the so-called “worship wars”:
To those on one side: Adding a smidgeon of contemporary music to our worship services will not mean, God forbid, the ultimate and tragic demise of our traditional, acapella, four part harmony and of our beloved Mennonite faith itself! No one is suggesting scrapping old 606 for all eternity!
To those on the other side: adding contemporary music, that is, soft, folk-rock music from a time before most youth in the church were ever born, will not cause restless, postmodern young people to stay in the church, let alone flock to it in droves!Playing “Now is the Time to Worship” with an amplified guitar will not pull in the purple-haired, pierced and tattooed agnostic into the church. The problem is more complex than that.
We all have our deep passions about music and forms of worship associated with our generations and formative spiritual experiences, but some of us just need to take a chill pill!
There are a number of problems with the so-called “worship wars.”
· The purpose of worship gets distorted. As was emphasized in the first in this series of sermons, worship is primarily a response to God. It is not so much about the worshippers as it is about the one worshipped. So, to be at odds over forms of worship or styles of music is to become sidetracked from the primary purpose of worship.
· Personal aesthetics gets confused with common theology. It is only natural for the church to have different tastes in music styles and prefer certain forms of worship, whether that is visual imagery or verbal language, silence or spontaneous prayer, ancient or modern liturgy. The problem is when our personal tastes are confused with our common theology. What we commonly believe about God, the church, and worship are not the same as my preferred taste in music or forms of worship. I cannot impose my own aesthetics on the church as if this is what we are all have to believe about worship.
· The conflict usually gets focused on differences in music styles. Renewal of the church’s worship life is no simply about bringing new music into worship. It is a much broader issue. Worship is more than music, and even more than preaching. Worship is the sacred drama of the whole of the liturgy through which we encounter God.
· There are no winners in this “war.” Conflicts over differences in our personal aesthetics concerning worship produce no winners. How could any person or group be considered a winner when the purpose of worship is to give glory to God? For the sake of the worship of God, we must find ways to make peace concerning these so-called “worship wars.”
Blended worship is one approach to calling an armistice on the “worship wars.” Other“peacemaking” approaches have been tried. Congregations have tried the let’s-just-go-our-separate-ways approach by creating alternative worship services for discriminating worshippers; a traditional service and a contemporary service. The traditional service has organs and piano, traditional hymns and liturgy, and an older crowd. The contemporary service has guitars and drums, amplifiers, more technology, overhead projection, informality, contemporary music, and a younger crowd. Often this approach just produces two different congregations gathering in the same building at different times to engage in their own forms of preferred worship styles.
Another peacemaking approach has been to alternate styles of worship throughout the month, usually with a less frequent contemporary service led by youth or young adults. Everyone has to tolerate each other’s styles, to some degree, but at least each side gets something of their own style, at least part of the time.
Another approach is blended worship. This descriptive term is drawn from the work of theology professor Robert Webber, a leader in the worship renewal movement. Blended worship is more than simply the inclusion of both traditional hymns and contemporary praise songs in worship. Blended worship is a convergence in one service of worship diverse musical styles and forms of worship, traditional and contemporary, old and new, liturgical and charismatic, local and global, incorporating drama and the arts, in such a way that respects the diversity within the body of Christ and is centered in giving glory to God.
We might describe blended worship as “united in purpose, diverse in style” or “worshipping one God in many forms.” Psalm 150, which we read earlier, reflects diversity in worship. One God, many instruments of praise. Praise God in the temple. Praise God under the sky. Praise God with trumpet and harp. Praise God with drums and dance. Praise God with a diversity of instruments, forms, and styles.
Israel’s instruments were borrowed from the Egyptian and Canaanite orchestras, Israel’s contemporaries. No notation exists to reproduce the sounds of ancient Israelite music, but we can assuredly conjecture that their music styles reflected the music of other nearby cultures of the day. They worshipped God with contemporary music, that is, music of their contemporaries, which over time became “traditional worship music.” May I suggest that a lot of what we call “contemporary music,” music of our contemporaries, some going as early as the 60s, should now be considered“traditional music.” The diversity of instruments of Psalm 150 are symbolic of the diversity of styles and forms that people blend together into an orchestra of worship in praise to our one God.
I like to think of the blended worship in terms of Jesus’ parable about the scribe of the kingdom. Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of the household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. To teach of the reign of God requires drawing from the treasures of the old traditions of the Torah and the prophets, but also from the riches of fresh new interpretations of teachings such as Jesus offered in the Sermon on the Mount. In the same way, worship calls us to draw both from the well of old liturgies, ancient prayers, and traditional hymns and from the fresh springs of liturgical dance, spontaneous prayers, global and contemporary music. We can appreciate and maintain the old traditions and celebrate the creative worship expressions of a new age.
Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. The writer of Ephesians invites worshippers to be filled with the Spirit and to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another, which some of you might be delighted to know was most likely acapella singing. Instruments were used in ancient Israelite worship, but did not re-emerge in the Christian church until the 10th to the 12 century. These acapella hymns were probably traditional hymns from the psalms known by heart and spontaneously composed songs, as Paul says, “Everyone has a hymn” (1 Cor. 14:26). The writer of Ephesians blends together these musical forms as a way of “making melody to the Lord in your hearts.” These three descriptions of music are not separate and distinct, like the traditional and contemporary worship services in some congregations. These three musical descriptions reflect common worship music and so have something of a synonymous meaning.
There is a real sense in which contemporary praise songs, traditional hymns, African-American spirituals are synonymous. They are all musical forms for giving praise to God and edifying one another! New Testament scholar Markus Barth, commenting on this text in Ephesians, says, “Not only does (singing) have a special place in common worship”….but “it is part of the mutual edification of the saints.” “The singer’s private pleasure alone, not to speak of ancient or modern exhibits, cannot be its primary purpose.” Again, worship is not about my preferred style of music or worship forms, ancient or modern, but it is primarily about giving glory to God and edifying or building up the church.”
“That all sounds nice and good in theory, but…” says the contrarian. Blended worship may sound good on paper, but it something altogether different in practice. I can understand the words of a pessimistic internet blogger: “I mean let’s be honest; a Blended Worship Service is really just a pacifier service. It’s got just enough of a music style to tick people off rather than allow them to drop their guard.” Another young pastor on the internet wrote about blended worship, “I saw a documentary on the show ‘Saturday Night Live’ one time and when one of the skits got rewritten, comedian Colin Quinn said something like, “Yeah, let’s compromise, that way, we’ll both lose.”Sometimes that’s how blended worship feels, like we are losers in a game of compromise. If all blended worship means is engaging in the children’s game of “I’ll give you yours, if you give me mine,”then we might as well forget turning on the blender and keep the ingredients separate.
We can all be peacemakers in the“worship wars,” if we make God the primary subject of worship and focus on edifying one another. Worship is not about pleasing ourselves. It is about pleasing God. And God is pleased when each of us, with our own formative worship experiences, our own musical styles, our own preferred worship forms, old and new, our own psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, come together as the body of Christ and with one voice speak and sing and perform our praise to God!
Now is not the time to focus upon ourselves and our preferred musical styles. Now is not the time to assert our differences within the body.
Now is not the time to hold tightly to my wants, my needs, my opinions.
Now is the time to share our commonalities as one body in Christ.
Now is the time to come together with one voice in praise to God.
Now is the time to worship!
Come, now is the time to worship
Now is the time to give your heart to God and to one another
Now is the time to set aside your differences and to be one in Christ
Come, just as you are, to worship
not feeling like you have to force your feet into someone else’s worship shoes
not feeling like you have leave your real self, with all your preferences, peculiarities, and picadillos, outside the doors of this sanctuary
Come, leaving behind the sword of divisiveness
leaving behind the ax to grind
Come, now is the time to worship