Older readers can remember the worship wars that raged thirty years ago. The growing popularity of contemporary Christian music led many churches to change (or try to change) their worship style. They abandoned choirs, organs, and hymnals for praise bands, drum sets, and projected lyrics. Generally, younger people embraced the changes enthusiastically, while old folks complained and resisted. In some churches, the wars over worship led to church splits and/or member defections. I’m old enough to remember the night (more than 50 years ago) when our youth group led the evening service. We used a guitar in the service, and some of the older members complained about “the devil’s music” in the service. Of course, that did not phase us at all.
Naively, I thought the worship wars of the previous generation had ended, but some recent events have caused me to reconsider. I heard of a large church in the Mid-South in which the pastor was forced to resign. The church had an older minister of music and featured a fairly traditional worship service with choir, organ, and orchestra. Over several years a number of younger members left the church for a large contemporary church nearby. Church leaders became concerned about the membership decline. When the pastor and staff proposed transitioning to a contemporary worship style, the older members (who gave most of the money) declared that they would stop giving if the change was made. Then, the younger members stated they would leave if the change was not made. The poor pastor was caught in the middle, and in the end he left. The last I heard the church attendance was about a third of what it was four years ago.
Not long after I heard about the church above, I learned about a county seat First Baptist Church in the South that split right down the middle over worship. Again, the younger members wanted contemporary worship, while the older members resisted that. The result of the conflict was a church split. The younger members departed and organized a new church. The older folks kept the building, but that congregation does not have much hope for the future because most of its young families have left. A key issue in both situations is that the younger members supply numbers and energy and hope for the future, while the older members give most of the money. So, both groups need the other, but they have different preferences in worship style.
Demographics complicates the situation for worship leaders and pastors. Because people are living longer, many churches now have four generations present in a worship service. How can a worship leader design a worship service that satisfies all four generations in the congregation?
What are some solutions to this thorny issue? One solution is to have two different worship services—one traditional and one contemporary. My wife and I were members at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis. This is what Bellevue did. They offered a more traditional service at 9:20 a.m. that featured a choir and orchestra. A praise band led the 11:00 service. Steve Gaines’ preached the same sermon at each service, but he removed his tie for second service. Now, I can see pastors of small churches shaking their heads. They are thinking—we struggle to offer one service, much less two services. We do not have the musical resources to have two services. Believe me, I get that. I’m a retired missionary who planted churches overseas, and we were delighted if our guitarist showed up. Bellevue’s orchestra is bigger than the last church I planted overseas. Still, offering two services is an option for some congregations. Some church members resist offering different services. They believe this will lead to two separate congregations, though I have not found that true in practice.
A second solution is to offer blended worship. In blended worship, the planner/leader uses both praise songs and hymns. When I was a pastor in Kentucky, our minister of music did this in a masterful way, and I believe all our folks were satisfied. In fact, once a month we had Bluegrass worship, and our members really liked that.
A third option is to provide an outlet for older members who love hymns. At our present church in Texas, our minister of music primarily employs the contemporary style of worship, but he does include a hymn a couple of times each month. He also holds a senior adult hymn-sing once a month, so that us old folks can sing hymns.
Another consideration in this matter is evangelism and outreach. Asking what worship style our members prefer may not be the primary question. The primary question should be: What worship style will enable us to win more people to Christ? Ed Stetzer, the North American church planting guru, says the choice of music style is the most important choice a church planter makes. He means that worship style significantly affects the growth of the new church. If you have a mismatch between your worship style and your target group, your church may struggle. I remember my early days on the faculty at Southern Baptist Seminary. A staff member consulted me because he was concerned about his church’s decline in membership and attendance. I knew that church used classical music in its worship services. In fact, sometimes the choir sang in Latin. So, I asked him how many radio stations in the city played classical music. He replied, “one.” I asked, “How big is their listening audience?” He answered, “It is so small it can’t be measured.” I said, “Nationally, 2 percent of the population listens to classical music. So, your church is appealing to 2 percent of the population. Would your church consider changing its worship style?” He replied, “Oh, they would never change.” I stated, “Well, it will continue to decline.”
That conversation took place more than twenty years ago, and the church has declined steadily. Many churches would do well to ask what changes in their worship services would help them reach more people.
Is there a way forward to mediate the worship wars? Both older and younger members would do well to remember the Apostle Paul’s exhortation, found in Philippians 2:3-4 (NASB)—“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” Some years ago I spoke with a veteran associational director of missions. He had mediated lots of church fights. He told me, “If church members would just follow Philippians 2:3-4, there would be no church fights.” Our SBC churches claim to be New Testament churches, but they seem more biblical in doctrine than in church practice.
John Mark Terry earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in missiology from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, TX and served as a career missionary professor in Southeast Asia. He was Professor of Missions at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and currently is the Chairman of the Missions Department and Professor of Missions at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. He authored or edited Evangelism: A Concise History, Church Evangelism, two editions of Missiology: An Introduction, Developing a Strategy for Missions, Paul’s Missionary Methods, and Encountering the History of Missions.