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Worship Wars 10: Should Churches Offer Differing Styles of Worship?

Worship Wars 10: Should Churches Offer Differing Styles of Worship?

(Note: For best impact, begin with the first post of the series.)

Churches across our country have found a way to avoid worship wars in their church. The solution: offer worship services of varying styles so that everyone can attend a service that meets their personal preferences. It seems to make sense. We want to reach the community around us (missionary mentality), yet we do not want to impose new musical styles and other new forms of communication on those that prefer older forms of communication and music. This way, we can reach our community and keep our existing congregation content. Seems like a win-win. Maybe not. Let’s explore this more. (Hang on, this is a longer article, but I summarize my thoughts on worship wars in our churches. Stay with me until the end).

The addition of a contemporary or blended worship service very often significantly increases church growth

I recently spoke with a minister of music at a prominent church which offers a traditional and a contemporary service. I asked him where they saw the most growth. What I discovered was what I had anticipated–the traditional service saw some steady growth, but most all of the increase was from Christians changing churches or from children of existing families in the church. The contemporary service saw the more significant increase in numbers–most from unchurched people coming to Christ. This certainly shows that the contemporary form of worship in this setting was reaching their community much better than the traditional form of worship. I have seen this time and again as I have explored this dynamic with church leaders. One could definitely say that the addition of a contemporary worship service, for many churches, has created increased church growth, particularly among the previously unchurched. Indeed, I spoke to the issue of contemporary worship reaching people in a greater way than traditional worship in most contexts in a previous post. Some churches offer numerous options in their worship buffet–for instance, Saddleback offers eight different worship styles options.

If churches are experiencing increased church growth due to the addition of new worship style offerings, isn’t it a no-brainer to add a contemporary service?

Some time ago, my answer to that question was a resounding YES! The more I struggle with how churches “do” corporate worship, the more I have begun to question some of our “church growth” strategies. In last week’s post, I made it clear that I believe many churches are stuck in the past with no missionary mindset at all. In the majority of cases, I believe these churches need to make changes in worship to stay relevant to the community around them. (see relevant post). It should be noted that there are some cases where a traditional form of worship works best in reaching the community, but these are more rare. Having separate and different worship services may cause some concerns.

It seems in many cases, offering differing worship options is creating diverse, separate congregations living under one roof.

This is a very real concern of many churches offering two or more styles of worship. I have spoken with pastors who have expressed their grave concern about their splintering congregations and the lack of unity that is being created. In some cases, there becomes an “us” and “them” mentality. It can often breed a feeling of worship superiority–the feeling that “my” form of worship is what God most prefers and other forms are missing the mark.

Offering varying styles of worship may be counterproductive to the message of the gospel.

As Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, writes in his book, Unfashionable, “Building the church on age appeal…or stylistic preferences is as contrary to the reconciling effect of the Gospel as building it on class, race, or gender distinctions.” Is our effort to reach many through offering a variety of options in worship actually being counterproductive to the message of the gospel? (For more on this, see my post on Unified Worship).

Unified worship may more accurately represent the reconciling work of the gospel and may be more unifying for a church.

This idea is explored in a previous post. I visited recently with Lem LeRoy, Senior Worship Pastor at Carmel Baptist Church in Charlotte. He shared with me their church’s journey of moving from two contemporary services and one traditional service each Sunday morning to three unified services. The church leadership saw that the variety of styles of worship was leading to a church of two congregations. The church made the move through a well-thought-out, intentional process, including much education as to the reasons for change. Take a look at the document that outlines their move. The beauty of unified worship is a multi-generational/multi-cultural congregation worshipping together in unity. The beauty comes when the band starts playing a contemporary song such as Chris Tomlin’s, Our God, with musical accompaniment appropriate to the times, and dear, old Sister Maggie finds great worship expression in the song as she sees it connect with her teenage grandson, Jake. Realizing that he is finding an expression for his worship through that song, she sings the song out with all her heart. Later in the service, the congregation sings, The Old Rugged Cross with simple accompaniment. This time, Sister Maggie sings with the tears flowing, thinking of the great sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and how that has meant so much to her over the years. Jake, sees how his Grandma is connecting in worship, and he, too, begins to sing with all his heart. Unified worship is about putting aside personal preferences and coming together in a unified expression of our worship. C.S. Lewis expressed the sentiment well:

I dislike very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.  But as I went on I saw the great merit of it…I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots.  It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

After all this–CONFUSION!

So, what’s a church to do.

Here’s where I have come down on the worship styles conflict:

  • If you are starting a new church. Study your community to determine what musical styles the people listen to and what forms of communication connect with them. Then, like a missionary, develop your church’s corporate worship to reach the people in your community, speaking a language they can understand. If your community is multicultural, your worship may need to reflect a unified format incorporating pieces of all cultures.
  • If you are an established church. Study your community to determine what musical styles the people listen to and what forms of communication connect with them. Then take a hard look at your corporate worship service. Does your service reflect the community or is it quite different? If it does reflect the community, you probably do not need to make any significant alterations. If not, you are faced with three possibilities:
  1. Stay as you are. This is probably not the best choice for all the reasons previously mentioned. Many may choose this because it is the easiest.
  2. Add an additional worship service that reflects the community. This might be a contemporary service. Be sure to heed the cautions mentioned earlier in this post. It may be you will do this for a season, then come together in a form of unified worship in a few years.
  3. Transform your existing service to incorporate varying styles of worship and bring unity to the vast age spans and various cultures that may be represented in your church and community. If your community would be better reached with more contemporary forms of communication and music, I would encourage you to move more strongly to utilize these forms in worship while still bringing value to older expressions, perhaps in fresher settings.

How do you determine which of the choices is correct for your church? Ask the Father. Your church leadership team should seek God’s heart on the matter. I have seen God at work in varying models of worship offerings from churches. Take time to really consider all the options and listen to the heart of our Father as to what is best for the congregation you serve.

If you are needing to make some changes in your worship services to incorporate more contemporary forms of worship, I encourage you to attend one of our remaining worship leader boot camps. For more information, visit the information page.

I welcome your comments.

About The Author

Kenny Lamm

Worship Consultant for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. A frequent worship clinician and guest worship leader. Extensive work in worship renewal in several Asian countries.


  1. Alan

    I realized that this article dates several years back from the time that I am writting in this comment section. However, I would like to illustrate our churches situation to get an honest reply. Approximately 14 years ago we added a modern style vertical type worship service “contemporary“ to the church that was deeply rooted in southern gospel and an older hymn worship style. Since then we have seen exponential growth in spiritual and numerical equivalent to what is now two modern style worship services. We still have one traditional style worship service. The traditional style worship service does See some numerical growth from other churches who are canceling their traditional service but rarely ever sees salvation‘s or baptisms. In fact in 2017 168 conversions were seen and none of which came through the people or the traditional church service. The contemporary worship services continuously experiences not only numerical growth but huge leaps of Salvation‘s and baptisms. The contemporary services are where the average age is approximately 28 years old versus the traditional service where the average age is approximately 65 to 70 years old. The church averages about 800 in attendance and 2/3 of the attendance is by the way of the contemporary service people. The same preaching style and topic is very well embraced by all of the services but the music styles are not in embraced interchangeably. I feel that because of salvation and baptism rate is so different that it is not producing fruit. So what does the leadership team do with a ministry that does not produce fruit when it’s getting everything that is the same with the exception of music styles? Some of our leadership hearts are breaking because of this. Every time there is one more modern style song added in the mix of 3 or 4 traditional songs there always seems to be complaints. We are constantly trying to educate our people and all of the services that we are going to provoke me ministry that best reflects the needs of our community regardless of what it will take. The difficult thing here is to make changes. Your articles about presenting a unified warship are very well thought out and planned and I appreciate the time you have put in creating these articles.

  2. Peggy Woods

    In a blended ( or unified as you prefer), it seems to be the traditional people who do the sacrificing. I heard your presentation on May 17 and you did a fine job. However, the lists of unnecessary things needed for worship only included the traditional service. If choirs, organs, and pulpits are unnecessary, why are guitars, praise bands, and drums essential. It seems that only the people who want contemporary services are to be heard. I am really sick of being portrayed as reactionary, old fashioned, and standing against the kingdom of God.

    • Kenny Lamm

      Thank you, Peggy, for honestly sharing your thoughts on this. When I shared my initial list of unnecessary (non-essential, temporary) things, I did mention bands, guitars, etc. Our discussions, however, centered more on many on the traditional non-essentials since those are more often standing in the way of a church connecting with its community and culture today. We should recognize that many of the “contemporary” items are indeed non-essential as well.

      Here’s the difficult part as I shared that day at your church–too often we settle into doing church a certain way without regard to the changing culture around us. We often drift into a condition of no longer being relevant to the world. The message of Jesus Christ is timeless and is and will be always relevant; but it is so much easier to stay in our comfort zones and make what we do in church all about our preferences.

      I quoted Ed Stetzer in our time together:

      Worship from your unity and choose music out of your mission. Worship unifies. Music rarely does. A church seeking the transformation of a community of far-from-God people must make their worship about God and His glory rather than their preferential styles.

      I am sorry if you felt like you were being portrayed negatively. What I always pray will happen in these times of church discussion is that people will recognize what worship should be, see the reality of what it is in their church, then seek God’s heart on how to make the transition (if needed), which often involves a sacrifice of personal preferences for the unity of the body and for the viability of the church into the future.

      Change is not easy nor should it be done for the sake of change. But if we can see that 85-90% of our churches are dying or plateued, we must realize that we are falling short of our mission as the church and recognize the need to realign with our purpose and once again become a viable, thriving lighthouse to our community.

      Churches all over the world are declining while the need for Jesus is greater than ever. All of us must have a “whatever-it-takes” attitude to turn things around.

      I know this is most difficult for older generations. I also know that when older generations capture this vision and lead the change, amazing things begin to happen. If God leads your church through change, as you seek His heart, He will provide ultimate joy in your life.

  3. dr jeff scott

    AMERICAN GOTHIC CHURCH: Changing the Way People See the Church, a new book by Jeffery Warren Scott suggests that the unchurched are not likely to be reached unless believers change the mental image of Christians embedded in the minds of the unchurched. Churches which are encouraging, joyful, and compassionate are more likely to reach and retain the unchurched.

    • JeremyK

      This comment bothers me. I always thought God was the one who saves, and not the mental image of a Christian, which I almost guarantee to you, a non-believer has little or no thought of.

  4. Lonnie Mckay

    I prefer contemporary music but contemporary music does not make a contemporay service.
    Music can start a comtemporay service but is instantly killed by a traditional theologian sermon.

    • Kenny Lamm

      Great comment, Lonnie. Just using contemporary music does not make a service a truly “contemporary” service. To be truly contemporary would mean being more relevant to today’s times in music, visuals, communication styles, etc. Too often a church merely takes an old wineskin of their service and merely substitutes a new song for an old song, leaving everything else the same.

  5. John Smith

    If we’d stop making the church about worship music and make it about God again, God might just show up…idolatry is not Christian worship.

    Call a prayer meeting without music…see how many show up…that will reveal to you whether or not your people are idol worshipers or Christ worshipers. The hungry need no music. The truly hungry need no gimmicks…

    “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.” — John 6:66

    Have you actually ever thought through this short passage of scripture in John? Have you actually thought through the implications of following Christ at the expense of your own popularity and your own flesh driven successes? Are your goals His goals? If not, then don’t talk to me about worship. True worship leads to brokenness, humility and makes Christ the object…not music.

    If worship is the only thing that keeps your people attending, then it isn’t them, it’s you….When you seek to go to a cross, many of your disciples will leave you. Who do you follow, Christ or the praises of man? Get saved first pastors, then you won’t have to talk about worship so much. It will come out of you.

    • Mark Keating

      I think you make a dangerous comment with basically equating worship music to music alone. The idea of worship music is using music as a vehicle to engage in corporate worship of our God. No God does not need music, God doesn’t need a preacher speaking, nor does He need us to pray to Him. He chose to have all those things, examples throughout scripture.
      You also seem to be arguing from the opinion that relevant music styling is a new thing. In church history you have countless periods of changes from one style to the next; from Psalms to Hymn, Gregorian chants, and yes even contemporary songs.
      I’m also concerned by you taking out of context the scripture passage you used. That was concerning those who were shocked by Jesus calling people “eat the flesh of the Son of Man”. Should we take out communion from services? is that an idol? An idol is anything placed in God’s seat. That can be absolutely anything and it is the intent behind it that matters.
      What difference does it make to read Psalm 23, chant it, sing it in hymn style, or with an electric guitar underneath. You are attempting to invalidate an entire way of worshipping God because some have abused it. Yes our ways need to be His ways…He has set up for us to worship His name for Eternity. I choose to worship my God not for my glory but to make His name famous to praise the God who is worthy of it.
      All that and I’m a worship Director.

  6. Wade

    I come from a background being brought up in a church as a small child to growing up in my to my middle years now pursuing my calling in worship ministries. Since many churches back then were of a more traditional “religious” setting the typical song book and pews were the norm and I don’t recall ever connecting with the songs. Eventually after being disconnected from the church and coming back in my late teens I was listening to far more contemporary songs while also enjoying some traditional ones and was able to connect to both. Over time the contemporary songs are changing from just lyric heavy and singing along (songs not good for worship in a church) to what I would call spiritual basting songs inviting and dwelling in the spirit’s presence thus becoming more powerful all the while.

    I’ll say I can agree in a view with Ron that traditional songs may never go away as my grandmother always preferred that type and does my mother. However, to believe that they alone are all we need in my view is limiting God’s ability to continually show us new ways to connect with the spirit or allowing him to reveal himself and unlock doors we’ve shut inside of us. It’s stubbornness or fear of venturing outside of our comfort zone which in perspective aligns up with people’s lives who don’t really have a relationship with God because they’re set in a traditional mindset. I see and listen to many songs of old that have more powerful chorus pitch changes in new versions that make all the difference while mostly listening to new contemporary songs from bands like Jesus Culture that are not like the typical touring band music (Third Day, Casting Crowns, etc.) and focus on songs that people can sing along to in a church and bring an experience for people to encounter God when you listen to the lyrics and just soak in the presence of the spirit to come down upon each person. It’s not about performance, it’s about having people who walk through the door being able to encounter God’s presence. I’m a firm believer worship holds the key to unlock doors most if not all people have closed inside them that just praying alone cannot do. Worship in itself isn’t supposed to be dry chants of praise but it’s supposed to be an experience…to experience God’s presence crying out for him, his healings, revelations, mercy, love, etc as well as giving him glory at the same time.

    I believe the key ingredient in worship for a church starts with the people who are making the music that their focus is on God and inviting his presence with a heart’s desire for the people there to encounter his presence to join in as one being together seeking him. I think many times over people just see worship as a part of the service, or a chance to “perform” for people even if they play beautifully. The congregation have to be lead by those leading them who set the mood, it’s all in how they lead the worship; will they just perform or will they worship for the congregation to experience God’s presence bringing his glory down into their lives? It all has to start from the inside out.

    In conclusion I wouldn’t toss away songs of the old necessarily, but I would continually embrace new songs all the while because we are each day coming to know God more and more as time goes on as he reveals himself and the music is changing especially in contemporary to fit the inviting of, the experiencing of, encounters of and revelations of God and the Holy Spirit’s presence to break down barriers even touching those from the days of old even if they never do sing along. Sometimes it takes people a few occasions listening to a song for it to register in them and next thing you know is they have a hard time trying not to listening to it in their car on repeat; I’m this way myself. To believe the songs of old are good enough alone is to have a mindset that God has stop revealing more of himself and his nature and that the best has already come and this is not true at all…we’ve only seen but glimpse of what is to come.

  7. Bill Worley

    In the end, the issue is whether or not our church brothers and sisters truly meet face to face with the Holy God in our worship time together. If each of us truly desires that intimate time with our Lord, to praise Him and thank Him, to express our love for Him…well, that can happen in so many different ways…

    I love the passion, energy, and emotion of contemporary praise and worship. But, having recently attended one of Kenny’s “bootcamps”, I can honestly tell you that the song that most brought me to brokenness before my God was “It Is Well With My Soul,” done with just Kenny playing keyboards.

    I guess my thought boils down to this: the richness of our worship involves so much more than the style of music we choose to play. I think it matters much more that we are a body that loves their God, loves each other, and genuinely longs for the world outside our church to love those same things. When our hearts and minds are right, we can worship in whatever clothes we choose to put on that particular Sunday.

    That may sound like I’m opting out of the discussion. I don’t think that I am. Open hearts would prepare a service that is likely to “speak” to as many hearts as possible on a Sunday. Sometimes that will be traditional, sometimes that will be contemporary.

    What it will always be however, is dedicated to and motivated by our love for our Father.

  8. Ron

    Our church is a mostly a 45 and older church with 250-300 in attendance at worship each week.A vast majority of our church prefers traditional hymns to sing along contemporary music. When we do have a song from our “praise team”, it is met by a vast majority of a congregation that does not sing along even though the words are on the screen. Even the youth do very little singing and these are the people that this music is aimed toward. They also do very little singng even on the familar hymns. However, when our worship choir sings, they are met with loud applause and lots of “AMENS” even from the younger members.They sing a variety of gospel, old hymns reworked with a more modern sound “toe tappers” as we call them and sometimes a contemporary arrangement. We also perform medleys of old songs or hymns . We also use acc. tracks 99% of the time.

    I have been working in church music for 30 years. I believe that “new generation” will continue to have life changing experiences with the theology rich traditional hymns. The traditional worship experience will never go away, it just has to be tweeked a little.

  9. Kenny Lamm

    This from reader, Paul Marth of Pleasant Garden Baptist Church:
    Thanks for the series on Worship Wars. I found it to be very stimulating. For larger churches, the issue of unity is the same whether you have three “contemporary” services or, like us, have three different style worship services. Once you go beyond a single service, you have the potential problem you described and it can only be avoided when persons choose to be involved in more than worship services. Discipleship classes , mission activities, prayer meetings or other activities allow the various “congregations” to intermingle. Our three services-traditional, blended and contemporary, appear to meet the needs of different worshippers and we have maintained incredible unity in the congregation with this format. Our contemporary service is our largest service, with the traditional service continuing to grow as well. Our blended service is our smallest service but remains consistent in attendance. While the majority of first time salvation decisions are in the contemporary service, life change is not absent at the other services and we have person’s baptized in those services every month as well. As one who enjoys the music in all three services, I cannot imagine giving up the incredible theology of the hymns or the enthusiastic praise of contemporary music but I do understand it is not about me and if I was limited to one service, I would most likely choose a contemporary service to reach the new generation.


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