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Worship Wars 3: Ending the Worship War without a Truce

Worship Wars 3: Ending the Worship War without a Truce

Note: For best impact, begin with the first post of the Worship Wars series.

Ed Stetzer, of LifeWay Research, has written an excellent article on worship wars. There’s some great material here for our consideration as we dive into the issues surrounding the worship wars.

The reason worship wars exist is because the church thinks it is fighting for something permanent when it is actually temporary. Musical styles and service preferences are like a jacket that can be taken on or off depending upon the temperature. It is used only when needed. Worship as a theological reality is not fit for such pedestrian arguments. It is to exist in the heart of all people– and it does. When we think we’re debating styles and techniques and forms, we are really defending our own affections and deeply felt preferences. Most often we defend what is nostalgic rather than what is helpful. It’s no wonder then that even attempts at ceasefires result in more fuel for the blaze.

I will lay my cards on the table: I was not raised in the church or in the subculture of the Bible Belt. I came to Christ at a later age and when I began my ministry it was with the urban poor in Buffalo, New York. I have been called by some “a son of the contemporary church movement.” I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, but I know what it means. I do not have the traditional church DNA in me like so many others I’ve known, pastored, and appreciated.

So, it could be that it is hard for me to get inside the shoes of the traditional worship advocate. (Though ancient church music has now become a favorite on my iPod.) Or it could be that having come from an irreligious home in addition to my travels observing the worship practices of global Christians that I have a different perspective.

I won’t deny I have personal preferences. For instance, it is clear that country and western music is not of God. (That’s another joke; don’t tell my friend Ricky Skaggs I said that.) Nevertheless, what I try to do is what we all should do in matters of preference and praise– commit to the reality that worship is not ultimately about us.

And because worship is not about us, I don’t think we end the worship wars in our local congregations merely by compromise. Compromise is noble; consensus is better. A truce just gets 100% of our church worshiping at 50%. It is not compromise we want, but unity. So how do we get to that ever-elusive goal, that aim Jesus laid out for us in His High Priestly Prayer in John 17? Here are five ideas.

1. Rally around Truth, Not a Truce

In the same prayer Jesus prayed that His church would be one (John 17:21-22), He prayed that they would be sanctified by the truth of God’s word (John 17:17).

When we come at the worship discussion we have to back up a bit and adopt a good theological framework for our conversations, because the church too often leaps to the assumption that “music = worship.” Or perhaps we frame it a bit more broadly and think in terms of a “worship service.” But the truth is that worship occurs in the whole of life. We are never not worshiping; our affections are always oriented somewhere or to someone. Minimizing worship to a one hour experience on Sunday monrings, or further down to merely the time of music in that experience, means many of us only dedicate thirty minutes of each week to worship of Christ. When we practice this minimization, it means that the rest of the time we’re worshiping someone else (usually ourselves).

It is a harsh accusation to make, but as our music and production skills have increased, our worship has suffered because we have engaged in them as the outpouring of self-worship. So we must remember that worship is for every hour of every day of every week. Our lives are to be oriented to the worship of God. And the chances are, if we thought of worship that way, we would not put so much personal stake in hearing our favorite style of music on Sunday mornings. The entirety of our worship would not be loaded into that slice of time.

Holding personal preferences loosely allows for greater unity in the body and advancement of God’s mission. The truth God seeks is that we rally to the cause of His glory among the nations rather than deciding is we will have two hymns and three choruses or three hymns and two choruses this Sunday.

2. Acknowledge that Preferences are Personal

I have witnessed the angst around worship music firsthand. I think that in some churches, a pastor could get away with preaching heresy so long as he’s cool, funny, and has a good video clip. But if a pastor tries to alter the worship style, it is time to start looking for a new job.

This works both ways, for the favorers of so-called “contemporary praise” and the adherents to more traditional worship music. Neither appears willing to give up ground, and they have planted their flags in either Relevance (for the contemporary folks) or Reverence (for the traditionalists). (Hence, the name of the dialog in the video at the top of this post.)

In many churches where a worship war is brewing or is in outright conflict, one group perceives themselves to be pushing forward toward the next generation (relevance) while another is trying to pull back to a once-honored method (reverence). One group thinks contemporary music or a more casual style will suit the modern generation and appeal more to the lost. Meanwhile the other group thinks all of that is just worldly compromise and, furthermore, arrogant to casually dismiss the styles that have served the church well, in some cases, for hundreds of years.

When either of these scenarios occurs it is usually because we have elevated our preferences to the level of principles. We are “taking a stand” for something important: our own comfort, convenience, and concerns. And all the while we’re trying to give God his due or the lost people in the pew it turns out we’re really just making worship about us.

3. Realize that Relevance and Reverence Are Not at War with Each Other

What those who push forward should realize is that relevance is not a goal; it is a tool. It is not the end, but one (of many) means to the end. Relevance for relevance’s sake never helped anybody. Playing a shocking song at the front of your Easter service may get headlines and upset religious people, but that’s about all it does. Having rock music fans think you’re a cool church is not the “win” you’re really looking for. A smart church will be culturally discerning, but always biblically-driven first.

On the other hand, the traditionalists’ placement of reverence on external styles is also wrongheaded. Reverence is not first and foremost an outward expression. It is a quality of the heart. Of course, it results in outward expressions, but take the story of David dancing before the Ark, for example. His free mode of worship was a scandal to Saul’s daughter Michal, who was watching from afar. David’s heart was turned reverently to the Lord, and this provoked a physical celebration from him. It sure looked irreverent to another. Many times today shouting, clapping, and dancing are seen as disorderly or irreverent or self-indulgent, but all three of those modes of worship are seen in Scripture though curiously absent from “reverent” worship services.

At the heart of many of our worship wars is, sad to say, idolatry. Our worship of things other than God drives the way we contend for ways to worship God. When reverence is equated with austerity, it can reveal an idolization of familiarity and comfort and control. When relevance is equated with a production carte blanche or “freedom of expression,” it can reveal an idolization of trendiness and self and showmanship. Both relevance and reverence can cloak idolatry of cultural forms and expressions.

In both cases, what is revealed is an idolatry of music. And music is just… well, music. As my colleague Mike Harland, president of LifeWay Worship has said, “You will never achieve spiritual goals with a musical means.” We see music as important in Scripture but never a particular form or function as necessary for discipleship. And never does God dictate a particular style, rhyme pattern, or lyrical format.

4. Embrace Humility

The evangelical church needs a ceasefire on fighting over cultural forms. A focus on biblical meanings will add a healthy dose of humility to our churches.

When I was young in the ministry, I was charged with ministry to both youth and seniors (go figure). One day I was going to lead worship at a nursing home. So, I took my guitar. I’ll never forget this 92 year old woman, Miss Langley, who put her hand on my arm and said “Don’t worry about the guitar, young man, we’re just gonna sing and you can sing with us.” I was bringing a relevance they didn’t need, and I had to be mature enough to see the hindrance I was about to become.

Imagine would what happen if worship warriors actually took on the attitude of Jesus (per Phillipians 2) and did not regard their agendas as something to be grasped but instead took on the posture of servanthood. What if we (per Romans 12:10) actually tried to outdo one another showing honor? Humility is a “win” for every worshiper.

5. Cultivate Consensus, Not Compromise

We have to be mature enough to worship in different ways, even in someone else’s ways. The so-called “blended service” has a typical formula of two songs for me and two songs for you and one song for that other guy. I think it is a sign of carnality and a lack of community in worship. Many times the blended worship service doesn’t please anybody but maybe the pastor who has given up trying to cultivate consensus. The blended service is an equal opportunity to anger everyone. It can be a sad compromise.

I also believe we need to be careful about multiple services with specialized genres. What is the motivation? Is the division a compromise? We need to be cautious about pandering to the consumeristic side of Western Christianity. We need to ask ourselves what our motivation is, and be honest with our answer. If we’re being mission-focused, that’s a good and worthy goal. But if we’re market-focused (and Christians are the market), we are off track.

If you go the blended or alternative service route, please do so not because you made a truce, but because you stuffed your egos and decided to glorify God for the sake of reaching your community in a language they understand; Spanish, biker, redneck, liturgical, or whatever.

Do the traditionalists appreciate the contemporary songs? Do the relevantists appreciate the hymns? Do they love each other? Do they see these differing forms as acceptable forms of worship?

Pastored well, a healthy congregation will seek consensus on the positives of God’s glory and mission rather than settle for compromise on the negatives of personal preferences and styles. A church in consensus would rather have Jesus than the hymn “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” A church in consensus will sing of God’s greatness rather than need “How Great is Our God” as their anthem. Music will not bring unity in and of itself. Worship brings unity. So long as it is the worship of Jesus.

This article was originally published on Ed Stetzer’s blog here. Thank you, Ed, for allowing me to republish your article on this blog.


What do you think of Ed’s ideas? Please share your comments.

Worship Wars: Next post in the series

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. Robert T. Tegland

    I was fine with the new untill it became clear it was just being used to throw out the old. Now I am bitter about the whole matter because I was never asked, I was told.

  2. JeremyK

    One comment is that there is too much emphasis on equating music to worship or more specifically the Sunday Worship Service. I agree that worship is to be done at all times, using Romans 12:1-2 as my reference. Though, I must say that I think those of us involved in worship are still missing the mark. Music is a tool, maybe a mode, that is great and important part of a Sunday Worship Service, or really any corporate Worship Service. And worship is not all about God. God is the object of our worship or person of our worship, but I believe worship is also about the worshiper. Otherwise, there would be no significance to a corporate worship service. There is something special and unique about God’s people gathering together, especially on a Sunday, to worship and praise God for who He is. And if this is true, then we need to look at the entirety of the Worship Service and incorporate music accordingly. Music/Worship/Singing is our response to what God has done for us, and fall into many categories like “Wonder and Praise”, “Devotion”, “Thanksgiving”, “Repentance”, or “Commitment”, and as such, songs should be chosen for their lyrical content as well as musical quality. Sometimes this means a hymn, sometimes it means a praise anthem, etc. Most of our congregation couldn’t tell you if a song was a traditional hymn or if it was the latest Tomlin track, and I think that is healthy. They sing songs as a response to God’s goodness and faithfulness, and it doesn’t matter if we have a rock band, or just a piano, or just a guitar, or a cello providing the instrumentation. Getting back to the Worship Service topic, I think it is necessary to incorporate elements that go back and forth between God “speaking” to us, and the congregation responding. Worship is meant to be an active back and forth between the worshiper and God. At least that’s how I think of it. In fact, to take it a step further, my church believes that the Worship Service needs to be gospel-oriented, in that, there are many opportunities to repent, and receive God’s salvation, and that it must be done very intentionally, and it should be specifically part of a worship service. Thanks for the articles. Very good information.

  3. creative arts uni

    I have really found this article useful.

    Thanks for information.

  4. wdbev

    It breaks my heart to hear comments like the following from your recent blog: “We have to be mature enough to worship in different ways, even in someone else’s ways. The so-called “blended service” has a typical formula of two songs for me and two songs for you and one song for that other guy. I think it is a sign of carnality and a lack of community in worship. Many times the blended worship service doesn’t please anybody but maybe the pastor who has given up trying to cultivate consensus. The blended service is an equal opportunity to anger everyone. It can be a sad compromise.” This is a sign of a sad, sad experience. We use a “blended worship”, contemporary songs and hymns (remember those) to success. Our goal is to minister to ALL generations, not one at a time but all simultaneously. “Carnality”?? That’s way too strong and completely against what else you were trying to say.

  5. Lem LeRoy

    One of the battles in the worship wars is definitely the issue of cultural relevancy. I blogged about this several months ago and thought it may be of some interest here.

    Reston Bible is a conservative, evangelical church situated in a suburb outside of Washington DC. The following article is taken from their web blog and is an explanation of why they use social media (blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.). It makes me think of how one could apply the premise behind this article, missional contextualization, to elements used in corporate worship gatherings. Can music and other worship elements be “culturally relevant tools used to reach and teach in ways people around us are familiar with?” I believe they can as long they (music or other elements) (1) DO NOT detract from/compromise the truth of scripture and (2) function well for the majority of the local worshipping community. That thought is resonated in their web blog. Read it below:


    As a church whose greatest desire is to know Christ and to make Him known, we are bearers of the greatest message of all time. The constant proclamation of the gospel – both for the edification of believers and the awakening of sinners – is our duty and delight. Though the truths of the Gospel are innately powerful and timeless, the means through which the Gospel is communicated are as varied as history and culture.

    Are all means of relaying the gospel good, effective, or equal? Not at all. Nor should all believers necessarily engage in certain means and methods of communicating the gospel. However, this is not to say that those means and methods be automatically dismissed for all merely because of individual conviction or cultural popularity. In an article entitled “Why and How I am Tweeting,” one pastor points out two prevailing responses toward internet-based social media (blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.):

    One says: These media tend to shorten attention spans, weaken discursive reasoning, lure people away from Scripture and prayer, disembody relationships, feed the fires of narcissism, cater to the craving for attention, fill the world with drivel, shrink the soul’s capacity for greatness, and make us second-handers who comment on life when we ought to be living it. So boycott them and write books (not blogs) about the problem.
    The other response says: Yes, there is truth in all of that, but instead of boycotting, try to fill these media with as much provocative, reasonable, Bible-saturated, prayerful, relational, Christ-exalting, truth-driven, serious, creative pointers to true greatness as you can.

    The Creative Arts team of RBC resonates with that second type of response. We would put the use of social media in the category of “missional contextualization.” That is to say, these are culturally relevant tools used to reach and teach in ways people around us are familiar with. Just as a missionary would study and use the language and culture of a people group in order to reach them as effectively as possible, so we desire to use social media and other communication technology as a way of effectively reaching, teaching and preaching to those around us.

    The New Testament in particular clearly shows us the importance of missionally contextualizing Gospel truth. Scripture emphasizes communicating its timeless truth in ways that people of specific times and cultures can understand and relate to. As a brief example, Jesus often teaches in simple parables about coins, sheep, seeds and bread (Luke 15:1-10, Matt. 13, John 6) – these are visual themes his audience can relate to and connect with in order to grasp biblical truths. Paul likewise reasons with Jews from their own Scriptures, quotes pop-culture literature to philosophers and references familiar pagan gods in order to contextualize the Gospel and teach about Jesus (Acts 17). And undoubtedly, the greatest example of missional contextualization is God the Father, who entered into humanity and engaged in human culture as Jesus the Son in order to visibly explain Himself to us in a way that we could relate to, connect with and understand (John 1:14, Gal 4:4-5, 1 Tim. 3:16).

    Again, as Christians, we are vessels of the greatest message ever – the gospel. Both believers and non-believers alike are in continual need of the gospel and its application to our lives. Social websites, graphic design, videography, etc., are timely methods to speak into the culture of Northern Virginia (and beyond) with the purpose of proclaiming and reinforcing the worth, relevance, and glory of the gospel of Jesus. Though vastly inferior to the gospel itself, we consider these methods as vessels useful in proclaiming Christ’s great worth. To Him be the glory as we seek to know Him and make Him known through social media.


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