Worship wars and church unity...

Note from Tim: A couple months ago, a dear friend who is a former member of Church of the Good Shepherd but now attends a PCA church in the southeast wrote this letter to his pastor and sent me a copy. Reading what he’d written, I appreciated my friend’s wisdom and asked his permission to pass his letter on to our readers. He graciously agreed.

These past few years, the session of Church of the Good Shepherd has worked hard to protect the unity of the body as we labored through changes in different aspects of our corporate worship. The Lord has been kind to us and our unity is intact. But it was a lot of heavy lifting.

Looking back, it’s clear there were times when some had trouble catching a vision for what appeared to be a very low goal; namely, everyone in the congregation being equally unhappy over matters of preference. But in this letter, our brother gives an excellent apology for this discipline within the Body of Christ and the spiritual fruit we may expect it to produce.

At times, our session was on the verge of splitting our services into two cultures, one highbrow and the other midbrow. (The order of worship would not have changed.) But thank God, we decided not to abandon the discipline of considering others better than ourselves and have kept our two services identical. That’s made all the difference.

I don’t mean to say I think any church that aims services at different demographic groups is sinning. Yet I suspect there are many other churches that could benefit a great deal from reading this letter and thinking through their rationale for what they're planning or have already done.

* * *

Dear Pastor,

Thank you for your “Reflections on Worship” paper. If Calvin’s rule (“if we let love be our guide, all will be safe”) were consistently applied in all the intramural debates of our church, what joy you would have as the pastor! Even the sharpest disagreements can be sweetened when the “fight” is joined with mutual commitment, in the safety of the family living room. If here I express concerns about the splitting of our church services into different styles of worship, please know that I do it without seeking to be divisive or unloving.

I agree with the three main arguments you present in your paper. Having grown up with a father who spent his missionary career pastoring small evangelical churches in Austria, I resonate with your point about Europe’s cathedrals having become museums when they’ve refused to reform and contextualize. Calvin’s comment in the second chapter of the Institutes—“wherever there is great ostentation of ceremonies, sincerity of heart is rare indeed”—describes so well the hardening of the big European state churches in their loss of gospel preaching, witness, and worship in the last centuries. All that is left in the gothic buttresses of the great cathedrals is the hollowed-out skeleton of external religion; the heart of faith has long since stopped beating...

If our own corporate worship has drifted into a kind of “ostentation of ceremonies” that doesn’t foster sincerity of heart worship, we have to address the problem. I’m not at all questioning the wisdom that has led the Session to consider a careful reexamination of our worship. We should by all means remove unbiblical barriers that make our church’s witness inaccessible to the lower-income, the uneducated, and the racially diverse. It’s essential for the cause of Christ and the livelihood of His church that we explore the great freedom granted in the regulative principle, avoiding Pharisaical adherence to outward institutional forms simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it and we’re not going to change.”

What I fear, though, is that we’ll think we’ve solved the current dilemma by dividing the church into two groups: the “traditional worship” group and the “contemporary worship” group. This segregation along the lines of worship preference, so common a strategy in the last two decades among American evangelicals, has, I think, been spiritually harmful to the churches that have pursued it. Briefly, here are the main reasons for my concern:

1. A divided worship compromises the unity of the church

The Hellenistic cultural context of the early church was a lot like our postmodern world today—a great geopolitical lump infinitely sliced into tiny special interest groups. To this fragmented world, the church offered the only ground for true community. The New Testament constantly emphasizes the church’s unity as one of its leading characteristics: the church is one building, with Christ as cornerstone; one flock, with Christ as shepherd; one body, with Christ as head; one family, with Christ as father and elder brother. What’s driven home in these figures is the organic unity the church enjoys in its union with Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). The miracle of the “communion of the saints” is that God in Christ gathers a ragtag assortment of different ethnicities, social classes, and cultural mores under one roof and calls this congregation a church.

One of the great ways the unity of the church has always been expressed—before God and the watching world—is in the glory of united corporate worship. Notwithstanding the great diversity of its members, the church lifts up a unified aromatic sacrifice to God: “that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:6). It should give us pause that there is no model given in Scripture for dividing the unity of a congregation into separate groups with alternative styles of worship. Churches sometimes, regrettably, must divide over purity of doctrine, “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (I Cor. 11:19). But when churches offer various “brands” of worship for choice, one wonders whether they are following the wisdom of Scripture or a secular marketing-oriented model of catering to special interest groups. The unfortunate by-product of even the smallest internal split over style or substance is that the unity of the church’s worship and witness is breached; the church’s voice becomes voices no longer singing on the same pitch or even to the same tune. And here, it seems to me, a great biblical privilege and responsibility of the local church’s united witness has been weakened. Sadly, it’s one of the reasons why some evangelicals have left for the unity they find in Constantinople or Rome.

2. A divided worship discourages the humility of mutual submission and encourages spiritual pride

Because we’re stubborn sinners, this second point unfortunately follows right on the heels of the first. In his practical instructions in Ephesians 5:1-21, Paul urges that one of the ways we become “imitators of God, as beloved children” is by “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The path of mutual submission in a community of believers is never easy; it humbles the pride of all parties. In fact, it strikes directly at the ugly party spirit of partisanship that is the ruin of many churches. But in the law of love in the Kingdom, where no individual or group gets his preferred sway over others, everyone ends up winning—on their knees. I love how George Herbert puts this: “Kneeling ne’re spoil’d silk stocking: quit thy state. / All equal are within the church’s gate” (“The Church-porch”). C. S. Lewis explains this so well in the quote you give about his entrance into the church: “I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. …It gets you out of your solitary conceit.” Unfortunately in America today, insulated as we are from mutual concern by individual choices driven to satisfy our own comfort, we are very solitary and very conceited.

In the church, then, pastors are faced with the unenviable task of herding pampered cats. The solution proposed is to sort these cats by their preferences and give them what they desire. This seems the most efficient way, but we should question whether it’s a biblical solution to the problem. It seems temporarily to make people happy, but since it doesn’t humble anyone’s pride by forcing the issue of mutual deference in love, the apparent short-term satisfaction is not the lasting spiritual fruit of humility and reconciliation. Over time, almost inevitably, one group will come to consider its preferences more “spiritual,” its worship more acceptable to God, its witness more culturally meaningful, than the other’s. “That traditional service feels like a funeral—the Spirit’s not there,” or, “that contemporary service is just a rock concert—nothing but entertainment.” And so the prideful backbiting rumbles on beneath the facade of southern gentility, but the parties never have to work out their differences publicly because the opposing church schedules—except on rare occasions—never cause them to meet. The two groups created by the worship division essentially become ships passing in the night; just as one set of vehicles rolls out of the parking lot, the next group rolls in. Both groups identify themselves as Lexington Presbyterian Church, their tithes roll into the same coffers, but they’re really two churches using the same building. Eventually, though, the way money and property are used in the church may well become an area of contention and could bring the groups into open strife. “Peace, peace,” we cry in the short-term, sweeping our differences under the rug of a subtle internal division, but there is no true peace without the humbling, difficult spiritual work of mutual deference in love. This is accomplished when a church full of sinful “cats” bows the knee to the Lord and one another in united worship, “all equal within the church’s gate,” with individual members laying down their preferences for a higher communal good. And when Christians do this, the world takes note and Christ is honored. Here we have, Schaeffer rightly says, the great mark of the church in a world of conceited, isolated people: “Behold, how they love one another!”

At our parenting conference this month, Paul Tripp gave an illustration that I can’t put out of my mind: suppose that you’re the father of two teenage sons who share the same room and fight all the time. The simple solution, if you have the means, is to build an addition to the house so that each boy can have his own room. Problem solved? No, says Tripp, because you haven’t built the addition for your sons, you’ve built it for yourself. The extra space physically separates the boys and may buy some temporary peace, but it hasn’t addressed the root problem of rebellion in their hearts. And until that’s addressed, there will be no true peace in the home.

So it is, it seems to me, in the “worship wars.” Unless all parties learn to defer to one another and forge a truly united worship in the bonds of love—even if this means working through vigorous debate and disagreement—individualism and pride will be promoted while mutual submission will be dealt a serious blow from which the church, already now internally fractured, will probably not recover. The apparently efficient policy of separation by “building an addition to separate the kids,” as in Tripp’s illustration, stops short of the necessary solution—circumcision of the heart.

3. A divided worship unbiblically elevates musical style as the most important factor in worship

This point, in my thinking, may be less important than the first two, but it seems to be a lamentable error of our day that we’ve elevated musical style to such prominence that congregations are willing to file for divorce over it. Surely this betrays the sensuousness of our age! Because of our technologies (CDs MP3s, iPods) we’re certainly more of a musically-driven culture than ever before in history. Music is our constant daily companion; without music to raise our spirits, we go into depression. As Pascal says in the Pensées, we probably hate silence so much because it forces us to do business with our souls, so we endlessly seek diversion—and especially, today, in music. So, naturally, music style has risen to the highest prominence in today’s evangelical churches, and in many churches the music minister is of greater practical influence in the church than the pastor. While by no means denying the value of music in worship, shouldn’t we beware of having music take the place that can only be occupied by Christ—of making church music into an idol? Music is a wonderful tool to lift the regenerate heart to the throne of grace; it can also be misused to excite what Edwards called “the animal spirits.” When we have a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service, what the labels inevitably proclaim is that musical style has become the single most important factor in determining our identification with one group or the other. But this is unbiblical; we are not traditional or contemporary worshipers, but worshipers of Christ living in today’s world armed and blessed with a rich godly heritage, and therefore both. In any case, if our most distinguishing mark is the secondary matter of our musical style, we identify ourselves as 21st century American consumers who have progressed poorly in the school of Christ.

Another point may be added here. Not only does music become the determining factor in worship, but the added worship-niche places an additional emphasis on the individual’s sovereign choice in pursuing one stylistic preference over another. Here again, it appears that the model is drawn more from American consumerism than from Scripture. When so much weight is put on my personal right to choose, I may well forget the deeper teaching of the doctrines of grace—namely, that I’ve been chosen; that I’ve been called into worship; that far from being an autonomous agent, in the church I’m a man under authority. Choice can be a tyrannical master. There are, after all, always more choices to be made when heightened spiritual experience lies just around the corner, usually anywhere else but at one’s own church. Learning to sit under authority, the Bible says, is the path to freedom and contentment. In an American culture—and an evangelical church—maddened by the cruel taskmaster of individual choice, this teaching is nothing short of revolutionary.

One of the strange by-products of our pluralistic world is that given a greater multiplicity of options, we’re less able to get along with each other. The easy solution to every problem is defection and isolation rather than solidarity. Husbands and wives sleep in separate rooms rather than work out their anger with each other before the sun sets on it. We buy television sets for every room in the house so that everyone can watch his favorite show without having to compromise with a sibling. We download a hand-picked roster of tunes on our iPods, then attach the ear buds to escape into our private life-soundtrack. Starbucks will serve up the custom-mixed latte of our fancy. Our choices in a pluralistic world increasingly separate us from one another. “No man is an island,” says John Donne, but our increasingly niche-marketed culture is working frenetically to prove him wrong. The church of Jesus Christ has a real opportunity for witness here, because union with Christ brings the kind of unity with one another in work, witness, and worship that can never be found in secular society. And a dogged commitment to unity in our worship, rather than insisting on individual preferences, will be of great beauty when lived out in an increasingly complicated and fractured world. Because God designed the church as a family, the eager Quarter-Lifers need to worship side-by-side with the seasoned hoary-headed Servants of the King. They need each other! The single college students need to be adopted into families. The tattooed need the straight-laced and the straight-laced need the tattooed. We white monoculturals desperately need worshipers of other nations. We need our African-American brothers and sisters. The prosperous need the poor; the nuanced intellectual, the bluff craftsman; the judge, the former prostitute. This confederacy of those so humanly unlike is found nowhere else but in the church, because here Christ teaches us our deeper likeness—sinners saved by grace and united in the Savior.

When I said above that music has perhaps been idolatrously elevated in our culture, it suddenly dawned on me that the picture of heaven in Revelation is that the redeemed will all be joining the elders in singing the song of the Lamb. But there the song will go on all the time, expressed in holy lips and lives untainted by sin, and my guess is that it will be a truly stupendous example of blended worship. ;-)

Finally, when G. K. Chesterton was asked “What’s wrong with the world?” his first response was to say, “What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.” I praise the Lord that by His grace, there is so much that is right with our church, and I want to be quick to be grateful and slow to criticize. For one thing, the Lord has given us pastors and elders who truly seek to shepherd the flock under their care. And for this I’m very thankful.

With great appreciation for your ministry in the bonds of Christ, and prayer for wisdom as you and the elders seek to discern the Shepherd’s leading for the church He bought with his own dear blood.


Having everyone be equally unhappy sounds a lot like socialism.


Somehow, I don't think the worship in heaven is divided into traditional and contemporary (or even more) styles.

The cultural/theological unity of Orthodoxy and Catholicism in very significant measure arises from their common prayer. This does not require, fo course, that ever gathering be liturgically identical, as anyone even minimally familiar with worship in these circles will know.

Within broadly evangelical Protestantism today, I wonder if everyone is worshiping the same God. The "variety" of styles, modes, liturgies, is so diverse as to make that question urgent. Otherwise, worship must have nothing to do with God at all, but only something to do with various sorts of needs/preferences of the people who gather in one place on Sunday.

Leaving aside what right worship is, I concur with the letter writer than offering two types of worship services must inevitably lead to two communions within the organizational boundaries of a single congregation.

The worship wars are very widespread. My beloved choir was a recent casualty at our PCA church. I've been a member of a choir since childhood, but now the only choir our church supports is the "Noah's Ark" kindergarten choir, performing semi-annually at Christmas and Easter. (Which raises the point, why enroll kindergarten in activities that are banned in adults?)

And all the comments about love and unity are well-meant and well-taken. Yet there is something more significant in these worship wars than is understood. There is a sociological significance, a generational turnover, a liturgical revolution. I would even say that it impinges on Reformation principles of the "marks of a true church".

Sure, church is about preaching and the sacraments (and we could toss in discipline, but that's like defining a good marriage as one that doesn't have huge spats. The lack of a negative does not really define the positive.) But both of those marks of a true church suffer from a serious deficit--they are true regardless if anyone is there! Think about the Medieval practice of paid Masses, being done by a priest down in the crypt, mumbling his way through a hundred masses, sipping the wine a hundred times, eating those insubstantial wafers a hundred times, all in the silence of the tombs.

Music can't be done that way. Oh sure, there's Karaoke and MP3, but to my knowledge, no one is advocating this for worship. Music requires people, encourages participation. Music is for the congregation.

Even in ancient Israel, where of course, all our liturgical models of church were begun, music was always a participatory experience.

So let me generalize and say that like the Trinity itself, church must represent the communication of the the Three Persons: the Word preached (Christ), the Sacraments revered (Father), and the participants praise (Spirit).

Who can control the Spirit? Who knows from whence it comes and whither it goes? It is invited, but never commanded. It is welcomed, but never controlled.

Which is why the worship wars are, in some sense, as important as the Reformation wars--they are about the marks of the true church.

Excellent letter. Please commend your friend for thinking through such a complex issue so carefully.

I think I agree with #'s 1 and 2 pretty comprehensively. Personally, I'm not sure the author went far enough in #3. He adequately refuted the idea that "it's all about personal preference and musical style." However, I think I disagree that this point is less important than #1 and 2. Here's why.

The author and I would agree that there has been an unbiblical elevating of musical style in corporate worshp, perhaps as he suggests, to idolatrous levels. My guess is that we would also agree on the fact that style DOES play a role, however, it's not the most important thing.

That begs the question: What is the most important thing in our worship, as primarily expressed through music?

My answer: Content. My own take on this issue is that the church has moved from an objective-truth singing culture to a subjective-quasi truth singing culture. And, this isn't necessarily the fault of the contemporary worship craze.

This is the second verse to Bach's "O Sacred Head Now Wounded."

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;

Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.

Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;

Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

And Charles Wesley's "Arise My Soul, Arise"

Arise, my soul, arise; shake off thy guilty fears;

The bleeding sacrifice in my behalf appears:

Before the throne my surety stands,

Before the throne my surety stands,

My name is written on His hands.

And the much more modern "In Christ Alone"

In Christ alone, who took on flesh,

Fullness of God in helpless babe,

This gift of love, and righteousness

Scorned by the ones He came to save.

Till on the Cross, as Jesus died,

The wrath of God was satisfied.

For every sin on Him was laid,

Here in the death of Christ I live.

These hymns present eternal, objective truth. One contemporary, two traditional. Yes, there is a subjective response presented in these songs at times, but it is only after objective truth is presented.

The flip-side of the coin is the subjective-truth songs.

I love You Lord,

And I lift my voice

To Worship You, O my soul rejoice

Take joy my King, in what You hear,

May it be a sweet, sweet sound in Your ear.

Personally, it is decidedly lacking in content. This song lacks reference to the atonement, the basis for this response. That having been said, if you were to ask me if I ever sing this song, my answer is Yes. Absolutely. I just don't ask my congregation to sing this in church. Why? Because I can't guarantee that this is true for everyone who might be there. I can't ask someone who may not love God that morning to sing this song. I would be perhaps tempting them to sin, or "manipulating" them in some way. "Why don't I love God right now. What's wrong with me. Maybe I'm not saved because I don't have this feeling right at this very moment."

I think I've gone on long enough to make this a blog post in and of itself. Maybe I'll do that.

To sum up: I agree that style is not the most important thing. Then, what is? Christ! I'm a firm believer that the content of our worship to Christ should be filled with the objective truth that He died in our place and took the punishment that we deserved for our many and serious sins against Him. That is the foundation of our faith, and that should be the foundation of our worship to and of Him. For His glory!

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