Much has been written over the past decade about “worship wars”—those battles within and between churches over worship style and content.
Christian Century recently reported that the chief factor correlated with church growth is worship style. Churches offering “contemporary” worship are adding to their congregational numbers, while churches that don’t, by and large, are not.
Most often contemporary worship includes one or more of these elements: worship choruses (usually sung repeatedly and led by a “praise team” rather than a traditional choir); a band (of one kind or another, with guitar, drums, sometimes brass); large overhead screens (which display chorus lyrics, Bible verses, sermon outlines); and a generally casual (and often very welcoming) atmosphere.
It seems as if the majority of Protestant churches have either switched entirely to the above worship style or now offer it as one of their worship options. But here and there one finds a holdout, a congregation concerned that perhaps throwing out hymnals and choirs and organs for the sake of adding to numbers is a “dumbing-down” of worship and bordering on entertainment, giving the “audience” what it wants rather than what it may need.
My church is one of the few in our community that does not offer a contemporary worship option. Our congregation is full of white-haired folks—and no, we are not growing much.
But our traditional service has become more “blended” over time, a shade less formal, sometimes using meaningful choruses freshly penned by our minister of music and employing guitars and other lively musical experiences. Recently we added a totally different Saturday evening opportunity with Generation Xers in mind that includes newer music and a chance for dialogue as part of the gathered experience of worship.
So what do worship styles have to do with ethics and parenting?
Last Sunday morning, my 10-year-old son sat down in church, glanced at his worship bulletin, looked up and declared, “Mom, we’re singing my two favorite songs!” He could hardly believe his good fortune.
The first piece was a contemporary number (words printed in the bulletin) known by millions of evangelical Christians. The repetitive chorus of the fast song says, “I will sing of your love forever.” The first time we sang the song in church, Andrew said he had never heard it before, but he really liked it. Since then, I’ve overheard him singing it to himself around the house. I’ve never noticed that before with any other song from Sunday morning worship.
Maybe choruses like this offer more of a “youth camp” atmosphere than what some of us older folks prefer in worship. But if such words and tunes can focus young hearts on God’s love in Jesus and the compassion they can in turn have for others, maybe we who prefer higher music can bend a bit to the young.
But in doing so we need not throw out all tradition, as Andrew revealed by way of the second song for which he was so eager. With 18th-century music from Beethoven and lyrics from over 90 years ago, it’s been a long time since “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” has been considered contemporary. Yet it still speaks to young worshippers today.
We ought not to make worship choices all about children and youth, bowing to the insidious child-centeredness of modern American culture. But out of caring respect, perhaps we can call a truce in the worship wars long enough to offer something for children and their tastes, while still exposing them to the rich heritage of Christian tradition.
Such melding may not appeal to the masses—and it may not be easy to carry off—but I applaud it as an effort with integrity, as we love the young enough to want to reach them with the Good News of Christ, and as we demonstrate that praise can be expressed beautifully in many forms.
Karen Johnson Zurheide is executive director of Positive Tomorrows, a center providing support services for children and youth facing family life challenges.