Changing the Way We Worship: Some peaceful guidelines for ending the worship wars

We used to hear about "music wars" in the church. But have you noticed the shift? Today we hear more about "worship wars" and "culture wars." As distasteful as the war imagery is, I take some comfort (as a musician) in finally seeing the discussions about music placed in the larger worship and cultural arenas—even though musical issues are still very close to the front lines.

In response to these worship wars, I'd like to offer some peaceful guidelines for the whys and hows of considering change in our worship. I do so as part of a continuing conversation started by Harry Boonstra in RW 34 (December 1994) in his editorial "Expanding Our Repertoire: How My Worship Credo Has Changed." James Schaap's response in RW 35 was "sympathetic," but also one of lament: "Nobody in our more progressive churches knows anymore what's right in liturgy—nor even what's in good taste. We have no common mind." He concluded by wondering if there are any rules anymore.

Why Change?

Many believers are uncomfortable with the gap between the cultural expressions they experience during the week and the ones they encounter in church on Sunday. The need to "translate" makes wholehearted worship difficult. And most believers sense that if they are less than wholeheartedly worshiping God in public worship, their evangelistic witness in worship will be muted.

Those two factors—increasing cultural diversity and growing evangelical concern—are driving many congregations to change their traditional worship practices. Some congregations are incorporating diversity in one service while others choose to hold two or even three separate services. One note of caution: unless an evangelistic concern is at the heart of a desire for multiple services, the congregation is moving toward division, not growth.

Considerations in Choosing Change

The four statements that follow may provide a framework for dealing with the cultural questions congregations face when considering changes in worship.

1. A congregation exhibits aesthetic integrity in its worship by offering the best of its cultural heritage to the whole church.

When sending missionaries to other countries, we used to export a style and form of worship, imposing it on other cultures where new Christians had not yet developed their own worship voice. That is why Koreans know so many nineteenth-century English gospel songs, but have only recently started to write their own hymns. The same was once tme in Africa and South America. But today African and South American Christians worship in ways distinctive to their cultures, and rightly so.

We rejoice at the creativity that has enriched the worship of these Christians from other cultures. Just as they once learned our Western hymns, transforming them into their own cultural setting, we can now sing their hymns in our cultural setting. Together, the many different cultural gifts, whether indigenous or adopted and adapted, enrich the body of Christ and help us to remember that we are part of a larger body.

Why is it so hard to apply the same lessons to our own North American context at the end of the twentieth century? When we gather to worship, we offer to the Lord prayers and praises in the context of our own particular culture or subculture. Just as we now rejoice at Africans developing their own music, so too we should encourage each other to give expression to our faith in terms of North American culture.

2. To the extent that a given congregation reflects a given subculture, it will be limited in its ability to reach out beyond that subculture.

Stated positively, to the extent that a congregation's worship reflects the best of a given culture, its evangelical witness to people in that culture will be enhanced.

Broadly speaking, we talk of a North American culture. But the "culture wars" indicate many subcultures on our continent. Any congregation that includes both teenagers and grandparents, for example, inevitably contains different subcultures carefully cultivated by market strategies. When people from our communities join us, the diversity only multiplies.

How can we be one body when we are culturally so different from each other? Can Blacks and Whites worship together? Young and old? Symphony-goers and country and western fans?

Taken to its logical extreme, trying to focus on one subculture in a congregation will result in liturgical apartheid. Each group of people will search for identity in its own cultural corner and gear their evangelistic efforts to like-minded people.

In a way, this is what Willow Creek has done. It has targeted one particular slice of contemporary America, aiming first of all at men between twenty-five and forty-five. Christ Church, Oakbrook, to use another Chicago-area example, has targeted another slice: the older, upscale, more culturally sophisticated suburban population. Both of those congregations have experienced great growth, by evangelism as well as transfer. Both exhibit great care in planning and leading worship. Both reveal a high commitment to aesthetic integrity. But both are relatively young and independent churches in large population centers. What about older churches and smaller places?

3. The contributions we bring to worship come out of our own cultural context.

Why don't more Americans of African, Dutch, and Scottish descent worship together? Is our failure to do so rooted in disobedience to God's desire that the church be one? Is it a denial of our profession of faith in one holy catholic church? How can the eye say to the ear, "I can't worship with you"? Or is our separateness a recognition of the deep cultural differences that exist within our own communities?

We need to understand that our oneness in Christ is not found in sameness. We accept the need for different cultural expressions of worship between North American and African churches. But we need to work harder at recognizing the diversity within our congregations.

A congregation that thinks it is immune to cultural diversity may be ignoring one or more groups, probably the youth. Maybe some congregations will decide that the best way to stay together is to offer two services that are culturally distinct from each other. Others may decide that the "different strokes for different folks" approach is a market-driven way to cave in to our perceived needs, not to God's agenda of building a people.

Whatever the decision, any new paths we start out on will be filled with curves and bumps. Just as the missionaries learned, new cultural expressions in the church need time to develop with integrity. Eventually different subcultures will be able to contribute their own worship voices to the larger body.

4. Startwith who you are and what you have.

The real test of our commitment to worshiping together will be the extent to which we pour our efforts into encouraging those who gather on Sunday morning in a particular place—whoever we are, from whatever background—to bring to the Lord in public worship the best we have to offer. Most congregations have a lot of work to do to merely uncover the latent gifts among members that could be a blessing to the congregation and worthy of offering to God in public worship.

The basis for that commitment is mutual submission out of love for each other, with all our differences. Teenagers will willingly sing the older hymns, because they see how much it nourishes the faith of the older members. Grandparents will willingly try contemporary songs with instruments they are not used to (yet) because they see that it nurtures the faith of the younger generation. That kind of generous spirit born of love for the whole body is finally the only approach that will effectively guide worship committees as they ponder ways to introduce changes in the worship life of their congregations.

There Is Common Ground

Common ground does exist. At the foundation are basic principles of worship that apply to all Christian communities:

• We approach God with both joy and trembling.
• God's Word is proclaimed in our midst.
• We communally respond with prayers and praises.
• We commune together at the Lord's table.
• We worship publicly so that all who gather may participate in and/or witness the communion between God and the people of God—two parties who meet together out of love for each other.

These are the fundamentals. Some communions have concretized that foundation in an unchanging order of worship. The Reformed tradition has not, which is one reason we sometimes blow with every new wind of liturgical experimentation. Just how the fundamentals get translated is a challenge for each congregation.

Let us honor the wisdom of the historic Christian church by keeping the foundations. Let us also remember by the songs we choose and the prayers we offer that God's people come from all times and places. Let's not get so carried away by our own new worship voices that we leave no room for the many voices from the past and from around the world. But neither let us be so bound to our past that we find no place for new and contemporary instruments and musical forms. To do so would be to remove ourselves from our culture rather than finding a way to address it.

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.