Again … the Oxymoron of "Worship Wars"

Warning: This is blog is long. Really long. Maybe you should read it in parts over days. Like a book. Just in case that’s how you do it, I have sectioned it off for you!  🙂 These are the thoughts of a pastor’s wife and daughter who have heard the complaints of old and young alike for years now. My husband has sifted through anonymous emails. My family has sat through long business meetings. I’ve  listened to the different voices in conference room discussions and been cornered by a well-meaning church attender or visitor. There’s a lifetime of thoughts, discussions and prayers regarding the following.
And to be honest, this is somewhat of a soapbox. Just sayin’ ….. 🙂 OK. You have been warned.

As a person of the generation that is “sandwiched in the middle” at present (i.e. parents still living, while having young adult children and older children as well) I am so perplexed and broken hearted over what I see in the Church when it comes to music. Growing up the daughter of a pastor, and then becoming the wife of a pastor, has been mostly a wonderful experience for me. I love the Church of God … the body of Christ! It’s been a joy to experience and be a part of the different ways in which people serve and follow God. I’ve had the privilege of doing so in several states across our nation, and have experienced “church” as a child, a youth, a young adult and now I guess I would be considered middle-aged. 🙂 But one common, as well as sad and disheartening, thread has been woven through the churches where we have served, especially in the last 25 years. What has become known as “worship wars” (which in itself, the phrase is an oxymoron) continues to stifle, divide, and cripple the Church. Worship wars have to do with music in the church, not worship. Unfortunately, we aren’t actually at war over whether or not people are truly worshipping the LORD in their lives, through their actions, by their ministry, day by day, etc. Honestly, that war would be more righteous if we were! No, this war isn’t about the spiritual condition of the church, it’s about the music in the church. It’s about our instruments, our tunes, our expression. It’s about how loud it is or if it has a beat. It’s about whether we use books or screens. It’s about whether we sing choruses or hymns. It’s about choir robes and “worship” teams. It’s about too many songs or too few. It’s about too many new songs and not enough old ones, or vice versa.

Even the spiritual heavyweights, me might call them, have opinions on music in the church. I have read several articles by Chuck Colson, whom I genuinely admire and whose books have had a profound impact, in which he expresses his thoughts about church music today. As much as I respect him, I couldn’t disagree more with his assessment regarding church music!
Colson quotes someone saying “Among the marks of excellence [in music] is biblical truth. Lyrics need not to be literal Scripture, but they do have to be faithful to it.” While I agree, how does he decide that lyrics need not be literal scripture? Is there some Bible verse that tells us this? I mean, how do we know that it’s not a necessity to only sing words/verses right from the Bible itself? As far as I can tell, this is a personal conclusion he has reached. In the article he gave no scripture to validate that God said it. He goes on to say: “Some contemporary choruses are often so simplistic and repetitive that theological reflection never has a chance to get started.” While this has some truth to it, this is his personal opinion/conclusion only. How can he know if someone is actually motivated in their heart by or through a song to contemplate a great truth about God? Could it be that someone is so distracted or confused by words like “Thee” and “Thou” or “Ebenezer” or “hither” that they are actually missing the truths (leading them to theological reflection) of the song?

I strongly disagree that “simplistic” and “repetitive” are always signs of a lack of theological reflection. Many, if not most, of the more traditional hymns use a great deal of repetition. A chorus is often repeated at the end of every verse. Repetition. One could argue that the “Hallelujah Chorus” is the best song ever written. We all know how many times it says “Hallelujah”. One hymn that I sang often growing up in church says the line “Jesus Saves” (written in 1868) 24 times. Yes, those two simple words are repeated 24 times in the hymn! One of my favorite old hymns, also written in the 1800s says the phrase “nearer (my God) to Thee” about 12 times. So, is this particular writer that Colson quotes saying that simplicity and repetition are somehow wrong in church music? It seems that he is, but I have found no biblical basis for agreeing with him. The truth that Jesus saves is …. DEEP and GREAT! The truth that my God is near is DEEP and GREAT!
He goes on to say: “Tragically, more recent praise choruses seem to ignore all the rules of good composition, giving us not well-shaped melodies but just one note after another.” As a music lover, I am always inspired by great musicians who have a God-given talent to play …. the piano, the harp, the guitar, the drums, a cello, violin, etc. I love to hear a family sing together with their close harmonies blended in sweet music. It gives me chills – even if it’s the simple and child-like, yet profound song Jesus Loves Me.  Now, I do believe that even the music itself can be inspiring…. the notes, the tunes, the flow can be majestic and stirring, whether words are present or not. BUT, it would only be worship (directed toward God) if, while listening, my heart was filled with love and thoughts for God! If the music is simply a “tune” without words, it’s only worship if my heart and attitude are of total dependence on Him and reflection on Him alone. I am in no way convinced that good composition or a well-shaped melody makes a song more or less spiritual, godly or biblical! Nor do I believe that it is “tragic” that some of the songs we sing at church are simple tunes.

If I’m stirred only by the music itself (meaning the melody) in a song, and I’m not saying that I’m never stirred by the music alone, then it’s about the music only, unless I’m captivated by God in that moment and not the melody. I don’t think that non-scriptural/spiritual music that stirs us is evil, and I’m not saying that as Christ followers we shouldn’t listen to or enjoy “secular” music. Many non-believers are “stirred” by the National Anthem. Many people who don’t have an authentic and intimate relationship with Christ are “stirred” by the Hallelujah Chorus when they hear it. But that’s not worship! It’s only being emotionally stirred by the music. They are moved by the melodies alone.

He goes on to say “Only those musicians who are musically gifted, and historically, biblically, and theologically trained are qualified to help churches choose the best new music.” I am appalled at this statement. It’s an opinion only. It is his opinion, with not one bit of evidence in scripture to back up this statement. Some of the greatest songs of the day were written by David, the shepherd boy. Many of the songs later sung by the Israelites were the songs he had written as he experienced life as a shepherd, a murderer, a desperate father, and a king on the run. He had no seminary training or music teacher that I know of, and yet God used his authentic heart and his musical gifts to be a springboard and foundation for His people to worship Him!

PART TWO (so to speak) …

love music and feel I’m fairly qualified to judge whether music is in tune, on pitch, in key ….
I am also the daughter of an amazingly gifted musician – a pianist (my mom). She can play with or without music and her talents are clearly God-given. Much of it is learned, but much is a gift that was given to her. She uses her talent for the glory of God and I’m so grateful for the many years of being inspired by her musical ability and heart for the music she has played. At 72, she is still playing with the same passion and desire to see people worship the Savior as she did when I was a young girl.
BUT …. that being said, I make this statement: Her music inspires me, not only because it’s well done, but because it’s my mom and I know her. “Good music” is, and has always been, in the ears of the listener. Some people really think that Country Music is good. Some love Bach/Beethoven. Some believe Southern Gospel to be “the good stuff”, while others cringe at such music and proudly proclaim that real music must have a pipe organ to be good. Some believe the music of Bob Dylan can’t be surpassed. And that is finally my point.

“Worship wars” are about the music in the church. NOT the worship. Authentic worship is always God directed. (Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship). Music can be about and for anyone and anything. “Music wars”…. yes, they continue. Because we are self-centered people.

Sadly, we want what we want. It’s about me. It’s not about the older person (maybe my parent or my grandma) who might be sitting down the pew who loves and worships during the song “The Old Rugged Cross” or “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us”.  It’s not about the student (maybe my own son/daughter) in front of me who loves and worships during the song “Your Grace is Enough”.  It’s all about me, me, me. The songs must be the ones that I like or I just can’t really worship!

Yes, I am sad. I am discouraged because I wonder if it will end in my lifetime. This music war in the church, that is. I wonder if God’s people will ever be gracious, kind and unselfish when it comes to music. My prayer for myself and for the Church of God has been, and continues to be that we would “being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind, do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above ourselves, not looking to our own interests but to the interests of the others … having the same mindset as Christ Jesus, Who humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”
I truly desire to live beyond myself and in the power of the Resurrected Christ, and to think of others above myself. I desire to see the day when the Church worships together in the unity of the Spirit with one voice, lifted high in authentic worship to our LORD and Savior Jesus Christ and the Father Who is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

  • I pray for the day that His Church will sing songs and truly worship without prejudice and judgment of others.
  • I pray for the day that His Church will not withhold worship because we don’t like the song being sung or the way it’s sung.
  • I pray for the day that His Church is unified in love, passion, and thankfulness and our songs and worship are an expression of that which is already a part of us.
  • I pray for the day that His Church (before it’s mandated), will be filled with worshippers who authentically and voluntarily join together in heart and mind and that  “…at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

CONCLUSION (somewhat)…

I think the reason this most hurts my heart is because of how much I love music and how much I love the Church of Jesus Christ. Music in the church shouldn’t have caused a war. I’m grieved it has and I am almost hopeless that there will be a resolution.I am sad for my children and grandchildren to come. From what I can tell, we’ve all just resigned to it. We’ve often created two services, we’ve planted churches so that the new church can have the “other” music, we’ve designed youth services and divided younger and older people so everyone can have their own kind of music. I really do love some of the hymns I grew up on. They have meaning for me. Great is Thy Faithfulness serves as a great reminder to me of my God’s faithful love and provision. But Steven Curtis Chapman’s song My Redeemer is Faithful and True is just as impactful, as is the even newer song by Chris Tomlin Our God is Greater. Honestly, I don’t really care if my children know and love the hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness. What I do want them to know is that God is faithful! If Steven Curtis Chapman or Chris Tomlin can communicate that truth to them better than the hymn writer of the late 1800s, then so be it! It’s not about the music. It’s about our God and Him glorified, honored and obeyed.
I’ve been recently inspired by a pastor who has actually merged his church back to one service from the two-service church it was. It was painful. Excruciating might be a better word. But he says that now it’s a place of true worship and joy! The grandson of Evangelist Billy Graham and the now Senior Pastor of Coral  Ridge church, Tullian Tchividjian says it well. To me, it’s speaks to the difference between worship and music.

“The same dynamic explains the primary purpose of corporate worship: to rediscover the mighty acts of God in Christ’s coming to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. We gather in worship to celebrate God’s grip on us, not our grip on God. A gospel-fueled worship service is a service where God’s rescue in Christ is unveiled and unpacked through song, sermon, and sacrament in such a way that it results in the exposure of both the idols of our culture and the idols of our hearts. The faithful exposition of our true Savior in every element of worship will painfully, but liberatingly, reveal the subtle ways in which we as individuals and as a culture depend on lesser things than Jesus to provide the security, acceptance, protection, affection, meaning, and satisfaction that only Christ can supply. The praising, praying, and preaching in such a service should constantly show just how relevant and necessary Jesus is. They must serve the gospel to sinners by telling and retelling the story that while we are all great sinners, Christ is a great Savior.When we gather together for worship, we ought to come reaching up, starved for God, ready to feast together on the good news that, in the person of Jesus Christ, God has descended to us because we could never ascend to Him. Feasting on God’s gospel together through prayer and preaching, sacrament and singing, provides us with the faith, hope, and love we need to be good-news people in a bad-news world.”

Amen. and Amen.

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