by vernsanders on April 21, 2009

Yesterday, Doug Lawrence, in his Monday Morning Email said some pretty strong things about the terms traditional and contemporary as they relate to worship. You may want to read his thoughts before continuing with this blog post…(I’ll wait…just click here…)

Back already?

Ok…let me say this…

Since at least the mid 1980′s the use of labels when it comes to worship has been, for me, a bit of an issue. I understand that this is a market(ing) driven time in human history, and that any “defining” term as it is applied to worship, is, at root, supposed to function as a means to identify “this” worship from “that” worship (however you define this and that…). But (and I’m not a Biblical scholar here) at least since Cain and Abel, this issue of “proper”/”correct”/”right” worship has been separating people from each other, and from God. What bothers me is the implication that [insert label here] worship is [choose better/worse] than [insert label here] worship.

But whose perspective? Who decided that “mine” is [bigger/better/more correct/emotionally more satisfying/fill in your own adjectives here] than yours? Isn’t that just, at bottom, a high school popularity contest again? Justification in the name of personal preference has been a huge issue for humans over the course of recorded history. Will we ever learn?

I’m not going to play “duelling Scriptures” here, but the principle of “one person’s trash is another’s treasure” seems to me to apply. I know what I like, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve discovered that it is (ideally) not about me and what I like. It is also not about what the largest giver, or senior pastor, or church down the street likes either. It is about bringing the congregation I serve into the presence of the living God, and often that happens in spite of what I’ve thought or planned.

God works in mysterious ways. And, sometimes, it seems to me that we aren’t silent (or patient) enough to let the Holy Spirit do the work. We work ourselves into a frenzy trying to create the perfect worship service…and many times that “perfect” service is defined by “what’s working at the bigger church I think we should pay attention to” (insert your favorite seven deadly sin here).

The older I get, the more I find myself listening rather than trying to “sell” when it comes to worship.

[an aside...I have a relative who is so completely passionate about their favorite cause that conversation is regularly difficult. I admire this person's passion, but I get tired of hearing that I am (thinking/doing/believing/acting/voting/spending/living) wrong. It gets old. Not only does this person not give me credit for a brain, they don't give me credit for a heart...and it is primarily a result of not stopping for breath to give me an opportunity to speak...or them to listen...]

I think that comparative is destructive.

It is a common tool in the toolbox of the advertiser…used to set “my” green apple apart from “their” green apple.

But certainly the God of all creation is not a “product” that needs to, every 6 months, be “new and improved” in order to be relevant.

I’m just saying…

Got a comment? I’d love to hear what you think. Just leave it in the comments section, and I’ll get back to you asap…

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Myers August 12, 2009 at 3:05 pm

Vern and Doug,
I feel the same revulsion for the terms though I have a T and a C service at my church. I’m just a tad younger than you guys but lived through all the church growth nonsense of the 80′s and 90′s. My face still flushes with anger when I think of the seminars that I had to sit through where church growth experts – MDiv’s, Dmin’s, and PhD’s who had no better worship theology than a sixth grader tell us that hymns and choirs were out and we better get on board with the praise band if we want our churches to grow.
I do both and have for quite a while. But I am grieved by the impoverishment of our worship life because we, as evangelicals, have been enslaved to what works (utilitarian) and the newest trend. I guess we’ve always been that way since Finney.
I’m weary of the worship wars even though I minister in a church that sees the problem with divided worship but is not yet in a position to come together. I think Barna published a report in the late 90′s or early 2000′s that said it wasn’t worship styles that was attractive to new people but rather whether or not worship (authentic engagement with God) actually happened when the congregation gathered. (I’ve usually been suspicious of Barna since CG guys have enlisted him for their efforts. This was a refreshing change.) Sally Morganthaler says the same thing in her important book, Worship Evangelism.
I’m an IWS grad and I’ve become more and more convinced that Bob was right. Corporate worship is doing God’s story. Until we get that rather than doing the revivalistic thing on Sunday mornings, I’m afraid that we’ll be enslaved to utilitarianism and its fallout like the stylistic walls that divide us.
I’m weary of the battle and I’m a cynic. I pray that it doesn’t wear off on my students. But I’m also hopeful that the streams of worship renewal that are questioning the methodologies of the 80′s & 90′s will converge into a river that brings unity and richness into the worship of our evangelical churches.

vernsanders August 12, 2009 at 5:34 pm


Thanks for your comments. I’ve lived through most of what you are describing, and, at times, it hasn’t been pretty. One of the best decisions that was made at a church I was serving in the 80s and 90s was to not label their services. It kept the focus on worship, not on style.

I’m also a believer that to label things stylistically is convenient (especially for a marketer) but it allows people to “opt out” without having enough information. At one church I served, the hue and cry was for the re-establishment of a “traditional” service. Surveys were done, results were heeded, and worship was planned. Fortunately it was a “test market” kind of situation because the church discovered that the result was that everybody said “that’s not what I had in mind.” My conclusion from that experience? The older people get, the more opportunity for the “local hero” phenomenon to be in place…in effect “I remember when it was….and it was good…” now give it to me again.

Nostalgia for the past is not the only thing in play, however. On the other hand, some people want “not what I’ve seen before, because it was…” and, again, that definition is not a positive one, but rather “I can’t tell you what it is, but I’ll know it when I see it.”

When the focus is on the attendee’s wants and needs, it becomes an example of who’s on first…

I’d suggest you tell your students to keep their eyes on the big picture, not on the latest trend. Change is inevitable. New is not bad. But eternal values are the best filter…

Bob Myers August 14, 2009 at 5:26 am

I appreciated your reply and insights. In my current church (part-time), there is a good deal of nostalgia from the “traditional” folks. And the dynamic that you spoke of from the other side is present also. We are fairly polarized. It is a historic downtown church (Cole Porter was baptized there – there’s a plaque on the wall) which is both a blessing and a burden. But I really enjoy ministry there perhaps because I’m part-time and older and I’m not panicking because of problems. Mostly, I enjoy it because the senior pastor sees the problem very clearly. Some of the lay leadership is getting it also. Someday, we’ll be together (sounds like a song…) and I’ll write a book about the process (“And the Two Shall Become One”). Dear people; but boy, are they stubborn! Some have even made this statement: go ahead and make the changes – after I’m dead!

As for my teaching role, I do focus on having the students develop a strong worship philosophy based on biblical principles with historic understanding. I just don’t want my negativity against church growth principles to adversely affect them since many of them will serve in churches that still embrace the shallow values. Still, if I can get them to think and question what they are doing then I will have done my job.

Thanks for your role in initiating this discussion.

Blessings from the Heartland…

Duane Toole October 19, 2009 at 3:11 pm

I believe there is another underlying problem with stylistic preferences and “What People Like.” It is the problem of our society being consumers rather than participants. People want to come to church to be consumers, so they want to be inspired, entertained, emotionally moved, or intellectually educated; they don’t want to worship. Worship is a verb (wasn’t that a book?). It means to honor and give attention to God. Practically, it means giving up ourselves to God. It means turning all our thoughts toward God, and, essentially, away from ourselves.

Music, whatever the style, can help. The approach of the leaders of worship can help. God can help. But if people don’t come to do it themselves, they cannot worship.

If the priority in churches is to enable worship, we might find that there are faults in any style. Does anybody remember using silence?

Hey – - that might work!

vernsanders October 21, 2009 at 5:46 pm

It has been said before, but I’ll say it again…Liturgy is the work of the people…



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