And the worship wars keep raging. Who will win? Does anyone win? Is there a way out?
Worship style, and particularly worship music, is the most divisive issue on the church front today. What if there were a way to make everyone happy--or almost everyone--without choosing sides?
Many people think “blended worship” is the way for churches to avoid perpetual conflict over worship. Rather than choosing one style of worship to the exclusion of others, blended worship incorporates elements from a number of styles and traditions. Rather than segmenting a congregation into separate worship services of different styles, blended worship keeps everyone worshiping together.
Author Robert Webber, a longtime advocate of blended worship, says it matches the trend toward “convergence” in worship. As the world shrinks and more people are exposed to different cultures, people are more open to worship practices of other traditions. Traditional churches are incorporating the arts, liturgical churches are becoming more open and participatory, contemporary churches are drawing more from ancient practices.
The following dialogue is from two blended worship advocates--one a traditionalist who has come to appreciate new worship styles, the other a contemporary musician who has come to respect the historical traditions. They are also father and son. They meet in the middle, both advocating blended worship but for different reasons.
Resolving the destructive debate about which worship style is best
Bob Burroughs: There is no "best" worship style. Yet each church probably thinks its style is the best.
Blended worship simply means that the worship leader chooses to combine a variety of music styles--hymns, choruses and gospel songs--put them in the proverbial "blender," mix them up and serve them to the people in the worship experience. Many times, this is done without asking for advice or counsel from others in the church fellowship.
In a blended service, the worshipers can sing familiar hymns, gospel songs, and familiar and not-so-familiar choruses, perhaps in a variety of ways, including the use of different accompaniments and tempos.
Is it working? It is in some places.
David Burroughs: I'm not sure the destructive debate about worship will ever go away. But the only debaters seem to be church staff members. The worshipers just know they want things a certain way, and they squirm or complain when things change. But I say change is good. And so is squirming! Don't tell me the Israelites didn't squirm when Jeremiah delivered a harsh message designed to move the people to action.
Building unity where culture divides
Bob: Unity is something that is missing these days...in church, our jobs and often in our generation. The membership in many churches is out of harmony with each other because of finances, staff, worship style or differences in theology. Culture also is a major factor in the unity crisis because the older folks were very comfortable with their hymns and an order of worship that never or rarely changed and it "felt good" to come to worship. Now younger people, including staff, have taken the church to new and sometimes uncomfortable heights for these older folk, and they aren't happy about it.
Blended worship may indeed begin to build unity, if the musicians begin very slowly and they gradually work up to a blended service and not just jump off and do it with little or no preparation.
David: Everyone has heard the forecast: "Churches that don't change are dead or dying." I've come to understand that too much change can break a fellowship in two, like a tree split by a strong wind. I see blended worship as a way to introduce change slowly and carefully, without causing too much harm.
Blended worship is designed to have elements that are attractive to multiple generations who like different kinds of music. Blended worship helps us say, "I like this song. It makes me feel comfortable." Then later in the service, "OK, this is not my favorite style, but I can participate here."
I'm not sure unity happens naturally in a blended worship style. I think the worship leader has to work to build unity. How? I suggest mixing the styles. Take a traditional hymn and have a guitar or the praise band accompany it. Slow down the praise chorus and play it with piano and organ to feel the relevance of the words.
Culture does divide. TV commercials seem to point one of two ways--to the young, hip and fresh faces, or to the older people trying to have a good retirement. If we relegate our Sundays to two services, one for the young and one for older folks, where is the unity? You end up with two separate church families using the same building at different times!
Bob: Worship heritage means a great deal to me! I grew up with the hymnal, helped edit a new hymnal, and made my decision for full-time Christian service based on the hymn "Wherever He Leads, I'll Go." I am very comfortable with hymns.
I also love some of the contemporary choruses and other music being sung in worship today. But to be perfectly honest, I'm still uncomfortable with much of it because I haven't grown up with this as a vital part of my life like younger people have. This type of worship will probably never be my cup of tea. But I can still have a great appreciation for the "worship heritage" that is being developed in the life of my children and grandchildren.
David: I learned my theology from the hymnal. Long before I was in seminary with Frank Tupper, Molly Marshall, Glenn Hinson, and Bill Leonard, I was taking theology from B.B. McKinney, Fanny Crosby, Martin Luther and Walker's “Southern Harmony.”
What has caused me, a contemporary worship leader, to head back into the waters of tradition and heritage? The shallowness of the vast majority of praise choruses currently available. My twins will soon start coming to “big church,” and I want to make sure they are nurtured in their faith development and not just made to feel good and happy.
I think that is the secret success of the blended style. There will be music that sounds familiar and upbeat and hip to them, but there will also be the great teaching hymns of faith for them to chew on as they grow.
Bob Burroughs, 63, is a nationally known composer, arranger, and conference leader and director of the church music department of the Florida Baptist Convention in Jacksonville.
David Burroughs, 35, of Louisville, Ky., is president of Passport, a Christian summer camping program for teenagers. He is a worship leader and composer with degrees in music composition and theology.