The "Worship Wars"

by Wayne S. Walker

In an article headlined "Understanding the 'worship wars'” from World Magazine's web site on October 16, 2009, Warren Cole Smith began,

"A recent Religion News Service dispatch caught my attention. Under the headline 'Missouri Synod Leaders Declare Worship Wars "Sinful"’ came an article announcing the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s eight-page 'Theses on Worship.' The document was adopted unanimously in September by the denomination’s Council of Presidents, which includes its top officials and leaders of its 35 regional districts. The Theses on Worship took two years to complete, and — according to the RNS report — 'describes worship as a command of God but says the Scriptures and doctrinal statements permit ‘considerable freedom’ in choosing the rites and ceremonies used for worship.' The document itself declares: 'The polarization that is affecting the church concerning the issue of forms, rites and ceremonies is sinful and hinders the proclamation of the gospel.'”

Smith continued,

"True enough. These intramural conflicts consume a lot of energy, and to the outside world they can often appear to be irrelevant to the point of silliness. ... But it is important to be clear about one point: A dwelling of unity that is not built on a foundation of truth is nothing more than a house of straw that will blow over with the first strong wind. That’s why it’s important that we realize that many of us on the 'traditional' side of the so-called 'worship wars' understand that much more is at stake than what style of music we’ll sing on Sunday morning. The worship wars, properly understood, are not about taste, but about theology — and about protecting the core doctrines of the faith."

Churches of Christ are not immune to these "worship wars" that are erupting in various denominational churches. Just take a look at most of our recent hymnbooks. They, some perhaps more than others, are obviously being intended for a "blended worship," containing not only the great hymns of the faith and newer ones like them but also a growing selection of "camp songs" which are drawn primarily from the genre of "contemporary Christian music." Smith describes the process by which these songs become popular.

"To get a glimpse into what I mean, consider how modern worship songs make their way into contemporary worship services. The songs generally are first heard and popularized on contemporary Christian radio stations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. ... But what happens next? The popular songs are then promoted relentlessly to 'worship leaders,' with sheet music and ... if they’re a hit on Christian radio this week, they get performed in church the next."

Smith then notes,

"Contrast that to the way music has historically been chosen for the church. The process has involved some of the greatest theologians and musicologists of our denominations who carefully deliberate matters of theology and discipleship. They ask: Does this song reflect our beliefs? Does this song deepen our understanding of poorly understood doctrines? Does this song unite old and young, black and white, or is it so stylistically specific that its attempt to be 'relevant' to some alienates everyone else?"

Ignoring for the moment the reference to "our denominations," since churches of Christ seek to be completely undenominational, we must note that there is still a kernel of truth in what Smith says.

He continued,

"Certainly there are limitations to the slow-changing, sometimes bureaucratic way new music has historically made its way into Psalters and hymnals. And I want to be clear that I’m not advocating tradition for tradition’s sake. But let’s get to the point: Christianity is a religion based on history and tradition. The Resurrection is not an idea; it was an historical event. Jesus was not just a great teacher; He was God Incarnate. He chose to reveal Himself to us in history. That’s why when we throw over the highest and best traditions and practices of our faith in the never-ending pursuit of what’s new, what’s relevant, what’s 'hip' or 'cool,' we inadvertently but no less certainly erode core doctrines of the faith. We say to ourselves and to our children: History doesn’t matter. The testimony of the faithful men and women who came before us doesn’t matter. The highest and best thinking of our greatest minds — well, what was so great about them anyway?"

The article concluded,

"So, are the 'worship wars' unfortunate? Most certainly. But let us not shrink from these battles for the sake of a false and temporary 'unity.' Let us instead use them as an opportunity to come to agreement not about how we can be relevant to the culture, but rather about how we can bring what is permanent and eternal to a culture otherwise headed for the trash-bin of history." I do not consider myself merely a "traditionalist," but I bristle whenever I hear someone refer to the great hymns of faith simply as "traditional" hymns. The point is whether a song can genuinely be categorized as a psalm, a hymn, or a spiritual song, and does it really teach the truth?

There were many comments to the article, some for and some against, too many to include them all here. However, two of them caught my eye. One person objected to the statement that "Christianity is a religion based on history and tradition" with the claim that Christianity is based on the word of God rather than history and tradition. Another responded,

"Yes, Christianity is based on history and tradition in the sense that it was stated in the post. The history referred to is not church history, but the historical facts of Jesus life, death, and resurrection. And the fact that the teachings of the apostles were incorporated into the Bible doesn’t mean they’re not traditions. Smith’s point is that, unlike something like New Age religion that can borrow from other traditions or make completely new stuff up, Christianity cannot be divorced from its roots in the past, or it ceases to be Christianity."

And one other person hit the nail on the head so far as I am concerned with his objection to many of the contemporary style "praise" songs.

"What I’ve found about much of the contemporary / popular 'praise' music is its 'me' focus — 'I' will worship you, 'I' love you. The lyrics are 'I' centered, not Christ centered. They hymns are to be teaching tools in worship, they should deepen our understanding of Christ and the Scriptures."

Again, the real issue is not just old versus new but objective truth versus subjective feelings. My conclusion is that the vast majority of the "contemporary Christian music" songs that are being brought into our worship services today fall into the latter category, and that is one of my main objections to them.