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The End of “Wars” in the Church

October 23, 2019 • Life for Leaders

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.

Ephesians 5:18-19 (NIV)

 

The infamous “worship wars” never should have happened.

Which wars are these? If you study church history, you’ll discover that Christians have been fighting over worship for centuries. But I’m thinking specifically of the so-called “worship wars” that erupted in the 1970s and continued through the 1990s. Some skirmishes are still being fought today, though for the most part the wars have ended. I’m referring in particular to conflicts over music used in worship. There were many battles pitting lovers of traditional music (hymns, choirs, organs, etc.) against lovers of contemporary music (praise songs, worship songs, bands, etc.). During much of my tenure as a parish pastor, I spent plenty of time and energy trying to stop the worship wars that plagued the churches I served.

Black and white photo of choir members worshippingWhen I first became the senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, for example, I heard loud and clear from the traditional folk that I must not abandon the beloved hymns and the strong choral music program of the church. Yet, dozens of members begged me to banish “those tired, old hymns that nobody can sing” in favor of guitar-led praise songs. Hymns vs. songs, choir vs. band . . . it was a classic worship war.

To me, this all seemed so sad and unnecessary for lots of reasons. For one thing, Scripture calls us to put up with each other, to value others above ourselves, and to look not to our own interests but to the interests of others (Ephesians 4:2; Philippians 2:3-4). It’s pretty hard to fight a worship war, defending our own particular preferences, if we’re seeking to follow these biblical directives.

But, even more directly, Ephesians 5:19 says we are to use “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” Whatever these words mean, they clearly suggest that the musical content of our worship ought to be diverse. The inclusion of “hymns” and “spiritual songs” in verse 19 should have cut off the worship wars at their beginning; I’m sad to say this didn’t happen in many churches for many years. Too many Christians were “hymns only” folk while others were “praise songs only” folk. Neither were Ephesians 5:19 folk.

I’m sure you can find some worship skirmishes in the church today, though the particular dynamics might be different. But, thanks be to God, most churches seem to have found a better way. Cutting-edge worship services often use traditional hymns, sometimes just as they were written, sometimes with new musical settings or added choruses. Churches with traditional music programs usually offer contemporary services or incorporate newer music along with beloved hymns and anthems from the past.

I’m encouraged by these developments of worship in churches. Yet I continue to wonder why so many of us were not guided by the clear teaching of Scripture as we became embroiled in the worship wars. Perhaps you can wonder along with me, using the following questions.

Something to Think About:

Why do you think Christians fought so hard for hymns vs. songs or songs vs. hymns?

Why were we so reticent to bear with our brothers and sisters when their musical preferences did not match our own?

Why were we unwilling to value others higher than ourselves or to put the interests of others above our own?

What are we doing today that shows the same tendencies to fight for our preferences, even if those preferences wound the body of Christ? In what ways might God be calling us to be agents of healing, compromise, and self-sacrifice?

Something to Do:

Can you think of an issue in the life of your church that is similar to the “worship wars” experience? If so, is there a way for you to be an instrument of peace and healing? What might you do and say to help your church be more unified in Christ?

Prayer:

Gracious God, I’m thankful that so many of the worship wars have ended. But this doesn’t mean we won’t find other issues to hurt your body and divide your people. Sometimes these issues are deeply significant matters of core theology or ethics. But often we’re so caught up in our own preferences and tastes that we sacrifice the health of the body of Christ just so we can get our way. Forgive us, Lord.

May we learn to bear with one another, in matters of music to be sure, but in so many other ways. Help us to be Christ-like in our ability to humble ourselves and serve others. Unify your church, Lord, so that we might be a demonstration to the cosmos of the truth of the gospel. Amen.

Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online
commentary:
Conflict Resolution (Matthew 18:15-35)

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4 thoughts on “The End of “Wars” in the Church

  1. DiAnne Krumm says:

    There really is no reason to look down on anyone for the way the choose to worship God. Fortunately there are enough services in most churches and your choice will usually be one of them. It would be ideal to sit in a service with traditional hymns for a few weeks and then (if your schedule provides) go to the service where you are unfamiliar with the praise music until you feel more comfortable with it. Any the benefit is that you are exposing yourself to more people with your walk in the Lord and setting a good example. My 2 cents.

  2. Mark D. Roberts says:

    DiAnne, thanks for your two cents! Your suggestion is a good one. I find myself in different contexts for worship, owing to my job. Sometimes the form of worship can be a stretch for me, perhaps more expressive or liturgical than I’m used to. I think these are good experiences for my soul. And they remind me that worship is not about me. It’s all for God.

  3. Nancy Hull says:

    I am 68, but I do think that newer music is needed. If we are are to keep the church alive, we need the under 30 people to be part of our congregations. I have been in a position of trying to explain hymns to kids and many are a real stretch. When we are choosing hymns, we need to keep the words in mind and ask ourselves whether the words make sense based on common vocabulary. We are now heading into the season of thermostat wars. While it may seem trivial, it’s hard to focus while shivering or while sweating.

    • Thanks, Nancy. Oh, you’re right about the temperature! I worship in a variety of settings these days because of my work. Sometimes I’m freezing and sometimes I’m too hot. At least when it’s cold you can bring a sweater or jacket!

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