The worship wars are over.
The worship wars were a battle between organs and guitars. Choirs and praise bands. Robes and blue jeans. Hymnal versus projector. Traditional versus contemporary. Old versus new.
They were mainly about style. The genre of the music, the instrumentation, the attire of the pastors, the vehicle for musical notation (or lack thereof), the authorship date of the songs.
And now, by and large, those wars have subsided and a delicate peace has settled in. Churches either went full throttle in one direction, and left any detractors in the smoke (and those detractors found a different church), or they went the “blended” route and offer multiple service styles in multiple venues in order to appease the factions and prevent them from killing each other. A small amount of churches survived the worship wars with their worship ethos in tact. Good for them.
Now we are at a worship crossroads.
This conversation isn’t so much about style. It transcends style.
This is about substance. It’s more about the “And so?” and less about the “And how?” It’s more about the heart of the leaders and less about the preferences of the worshippers.
This is about a fundamental distinction between two models of worship leading (irrespective of the style of music). The first model views the congregation’s engagement as integral. The second model views the congregation’s engagement as incidental. The first model I call “congregationalism” and the second model I call “performancism”.
Congregationalism: a model of worship leading that views the engagement of the congregation as integral to the success of a worship service.
Performancism: a model of worship leading that views the engagement of the congregation as incidental to the success of a worship service.
Engagement: the congregation’s active participation, in unity and with comprehension, throughout the majority of a worship service.
Gone are the days when the argument could be made that organs equaled bored congregations and guitars equaled revival. That argument has been destroyed over the last two decades as the embrace of “contemporary” expressions oftentimes resulted in drastically diminished congregational engagement in worship.
And vice versa, gone are the days when the argument could be made that contemporary worship meant death and destruction and drivel, and traditional worship meant the preservation of all things beautiful and holy. That argument has been destroyed as we witness not only the maturity of so many contemporary expressions, but also the withering decline of churches and denominations whose traditional liturgy and instrumentation have been unable to mask its internal rot.
It’s possible to have the most traditional of traditional churches, with organs and choirs and smells and bells and hymnals and robes and kneelers, and have a congregation whole-heartedly engaged in worship of Jesus Christ. And in this stylistic vein, it’s also possible to have congregations who sit in their seats and watch the professionals do their completely inaccessible thing which, while impressive, does not call forth any response from the congregation other than, perhaps, an “ah that was nice”.
And conversely, it’s possible to have the most contemporary of contemporary churches (so contemporary they don’t even use the traditional word “contemporary” anymore), with guitars, drums, screens, top-notch equipment, lights, loops, effects, video, and coffee bars, and have a congregation drawn in to see and savor the glory of Jesus Christ, singing their hearts out. And with this same style repeated down to the very last v-neck shirt, you can have congregations who are literally left in the dark, watching a performance, being sung at, and resigning themselves to a passive role as a passive observer of something that’s designed to look and sound dynamic.
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve had a conversation with someone, usually a total non-musician, who has lived in the middle of this tension at their church (or former church) for a long period of time. They can’t put their finger on what’s so difficult for them about the worship leading model at their church, and when I begin to explain my theory to them, their eyes begin to light up as I appear to be verbalizing what they’ve experienced internally. Their stylistic preferences are all over the map – but in their heart – they’re weary and leery of performancism.
Style isn’t the issue anymore. It’s substance now. The “how” (i.e. what instrumentation will we use) has given way to the “so” (i.e. what is the end result of what we’re doing?)
The worship leading model of congregationalism says the “so” is: so that people will be engaged (actively).
The worship leading model of performancism says the “so” is: so that people will have an experience (passively).
Congregationalism is specific when it comes to the desired goal during the music: the congregation singing along with one another. Facilitating their singing is the worship leader’s number one priority.
Performancism is vague: the congregation is there to experience the experience, and if they happen to be able to sing along, then that’s great. But if they can’t sing along, then at least they had an experience.
This is the crossroads where we find ourselves.
It’s not about style anymore, though issues of style certainly flare up in many places with a good deal of noise. This conversation transcends style and begs a simple question: is the congregation’s engagement in worship integral or incidental?
The answer to that simple question will determine a church’s trajectory for the next several decades, and perhaps longer. I pray that a fresh commitment to congregational worship will sweep across the worldwide church, overturning performancism, and drawing the Bride of Christ into increasing unity in the years to come.