In a recent article entitled “The Waning of the ‘Worship Wars‘”, Christianity Today reported on the findings of the National Congregations Study, which you’ll find quite interesting if you’re involved in church music in any way. You should definitely read the whole article, but I’ll summarize a few of the big points here:
- Since the year 2000, the use of bulletins, choirs, and organs has dropped by almost 10 percent (mainly in Evangelical congregations). The fading role of a choir is more pronounced in larger evangelical congregations (with more than 100 people), having dropped a whopping 33%.
- In the same time period: “Applause is up 10 percent, raising hands and using drums are both up 14 percent, and the use of projection equipment is up by 23 percent.”
- About 35% of congregations see an electric guitar on their platform (no word about banjos, as far as I could tell).
- Fewer churches now hold multiple services with different worship styles. And just over half of American churches have more than one service on Sundays.
- There’s also a noticeable trend towards informality of dress.
I wanted to offer a few reactions/thoughts for my fellow worship leaders as we look back at the trends of the last 15+ years, and look ahead at how we might remain faithful to Christ in the midst of some significant moves away from tradition.
Some of this is good
I would agree that there is indeed a sense (and now statistics to confirm that sense) that the worship wars have waned. Praise the Lord. I don’t pick up on the same level of combativeness and hostility in churches around the topic of music, and in my interactions with other worship leaders – even ones at churches with large/diverse music programs and styles – they share this experience (for the most part).
Some people are very glad about this
The trend towards informality, more traditionally “charismatic” worship expressions, the use of projection, the presence of electric guitars, and the slow decrease of the use of organs and choirs make many people very glad.
Some people are very sad about this
But many people are lamenting these trends and find the informality, technology, contemporary music, and loss of more traditional musical elements to be quite concerning and discouraging.
For sure, some people unhealthily idolize organs and choirs (just as some people unhealthily idolize bands and screens). But I would say that most people who prefer organs and choirs are not your stereotypical church curmudgeons. Many of them are sweet people who appreciate a thoughtfulness, reverence, preparedness, and weightiness in their corporate worship that, for them, are more prevalent when an organ and choir is at the musical helm of a service. We actually owe these people, and the values they rightfully extol, our pastoral care and attention.
Choirs and organs are hard work
Dare I say that one reason why the presence of choirs and organs in churches is becoming less common is that they’re a lot of work. Building, leading, and cultivating a good, healthy choir requires a director with the proper training, gifts, and temperament. Utilizing an organ requires someone who can actually play it (hopefully well), and oftentimes a lot of money to keep the instrument in playable condition and tune.
Sometimes (!) hard work is necessary
Many churches just don’t have the budget or capacity to give choirs and organs the attention they require. But some churches might throw the towel in too soon and too easily.
Could it be that choirs do actually provide a large cross section of the congregation the ability to contribute to singing in a worship leading role in a way that one or two mics does not? Could it be that a choir can actually encourage congregational singing when done well (and mic’d well)? So even if you really can’t support a choir like you used to in the 80s, could you not retool it and revamp it to work for today? Is there not someone willing to lead it? Many pastors/worship leaders might not be asking.
What about the organ? Maybe it doesn’t make sense for your church to buy/install one if you don’t already have it in your sanctuary. But if you have it, is there really no one available to play it, even once a month? No students close-by who would jump at the opportunity? You might not think it’s worth it to maintain a choir or an organ presence. And a lot of Evangelical churches agree with you.
But these two elements have been pillars of congregational worship for hundreds of years. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can totally move away from two pillars without some crumbling happening. What will crumble if we completely ignore choirs and organs? Faithfulness to foundations, the participation of a wide swath of (mostly but not exclusively) our older members, musical fluency, a biblical embrace of variety, any sense of historicity in our gatherings, and a visible/audible demonstration of multiple generations joining in one voice.
It’s not necessarily the small churches who bear this burden, or the church plants meeting in a rented cafeteria, but the big churches for whom these elements are a part of their legacies, traditions, and even architecture.
I write this as a guy who doesn’t read music, doesn’t conduct a choir, and doesn’t play the organ. All during middle/high school and college I was the “contemporary guy”, coming with my guitar to introduce contemporary music. For ten years I led the “contemporary” service at a large Anglican church, and slowly tried to help de-polarize the worship culture there and help show that the addition of contemporary elements didn’t mean the subtraction of classical elements. And now I’m the worship director for another large Anglican church with a great legacy of choir and organ in its worship services, and I feel a great responsibility to show that this legacy actually means something; it can be built upon, as opposed to deconstructed.
The lies remain
While the hostility of the worship wars may have waned, certain lies remain: Contemporary and classical can’t coexist. Contemporary music is the way to reach young people. Traditional music is the only true way to please God. The organ is the king of all instruments. If we use projection, people will really worship. If we stop using hymnals, no one will keep singing.
On and on they go. A lot of misinformation was spewed out during the worship wars, and it’s still out there, though it might not be trumpeted as loudly.
Pastors and worship leaders can’t assume that people will just wake up one morning with a biblically robust theology of worship in their heads and hearts. Why are we singing? To whom is our singing directed? What is going on when we sing? Does it even matter if anyone in the room sings along? Why should we lift our hands? What is clapping all about? These are just some of the questions that, if answered well and wisely, will help our congregations not just stand there as spectators, but actually engage in robust congregational worship, whether it’s with a hymnal in their hands or an electric guitar on their stage.
We are at a new crossroads
About a year and a half ago I wrote an article entitled “Worship at a Crossroads: Congregationalism Versus Performancism“, and I believe this is even more relevant and important today, as I survey the ever-changing landscape of Evangelical worship.
I wrote then:
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?
This is the question that every single pastor and worship leader needs to ask themselves. Moving forward, if the results of the National Congregations Study are right and worship in the 21st century will be marked by informality, contemporary music style, and movement away from the expressions of the past (all of which happens every century, by the way), we have to decide if the congregation’s engagement in worship is integral or incidental.
I argue loudly and strongly for am embrace of a congregationalist approach to worship, and a rejection of performancism, in its flashy and subtle forms. Whether our churches are moving in tandem with the national trends, or whether our churches are very much traditional and classical, we have a responsibility to remain faithful to the charter Jesus set forth for Peter in John 21:17, and that is to feed his sheep.
Trends come and go. Expressions, styles, techniques, and fashions all change. They always will. Jesus remains. Let your congregation feast on him in song as the years and trends pass.