Consequences of Musical Divorce

In many ways, the worship wars of the 1980’s, 1990’s, and 2000’s were like a marital conflict. The conflict grew so intense, and dragged on for so long, that reconciliation no longer seemed possible. Eventually, hearts were hardened towards one another, and what was once just separation was finally codified in divorce.

Different services, at different times, in different venues, with different musical styles, as a way to appease and appeal to different segments of the congregation, avoiding any one particular side having to lose the kind of style they preferred. In many churches across the globe, a cease fire was cemented into this kind of musical divorce.

And yet the partners didn’t move into different houses. They stayed under one roof and lived at the same address, but came and went at different times, spent time in different rooms, avoided each other as much as possible, and learned how to tolerate each other at Christmas and Easter. Family members had to choose sides, assets had to be divided up, and what was once a loving home was now a tinderbox of awkward dynamics.

This is a picture of churches whose musical conflict turned into musical separation and was codified by a kind of musical divorce. On the surface, conflict was resolved. Below the surface, conflict continued. But this time, the conflict was covered up and ignored. Churches believed that this would bring peace to its members and position them to reach different people with different preferences. And those pragmatic aims may very well have been achieved at some measurable level. People weren’t as angry anymore, and the traditional and contemporary services were free to attract their own constituencies.

But church-sanctioned musical divorce sends three dangerous messages to its own congregation.

First, we can’t do hard things. Because of the considerable baggage and history of musical conflict in the Church, putting traditional and contemporary music together in one service is hard. It’s much easier to separate them. When we separate them, we give up on having hard conversations, on expecting our musical volunteers and staff to work together like brothers and sisters in Christ, and on the messiness of change and experimentation.

Second, we enable dysfunctional behavior. Instead of lovingly, firmly, and biblically addressing the wrong attitudes, prejudices, and behaviors on each side, we reward those attituded, prejudices, and behaviors by protecting them and giving them their own service. Rather than removing mold from our walls, we simply paint over it. But the problem has not disappeared.

And third, we are short-sighted. In the short-term, having separate services makes things easier. But in the long-term, it kicks the can down the road to another generation to have to figure out what to do when all of the current players have stepped off the stage. Rather than serve the generation that comes after us with a biblical foundation that can be built upon, we serve the current stakeholders with a model that may only have a shelf-life of another decade or two at best.

In addition, church-sanctioned musical divorce causes long-lasting damage to its congregation in two unfortunate ways.

First, we institutionalize the separation. Once something happens one time in a church, it’s a tradition. This is why churches should always be careful about starting new traditions. It’s much easier to start a new tradition than it is to end one. The same principle applies to institutions. No pastor wants to be the one responsible for ending a beloved tradition, or dismantling an institution. When we institutionalize musical separation, we set up a load bearing wall that will be incredibly difficult to someday tear down.

And second, we become separate congregations within a congregation. Instead of a congregation becoming centered around the preaching of God’s Word, and interconnected in community with one another, a church with separate services based on musical style enables the creation of mini-congregations centered around which service they attend, what style they prefer, and interconnected within those sub-congregations.

Any church that offers multiple services experiences this side-effect, even when those services are identical. But when those services are not identical, they become like divorced former spouses still living under the same roof, demanding that the relatives choose to whom their allegiance will belong.

Perhaps most tragic of all is that church-sanctioned musical divorce is a willful ignorance of the clear call of Scripture to unity, to mutual edification, to whole-hearted praise, to cross-generational exhortation, to musical variety, and to God-glorifying singing.

We would do well to heed the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:10 who said: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” In those early days, Christians embraced divisions along the lines whom they followed, be it Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas. Paul’s admonition was to “be united”.

The consequences of musical divorce are more damaging to the Church than the worship wars were. For pastors and worship leaders to choose to walk the path of uniting these two musical languages into one expression may very well be one of the most difficult paths they will walk, but it is the path towards helping their congregation experience that there is a better way.

14 thoughts on “Consequences of Musical Divorce”

  1. Never had I thought much about this. Maybe bc it seemed so widely excepted. Or bc I thought it gave me a choice. In the end I think it may have also separated generations that needed each other. This article brings up some good things to think over. In some way the hard ground that has been taken with different styles of worship remind me of how Christians/church can be like this in so many areas that are not important enough to divorce over but it seems to be all to often the go to when there is disagreement on so many things. This doesn’t seem like a popular view point so thank you for saying it anyway.

  2. Overall I agree with the author. As far as creating a congregation within a congregation, can you really know everybody? We have home Life Groups for that purpose. If a church agrees to have a single worship style for all services, which one do you pick, and do you gradually adopt new songs coming out of the major artists like Chris Tomlin?

  3. I feel some are trying to entertain.
    I like a blended service. We should never eliminate the scriptures in church music. Adopting scripture to the music. Not divorcing scripture in music.
    scripture gives us the inspiration to write music.

  4. Good article. It’s easy to blame the “worship wars” on the traditionalists, but it takes two to fight. I don’t doubt people who love the old ways are often resistant to change, but I’ve noticed the same “my way or the highway” attitude among many proponents of contemporary worship. If they sing hymns at all, they have to put a contemporary spin on it. If the traditionalists raise any objections, they are told to like it or lump it. I can’t speak for other people, but I get tired of people implying I love Jesus less than they do simply because I have more traditional taste in music.

    Does that mean we should get rid of contemporary music? Of course not! That would be as wrong as the ones who have rid themselves of traditional music. All I’m saying is, surely we can find some middle ground if we try hard enough. Unfortunately, most church leaders don’t want to put forth the effort. I know because I’ve raised these concerns before. The usual reply is, “If I try to compromise, I’ll just make both sides mad.” That’s a cop-out.

    1. From an English perspective this article is bang on the nail. The verses you quote about Paul and Appolo are true about this and nearly all church disagreements! We want what we prefer not what we need. One additional thought from our side of the water to this and similar articles you have written, is that the worship war is a false dichotomy. Here it is between those who wish to preserve congregational singing, of any music, and those who want or prefer to just listen to a band. The latter are aided by the changes in worship songs that are following secular trends.The songs have no rhymes, instead being made up of irregular verses with no chorus and often a strange bridge. These songs go on for 6-7 minutes and may include 3 different tunes. The selection varies so fast that the average congregation who are not musically gifted cannot learn the song in time and are reduced to being spectators. The performers gyrate at the front of church like pop stars with the focus on them, not Jesus. If the congregation do not join in the singing then the volume is racked up to a disabling level at which we cannot hear our own voices to find out if we are in time or in tune. After a particularly disturbing visit to a worship leaders training day in London, I was returning on the train when God gave me a vision. It was strangely similar to the photo you posted. I was standing at the end of a large wide road with massive stuccoed houses for the very rich. A car suddenly rushed past me into the road and only then did I notice a sign at the entrance saying “No through road”. My interpretation immediately is that God was reassuring me (a song writer) that these bands looked very successful and we’re making lots of money – but ultimately this sort of music was taking us up a blind alley. I felt strangely reassured by this to continue my singing and song writing but not to worry what everyone else was doing as it would die out eventually. Worship music is about our voices, not the accompaniment.

  5. Well said. Good analysis. Accurate history. And as a retired, 89 year old Christian, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Baptist minister, May I add my observation?

    Legal divorce rarely reveals the source of conflict. Conflict emerges from the notion that “my preference” is better than “your preference.” Church conflict is emerges the same way when we individuals fight over “preference.”

    In my decades of counsel and observation, I see in our church life we are basically still spiritually immature children no matter our age. Our church life does not address the fundamental. In Baptist life we have severed “evangelism” from “discipleship.”

    I have been pastor of six different congregations from tiny to large, and member of six different congregations, from small to large. “Preference” is the bed rock of all separation. “I want” is one of the first statements a growing baby learns to demand. And is described in Genesis 2-3 as what separates us from the Holy God of Creation.

    A congregation or a faith group must face its huge pockets of spiritual immaturity. A congregation must follow more than meeting to sing what people want. A congregation must require spiritual growth to be its mission. A congregation must stop pretending that all is well in Zion. Becoming a member of a church does not automatically transform the inner self. The rest of one’s life now has a dual focus: being a citizen on this earth, and now being constantly aware that one is now a citizen if heaven. Most adult church members think of heaven only as where they will be after they die.

    “Since then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.

    “Set your mind on things above, not on the things that are on the earth.

    “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.

    “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead . . . for it is on account of these things that the wrath of God will come . . . now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.

    “Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self which is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created you . . . and beyond all these things put on love which is the perfect bond of unity. ” (Colossians 3:1-14)

    If God is actually God, our preferences are extremely narrow. We don’t even know the kinds of music through the centuries believers sang to the Glory of God. Let’s learn more. Our Preferences are too small and do not matter.

  6. Thanks for the insights Jamie, I hadn’t thought about the results of our style wars. There is, though, unintended fallout when you change musical styles, irrespective of the venue (church or concert hall or living room). I heard Libby Larson give an insightful talk about the changes in musical style and how they have tended to follow transportation (tracing concert halls by overlaying transportation routes) and how the car radio (now iPod or iPhone) is the new “concert hall.” Overlay this idea onto the addition of new instruments, electric, which has always been a way to distinguish a new “period” in music history and you have a wopper of a hairball to cough up.

    My point is that when you change the music and instruments, you change the service. I lead two services every week, a band led AND a choir-piano-organ led so I don’t really have a prejudice either way. The music changes the service. Part of the hard conversations that have been avoided have been contemporary people wanting to fling off the old modes of worship and traditionalists not wanting anything to change: except their car, house, clothes, and phone every two years. I know your church and know that you live in that space in-between so you must feel that tug each way. Change has never been the problem for traditionalists, thinking that things SHOULD NOT change has been: everything changes all the time, albeit at different rates now. But the flip side is a youthful, spiritual pride that asserts “no one before us had our insight and zeal.”

    Yes, hard conversations, wisdom, bearing with one another, and above all, seeking God in the midst of it all.

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