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.