Lester Ruth’s essay in Liturgy 32, no. 1, begins with these words: “Around 1993, American Protestants declared war on each other. And they did so over worship.” He then explains the parameters of this war and, finally, as laid out below, draws some conclusions about what we have learned.
The challenges churches have faced in recent years brought about a vigorous engagement with liturgical questions that engendered experimentation with new and even old forms of worship.
Where are we now?
Have the wars ended or has the fighting, at least, subsided? Twenty years after the emergence of contemporary worship by that name in mainline congregations, there is some indication that things have changed. If nothing else, contemporary worship is no longer novel, and a myriad of congregations have appropriated and adapted worship practices from the arsenal of contemporary. Indeed, no less than the editor of Christianity Today has suggested that there is a “tense truce,” if not an outright cessation of hostilities.
After this truce, as the dust continues to settle, can we tell what will be the new status quo in American Protestant worship? Some things are clear in this time of liturgical reconstruction; others, less so. Here are some of the themes that are more certain as we worship today:
· Past histories about the rise of contemporary worship were too simplistic: they focused primarily on the perceived threat to mainline denominations from a few megachurches, overlooking influences from within mainline traditions as well as important developments within Pentecostalism.
· It was never just about the music: while music was a critical element in the rise of contemporary worship, the proliferation of worship styles has brought a ripple effect of other changes.
· The rise of an important new lay liturgical office (the worship leader) is one such change.
· The growing importance of technology to plan and conduct worship is another.
· Recent liturgical developments reinforced a trend toward informality and colloquialism in worship, trajectories also found more generally in American culture.
· Notwithstanding other changes, the presumed sound of worship music, brought about by changes in instruments and songs, indeed has expanded and all denominations must deal with this new breadth.
· Historically based liturgical traditions are still attractive, including to some who grew up in a contemporary worship world; the liturgical iconoclasm that drove some of the original implementers of contemporary worship was not passed down to their children.
· The worship wars were more earth-shattering for some than for others: the emergence of contemporary worship has brought complete overhauls to congregational and liturgical life for some, especially Pentecostals and nondenominational Evangelicals, whereas for others, including many mainline congregations, its emergence usually has meant the multiplying of services to offer worshipers a range of choices.
In retrospect one other critical point has become clear: contemporary worship itself was never a monolithic, static liturgical phenomenon. It arose in different places; it had multiple strands of development and various modes of expression. That variety was true in the past and remains true today. And so the wars fought over its emergence were of various sorts, too. That variety also means that the contemporary state of liturgical reconstruction is likewise fluid and ongoing. If the church is always being reformed, then its current worship is always being reconstructed.