Where do the so-called “worship wars” stand now?
Guest Editor and long-time board member of The Liturgical Conference, Lester Ruth, set that question as his topic for Liturgy 32, no. 1. Ruth requested new essays from a wide range for worship leaders and scholars because it is now nearly thirty years since our churches have been experimentation with worship practices.
Here is Ruth’s description of the beginning of the conflicts over worship.
In two weeks, I will post some of his conclusions about worship themes that have resulted from this explosion of interest in worship.
Around 1993, American Protestants declared war on each other. And they did so over worship. Although the weapons used did not inflict physical harm on the combatants, there were wounds nonetheless. Bitter disagreements, angry arguments, and political machinations spilled across the church. Pastors and musicians were fired or sometimes left on their own, shaking the dust off of their feet. Congregants voted with their feet, or their wallets, or with raised hands if the question of which worship style was right was brought to a vote. And thus were the conflicts known as the worship wars.
The most obvious front line of combat in the wars was music. Fighting occurred over instrumentation (guitar vs. organ was a common conflict), song repertoires (hymns vs. choruses), and even the role of song in corporate worship. As historian Michael Hamilton has noted, these musical issues were not simply musical but were caught up in larger issues of social identity: what music one preferred was a statement about who one was and with whom one identified.
But music was not the only grounds for conflict. Among a variety of fronts, combatants battled over preaching styles, the use of technology, the impact of popular entertainment, the relationship between the pastoral dimensions of worship (Is the service for us?) and its evangelistic ones (Is the service for others?), and even the level of informality and dress appropriate for Christian worship.
It appears that we can date the beginning of the worship wars—if the term’s emergence in publications is any indication—to the year when commentators began using the term to describe the fight over worship styles. The contentious issues quickly got subsumed under the large categories of “traditional” versus “contemporary.” This dichotomy became the verbal topography for identifying the front lines of conflict. . . .
The simple dichotomy was erroneous, too, in that “contemporary” worship was never a monolithic entity. While much of the ink spilled over the worship wars by mainline observers came from those concerned about the influence of a few megachurches advocating an approach that reshaped worship for evangelistic purposes (Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois being the most prominent), other forms of contemporary worship were emerging at the same time. This emergence occurred in both older Pentecostal denominations, like the Assemblies of God, and in upstart Pentecostal renewal, like the churches influenced by the mid-century Latter Rain revival in Canada. The emergence happened, too, in “new paradigm” churches (to use the language of sociologist Donald E. Miller) like the Vineyard Fellowships, Calvary Chapels, or Hope Chapels. A wide variety of congregations even felt the liturgical influence of transdenominational movements like Promise Keepers. New worship impulses arose even in mainline congregations usually associated with youth or young adult ministry or with renewal movements like United Methodism’s Walk to Emmaus program. If we factor in developments among different ethnic groups, the result is an amazing hodgepodge of new forms of Protestant worship emerging decades after the 1960s. “Contemporary” worship had never been a single thing.