The “Worship Wars”. What a wierd phrase… wierd, but very real. Consider what Peter W. Marty writes regarding this struggle between the old and the new:

“When Mark Twain finally mastered the intricacies of piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi and had catalogued in his mind every trifling feature of the great river, he confessed to a deep deprivation: “I have lost something which can never be restored to me in my life. All the grace, and beauty—the poetry—has now gone out of the majestic river!” The river, of course, had not changed. But familiarity with the language of the river had killed a certain spirit of wonder. The routines of navigational life had tamed the water’s treachery. The poetry was gone. Two decades of worship wars are beginning to do to the splendor of church worship what Twain’s piloting routines did to his view of the river… Years ago, it would have been unthinkable that two adjectives, contemporary and traditional, would so thoroughly captivate the imagination of the church. It would have seemed strange that these simple words could govern the views of those who plot the church’s worship. But aptivate and govern they do.”

As a worship leader, how should I approach this argument?

I am an evangelical. Evangelicals are often ignorant and love simplistic answers. When I ask the question, “What principal should guide the way we prepare for and lead worship?”, evangelicals will almost always reply with a triumphant, “well, the Bible, of course!” Lovely answer… and completely useless in practical terms. With worship practices (as with most important things) there is no “Biblical Way”. The Bible is not a rule book, or an instruction manual for life. The Message is a record of God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus, and yet, even though the Good News of the Grace of God in Jesus Christ hides behind every part of Scripture, if you don’t know the Christ, you will find Him nowhere in the books. This is our Mysterious God’s way… the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Search google scholar regarding “Biblical Worship” and you will find journal entry after journal entry and thesis after thesis of contradictory views of what “Biblical Worship” is. These arguments have been going on since the days of the Anti-Nicene Fathers!

So the Bible cannot be used to prescribe worship practices. Now what? Consider these approaches:

Catholics (and to a lesser extent, independant Charismatics) follow an Ecclesiastic approach. Simply put, “The Church” (here read “the top power structures of the congregation / denomination”) decides what is allowed and what is not. A brief glance at Church history will quickly show why trusting a few, fallible, powerful men to decide what is right is an invitation to tragedy. Call me a rebel, but I cannot accept this approach.

The “regulatory principal” championed by the descendants of the Puritan Church is straightforward: “Anything that the Bible does not command is forbidden”. Drums, guitars, rhythm circles, and certainly lasers and smoke is considered to be “strange fire” (Leviticus 10:1-2). Great if you’re into a literalistic approach to Scripture. My approach to the Bible precludes this approach (and my artistic heart rejoices! You can only handle so much Choral singing!)<

Most Independents (as well as most “Emergents”) have a pragmatic approach. If it works, do it! If it facilitates a natural, enthusiastic, relevant, worship experience then it must be right! Charismatics often say “look at the fruit”. God is “visiting” these meetings, so it must be ok! The Council of Jerusalem may have been decided by this sort of approach. The Council were convinced that the inclusion of the Gentiles must be ok, not because of Biblical prophecy regarding God’s heart for the nations (of which there were plenty!), but because the Gentiles had received the gift of the Holy Spirit. This approach looks like freedom, but many argue that it leads ultimately to idolatry! When the focus shifts to making it “easy” and “relevant” for the people, we learn to seek the worship “experience” – seeing worship as something we walk into and enjoy instead of something we give to God. For this reason, I can’t accept this approach.

Some say that the “Worship Wars” are not something to worry about. Ultimately, the Church will fight it out at the extremes and ultimately settle on a happy compromise. Conflict between extremes such as “only Psalmody” and “free prophetic song” don’t need to be sorted out. We can simply adopt both. Thus we have services with Hymns, Solo artists, and worship bands all popping up. Everyone gets what they want and nobody is happy! No thanks.

Mary Conway describes an approach which she calls “maintaining dynamic tension”. In this approach, instead of deciding between the arguments (such as worship music as art vs. worship music as facilitating function; singing about a transcendent God vs. singing to an immanent God; writing that appeals to the rational mind vs. writing that appeals to the emotions; worship as joyful celebration vs. worship as vulnerable lament; worship as participation vs. worship as performance; worship as cultural vs. worship as counter-cultural; worship service as seeker-friendly evangelism vs. worship as believer’s communion, among others), we need to maintain “compromise in the positive sense: to keep these tensions
in dynamic, constructive balance.” She admits that this is easier said than done, and I am not sure that I could even define this approach correctly, let alone put it into practice!

In the words of Bono: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.

In the end, the only thing that is certain is that our approach to God should be childlike. No matter what I settle on (if I ever settle on any approach) I will have to do so with a good deal of humility and sheepish grinning. I like Thomas Long’s description of worship (“Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship” 2001):

“Even when Christian worship is at its best, it is much like that Mother’s Day breakfast. It is always the work of amateurs, people who do this for love, kids in the kitchen overcooking the prayers, half-baking the sermons, and crashing and stumbling through the responses on the way to an act of adoration”

That’ll do for now.