Is it time for a new worship war?
The first church I served at was in the middle of a worship war when I started there. It was like a cold war with a lot of passive-aggressive leadership on both sides of the debate. The “Hymns & Organ Crowd” declared that their music was rich with theological significance, whereas the “Praise Chorus Crowd” was fervently committed to introducing new songs with more current sounds that connected with people personally.
It all seems so long ago. In fact, it seems like ancient history. I’ve invested the majority of my ministry career in churches with attractional music environments that are targeted at connecting with the next generation. I’m honored to serve with some of the best musicians out there. They are passionate about creative musical experiences that engage with people and move them closer to God. The “new norms” of this approach to musical worship are:
- Electric-guitar driven // The leaders are typically behind a guitar and the sound is based around that instrument.
- Bands // We have a group of 5 to 8 people on stage: lead vocal, background vocal, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, keyboard and drummer.
- Video-augmented experiences // There are screens in all of our environments that display not just the lyrics but also other visuals that support the message of the song.
- It’s loud // We aim for 95 dBa … loud enough to make the room feel full. (Also loud enough to get regular complaints about the volume and the need for our guest services team to have ear plugs on hand.)
We should always remain “open-handed” in our methods while being “closed-handed” on the message. I wonder if it’s time to reinvent a “new norm” of musical worship. Have we wedded our method too closely to our message? Do we need to dream a new dream in musical worship?
Or maybe … is it time to wage a new worship war? For the sake of the next generation, do we need to ask fundamental questions about our approach to ensure that we’re connecting with them? Is today’s “Modern Worship Crowd” holding onto its approach in the same way the “Hymns & Organ Crowd” did so many years ago … looking down their noses at what was coming next? Here are some signs that convince me we need to be looking ahead to what’s next:
- The electric guitar is dead // Seriously … listen to music that people actually stream or buy and you’ll find that the electric guitar isn’t featured in any significant way. Certainty not as much as when I started in ministry so many years ago … people actually used to love U2, rather than just complaining when their music is forced onto our iPhones. [Check out Bobby Owsinski’s article for Forbes on the demise of electric guitar in popular music.]
- People aren’t singing // Over the last few months I’ve had the chance to participate in worship services at a number of “name brand” churches. Two of them are globally known for their worship experiences. One of the curious realities even in these churches is that the vast majority of the people in the service don’t sing. Once you get beyond the first few rows, most people are just watching what’s happening and not really participating. Musical worship is a way for the gathered community to unify around what it means to follow Jesus. Is it really “worship” if the community isn’t participating?
- It doesn’t sound contemporary // Listen to the top 10 songs that are played in churches today … and then listen to the top 10 songs on the Billboard chart. Strip away the lyrical content and just listen to the music itself. I’m struck by the fact that the church music all sounds a lot more similar than the Billboard songs sound. It seems like church music has settled into a common sound, while “contemporary pop music” has a much broader variety.
- I like our music too much // I’m a 40-something leader. I’m in that dangerous zone when it comes to leading the church. I’m not a young leader trying to prove myself but I’m also not a seasoned leader who has moved beyond holding on too tightly to stuff I’ve made. I really like our music and that’s a problem. Somewhere in the next few years I need to not like it anymore. It needs to get under my skin and bug me while it effectively engages the next generation. If leaders in my generation aren’t careful, we’ll just do what we’ve always done and our effectiveness will slowly erode under us. We need to push ourselves to be ready for “what’s next” while “what’s now” is still working.
What could some elements of the coming worship war look like?
- DJ-led worship // DJs have the same “audience leadership” appeal that the lead guitar player once had. When are we going to see worship led entirely by a DJ? [Here is an interesting sample that might represent the future.]
- Beatbox instead of drums // Beatbox is a mainstream vocal accompanist form. Even at my kids’ school I see them teaching it in the choral groups. Why isn’t it happening in our churches?
- More variety // How will the church respond to ever-expanding musical tastes? What does “contemporary music” mean in a streaming music world where people can build music channels around their own particular tastes?
Let me state again … I am a fan of the current “contemporary musical worship” approach. My point is that we should also think ahead and embrace music that works for the next generation. We need to start letting go of what is in order to grasp hold of what will be.