5 Ways to Battle The Never-Ending Worship Wars

So let me guess: someone recently complained about the music at your church.

It doesn’t matter what style of music your church features or how traditional or edgy your music is; complaining about music is almost a universal phenomenon in the church today.

Some of that is generated by church shoppers (I outlined 5 characteristics of church shoppers here), but the problem is more pervasive than hearing from a few church shoppers.

It’s endemic to human nature and to our consumer driven culture that basically says everything revolves around me. While I think consumer Christianity will die in the future (here’s why), we’re not there yet.

Before we get started, please know this isn’t a slam against any particular style of music in the church.

In fact, I admire all churches that are innovating to become more effective in their mission.

But here’s the challenge.

Many leaders have almost spilled blood getting their church to change in the area of music (or making sure their church doesn’t change).

And yet, despite the battles fought over music, many churches are still not much further ahead in reaching people because of it.

Why is that?

There are five problems I see church leaders struggle with when navigating the sensitive and emotional issue of worship style in church.

worship wars

1. You become so focused on pleasing the people you have that you lose sight of the people you’re trying to reach

Whatever your music style, many church leaders are overly worried about how ‘their people’ will handle the change.

Being aware of the concerns of the congregation is healthy. Leaders who don’t care how their congregation thinks eventually end up leading nobody.

But it’s also a trap. When people’s reactions become an overriding fear, the mission shifts away from reaching new people to keeping the people you have happy.

As a result, leaders:

Abandon change to keep people happy.

Compromise vision to try to satisfy the discontent.

Stop innovating to try to placate people.

These attempts at making people happy virtually never work (I wrote about the problems people-pleasing leaders face here).

What to Do

So what do you do to combat your people pleasing focus?

Focus on whom you’re trying to reach rather than on whom you’re trying to keep.

And when you’re communicating a change to your congregation, focus on why you’re making the change (to reach people) and far more people will accept what you’re trying to do (changing the style of worship).

If you want more on this subject, I’ve written more on leading change here.

2. You define ‘contemporary’ relative to how you used to worship

Let me name the elephant in the room. Most of what passes for ‘contemporary’ worship isn’t that contemporary at all.

Sure, the church has changed. And there may have been some battles over the change.

But walk into many self-described ‘contemporary’ churches and it feels like 2004, or 1994, or even 1984. The church isn’t actually ‘contemporary’ (contemporary means ‘occurring in the present’).

Tony Morgan makes a great point in The New Traditional Church: If most churches truly wanted to be contemporary, Sunday would have a lot more hip-hop and R&B (have you listened to the Top 40 lately?).

But most church leaders don’t like that style of music or are afraid their church wouldn’t.

What to do

Be honest. Don’t call yourself contemporary if you’re some paler version of it. Self-awareness and honestly actually matter if you’re trying to reach unchurched people.

Sadly, well-meaning self-deception runs rampant in church leadership today.

Be truthful about what you’re doing. If you are, it might just make you frustrated enough to make you change again.

In the meantime, realize that despite all the change, you might still be miles away from being relevant to the people living around you.

3. You’ve become stuck in “No Man’s Land”

I learned about No Man’s Land in churches from James Emery White.

It’s a term that describes churches too contemporary to please the traditionalists and too traditional to reach people who connect with a contemporary approach.

I have no desire to ignite a furious debate about ‘blended worship’ (a combination of traditional and contemporary styles).

Can it work? I’m sure it can, done right.

But you don’t have to get too far into the conversation with most church leaders who are in a blended format to realize it’s not an overriding passion to reach the outsider that fuels the change, it’s fear that if they go too much further there will be an apocalypse.

What’s the bottom line? Most blended worship happens because leaders are afraid to go further, not because leaders think it’s the best option.

The attempt to make everyone happy usually makes no one happy.

In my view, the last 10 percent of change is the hardest. When we transitioned from traditional to blended to full-out ‘contemporary’ music a decade ago, the last 10 percent of the change was harder than the first 90 percent. I think that’s how leaders get stuck.

Again, I’m not saying blended services are a bad thing (we’ve chosen to not embrace that strategy at Connexus for very specific reasons). I’m just saying if you end up there, make sure that’s where you want to be because you believe it’s the most effective way to accomplish your mission.

What to do

Don’t get stuck somewhere you’re not called to be.

Finish the change or make sure where you’re at is honestly the very best way to fulfill your mission.

4. Style has become an end in itself, not a means to an end

Your style of music and service should serve the mission. It is not the mission.

Once again, this nails all of us: traditionalists, innovators and everyone in between.

Our goal is not to arrive at a particular worship style. It’s to accomplish the mission Christ has given us.

I love how our church does music.

But 40 years from now, I don’t want to be sitting around in a retirement home with my friends complaining that young people today don’t sing enough Hillsong Young and Free, play cover tunes at church or make pour-over coffee.

The church should always change, and it needs to change on your watch.

How do you address this? 

Be committed to constant change. Don’t rest.

Your style as church helps you achieve the mission. It is not the mission.

5. Older leaders make decisions that belong to younger leaders

Far too often in the church, I have seen older leaders make decisions that rightly belong to younger leaders.

There is a role for middle-aged leaders and older leaders. They bring wisdom to the table and a seasoned viewpoint almost impossible to find in someone who is starting out.

I’m not slamming others. I am almost the oldest person on our staff team.

Even though I’m fairly up to date on culture, music, and technology, I’m no longer the guy who should be calling the music, design or cultural shots at our church.

I’m not sure most leaders over 40 should be. Not if you want to impact the next generation.

Sitting around the table at our service programming meetings are leaders who are 10-30 years younger than I am (we almost always have a teenager in the mix).

I trust their judgment more than mine when it comes to how our services will connect with the people we’re trying to reach.

I have just seen too many leaders in their 40s, 50s and 60s make decisions that alienate younger generations and then sit around and ask where all the young people went.

Don’t be that leader.

What to do

Ensure you have younger leaders around your leadership table and empower them to make the decisions that drive your organization.

It’s really not more complicated than that.

Want More?

If you want more on how your church can have healthier conversations, I wrote about that in my new book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Can Help Your Church Grow.

The new Team Edition is now available featuring 8 videos that can help optimally frame the conversations for your team. And if you buy the Team Edition before May 31st, 2016, you’ll get access to a private Facebook Group for Team Edition leaders hosted by me.

That’s what I see. I’d love to know what you’re seeing and experiencing.

What challenges do you see around music in the church? Scroll down and leave a comment!

_______

I’m on a sabbatical in May, and (for the most part) running past articles that have slipped off the main stream but in my view can still help leaders. —Carey

26 Comments

  1. Jonathan Aigner, Ponder Anew on January 18, 2019 at 10:00 pm

    Almost every word of this is pure nonsense. How pathetic and sad.

  2. rpsabq on December 31, 2018 at 1:55 am

    The deep dark secret is we are trying to change “for” people and the people who we are trying to change for come and can tell we’re “trying too hard” and it’s a turn off and they don’t come back. That’s why all this lip service about “contemporary” vs. “traditional” is such a HUGE waste of time. We’re losing our identity and it’s killing churches by the thousands. I’ll share a story that describes this perfectly. When I was high school, I formed a youth ensemble that would go around and sing at community events. We were OK, but not great. We all loved to sing but we were young and not too many of us had yet developed a mature level of talent. Once time we were invited to a Gospel Choir competition. I, in my inexperience, agreed for the group to participate. Bad idea. We were this little white Baptist singing group and we were about to perform in the middle of these wonderful, large black gospel choirs. They sounded so good and were so loud and the audience loved them. During our warm up, I panicked. I started saying things like, “ok girls when we get to this one part I want you to belt out really loud and guys you all need to sing way, way louder.” Trouble was that’s not how we sang. It’s not how we practiced and trying to change the way we sang suddenly 5 minutes before stage time was simply not possible. One of the girls said, listen Rich, we’re going to be ok. We just need to go out there and do what we do best and they will love it because it’s what we have to give. We don’t have to sound like everybody else in order to be good, in fact if we try to do that it’s likely that we’re going to be bad.” Boy she was so right and at that young age I learned a very important lesson: Do what YOU do well and people will see that authenticity and that is what will draw people. People can tell when you’re not being authentic. And that’s how it is with newcomers walking into a service that we ourselves aren’t even comfortable with. We think that we have “change with the times” in order to reach outsiders or the young people and though change is most certainly important (and actually just happens naturally in a well run, energized ministry) changing in order to attract people is the wrong reason. People are attracted to authentic, well executed expression and if they don’t like your particular brand then they can go try another church – it’s why we have so many churches to choose from! If your ministry is dying and attendance is falling, it has NOTHING to do with some style you are singing in. It has to do with the quality of product you are presenting. Work on that and if a stylistic change should happen let it happen naturally because the truth is a quality worship ministry IS changing – for all the right reasons. Finally, I became confident in these truths when I thought way back when I first starting going to church. I was attracted to what THEY were doing and though it was unfamiliar to me, it was so GOOD that I came back for more and here I still remain. They were engaged in authentic worship in a way that came naturally to them, they weren’t trying to figure out what I needed or expected – what did I know? I needed to be lead and ushered into the fold, not to be appeased and kowtowed to. Peace.

  3. rpsabq on December 31, 2018 at 1:50 am

    The deep dark secret is we are trying to change “for” people and the people who we are trying to change for come and can tell we’re “trying too hard” and it’s a turn off and they don’t come back. That’s why all this lip service about “contemporary” vs. “traditional” is such a HUGE waste of time. We’re losing our identity and it’s killing churches by the thousands. I’ll share a story that describes this perfectly. When I was high school, I formed a youth ensemble that would go around and sing at community events. We were OK, but not great. We all loved to sing but we were young and not too many of us had yet developed a mature level of talent. Once time we were invited to a Gospel Choir competition. I, in my inexperience, agreed for the group to participate. Bad idea. We were this little white Baptist singing group and we were about to perform in the middle of these wonderful, large black gospel choirs. They sounded so good and were so loud and the audience loved them. During our warm up, I panicked. I started saying things like, “ok girls when we get to this one part I want you to belt out really loud and guys you all need to sing way, way louder.” Trouble was that’s not how we sang. It’s not how we practiced and trying to change the way we sang suddenly 5 minutes before stage time was simply not possible. One of the girls said, listen Rich, we’re going to be ok. We just need to go out there and do what we do best and they will love it because it’s what we have to give. We don’t have to sound like everybody else in order to be good, in fact if we try to do that it’s likely that we’re going to be bad.” Boy she was so right and at that young age I learned a very important lesson: Do what YOU do well and people will see that authenticity and that is what will draw people. People can tell when you’re not being authentic. And that’s how it is with newcomers walking into a service that we ourselves aren’t even comfortable with. We think that we have “change with the times” in order to reach outsiders or the young people and though change is most certainly important (and actually just happens naturally in a well run, energized ministry) changing in order to attract people is the wrong reason. People are attracted to authentic, well executed expression and if they don’t like your particular brand then they can go try another church – it’s why we have so many churches to choose from! If your ministry is dying and attendance is falling, it has NOTHING to do with some style you are singing in. It has to do with the quality of product you are presenting. Work on that and if a stylistic change should happen let it happen naturally because the truth is a quality worship ministry IS changing – for all the right reasons. Finally, I became confident in these truths when I thought way back when I first starting going to church. I was attracted to what THEY were doing and though it was unfamiliar to me, it was so GOOD that I came back for more and here I still remain. They were engaged in authentic worship in a way that came naturally to them, they weren’t trying to figure out what I needed or expected – what did I know? I needed to be lead and ushered into the fold, not to be appeased and kowtowed to. Ewe, i would’ve hated that! Peace.

  4. […] If your church is still feeling the tension over music, here’s a piece that might help. […]

  5. Mark Nemier on January 21, 2018 at 5:37 pm

    Great comments expressed in the comments. In a nutshell, it reminds me of the lyrics “I’m going back to the heart of worship, and its all about you, its all about you Jesus”. Ultimately, worship is just that, an honest heartfelt expression of awe, love and honor to the Kings of Kings. A love offering of the heart to God from his children. It can come in many forms, but always from the heart of believers to our God & King. Its not an evangelistic tool. And as a worship team member for 5 decades, songs that act as a simple, memorable medium to entering the throne room are the best. These are typically easily learned, easily sung (yes, range makes a difference), and typically not wordy (there are exceptions to everything). One devout friend told me once the best worship service he ever attended was acapella hymns sung by inmates at a correctional facility. Its a heart thing. Yes, decisions about style & instruments have to be made, but back to the point, its not about winning the lost. That’s for us believers, out in the world. Worship is to God, and must facilitate the worshipers that offers it. As for unbelievers attending our services, as scripture says “if you lift up Jesus, he will draw all men to him”.

  6. Mark Ralston on November 13, 2017 at 7:42 pm

    On point 1
    Seeker friendly worship. I am numbfounded Carey. If we keep on going in the next ten years we could maybe see churches that don’t have any believers in them at all. Singing and playing music about anything that they are desiring.

    Do you know what you call that, A NIGHT CLUB. Heaven forbid Carey.

  7. […] you want more on music, here are five ways to battle the never-ending worship […]

  8. Ralph on July 27, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    Great article! I suppose I might have missed something reading my bible, I just can’t seem where it commands/suggests the Church as a means to reach the unchurched. I thought people were supposed to go and witness and invite others to worship, knowing that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. I somehow got the idea that worship was intended for the saved to praise their creator, not give others the impression they’re trying to be like the world. When Christ in Revelation took issue with the churches of antiquity like Sardis, music didn’t seem to come up.

    • Glenn on June 18, 2018 at 8:47 am

      Only the saved can Worship God. Worship can ONLY be done in Spirit and in Truth, which can only be done by someone who has given their life to Christ. A worship service is for the believers, not the unbelievers. We are to Go into the world and preach the Gospel, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. No where does the Bible speak of the lost coming into church to worship or to give their lives to Christ. Music does not save. Music and the words should point us to Christ. Period. Anytime someone speaks of how the music drew them closer to God, or how the music made them feel, I think of cults and how they use music. It’s a very real danger where the focus is taken off of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and placed on the atmosphere that has been created through music. My way to evaluate the “atmosphere” of worship is to ask myself how much it resembles the world or other religious corporate worship programs. This is not an absolute rule for whether it’s acceptable or not. It’s my starting point.

  9. C on June 5, 2017 at 10:48 am

    This is all fine, but what can a church do to transition when there are not funds to support it? To do a ‘contemporary’ service well requires money to get the equipment and people to do it. How does one navigate this?

  10. Susan Coe on March 4, 2017 at 6:26 am

    I love all kinds of music. Occasionally I am asked to lead a service at church, which is an honour and a huge responsibility. So I will spend a lot of time thinking and praying about it before I start to make up the programme. Usually what I find is that my initial choices of music have changed completely by the time I have finished preparing, as the Holy Spirit leads. The words of the songs must relate to the content of the service overall, and the message the preacher is bringing that day. Ultimately the musical part of worship is about giving glory to God, not giving people a good sing-song. I am often surprised at the final choices of music myself. Incidentally we always include at least one kids’ song. The words are vital, because with a catchy tune they are often remembered better than the spoken word. A great way for kids to learn the Bible.

  11. Sherrill Coberley on February 10, 2017 at 3:38 pm

    So… I guess my question is, “Is the music about worship” or about a million opinions, with a wide range of ages, and personalities of that many people? It seems to me that the wrong approach to this continual struggle might be because it is so focused on absolutely everyone’s opinion. All genres aside, if the focus of the music is about people, (particularly unchurched who need reached,) then it easily could become about a mass manipulation, golden calf, whatever is popular, “experience.” An “experience” could be anything from a very wide range of people and expectations – and it seams might indeed seek to follow the latest “trends” irrelevant to the One who is to be worshiped. Of course we might be assuming here also that only the 20 somethings need reached, while we then neglect a huge population of “baby boomers” without Christ as well. Many of these, unfortunately have come through the “rebellious years of our very brief history” having added “religion” without “relationship”, which is a dead end! How can we get back to the need for all people needing the message of the Gospel that the church has been commissioned to give? Back to topic however, it would seen that if the music is about worship, shouldn’t it be -with a focus on the ONE being worshiped? The power of true worship (genres aside,) over “an Experience” could actually have an impact with the power of God behind it, directly felt, and observed. Now that would reach multitudes, wouldn’t it? It would seem to me that the power of the Spirit’s working, supersedes the most recent contemporary fling, rap, pop, a 90’s style, or a 50’s/60’s style of music – does it not? When the “Worthy Lamb” steps forward as described in the book of Revelation, ALL will worship Him, not their own desires and whims. Is it the power of obedience to the Spirit we might be missing, more than the “style” of music?

  12. Nathan Walter on June 14, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    The question we ought to ask ourselves is: what songs need to be sung that can lead people into a time of uninterrupted and unrestrained worship?

    Too many times, I have found myself trying to learn every song in a worship service because I didn’t know any of them. They weren’t bad songs. In fact, some of them I downloaded and listen to regularly now. But I can’t help but think back to when I didn’t know the song at all. Many of the folks in the congregation didn’t, either. It was awkward and extremely uncomfortable for everyone.

    One thing I have learned over the course of being a church leader is that when folks know the songs, the time of worship is much more pure. And in small town churches, I have found that the hymns (and some older CCM songs) are what they know. So we sing those.

    You can sing older music and do so without having to feel the need to please everyone. But if you’re going to call for people to stand and sing with you, make sure you offer them something that they can sing.

    • Nathan Walter on June 14, 2016 at 12:28 pm

      The other issue I have with this “worship wars” category, is that we say that we shouldn’t seek to “please people” with our worship style choice… but is that not exactly what we’re doing? We’re no longer pleasing “our people”, we’re trying to please “those people”… and there’s nothing inherently wrong about that, but let’s not pretend we aren’t trying to please someone.

      • Sherrill Coberley on February 10, 2017 at 3:41 pm

        Good point!

    • Sherrill Coberley on February 10, 2017 at 3:40 pm

      Totally agree Nathan!

  13. Nathan005 on May 28, 2016 at 9:20 pm

    I think part of the issue for church goers is what we have incorrectly labeled the music time. We teach Music = Worship. If the Music time is good than God was there.

    Then we ask them to change and they think they can’t “worship”. And the older generation doesn’t feel it so God must not be in it.

    Our society has a terrible theology of worship. I think a lot of this could be avoided if we would quit teaching (and singing) that worship is singing. Biblically the word most offen translated worship literally means “divine service”. I would love to see it taught that Worship = Obedience. (See Romans 12) and is more about how we live our lives than what happens in a service.

    Also FYI – music has been an issues thoughout church history, not just for our age. They fought to keep the organ out, because it should just be voices. Fought to keep strings out because it should just be the organ. Every musical transition the church has fought, and leaders have fought to overcome.

  14. […] 5 Ways To Battle The Never-Ending Worship Wars by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  15. Matthew David Brough on May 20, 2016 at 7:26 am

    Wanted to share that this week I had two very moving experiences of God in worship in completely polar opposite styles. Sunday morning, I was at Buckhead Church, a Northpoint Church, with which I know you’re familiar, Carey. I was cynically ready for a “good performance” of “contemporary” worship. I even took a picture of the program that had a warning about the haze, strobe lights and lasers. I laughed to myself about this. Shame on me! What I witnessed was heartfelt worship of God’s people, and probably a whole bunch of people who were in a church for the first time, got to see that too. The music was top quality – like going to an exceptional concert, except there really was something different about it. There were three singers. Each one took the lead on a different song – they were musically sensitive to one another, as if making room for each other to shine. But it was far more than that – I think they made room for something, or more accurately, someone else. The presence of the Holy Spirit was palpable. It was so abundantly evident that these musicians were offering their wonderful and well practiced gifts for God, and so that a community of people could draw close to God. I looked around at that community, and they were participating. They were singing. The band was loud, but in a few moments, when I stopped singing, I could hear the people as well. What an awesome expereince.

    The second experience was a day later at the Festival of Homiletics opening worship at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church (just down the road from Buckhead Church). 1500 mostly mainline pastors were gathered for a week of worship and learning about prophetic preaching, and this was kicking it off. Organ music, processional, choir in robes, candles, high crosses, the Bible being carried in. There was a lot of “tradition” and a lot of “pomp” and it was awesome. The sheer volume of the organ, choir and a 1500 voice congregation was incredible on some very classic hymns. The only thing that would have made this more “high church” would have been incense. The organist was unbelievably good – honestly I have never heard that instrument sound like that (they have a pretty amazing organ there). I thought to myself – this is like Buckhead Church. The musicians are offering their gifts and making space for the Holy Spirit.

    Some people would have gone to Buckhead and said “I don’t like this” and “they’re just up there performing”. Different people would probably say exactly the same thing at Peachtree. Not me, though. Both groups of people were worshipping in very different ways. One of the big things in both cases is that they knew what they were doing, they did it really well, and they didn’t hold back. I only hope that I can bring some of that level of passion and excellence to my own community and their particular style.

    • Mark Ralston on November 16, 2017 at 7:04 am

      Great comment.

  16. Randy Gehlert on May 18, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    Thank you for your ministry Carey. I mention the following as another perspective on music ministry.

    Rather than being traditional, blended, contemporary or modern our church’s model of music preference we call “Continuity”. We have some songs from every age that is represented in our congregation. The Church has been around for generations and we are not interested in discarding all of our past every couple of years and the Church will go on into the future so we don’t want to get stuck in any one particular year in the past either. We add about 5 new songs a year, keep up all the older favorites as we can and gradually let the less useful songs fall away with time. We are open to any style that is useful for fostering congregational singing / participation. The goal of our on stage music ministry is to foster strong singing in the congregation.

  17. Matt Brady on May 18, 2016 at 9:55 am

    “I have just seen too many leaders in their 40s, 50s and 60s make
    decisions that alienate younger generations and then sit around and ask
    where all the young people went.

    Don’t be that leader.”

    Such great wisdom in this one. Thank you Carey!

    • geraldine roble on May 21, 2018 at 12:54 pm

      I can turn that around in the same manner Matt, how about the younger generations that are the leaders alienate the older seasoned Christian generation. I love the contemporary services, yes the music sometimes loud however, our younger leaders are working on pleasing the crowd now with bringing in only worship music, keeping levels so low as too the whole approach to Praise and Worship has shifted to pleasing the crowd. How do we get out of this rut and get back to where we were praising God….in music, dance, flags, warfare etc…. I love the people however, I rather please God than people.

  18. Timothy Steele on May 18, 2016 at 6:46 am

    Carey – so true in what you’ve written. Thank you. To help me make an important transition in my own church, do you know where I can find statistics that show the next gen and unchurched prefer contemporary of today more than traditional/blended? Or some place I can begin looking?

  19. eruthtk on May 17, 2016 at 6:39 am

    I look forward to your insightful posts, Carey, and this is a rare one I do not agree with. There are so many music styles now that “top 40” lists have limited appeal. Why are Christmas carols universally popular? As Victor points out (great comment), they are familiar, singable, easy tunes with great lyrics. Contemporary Christian music is marketed drivel for the most part with a ridiculously high turnover rate. Standing at up for two “packages” of hard to sing “worship” has become a chore to the point where we come into the service just for the sermon now. I enjoy many types of music, new and old, spent years doing “music ministry” at church, and now find my best worship experiences outdoors like David must have. God’s presence is always with me;- I don’t need a band to bring me to emotional pitch before a sermon. I hope the worship band/contemporary praise scene rolls over and dies soon. I don’t believe music is what draws people to Jesus. And I don’t see younger generations getting into the way we do worship either. My own young adult children are bored with it. I see more people in younger generations being drawn to ancient forms of worship. Surely we can find ways to worship without generational barriers!

  20. Victor McQuade on May 16, 2016 at 5:44 pm

    Thank you for this. As a veteran (I mean old) musician who still likes to rock on Sunday morning, I have found that the worship wars often have less to do with style and more to do with singability. When you look at what particular songs people do and don’t like to sing they often identify as poorly written for singing in a group. In my experience, style seems to take a backseat to songs that can easily be sung as a congregation. The Getty/Townend duo have done some great work in this area. Keith Getty says that if a new song is well written for the congregation, we should be able to sing it by the second verse.

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