House Of Worship

Defusing Worship Wars

Back to one style.

House of Worship (HOW) leaders are returning to one worship style. What do I mean by that? Glad you asked. Historically, a church conducted one service with one style of music. Over the past 20 years, HOWs have attempted to reach out to wider audiences by offering worship services tailored to specific audiences. They did this to address a problem that emerged in the early 1980s, when traditional congregants did not like the new music styles that were created in the late 1970s. Equally, contemporary congregants wanted new worship music and less traditional music. Sadly, this led to what has been called “worship wars.”

To defuse the worship wars, HOWs created multiple worship services designed to accommodate multiple congregants. For example, in the Christian faith, a large HOW would offer multiple services on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday night might be tailored to a younger demographic preferring loud contemporary music that incorporates a wide host of technologies such as sound systems that can deliver clear sound at high volumes, and lights (and moving lights) that create different moods and ambiences while situated in a dark worship space.

That same space may then be used at 8:00am on Sunday for a traditional form of worship tailored for elderly attendees who do not want a high-tech experience in a dark room. Instead, they prefer a bright environment with simple music sources, such as the piano or organ. Then, at 11:00am, the same worship space is tailored to reach out to congregants (often the majority) who prefer a blend of the hyper-contemporary Saturday-night service and the traditional 8:00am Sunday service. Then, there might be a service that starts at 1:00pm that is tailored to Hispanics or other ethnic groups.

On paper, this approach looks like a great way to attract a wide audience and address the worship wars. Indeed, this approach has been used successfully in many HOWs around the world. However, after nearly 20 years of implementation, there is another reality that has come to light: burnout. By burnout, I mean staff burnout. In addition, people are changing their views of worship. Thus, many HOWs are returning to one form of worship and, in some HOWs, to just one service.

Drawn from discussions with worship leaders, articles I’ve read and some research, here are what I think are the five primary reasons why the multiple services approach may be ailing and why a single worship style may be the better approach for a HOW to employ.

First: Some HOWs constructed multiple worship services at different times to address their worship war. Some voices claimed that this created the “us versus them” divisiveness that led to the term “worship wars.” Most religious sources, the Bible in particular, state that a house divided will not stand. Unfortunately, too many HOWs split apart and folded because of the worship wars.

Second: The current generation of millennials is much more flexible with worship styles than previous generations. In fact, they are questioning why there are so many divisions in a HOW instead of one group of people who worship together.

Third: Finding enough staff and musicians to conduct these multiple worship styles is a significant challenge for HOW leaders. Often, the result is that the musicians and music leaders specialize in one music style, but when they try to appeal to another group of people, the results have not been so good.

For example, if the traditional worship leader plays piano or organ and leads the service, the result may be acceptable for elderly or older attendees. However, this approach would probably not be appreciated by younger congregants. Conversely, if the worship leader for the millennial service leads the elderly service wearing torn blue jeans, a flannel shirt, messy hair and plays acoustic guitar while leading the service, the older congregants may not like it.

Fourth: A significant contribution of time and resources is required from the staff and volunteers to create multiple worship services. Over time, the strain becomes intense for everyone, including the pastors and leaders who have to lead these services. In many cases, this leads to burnout, which intensely impacts the worship experiences overall.

Fifth: The single worship style and fewer services often leads to worship spaces that are full and, most importantly, worship experiences that lead to a greater sense of community.

I believe that understanding this shift in worship dynamics is important as we consult with leaders who are still creating multiple worship services and for us to also be able to serve leaders who are transitioning back to single worship styles. That is what I believe. Please tell me what you believe.

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