5 Ways to Battle the Never-Ending Worship Wars

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.

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.

What to Do

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 eight videos that can help optimally frame the conversations for your team. And if you buy the Team Edition before May 31, 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?

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof is founding pastor of Connexus Church and the author of several books, including his latest best-selling work, 'Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow.' Carey speaks to church leaders around the world about leadership and personal growth.