Confessions of a Worship Wars Mercenary

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It’s been brutal on the blog-o-battlefield. Since last week’s Holy Soup article “Why They Don’t Sing on Sunday Anymore,” I’ve been dodging incoming fire from hundreds of commenters and hundreds of thousands of site visitors and social media shares.

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I’ve seen that people have very strong feelings about this subject. Music is a highly subjective thing. Everybody has an opinion on how music should be managed in a church setting. After this week I have new appreciation for the difficult work of music leaders and the mine fields through which they must delicately walk.

Even though I’ve been in church all my life, grew up in a family of music professionals, taught drum lessons, and have a son and daughter-in-law in our church’s worship band, I’ve learned some new things this week. I appreciate the analysis of the technical side of music, the importance of the audio mix, and what methods have been tried–successfully and not.

“Everyone sings in my church.”

Some commenters report that everybody sings in their churches, and they see none of the problems I mentioned in the article. That’s good news.

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We all see life through our own lens, wherever we happen to be. This article reflects my view. But my lens is a national one. My work puts me in contact with thousands of churches from coast to coast. The views in last week’s article are not drawn from any particular church–and not from my own church, which works hard at being intentionally participative.

Rather, my reflections in the article represent a composite of thousands of churches in America that have indeed seen declines in participation–and not just with congregational singing.

“You have fueled the fires of new vs. old. God help you.”

I am sorry. I did not intend to ignite the old worship wars, pitting traditional music against contemporary music. It seems a number of commenters attempted to “read between the lines” and judge me as a mercenary against contemporary music. Not true at all. I love the contemporary genre. And the classic hymn genre. And bluegrass. And jazz. God can be worshipped with all kinds of genres.

Musical genre is not the issue. Congregational participation is the issue.

My comments about over-amplified sound speak to congregational participation, not mere decibel levels. And if we’re talking about participation, it’s important to consider what we–regular attendees and visitors–hear in the room. If we hear only the people on stage, then it sounds like a performance. If, however, we hear the clear sound of the congregation, the community of believers, praising the Lord together, then it sounds like participation.

The performance issue is one that is particularly troubling with Millennials. Their authenticity antennae are up. We recently talked with a college student who explained why he left the church he attended. Watch this brief clip.

During our research for our new film, “When God Left the Building,” we talked with a young Millennial man who joined the worship band at a large church. Over time he became uncomfortable with the performance-focused stage presentations. He walked away. Eventually he joined a church that intentionally strived to focus the congregation’s adulation squarely on Jesus. They placed the musicians behind a curtain.

Successful Christian band Gungor recently took a similar step with a participatory worship event called Liturgist. Band leader Michael Gungor said, “Liturgy is built on the work of the people, rather than on anybody in particular. We create an experience that has very little to do with Gungor. We hide individual personalities. We make it more of a collective experience.” So the band is artistically obscured behind a translucent curtain.

I recently experienced this fully enveloping time, joined in the robust congregational singing, took part in the Eucharist, and thoroughly worshipped the Lord.

“You don’t love the Lord.”

After reading and reflecting on hundreds of comments this week, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. The blog was about “why they don’t sing.” The singers made lots of speculations about the hearts of the non-singers. But the singers’ speculations bore no resemblance to the non-singers’ actual reasons for not singing.

The singers’ predominant speculation/judgment is that those who don’t sing are not spiritual enough. In essence, “If you loved God (as much as we do) you’d sing.”

In our book, “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore,” we document this tendency of those on the inside to presume to know the minds of those on the outside. This judgmental tendency is one of the major reasons why most people avoid church.

A reader sent me this message this week: “Shame on you for placing yourself at the centre of your worship. It’s not about you, pal.” Does this shaming approach work–with anyone? I don’t believe so. It only perpetuates the public’s view that churchgoers are judgmental and hypocritical. And, assigning all blame to the silent pew-sitters sends the message that leaders believe they have no room for improvement.

Fearless conversation

Finally, the unprecedented reaction to last week’s article shows me there’s a lot of pent-up, unresolved emotion on this issue of music and singing in church. And, as much as I appreciate the blog traffic and comments, we really need to be engaging in face-to-face civil conversations in our congregations about this stuff. Rather than speculating about one another, we need to sit down with one another, listen to one another, understand one another, and explore together what it means to worship.

We are the Body of Christ. We represent different parts of the Body, with different perspectives. But the Father desires to see his children work with each other, to accept each other, to love each other. And worship him together.

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About Author

Thom Schultz

Thom Schultz is an eclectic author and the founder of Group Publishing and Lifetree Café. Holy Soup offers innovative approaches to ministry, and challenges the status quo of today’s church.

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