COLUMBIA — Wars between religions are not new, and most people are aware of fights within denominations. But congregational arguments are something different. Few people are aware of them or what they’re about.
Fights within a congregation aren’t always about doctrine or theology. Sometimes they’re about music or worship services.
“This topic is important for churches getting involved in unhealthy conversations about worship styles,” said Jeff Langford, associate coordinator for Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri.
A seminar sponsored by the fellowship will address the debate about worship styles in churches. It will be led by Kyle Matthews, a singer and songwriter from Nashville, Tenn. Matthews’ topic, titled “Ending the Worship Wars,” will focus on the fights that sometimes erupt in congregations when it comes to picking the style of worship used within a church.
After more than 20 years of performing in churches across the nation, Matthews said he realized the conflict over worship styles was so widespread that someone needed to address it. He decided to take the issue on himself, coming up with new ways for churches to look at the issue and tailoring his talks to the churches he addresses.
“A lot of ministers have told me that they needed to bring in someone from outside the church so that they would not be perceived as choosing sides,” he said.
The seminar isn’t just for churches going through their own worship war, but for churches that might eventually experience one, Langford said.
“Some of the people who will come won’t have gone through the type of conflict he’s talking about,” Langford said. “They’ll be prepared if a conflict does start to arise.”
“It’s not one that we (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri) have seen rear its ugly head a lot,” he said. “But just from experience, it’s going to happen at one time or another for a church.”
Matthews talked about four common options churches often find themselves choosing among. They are the traditional, which holds true to the styles that the church may have used for worship for many years; contemporary, which is a broad term for any newer style of worship; blended, which combines the two and tries to provide something for everyone; and segregated, which he said is a common solution in which a church splits into different services that provide traditional, contemporary or other worship styles.
More than half of the U.S. congregations that participated in a 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey said they favored traditional hymns and worship styles over other forms of worship. Praise music and choruses accounted for 33 percent of the vote, while 25 percent of respondents said they preferred contemporary hymns.
The same survey asked congregations to what extent different elements of worship are important to them.
“Congregational singing” was chosen 65 percent of the time, behind things such as “Prayer,” “Sermon or homily” and “Communion/Lord’s Supper.” “Other music,” the only other reference to music, was chosen 40 percent of the time.
Usually, churches that decide on segregating their services become almost two churches, sharing one building, budget and staff, Matthews said.
“It can split a congregation, which is very common,” he said. “Even if they’re using the same facility, they can become two or three different cultures. The segregated worship times may reduce conflict in the short run, but it avoids addressing the one corporate experience that makes a church a community: worshipping together.”
“Ultimately, it’s about worship that goes well beyond music,” Langford said. “I think what we’re going to end up at is not so much that there’s a right musical style, but what are we about here?”
“The style-based options are short-term solutions that are going to be a bigger problem five to 10 years down the road,” Matthews said.
Langford said fighting over worship styles is nothing new. He’s heard about times when churches split “over using hymnals or not, or churches even farther back that were splitting over whether there should be an organ or not.”
Matthews said this new fight over style is a product of American culture, one in which people can customize everything to individual tastes. Today, individuals within an age group have much wider varieties of musical and stylistic tastes. Generations are no longer so closely defined by a certain type of hairstyle, clothing and music, meaning that it is harder to cater worship services to a specific group than in the past.
Another reason this split in worship preferences has occurred is because of the shift in the way parishioners view religious leaders. Clergy used to be seen as the educated leaders, and church members would follow the chosen style of the church. Now parishioners are viewing their church as a business and themselves as the customers.
In this view of the church as a business, the parishioners see that the customer is always right, Matthews said.
“They feel the prerogative to demanding their own pet styles and preferences regarding worship,” Matthews said. “The hour of worship that is set aside needs to be set aside for worship.”
Picking one style of worship is usually not healthy for any church. Matthews described one church where the traditional form of worship was chosen, and in the end, the church members literally died out.
Solely picking the contemporary form of worship isn’t usually healthy either, Matthews said. He said churches that fall into this trap are right to expect quick numerical growth, but the lack of community within the church causes members to be on the lookout for other, newer churches that “get a better rock group.” These churches “tend to have a harder time of turning visitors into members,” Matthews said.
So what should a church do if it’s faced with a pending worship war?
Matthews suggests “absorbing all of the styles without catering to any. There is another way to plan worship to where no one style calls all the shots. (In the Bible) Isaiah’s experience in Isaiah 6 has for centuries served as a template for worship planning, and there is a way to allow the word or theme of the day to help determine what belongs in an hour of worship. The theme can even suggest the arrangements of the elements and the flow. I’m trying to teach an approach to worship planning that is message-driven, not style-driven.”
“The battle over styles is a silly war, because if anyone wins, everybody loses,” he said. “We’ve got to go to a different way of planning worship.”
Matthews offers free church-specific consultations for churches wishing to hear from him. He welcomes phone calls at 615-837-8624 or e-mails at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The seminar at Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missoui will be offered from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday at First Baptist Church, 1112 E. Broadway. The public is invited to attend. Individuals can attend for $50, two people from the same church can attend for $90 or three or more people from the same church can attend for $120.
Register for the seminar online at the CBF of Missouri Web site, cbfmo.org, or by calling 816-415-0009 or 800-873-2950. Matthews and the choir from Second Baptist Church will give a free concert at 7 p.m. Friday, also at First Baptist Church.
Those who cannot attend Matthews’ seminar can visit his Web site, kylematthews.com, to purchase a 35-page booklet that outlines the points he makes during the seminar. The booklet will also be available for purchase at the seminar.