Secret option C in the worship wars, or Worship as flawless performance or communal offering?

Oh my…

One church uses an organ and a choir. Another uses a rock band.

Some churches that had previously used only organ and choir start letting drums and guitars creep in. Perhaps it’s for a song here, a song there. Or we call it “blended,” where a choir leads songs written by Bach, followed by a praise band leading songs written by Chris Tomlin.

Other churches start saying they need to “expand their menu” and offer both. So they start a “contemporary” service.

Still other churches stake their claim with one form and demonize the other, either as “bar music” or “antiquated.”

But what if both options in the worship wars have led us in the same, wrong direction?

I’ve written before about why the worship wars have caused us to focus on style in worship rather than content. Here I’d like to show how they’re about more than just style.

Taken to an unhealthy extreme, the “contemporary” church can strive to put its nearest version of a concert band on stage. Likewise, the “traditional” church may look for the best, classically-trained vocalists and musicians. Both may even hire professional musicians simply for the sake of bolstering the quality of the music performance on Sunday mornings.

And so the question a lot of people are answering in their worship preferences is how they’d prefer to spend a good night out: at a U2 concert or the opera or philharmonic.

When this is our central focus in our worship “offerings,” we equate worship with a performance for people to come and consume. And as the worship wars have worn on, we’ve found “traditional” churches adding more anthems and “contemporary” churches trying to get their bands to sound more and more like the ones on the radio.

All of this conceives of worship in a totally different way than it has been conceived for the better parts of the church’s history.

What is worship? In the best parts of our history, I think we see worship as a gathering of the people of God, coming into the presence of God to offer our praise and thanksgiving, our confession and prayers. It’s a gathering of the people to hear from God and respond. For the Church’s first 1500 years, it was unquestionably a time of coming to the Table to encounter the crucified and resurrected Christ. And it was a time to be sent into the world, bearing the name of our Lord and living by his power and example.

What have the worship wars suggested that worship is? Often, these tell us that worship is a performance. Rather than the people coming to humbly offer themselves in worship, they come to hear a well-rehearsed choir sing to them. Or they hear a rock band sing songs they know from the radio. A friend observed that there’s a difference between worship songs and performance songs. And when our really good bands perform great songs like they’re done on the radio, it makes it pretty hard for a lot of people to sing.

Many will say that this exaggerates everything too much. And they’re probably right. The whole worship service comprises more than that anthem or that rock song. But these are what we’ve leaned harder and harder into the past couple of decades. The traditional churches amplified their “traditional” music by focusing on more choir performance pieces. The contemporary churches amplified their “contemporary” presentation by making it look more like a concert. Both types might do this by relying on professional singers and musicians. If those were the things these churches most amplified in the last few decades, it’s because they saw these — the performance aspects — as the most important piece of what they “offered” in worship.

And so, the problem at root: Churches began conceptualizing worship as what they — the religious service providers — offered the congregation — the religious service consumers. That’s a far cry from worship that we, the people of God, offer up to God.

For some similar thoughts on worship, see “Encounter or Entertainment?”

A tension we need to wrestle with in our worship planning: do we err on the side of flawless performance, offered to the congregation, or communal worship, offered to God?

A few years ago in my community, worship was a two-man show. As the pastor and preacher, I handled any speaking elements. Our worship pastor coordinated a band that handled the musical elements.

In the past several years, we’ve moved (repented?) from that form and become a dozens-of-men-women-and-children show. But it’s not a show; the point is that we’re all participating. There has been a small sacrifice in doing that. The more people you include — especially non-staff people who can’t dedicate the same amount of time to rehearsal/preparation, the more likely it is that something won’t go just right. The worship service may not be flawless. There may be an awkward transition here and there, something not said as well, or as powerfully, as we had hoped. (But then, I make no claims to having led worship anywhere close to flawlessly before.)

For the small sacrifice of including more people, though, I think our worship has become much more authentic. It has become much more fully an offering of what our community has to give of ourselves before God. It doesn’t attempt to limit it to only our most excellent performers. Furthermore, we’ve seen a lot of these new leaders lead various elements of our worship better – with more thought and focus – than was done before.

This doesn’t mean we don’t use some sort of discernment in asking people to lead. For the sake of the person and the community, we try not to put people in places where we haven’t seen that they’re gifted to lead. But as a Body of Christ, we believe everyone has been gifted for something, and we believe it’s neglect of the Body if we don’t make use of those gifts. We might be able to put on a better show if we simply identified the one or two most-skilled people to lead us in each aspect of our worship, but it would be a better show, not better worship.

If the worship wars asked us to focus on which performance style we prefer and formed in us a consciousness of worship as performance, perhaps secret option C is to quit asking questions about performance and start asking questions about what we, as a fully body, can do when we come to worship God. What if we focus more on offering ourselves – all of us – to God in worship and focus less on offering a flawless worship performance to the people?

Some other articles you should read:

Why we chose a church with bad music – (
Desperately seeking worship pastors – (Jonathan Powers on
What kind of worship service do you have?” (
Encounter or Entertainment? (

6 thoughts on “Secret option C in the worship wars, or Worship as flawless performance or communal offering?

  1. Teddy, thanks for your writing. I think you’re right on. I will be interested in reading a follow-up article on helping local churches to discern what worship is and should be. Also, I am always interested in hearing about how pastors are more fully engaging everyone in the Christian assembly in something active during worship. You seem to be alluding to that in your “Option C.”

    Something else I would be interested to get an opinion on is to do with music in particular. Music is the root of these ‘culture wars’ as we see them, and so often neither style is done well. Looking to the original kind of Christian music, is there anyone out there talking about the authenticity of chant? I have started doing just small call and response type things in worship, and I have found them being much more joyful and voluminous than in congregational song.

    It’s one thing if “Option C” means something different for every congregation. In that case each individual congregation has to do that longterm soul searching that usually doesn’t end up where we want to be anyway. But if “Option C” is a common ground between all those who call on Christ, then I’m very interested to hear your views with respect to music.

    1. Thanks Jeffrey. You raise an interesting question, re: a third, standard “music” option for everyone. My community has chanted psalms, and I think that can have a good place in our worship. But then, I think singing great Christian hymns and songs can have a good place, too. So I haven’t necessarily been thinking in terms of a third option – other than organ-/piano-led versus guitar-led. I’ve been thinking more in terms of not letting musical style define the whole worship service.

      Our worship pastor has done a great job of exposing us to various songs, styles, and liturgies from different places and times, and I think that has really enriched our understanding and experience of worship.

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