In the Trenches of the Worship Wars


Michael Spencer delivers a crushing blow to the solar plexus of twenty-something worship leaders everywhere in a piece that had me alternating between howls of derisive laughter and outright head-nodding anger. Check out “That Flushing Sound: Evangelicals Worship Till There’s Nothing Left” if for no other reason than to bond with another “came to Jesus during the ’70s” blogger. Any guy who references Yohann Anderson’s quirky “Songs & Creations” songbook knows that of which he speaks.

A sampling:

This was in the early 1970s. There was something just beginning out there in evangelicalism. It was an awareness of the youth culture that had defined the sixties. For some time, our church fought that youth culture, with its long hair and rock music, but now, something had changed. There was the beginnings of seeing the wisdom of allowing that same youth culture to have an influence in the youth ministry of the church.

Now there were youth musicals that used contemporary music, played by bands with drums and guitars. It was OK to have long hair and dress like the rest of your school as long as you were still part of the youth group. You could be “cool” and be a “Jesus person.” On those Sunday nights, you could see the beginnings of that youth culture, that “Jesus Movement” as we called it, beginning to come into the church.

How did it get in the door? How did those drums and guitars get into the sanctuary? How did those songs that WE liked but our parents didn’t like get into the service? The leadership of the church said it was OK as long as it kept the young people interested in church.

Sound familiar? It should. It was the beginning of a way of thinking that has the adults in your church being told to do the hand motions to the latest Third Day songs.

Owie. Michael, I’ll be looking for you in the pew again on Sunday. From what I can tell, you’re out doing field research and must’ve dropped in unexpectedly last weekend.

I play a drum kit (not a staple of the Robert Shaw Chorale last time I checked) in the worship band at my church and I can vouch for everything that Michael says. I may very well be part of the problem.

Toward the end, he tosses out this grenade:

The results at the majority of smaller churches are chilling when compared to the competent, decently organized worship of a few decades ago. Unprofessional behavior. Ridiculous casual approaches to God. A performance mentality that puts some of the worst people in the church up front solely because they have the ego to want to sing. Stupid yammering between songs. Endless repetition. Too much music. Music that is too loud. Music simply being TOO IMPORTANT. Taking up too much time and too much energy. Too much depending on musicians. The endless addition of new songs off the radio and from CDs hardly anyone has heard and many will never be able to use in worship. Technical glitches galore. (What I have sat through with the projection of words on a screen has long passed comic. It’s torturous. It’s insane. And yet we put up with it.) What has happened to the worship of the average small church in the last 5-10 years is nothing less than a plague and I know I can’t be the only one who feels it.

I feel your pain, Michael. I’m the drummer and I’m telling people we need to rein it in a little, but the response is basically the same as MC5’s oft-quoted (and unrepeatable) admonition that includes mothers, jams, and kicking. This is Spinal TapNor do I ever advise anyone to base their worship “stylings” off anything that would appeal to Eddie Vedder or Lars Ulrich.

Yeah, I’ve been there—and in many ways am still there. I was once a part of a Vineyard church that had glorious worship times that mixed Christ-centered modern worship music with the great hymns of the Faith. When a new worship leader took over, it was off to the races on arrangements. It was all too fast, too loud, and too in your face. I was 38 years old and thinking, These kids today and their rock worship music…

In other words, I feel like I could have written the InternetMonk’s cautionary tale myself.

I do have a little addition to his insights, though. He goes on to say the following:

Can someone do something?

Yes, church leaders need to do something. They need to understand what is happening, and they need to stop it from happening. Allowing the cause of “keeping the young people/young families interested” to run a church is a dereliction of leadership. Someone get a grip.

Pastors and elders: Get some spine! Have a session or a meeting and speak clearly to this. Don’t hand your worship leadership over to anyone who isn’t willing to accept a vision that includes everyone and to work closely with you to have a competent, intergenerational, Christ-centered worship service within boundaries that you choose. If it looks like a bad excuse for a concert, and if the older members can’t join in, there’s something wrong. Stop it now.

Here’s where I pull out the old “you can’t go home again” problem with this advice.

Part of Michael’s contention is that once you had real worship leaders schooled in actually reading music and directing choirs. I knew people who had degrees in such a thing as Church Music. A quick look around, though, shows those people to have vanished into the ether. Where did they go? Answer: Church’s killed their careers, but not necessarily in the way the Monk contends. Guitar slinging teens raised on Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill didn’t put the choir director out of business, the paradigm shift in paying church staff did.

I got my degree in Christian Education right at the time that churches decided to stop paying folks like Christian Education Directors and Music Directors. That fifty-year old guy who could read an E. Power Biggs organ chart and knew the difference between a soprano (not Tony) and an alto (not a saxophone) was told he could keep his job so long as he didn’t expect to get paid for it anymore. The new spirit was that of volunteerism. (In my case, my alma mater read the handwriting on the wall and rechristened my old department “Spiritual Formation.” As far as I can recall, Director of Spiritual Formation was what those bearded Haight-Ashbury types who lived in Big Sur and spent most of their day in a hot tub called themselves. And we all know how they got paid.)

Anyway…this is about music and how it went from paid professionals to guys ten rungs below youth pastor—and salaryless, too.

Let’s face facts. The great composer of high church music, Johann Sebastian Bach, was able to add “To the Glory of God” to the end of every one of his great compositions because someone was paying him to write them. He didn’t have to take another job to feed his twenty children. But as today’s churches decided that it wasn’t worth paying a professional, educated music director, so went the quality of music. They wanted free and they got exactly what free pays for.

Today a few megachurches do pay young guys fresh out of college (or not) who grew up listening to their dads’ Ramones records. But the Church on the Corner doesn’t and therein lies the problem. Guitars didn’t kill old fashioned worship music, cheapness did. I would venture to guess that the majority of small churches don’t even pay for the rights to sing the Top 40 worship songs they dredge up off the radio, much less consider paying for the quality and professionalism a real music director can bring.

And one last thing…

Rock music put guitars, bass, and drums into the churches, but as the limited pool of musically-inclined people began to flock to those instruments, there was left a dearth of professionally-trained pianists, organists, vocalists, and orchestral performers—the very folks we formerly saw every Sunday morning. Today, most non-megachurches have maybe one or at most two folks who are trained on a classical instrument—and that number’s not getting larger. I hate to think it’s Pandora’s box once more, but it certainly seems that they may never pass this way again as long as garage bands playing rock on Saturdays are on stage in our churches on Sunday.

Now there’s a real downgrade issue for you.

25 thoughts on “In the Trenches of the Worship Wars

  1. Michael Spencer

    Thanks Dan. I am honored. Especially that you GET IT!!

    I want people to know that I am not talking about style. I am talking about what the Church of the Corner can now do well. One commenter said that I was on the money with this simple statement: Music has gotten too important.

    Blessing on you for the link.

  2. BJ,

    I truly do feel for you.

    Lord, I pray for BJ that you would bless his work situation and that some church somewhere would need the gifts you gave him and nurtured in him. Remember your servant in his time of need and bless him and his family beyond their most fervant hopes.

    Keep in touch, please. You can drop me a line at the e-mail address on the blog.

  3. Ted Gossard

    We too recently left a Vineyard church which actually excells in good (and not juvenile) worship via guitar, standing, etc.

    We went (and are going) to a church of a denomination that I thought would surely incorporate something of the traditional along with contemporary.

    But our first Sunday there: several guitars, drums, keyboard, singers- we stand (even at 49, I’m used to that)- few or no hymns, no traditional sound.

    Result: the church seems to be having a meltdown of losing the important older generation (hardly at all present in our former church- at least not “senior citizens”). Very few of them are left. This church is not large (a church on the corner).

    Why can’t there be a blended worship time? I don’t understand that. Could incorporate different segments at different intervals in a service.

    I agree that music can be overemphasized. No easy answers in all of this.

    Thanks Dan for this post- and thanks to Michael too.

    • Chey

      what I don’t understand is how hard is it to sing some choruses written by someone who loves God and is only expressing that love?
      Why are the older people so stuck on the hymns in their religiousity (cause that’s what it is…it is a religious spirit that says that hymns are how we sing to God..and also realize hymns sing more about God than to intimate is that? it isn’t!)
      I know that these older people also aren’t raising or lifting their “holy hands” to the Lord as scripture says we should.
      Worship is about our creator not about the people so why should we cater to any gender, age group or race? we shouldn’t.
      we aren’t in worship to attract visitors, guests or even sinners..
      we are there to pay attention to God, to have intimacy with our creator…
      And while I feel that the mood and music or whatever other worship genre is used should also be a heart “song” for those worshipping the Lord the choruses sung usually or normally are ones that are touching and should reflect all of our hearts towards God.. it’s all praise, it’s all worship…it all should be intimate.
      and also we must understand that the act of worship doesn’t just include the music section but the response to His word, our giving, our acts of fellowship, our church work, our time, our marriages, our family lives etc etc etc..
      all of this is part of how we worship God.
      BTW this is to address the issue of paid worship leaders being those who are degreed.
      To say that this is a gift God gave you cannot always be true.
      I can pay for a degree in music without having an ounce of musical giftings or talent in me.
      Where worship leading comes from isn’t in the ability but in the desire to worship God, having an ear to carry a tune and a pleasant voice (not for God but that part is so people won’t be distracted and leave the building) and the also have the ability to get involved in worship themselves as an example to those around them just like David and Solomon who stood on platforms to show the people how to worship God.
      Instead of musicians leading worship we need to have worshippers who just happen to be musicians whether it’s playing or singing.
      And don’t drag people to the altar by yelliing “come on people, worship God” show us by example HOW to to God, touch HIS heart, love on Him and they will follow.
      Some of us with that heart of worship don’t have degrees, don’t have the ability to read music but we have hearts of worship and voices that might touch others and lead them into that place at God’s feet… should we miss out on being able to lead worship with our own giftings that God has given us just because we don’t have a professional degree?

      In Christ

  4. Michael,

    Now that I posted all that, I can see the other side, too.

    Megachurches have sucked a lot of the most gifted people out of smaller churches. Some of those churches have a hard time even finding a half dozen musically talented people to do any of the music at all.

    I attend a little Pentecostal church that was once much larger. Tragedy struck that church repeatedly and some of the heart-breaking things that happened there were simply too much for some people, so they left. Today in that church of about 250, there are about nine committed people who comprise the music leadership. Few have any professional training. The current worship leader stepped into that role despite having had no professional training because someone had to. Obviously, that’s not the optimal way of doing things, but what are you going to do?

    I would have to say that in our church that music is NOT important enough—a fact I wish we could correct. I think that a lot of churches like ours are struggling to put even a half dozen people up there to play music. A few weeks ago, there were just three instrumentalists—that’s bare minimum. And we’re still desperately trying to locate someone who can play piano/keyboards. People have told me that worship is better since I came on board, but that’s not enough for me. How we get to that place where we are more serious about the music in the church is beyond me at this point. Without the ability to fill holes when people are forced to miss a Sunday, it’s hard to get and keep momentum in the players. A lot of that is due to people who have jobs that put them on call, so we can never plan on them being there.

    People do examine the music at a church with a microscope. I can’t tell if that’s good or bad anymore. All I know is that it becomes a Catch-22: if our music were better, perhaps we’d attract more people who could help make our music better. Can’t resolve that one except by prayer!

    • Chey

      the church I am now attending only uses instruments like guitars etc in the youth band worship.
      In the main sanctuary there is an organ, keyboards and drums..
      thats it.
      the drummer is set in a pit off to the side and the organ is against the wall. the keyboardist “aka” worship pastor sits to the side of the choir loft and leads worship there and the choir leads worship from center stage..
      They used to have a couple doing the actual lead singing…the woman was backup in the choir and the man stood out front..
      and we sing a few choruses and adlibs and that was it.
      the couple left and now it’s the music minister singing and I might add doing a good job of worship leading, right from his keyboard.
      the choir lifts their hands and gets it going and he has a heart of worship enough to carry it all for us.
      I think it’s fine the way it is..hardly any musicians, and a true heart of worship.
      imo, I think a guitarist center stage with a mic would be enough if his heart showed through as well as a gift of singing and writing.

      God bless

  5. Ronni

    Well yet again you slammed me into my seat (can you visualize that?). As a member of the partner and planted church of your old one… OUCH!

    I WAS a music major. I wanted more than anything to be a music pastor. My whole life that is all I ever wanted. Then, this movement happened in front of me and I saw my former-band-director-turned-worship-pastor replaced at my old church with a young group of musicians and I left. All I want to do is continue to write my music, and sing. I at one time wanted to lead a congregation into music but the music I write is too old fashioned. So old fashioned it seems at times to be ahead of itself.

    Our “exalt” pastor is leaving this week and I welcome the change. I will miss him. He is an incredible guy, but I also relish the fact that a soon to be 42 year old is taking his place, actually going back where he came from and I can’t wait to see what God is doing.

    My heart still yearns to sing. I guess I’m just too old anymore. Of course at moments I see God putting a more experienced person up there I wonder if maybe I’m not too old just yet.

    I never did finish my degree in music. But I bet I’m one of the few that can spit off the relative minor of any major key in my congregation. Sad. Over 20 years of music training lost.

  6. Dan: “Guitars didn’t kill old fashioned worship music, cheapness did.”

    Or, in other words, as the a whimsical Jamaican might put it, “You pay dibby-dibby, you get dibby-dibby.

    This was a very good article, Dan, and music in church has been something of a sore spot with me. But there is just one thing: With all the articles xtian bloggers write explaining just how awful church is, how truely bad everything is, well, it starts to make me wonder “what rational human being would ever want to be part of the church?”

    By the way, one of my brothers, who happens to be a Lutheran, does get payed for his musical work in various Lutheran churches, here in Land-In-Between. But it is definitely not enough to make a living on. So he holds a full time job doing web work.

  7. I don’t think I’m quite the character stereotyped in the article, but I am in my twenties, I do play the guitar, and I do lead worship with predominantly (although certainly not exclusvely) contemporary worship music.

    It gives me pause to think that people whose opinions I regularly read and respect might find me (at least demographically) difficult if we ever churched together.

  8. Chris,

    No one is going to “find you difficult if we ever churched together.”

    I don’t only play drums—I play guitar, too. I’m one of those raised on Larry Norman kids who sang the Ray Repp, Norman, and all those other post-hippie Jesus songs in his youth group as a kid. I helped introduce that in my old Lutheran church, one of those churches on the corner that eventually saw the need to go to a Vineyard-style worship in order to keep the latest generation in the pews

    And later on in other places I became one of those twenty-something guitar-slingers who led worship. That makes us more alike than different.

    But I also see how shallow a lot of modern worship has become. And I also see how it shoehorned itself into the church and forced out all the older style of worship. I was one of the few to think it was not necesarily a good thing that that happen.

    It’s the state of the Church in America, though: despise the old ways and swing to the new. It’s that pendulum effect I’ve talked about so many times on Cerulean Sanctum, where we see something new and run all the way to the other side of the spectrum in order to be faddish. Meanwhile, we lose something in the process. This post is all about what has been lost.

    I’m not despising the guy fresh out of college who leads worship today. I’m just wondering if our decision to kick out the well-paid, trained music director in favor of that young guy was the best thing to do.

  9. Oengus,

    I don’t want to carp for carping sake; I want to see us do better!

    Can we do better? I think so. But it will take a lot of countercultural change. Being carried along in the current of culture is never good, but it is good if we get carried along in the Spirit of God.

    What is the Spirit of God doing and saying? That’s what I hope to bring out here, even if it isn’t always popular.

  10. I thought that was the case, but there’s such a strength of feeling in your opening sentence… I was quite surprised to see you put it that way. It made me reflect on the less obvious consequences of what I contribute.

  11. Susan

    At my church we are doing several things intentionally which I suppose are countercultural such as
    1) We do not use powerpoint slides for song lyrics, in fact we do not use a projection system at all for anything.
    2) I emphasize singing that comes from the people, not from the front of the church.
    3) We sing all kinds of songs. I have no idea what that “top 40” is and have no intention of starting to care.

    As a worship pastor at a new church plant, I am told by some that these moves are “unwise.” “You wont grow” they warn. I am grateful to be working with leadership who is willing to take a different path. I pray every day that God will send us people who want to sing to Him more than they want to be entertained or dazzled by an “event.”

  12. Anonymous


    Perhaps a part of the problem is that the music is called “worship”, the rest is called — what??? In the Jewish and in the catholic (note lower case) traditions, worship is everything (even the announcements) and, in catholicism, centered around Communion and ultimately God. Worship is not done to make us feel good, and how worship affected us is not a topic of conversation.

    (Of course, if this settled the matter, I’d still be a good Episcopalian!)

  13. Fifteen years ago I started serving as a bass player in the worship ministry of a small corner church that is now a mega church. Whether you’re a high or low quality player, whether the music is tight and well honed, or loose and unprofessional, it is the heart that matters. Not only of the musicians, but of the congregation as well.
    What I’ve learned is to WORSHIP God no matter if the music is horrible, great, over produced, traditional, or no music at all. What I refrain from is trying to judge the heart of those supplying the music. I’ll leave that to God.

  14. Ted Gossard

    I communicated the concern (stated above) to our pastor. Here was his reply (I don’t think he’ll mind me sharing this; I find it interesting):

    “We have tried blended for a number of years, but that has seemed to satisfy no one. The only answer is a divided congregation with two different services. The problem is that a small church does not have enough people to do this.

    What I see in two thousand years of church history is constant
    generational shifts and cultural divides. I don’t think what is being experienced now is particularly unique, though frustrating for those dealing with it.

    What I find in both contemporary and hymn music proponents is a limited Western viewpoint. This puts God in a very small box. I knew a music professor a few years ago that traveled the world studying Christian music. As you might expect, the music was quite varied.

    Given the fact that most people are not very cosmopolitan and believe their musical expression has God’s stamp on it, the church will struggle with this issue until eternity. Sometimes I think silence would be golden!”

  15. Dan,
    In the comments on Michale Spencer’s original post there is a mention of the Vineyard. MS admits that the Vineyard is different. Well, how so? It is that there are actually three types of music in the church. Old, new and shallow, new and deep. I attended the Vineyard for 20 years and the Worship is what made the meeting. The worship time was about worship. That is the key. The style of music is irrelevant. It is the unity of the body in their worship experience that attracts people to the service. You can’t fake that. You can’t worship your way into it. It just is a by-product of the church. Indeed, some churches may be unified around an entertaining feel good shallow experience with people that look like them and drive the same cars they do etc. BUT it is this pleasure to be there that grows churches both good an bad churches.

  16. Brad,

    When we settle on a hodgepodge of musical styles it is not the UNITY of the body that is being displayed, but the DISUNITY. Jarring changes does not a good worship service make.

    Worship should focus on God and not on us. But when it’s entertainment or its obsessed with its own hipness, the transcendent aspect of worship is mitigated.

    The Vineyard I attended started off with fantastic worship that was God-centered, but degraded into worship that was music-centered. I found I was having a hard time worshiping because the music was always saying, Don’t look anywhere else but at me! That’s the flesh talking right there. The focus on arrangements trumped the focus on God. I felt like I was worshiping the music and not God.

    But I never changed! So it has to be a problem outside of me (and the others who are likewise scratching their heads.)

  17. Boltono

    When, 20 or so years ago, I saw the beginnings of this “flavor of the month” fashion worship thing starting (at least where I was then, in UK) I felt sick inside….kind of revolted at it. And when there was bad, really bad, dancing on a stage, and it was called “worship” I more or less threw up….It was religious and not real, not sane, and not edifying or even meaningful. It was yet another way of the “church” presenting itself as a joke to all but the solidly religious mindsets…the rew warmers who watched instead of participating. West Indian churches brought some relief in that they played trumpets and many got up to bop about and showed some sort of liberty…but even that was formalised, expected each time. It became, as all the so-called “worship leaders” today also make it, a ritual.
    When oh when are God’s people going to wake up to see that if one can’t worship spontaneously, creatively and in new ways with other supposed followers of Christ Jesus (and it doesn’t mean rituals) that it’s often just a fiasco?
    Radical change needed. Anything formalized has lost it. Like the churches themselves.
    New thing coming.

  18. Dan,
    We need to have precision on this issue…many churches grow (not always a goo thing) and people think it is music style and it isn’t. It is unity of vision (again even bad vision sometimes)
    You make my point.

    The worship focus changed so it got bad. That is it to a great deal. But MS first post was again aying it has something to do with style. He too like so many folks longs for the old professional musician and the hymn book. Have at it. That is not the issue.The issue is old Vineyard people could see the difference and got dis-satisfied.

  19. James Burns

    As a worship leader I can speak to this issue. When I lead worship I play my acoustic or electric guitar, granted I come from a hard rock background but I have over the years forced myself to be more diverse in the styles of music I play.

    I have had the opportunity to participate in both kinds of worship services, ones where the focus was on God, and ones filled with over egoed musicians who cared more about themselves being noticed than God. I will stand with a post I made on my blog called “The Invisable Worship Leader”. You can find that at

    The basic idea is that anything, the lead worshiper, drama, powerpoint, music anything that distracts from the worship of God by definition becomes Idolitry. When we as worshipers or as a church put anything above God that thing becomes an idol.

    I don’t believe that the style of worship is the key issue, the issue is what are we as worshipers and we as the body of Christ more interested in? Are we motivated to come and worship God because we love Him, or because we are going to here good music or see great drama?

    I think we should call Sunday morning a worship celebration, not a worship service. In todays culture we seek to be served, we expect good service at a resturant, we expect good customer service from companies etc. The whole thing is based on ME MYSELF AND I.

    Worship is our service to God, I believe much of the worship wars would subside if we would approach it in that manner and not saying what am I going to get out of this.

    • Chey

      There is nothing wrong with being seen worshipping God as long as you aren’t trying to gain notice of yourself.
      David and SOlomon both stood on platforms as I said earlier so that people could SEE them worship God and know how to do it.
      That is what a worship leader is..
      they worship God and people see, hear and follow along.
      If you are a true worship leader and not just a musician, you should be filled with praise and adoration of the Lord, be able to sing to the Lord and show your heart of worship to Him and this will draw people into worshipping Him when they are inspired by someone else’s heart.
      to say a worship leader should be invisible is kind of an oxymoron, how can you lead when you can’t be seen?
      I do agree services should be God led and not program led.
      And I don’t think we should be seeker churches either.
      People will come worship with you when they truly find God and then see your heart of worship.
      In the new testament the church grew in numbers because of those being saved by the disciples going out and preaching the gospel to the lost it had nothing to do with the worship inside the buildings.
      church growth should mostly be about growing the fruit inside a person’s heart as well..
      but that’s another issue..

      in christ

  20. Anonymous

    Could it be that along with refusing to pay the musical experts, the churches refused to continue treating them like experts? Maybe in a burst of liturgical democracy and innovation, the churches decided that one person’s music was as good as another’s. Perhaps churches that would not say “do your own thing” about doctrine have definitely said that about music.

    I had the good fortune to visit a tiny (Eastern) Orthodox church recently. The unaccompanied (and I’m sure unpaid) choir sang continuously the entire hour and a half of the services, in English. There were about six people in the choir and perhaps ten additional congregants. It was the most beautiful music I have heard, and it made me feel more in tune with God than at any other service I’ve attended. The liturgy that was sung was written many hundreds of years ago, almost every bit of it taken from scripture.

    It is still not clear to me where my church home should be. If I were going to select based only on which services made me feel the most humble and worshipful, it would be the Orthodox.

    I guess my point is to wonder whether the real problem isn’t that the churches Dan is writing about are too cheap. Perhaps they are too innovative.


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