Survivor of the Worship Wars

2 Jan

When I saw a post from a “Survivor of the Worship Wars,” I had ask myself–did I miss a war? Was there a terrible battle that left thousands of faithful dead? Better question–what the heck are they talking about?!

The “Worship Wars” are the fights between people who lead services and the congregations who participate. Generally, people don’t like new things in their service, and don’t want to try new things, and the guy or gal who’s responsible for leading the service gets bored with the same old songs and tunes. In the end, some will like them and some won’t, and in the 60’s, this led to the break-off of the “contemporary service” from the “traditional service.” Some churches do both, some only choose one.

In a way, the wars are over–as I said, you either choose one or the other style, or you allow a separate space to do both. However, the tension that led to that still exists today. For example, our previous synagogue used to do a Sephardic Orthodox service, but used Shlomo Carlbach tunes. That may sound like gibberish to you, but back in the 60’s, a young Chabad (ultra-orthodox missionary Jews) rabbi named Carlbach decided to abandon his tradition in order to meet young hippie Jews where they were. As a result, he started his own synagogue, went on tours all over the world, and generally brought love and joy to his services. (That’s one interpretation.)

We chose that shul because we loved the music, we loved the traditional service, but we hated the politics and expectations that usually come with the traditional service. Your worship style often defines your worship location.

When I was growing up, I was in choir, and we used to groan when our director would bring out some piece of experimental whatsis. But we would go through it anyway. Sometimes it actually worked–most of the time, it landed with a dead thud. And any time you tried out a new hymn… or God forbid, a different tune to existing hymn, people would very grumbly.

So how do you avoid the worship wars? Well, our author points out the very important lesson that all service leaders need to learn: go slow. Just starting out and having to adjust to your personality is often as much as the congregation can take at first. Our rabbi used to teach us one new tune to an established song, and then she would repeat it the next week, and the week after, until we got it. Sometimes it would stick around, sometimes we’d return to the old “funeral dirge” style we were doing (Jewish music has a lot of minor keys), but it was always baby steps.

Change is good and acceptable and inevitable, but people come to your service because they like the style as it is now. That might not be enough people to sustain a congregation, so understand that change is also painful, and you may lose folks while you’re trying to draw in more. I guess it depends on what your end goal is–are you just trying something new because you’re bored? Or are you trying to move the congregation in a certain direction? Either way, change takes time, and the faster you move it, the more resistance you’ll get.

Are you one of those who likes that “old time religion?” Do you like it, but only go on major holidays? Do you think “contemporary worship” is too pop-heavy and terrible music? Do you have any idea what I’m talking about? Let me know in the comments below!

3 Responses to “Survivor of the Worship Wars”

  1. Silk Cords January 3, 2021 at 4:52 am #

    I’m not much of a Church goer anymore if you recall my comment to a previous post.

    I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum though. The one that truly didn’t resonate for me was the traditional Catholic service from my Grandfather’s funeral. Everything felt very mechanical and devoid of any emotion or spirit…

    • albigensia January 3, 2021 at 6:41 am #

      When the priest has to stop to look up the departed person’s name, that’s about as mechanical as I’ve seen. 😉

      • Silk Cords January 3, 2021 at 6:51 am #

        No offense to any Catholic readers, but the whole thing was mechanical. Priest reads verse, says some canned phrase, congregation replies with canned response… rinse wash repeat.

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