Conflict over church finances was the cited reason for divisions in Two Rivers Baptist Church of Nashville, Tennessee that led to a group of plaintiffs filing a lawsuit against the church, and the eventual retirement announcement of longtime pastor Jerry Sutton. According to the article linked above from the Nashville daily newspaper, The Tennessean, controversy circled around a contemporary worship service launched by Sutton and church leaders to help bring in younger people.
Worship wars again?
The article describes a crew making stage changes between the two worship services, hoisting special lighting, backdrops, and a boat as a prop for the sermon. The pastor who was preaching that morning wore a suit for the traditional early service, but preached in much more casual attire, jeans and sneakers, for the contemporary service. Why is this a problem? Expecially when, as the article notes, the contemporary service was successful in what the church intended for it to do.
Frankly, I think the worship music we have available today, most often classified as “contemporary,” is an improvement on the hymns and music we have used in the past. Rather than just singing about God, or putting theological principles into easily remembered tunes, today’s contemporary worship music is vertical, written in many cases directly from scripture that leads the worshipper to praise the Lord in song. The words are written to come from the worshipper and praise the Lord directly. The earlier forms of this music, which traditionalists criticized as 7-11 music (seven words sung eleven times) have given way to lyrics that are rich in praise, scripture text and focus on God’s attributes. Those songs, along with my own active involvement through lifting my hands as an act of praise and submission to God, lead me to a place in my worship that I never really reached in a traditional service, hymnbook in hand, singing the same songs over and over again.
I think the conflict comes when the “we have to’s” enter the realm of worship. We have to have a praise band. We have to have theatrical effects. We have to have the right lights, the right props, to create a particular “look and feel” for people to enjoy their worship experience, for it to “attract” the younger people we want to see. But by having $100,000 sound systems, and expensive props and backdrops, expensive stage settings, and everything that goes along with that, are we really enhancing true worship, or are we merely creating a theatrical effect that is of human origin?
God is truly worshipped in spirit and truth, according to the scripture. It is only when the Holy Spirit, invited by our sincere praise, comes into our midst that we experience true worship. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need expensive props, or elaborate backdrops, or the right lighting for effect, or a praise band to feel invited. I’ve seen services where a college student with a guitar and a willing spirit led a worship experience into which the Spirit was free to move about and change lives. No props, no expensive sound system, no celebrity singer, no lights or backdrop, just a bare stage and hearts seeking after God.
Maybe that’s what ignites the conflict. I’ve seen several situations where contemporary oriented congregations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on things that create an “effect” from a human perspective, to “attract” younger people. It is the idea that worship is entertainment. People are attracted to that, for sure. But is God? Are we doing anyone any kind of favor by turning worship into entertainment when we should be educating them about what true worship really is? And is it good stewarship of our money to spend it on props and effects that cost a lot of money and may only find one use in a year? Praise bands in big cities like Nashville, and Houston, are in the habit of getting churches to bid against each other for their services, and it is hard to find those who are sincere and do what they do as a ministry calling. I’ve heard some talk about setting up worship services as “gigs”.
It looks like we have a long way to go before we get this resolved, if we ever do.