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.


About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

11 responses

  1. Sam Swart says:

    I would suggest the conflict comes when we promote one style of worship as more authentic or an ‘improvement’ over another form. Defenses quickly go up and the ability to resolve anything is in doubt. When a church decides to do multiple styles, there is inevitable conflict as one style is usually explicitly or implied to be the primary or preferred format. Resources and energy are lavished on that service and the other gets the message they’re yesterday’s model (or on the reverse – a shallow fad).

    High church and low church worship styles coexisted for years as each church found it’s own voice in worshiping God. Today there is no doubt a strong preference for contemporary worship styles, but there are also signs showing a resurgence of interest among some young people for a more ‘orthodox’ approach to faith and worship. Uniformity is not required and we should quit talking as if it’s a spiritually worthy or realistic goal.

    The turmoil and ‘wars’ are probably far from being over, but it’d be nice if we could all agree on some ground rules for working through these issues – starting with how we discuss them.

  2. KGray says:

    I wonder if any congregation, when facing decisions on worship styles, precedes it with a service in which members are asked to symbolically lay down their agendas and simply seek the Lord — and sacrificial love for one another — for a period of time…? Similar to what Ken Coffee said about the pastor search process. Maybe our emphases on personal opinion, public appeal and money issues would recede.

  3. Ken Coffee says:

    Lee, your statement on today’s worship music being an improvement on the hymns of the past is just the kind of thing that causes the worship wars. I love all kinds of music and am as comfortable in contemporary services as in traditional, but I do not understand why we have to proclaim one better than the other. It is not, after all, about us anyhow.

  4. Lee says:

    I’d wholeheartedly agree that it is not about us at all. It’s just that, in terms of worship leading me to the place where I feel I have worshipped, not for my own fulfillment, but to please and honor God, that happens for me when I am singing words from scripture, and focused on praising the Lord. I can, and have, worshipped God in any circumstances.

    I think educating people about worship is the key. We really try to focus on our own preferences, but we don’t really teach our people what worship is. A worship “service” in most Baptist churches is a routine, and somehow gains its own standing of becoming something “not to mess with” because it is comfortable and people get used to it. But it shouldn’t be routine, and it is certainly not for entertainment value. Baptists in particular seem to take great care to avoid any emotional or spiritual elements, for fear of looking or sounding Charismatic. But to put limits on the Spirit’s moving in worship does exactly that, and then we must depend on entertainment value, and the “look and feel” that a good choir, good music leader and good preacher can put into it so that people can “get something out of it” even though that is not the purpose of it. If people can’t tell the difference in focus between “When We All Get to Heaven,” and “How Great is Our God,” we haven’t done our job. Different styles relate to different people–I’m not saying what we have developed today is superior or better, I am saying that it is an advancement and an improvement over what we have had previously. That’s just my opinion. I think we have people who write music and lead worship who have looked at past styles and past trends and have worked to provide an even broader spectrum of music and of avenues through which we can worship God.

  5. KGray says:

    “Baptists in particular seem to take great care to avoid any … spiritual elements,…”


  6. Lee says:

    I don’t mean to slam Baptists, but we sometimes can be so careful in trying not to appear “Charismatic,” that we miss out on some spiritual elements that God has for us to experience.

    I don’t mean to put down any style or form of worship. But shouldn’t we be striving to enhance worship to get us beyond where we have been, and into a place where we get closer to God and experience more of what he has for us? It is not about us, at all. It is about God. So we should always be striving to give God the best we have to give.

    I think where we cross the line, and the worship wars fire up, come at the point where we use worship as a means to attract people to the church, and personal preference steps in. At that point, our human desire to “do it well” kicks in and it becomes all about what we experience, the “look and feel” of the experience, and how that relates to people who may be participating. Our typical approach to doing things well leads us to the thought that investing money in high quality equipment, talented musicians, and “look and feel” enhancing things like expensive props, video projectors and such. I’m not saying that we should not do worship to the best of our ability, but that should be for God, not for us, and doesn’t always require the enhancements we think are absolutely necessary. If you can’t worship in a less enhanced environment, then you haven’t learned what worship is or how to worship. I’d say the same for those who can’t worship when “their style” of music isn’t on the program.

  7. Ken Coffee says:

    “But shouldn’t we be striving to enhance worship to get us beyond where we have been, and into a place where we get closer to God and experience more of what he has for us?”

    I love this statement, because it really embodies what the worhsip wars are all about. For some that means throwing away the hymnals. For some it means singing some new song in the hymnal that we have never sung before, and for some it means doing away with the 100 voice choir and singing with a praise team. For some it means letting the preacher preach in sweats and tennis shoes instead of a coat and tie, and for some it means respecting worship, which requires a coat and tie (in their mind). This is what the worship wars are all about. Where I get a bit agitated is when someone says “Unless you do it this way (whatever way that is), we will not grow as a church.” There are growing churches in our land with all sorts of worship experiences. I belong to a church that is growing and reaching young couples with a very traditional worship experience. And I know churches that are growing with a very contemporary experience. I love thnking back to Paul’;s statement, “I will be all things to all men that by all means I may reach some.” By using “some” at the end, instead of “all”, Paul admitted there would be some he would not be able to reach. We need to learn that and live by it.

  8. John Killian says:

    I can personally testify that Two Rivers was not into the extremes of contemporary worship. My wife and I have visited this church while on vacation and we know Jerry Sutton. Dr. Sutton is a Bible preacher and a real man of God.

  9. Steve Austin says:

    I had thought the deal at Two Rivers was about cash, spending, and extraneous expenses.

  10. David Lowrie says:


    Thanks for your comments and the comments of others. When I was working on my D.Min thesis I wanted to write my paper on the ‘Worship Wars” but my professor would not allow me to limit my study to that topic. At first I was disappointed, but I believe now he was right to not simply focus on that one topic. As noted, worship differences have apparently divided many of our churches, but could it be that these “wars” are rather symptoms of deeper problems and divisions. The “worship” simple became the chosen battle ground.

    Corporate unity is a function of many key factors in church life. By reading the article it seems clear to me from 25 years in the trenches that Dr. Sutton had some major challenges facing him and his leadership of the church. I regret his career at Two Rivers ended as it did. However, in Baptist life there are very few easy “exit” strategies for pastors.

    My prayers go out to him and to the people of Two Rivers. I also pray for the next leader who steps in to this challenging situation in Nashville.

  11. Tim Dahl says:

    I thought the problems vocalized by the opposition were around $$$. I didn’t know there was some worship wars going on there as well.