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Leading Beyond the Style Wars (Part Two)

By Elia King

In part one of this article, we talked a bit about how easy it can be to lose sight of Christ, the object of our worship, when we allow ourselves to get caught up in debating stylistic details.


Without proper perspective, our discussions about the details can take precedence over the purpose of our worship, and we can find ourselves entrenched in debates over how we worship rather than why, or more important, whom we worship. History has shown that we can become so focused on the “how” that the practice of our worship itself becomes idolatry (see Amos 5:21).

In other words, when any element of our worship becomes more important that connecting our fellow worshippers with Jesus, our services become a sort of self worship, where we are doing little more than satisfying our own preferences. We could easily start to evaluate services based only on how they make us feel without considering whether or not we are being prompted to follow Jesus more closely.

The dilemma for many of us is that our services fall within a continuum that feels totally self-serving on one end and completely void of meaning on the other.

To help cope with this, the following are a few suggestions that have served me well in service planning. These are certainly not the only approach, and I can't claim any of them as "best." I am intentionally steering the conversation a bit away from style, because as long as we're trying to win that argument on behalf of one side or another, no one really benefits. Be that as it may, I believe these are still practical suggestions in that they can help us to find a healthy place on the spectrum that pulls us away from self-serving worship and also help us to connect with the realities that face the individuals and families in our congregations.

First, remember that the goal is to connect people with Jesus. That can feel like a long-distance target sometimes, especially when the style of service becomes a point of contention. It can feel like you’re sacrificing something personal to pull a service together. It's easy to forget sometimes that Jesus called us not to pick up our preferences but our crosses. It may be tempting to ask, “when do I get to enjoy worship?” I have found that keeping the long-term goal in mind helps me to hold smaller points of contention at a healthy distance. It also helps me to consider what is really at stake when conflict arises. And for that matter, it has also been very useful in determining what elements of a service are worth fighting for. In the long run, our strategies may change, elements of the service may come and go, but the purpose behind what we do in our services is always to connect people with Jesus. Period.

Second, remember that meaning transcends style. Consider where the scripture is leading, and choose your songs and arrangements accordingly. Don’t be afraid to try something new if it helps to strengthen the connection between the song and other elements in the service. Consider that when the hymns in our hymnal were written, they were sung with the same force and passion (and met with some of the same opposition) as modern worship music. Don’t be afraid to try something new. At the same time, be confident enough to take something outside of your sphere and make it your own musically. I have long been an advocate of the idea that a song that can stand on its own with just an acoustic guitar can be successful with more complex arrangements. I think the same principle applies when it comes to arranging worship music. There are some really grand hymns that work really beautifully with a simple guitar accompaniment (I'm thinking specifically of "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," but there are countless others). There are also some modern hymns, like "In Christ Alone," that are versatile enough for a wide variety of styles. I would love to hear Israel Houghton's "Jesus at the Center" with an intimate string arrangement or even the organ, but it also works well with a worship band. These are just a few examples, but the bottom line is that we often allow ourselves to be limited by the style something is "supposed to be" instead of considering how the content might actually connect to lives and hearts in our congregation.

Third, stop using “like” as the standard of success. You are a worship leader, not a Facebook page. Learn to be ok with the thought of someone not loving — or even disliking — what you do. I have to admit that this is really challenging for me sometimes because I want to know that what I’m doing resonates with people. But the reality is that just as there is no singular genre of music that embodies worship, there is also no catch-all category that resonates with all people equally. Furthermore, experience will show that some people simply don’t know how to give feedback without being negative. Working to produce services that everyone likes can create a really toxic, fickle working environment where we chase approval instead of leading people to Jesus. In contrast, leading with conviction and purpose is almost guaranteed to rub a few people the wrong way. Consider that Jesus spent his entire life and ministry teaching people how to love each other better, but it wasn’t an easy task. It takes some practice, but as you spend time getting to know individuals and families in your congregation, and as you prayerfully craft services to connect those people with Jesus, you will start to learn what works and what doesn't.

I realize that these "solutions" may seem a bit anti-climactic. But in reality, it would be impossible to provide a single solution that will "fix" worship forever. I firmly believe that as long as we try to prove the merits of one style over another, no one will win. A healthier model is one that recognizes and validates diversity within the church — even if it proves to be a challenge within a single congregation. If we are willing to lead our churches to follow Jesus, recognizing that each person will play a specific role as they serve their individual communities, then I believe it really is possible to become the kind of church Paul described in his letter to the Corinthians:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body...If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body." (1 Corinthians 12:12-19)