The New Worship Wars

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I remember several years ago that one of the big churchy buzzwords (or maybe “buzz term” would be more appropriate) was worship wars. Basically, this was a term used to describe the struggles many congregations faced about traditional versus contemporary music in their worship services. Many churches opted to have separate traditional and contemporary services and, often, the result was turf wars over which service was better or which service’s attenders mattered more. Some opted to have blended styles of worship with contemporary and traditional music, liturgy, and other elements mixed together. The result of the blended approach has often been the fans of contemporary and traditional approaches arguing amongst themselves over which style was proper and appropriate. Still other churches have opted for either traditional or contemporary only styles of worship which has often resulted in people opting not to attend a particular church due to their worship style. I want to note that, in my experiences, the arguments for or or against contemporary or traditional worship have been rooted in personal preference and not in anything related to biblical teaching or to church tradition (remember: There was a time when even the organ was considered “contemporary”) and the resulting strife was anything but glorifying to God.

The church has always been involved in such debates since there has been a church. Ever since this thing called “the church” has been in existence, we have been arguing about everything from the proper way to baptize to the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. While many of these arguments don’t become major in the sense that it can impact the entire church, we see a new front in worship wars emerging: In-person versus digital/online and hybrid forms of worship. Almost daily, I’m seeing posts on social media decrying one continuing to engage with their church virtually. Such posts essentially have the same message: “You have to come back to church,” as in physically and in-person. The strong suggestion is also made that virtual forms of worship are fake and that one who engages digitally is not actually worshipping.

Baloney.

Now, I know not everyone will agree. People will quote scriptures like Hebrews 10:25 as proof that not going to a worship in a physical space is invalid. Participating in the life of the church is vital but there are many more ways to do this than simply occupying a seat on Sunday morning (and if that’s al one does, they’re not really engaged). We have many ways by which we can participate in the life of the church and engage in worship – attending in-person services and activities are just one of the ways we can connect with one another.

First, let me present some anecdotal evidence: I and many of my brothers and sisters in ministry have been able to reach far more people by live streaming our services and using tools such as Zoom and Google Classroom than we have ever been able to reach from our pulpits and our buildings. While people are obsessed with things like views on Facebook, there are ways to estimate who’s truly engaged online and who simply spends a few seconds watching and scrolls away. On average, my two churches have an addition 10-30 people engaged online every Sunday morning, people who would not be with us in any way otherwise. These are people who may not be regularly connected to a church and, somehow, found the Facebook page. One of my churches has even seen someone with no apparent connection to the congregation begin giving occasionally through our online giving platform. For all we know, this would have never happened otherwise. Colleagues of mine have told of similar events within their contexts.

I recently attended the Leadership Institute at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas (as in, Adam Hamilton’s church) and found some great insights about digital and hybrid worship. Barna Group has done extensive research on preferences of digital, physical and hybrid worship and discipleship activities. What was revealed to those who attended a break out about digital and hybrid worship was:

  • While 52% of all churched adults surveyed preferred primarily physical gatherings, 35% preferred a mix of both (hybrid).
  • 41% of Gen Z prefers physical while 37% prefer hybrid (only 13% wanted digital onl).
  • 42% of Millennials prefer physical while 40% want hybrid (again, 13% preferred digital).
  • For Gen X, 47% prefer physical while 39% want hybrid (wow!).
  • Baby boomers: 71% prefer physical gatherings, but 24% want a mixture.
  • The biggest take away: A total of 87% of churched digital discipleship participants feel that digital forums for discipleship provide a safe space to speak openly,
  • Source

Here’s the bottom line: Most people still prefer to gather physically (yes, even younger people) but significant portions of each generation group want a hybrid approach. One reason is being able to still interact with worship even if they can not be present at the time of worship. There’s also more: People also feel more free in asking questions and having more open dialogue online rather than in person. As an introvert, I completely understand as sometimes asking the tough questions in physical groups can be very intimidating. Reality is, some physical spaces within the church are not safe for tough discussions. With the modern tools at our disposal, we have opportunities to be more real with one another. The people have spoken: The winner of this latest incarnation of the worship wars is “both,” not just physical or just digital.

Sunday morning is never going to go away (nor should it) but the church will evolve into a mix of digital and physical, and not just on Sunday morning, but throughout the week.

In these discussions, one must also be careful not to discount those for whom digital is really their only option. We are still in a pandemic. Some people are simply not comfortable gathering in public spaces right now (this is a choice we ought to honor, not mock or try to persuade otherwise) and still others who have weakened immune systems who would surely die if they contracted Covid-19 or some other sickness. When we make statements that say “it’s time to come back to church,” we are not being sensitive to these groups (made up of people made in God’s image).

We must be sensitive to the needs of our neighbors and respect their choices for their own health, regardless of our own preferences.

The church has an opportunity: Resist the changes taking place and fight against it (which history should teach us does not work). Or, we can meet people where they are. Social media has a lot of bad stuff happening on it but, like anything else, it comes down to how we choose to use it. We can choose to use social media and other online platforms to meet people where they are, which is largely on social media. For a prime example of someone who excelled at meeting people where they are and communicating with them in ways that were accessible, see Jesus.

Let’s put down our weapons of worship warfare and pick up our ability to love. As long as one is engaged with God – regardless of whether that takes places in a pew or on the couch – they are bringing him glory. Let’s do the same.

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