I spent formative years worshipping in a large Lutheran congregation in Davenport, Iowa. There were three services, at 8, 9:30, and 11 a.m., with about 1000 in attendance. All of these were what you might call traditional, liturgical services, conducted straight out of our denominational hymnal. By the time I was a teenager, I had memorized all three settings of the liturgy contained in the hymn-book, all the available psalm tones, and many of the hymns.
Depending on the week, I might be at any of those three services. As a hyper-involved church-going family, we sang in a children's choir and then a high school choir. My parents sang in the adult choir. I was an acolyte. I served donuts. I counted the offering.
The one thing we never had when I was growing up was a contemporary service. We had an incredible organist, weekly special music from choirs and soloists, and clergy capable of chant. In some ways, the true highlight of Sunday worship were the prelude and postlude, ably performed by our full-time church musician. These were often over-the-top incredible.
In the summers, I spent time at camp, and it was there that I learned songs better accompanied by guitar. By the end of high school, I had stored in my brain multiple sets of liturgical resources--chant and liturgy for Sunday worship, camp songs and contemporary music for camp. There was never anything musically precocious about the performance of these songs--guitars were frequently out of tune in the summer humidity and heat--but there was a feeling while singing them as incomparably rich as what one felt at the technically proficient organ-playing Sunday mornings.
By and large, these musical styles did not cross paths. Each had their place. I loved, and still love, them both.
I should add one more thing. During this time, I found a third musical love beyond campfire worship and Sunday liturgy--I bought my first tape in 1984. Huey Lewis and the News, Sports. I played this tape on my bedside boombox with a liturgical fervency equally profound as the chorales I sang Sunday mornings and the praise songs I sang summer evenings.
Some time between those youthful days and now, all of this changed. If you go back to St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa, you can attend a very large worship service in the new sanctuary accompanied by an incredible worship ensemble. My brother sings in it.
There are of course also services accompanied by organ. There's a beautiful organ in the sanctuary. But I haven't been to one in over a decade. When I'm home, I go worship with my family, who all worships with my brother, at the contemporary service. I have absolutely nothing against it, and mostly love it... but I certainly never anticipated it.
We host a comparable service in the church I now serve. A decade ago, Good Shepherd was just starting a contemporary service. A small group gathered in the gym while the main service happened in the sanctuary. The pastor traveled between services, preaching at both.
About five years ago, the contemporary service moved to the sanctuary. Over time, it has grown, and as a result of various shifts in our congregational life, it is now the largest service. We have an incredible house worship band who not only play liturgical, heartland and Ozarks inspired rock, they also often write their own music.
We continue to also have an amazing liturgical service accompanied by a talented organist and gifted ensembles like a choir and handbells. Sometimes I can't believe how blessed we are--our organist Bob Mueller, who teaches at the university and leads all kind of musical amazingness, generally writes the music our choir sings.
And, as I mentioned, the liturgy of secular and readily available music continues apace. I rarely listen to tapes now (although I did buy the new Sufjan Stevens album in that medium), but some of the music I hear daily on Spotify or the radio offers a kind of numinous brilliance that thoroughly strips away the difference between sacred and profane.
All of this is to say that many who experience a Bruce Springsteen or Beyoncé concert as the height of worship are not wrong in thinking so, while many who wonder whether the last Sunday morning service they attended lacked something worshipful are also not wrong to consider the possibility. All of these may be worship, theologically construed. We need helpful theological equipment in order to discern how and whether some parts of life are closer or further from true worship.
What, you might ask, does any of this have to do with the so-called worship wars? Well, those wars the church was supposedly waging over styles of worship have now become a tiny notation on a vast musical score.
It's certainly still true that some traditional liturgists look disdainfully on contemporary trends in worship music and write it off. And it's certainly true that some contemporary praise personalities look with equal disdain on historic forms and styles of worship.
But in spite of all that, the worship wars are over, because:
The world is big and increasingly Christian (Globalization) The worship wars were an incredibly narrow cultural phenomenon to begin with, even if their cultural location (English-language, "western") gave them a global reach that impacts worship the world over yet today. But this hold that western cultural forms has over global Christianity is waning, and there is increasing reverse influence, as more and more hymns from the world over make their way into hymnals and songbooks and band repertoires.
Churches are making more and more of their own music (Enculturation) Although on the one hand its true that musicians like Kendrick Lamar or Taylor Swift, or big worship ensembles like Hillsong United, seem to occupy a lot of our musical landscape, on the other hand if you just burrow down into any local community you find out how widespread music is extending, and how many people are making it. I do think the average church-goers sings less than they used to, but there may be more worship leaders in faith communities than ever before. And a lot of them are finding ways to make very local, indigenous music.
People are making worship their own in their daily life (Laicization) This is sometimes also the secularization thesis, that people are becoming disconnected from specific faith communities because their life of faith is more embedded in daily living, and the sense that one needs to attend a Sunday morning gathering in order to "worship" is less and less felt. However you slice it, the Christian faith continues on a general trajectory away from clericalization and design of church life in the hands of a few, and towards more organic forms because nothing we do is excluded from being worship of God, and Christian faith generally resists reduction of worship to simply being defined as a cultic ceremony.
People are better at every kind of music (Professionalization) Remember those camp songs I sang as a child? At that time it really was true that mostly people played this kind of folk music in little homey spaces around a fire. In these intervening years, praise bands have found ways to make worship music as complex in its artistry as any Bach chorale. Different instruments, very different approach, but the technical mastery that goes into praise worship in a stadium is as complex and rich as any 3-hour performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor.
Service and praise are increasingly united (Diakonia) "As Paul set out in Romans 12 and underlined with his collection for the poor in Jerusalem, the worship of God as a human reaction to God's saving activity is not a sacred cult; it is the testimony of the life, serving one's neighbor in word and deed out of gratitude to God, doxology and diaconia in one. This testimony takes wholly concrete form in the collection of money, in standing up for justice, in a concern for the poor to be found in the Roman ports and trading cities, in a commitment, as Pliny reports, bearing out Romans 12:17-18, 'not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called up to deliver it up.' The creation and preservation of this coherence of doxology and diaconia in the life of the individual and within the community as an institution has been the fundamental practical challenge for the Christian way of life in every age, including our own" (Dalferth, 307).
The way forward, which we are now seeing everywhere, is to stop thinking about worship as a style, or a Sunday morning event, and instead consider worship as a way of life, a worldly activity like any other activity. If there is any kind of special place for Sunday liturgical worship compared with worship as a whole, it is thus to be found in expressions that bring greater awareness to this truth, a constant reminder that there is no time, place, or area of life in which God is not present in love (Dalferth, 312).
The worship wars are over because there never was a worship war to begin with. Worship has always been, and will continue to be, what it has always been inasmuch as Christianity embraces its non-cultic and areligious nature (think here of Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity). Worship is our grateful surrender of our whole life to God. If we have come to understand our whole lives as worship, then we will find ourselves quite open to the various expressions of liturgical or contemporary worship.
And we will be quite suspect of any of our assumptions if we think that worship is primarily what we do when we wake up Sunday morning and open a hymnal, or read from a projector screen. Only when we understand that such Sunday worship is designed simply to raise our awareness that all of life is worship will we finally realize the only war we have in worship is with ourselves.