I have heard the phrase. You have heard the phrase. "Worship wars." For over twenty years, church members have debated whether traditional hymns or contemporary songs are more worshipful. But the phrase "worship wars" has always been the wrong phrase.
When worship is about preference, it is not about Christ but about you. In reality, the worship wars have been idolatry wars. Worship wars have been about "American idols," and the idols are you and me, perched upon a seat of preference that belongs only to the Messiah. Worship wars have led American Christians to believe that our preference stands greater than our Christ.
The truth: When worship is about preference, worship is dead on arrival. A desire for preference is no longer worship. Why?
Because worship is the battle for your heart to be broken over your sin, not broken over hearing the style you do not prefer.
Because worship is about the holiness of Christ, which in turn allows us to see ourselves rightly and repent.
Because worship makes us more aware of the brokenness of the world around us, not more aware of songs and styles we like or do not like.
Because worship is about your life being outward focused toward the lost, not inward-focused toward yourself.
Because worship is about humility, and the opposite of humility is prideful preference.
The only worship war that existed was the war where Satan tried to convince believers that preference was more important than Christ's glory. And if you bought the lie, repentance is your first step back to Christ as central in your life, rather than you sitting in the position of highly exalted.
In Acts 2, the early disciples received the Holy Spirit and went into the streets, proclaiming the wonders of God in the native tongues of those present, including Jews from "every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5). God confused the languages at Babel, but according to Acts 2, God united the languages around one central theme, the "declaration of the wonders of God" (Acts 2:11).
Declaring the wonders and glory of God was quite literally the first act of the church. Today, the first and most important act of the church has not changed. Corporately and individually, the calling of every Christian is to proclaim the goodness, glory and gospel of Jesus. Hymns accomplish such a proclamation. Worship songs achieve such a proclamation.
I have heard much said about "connecting to God in my heart language" in the last twenty years. While I certainly understand the sentiment, God gave us many forms of worship, not just the style our hearts desire. The Christian is to make a melody in his or her heart to the Lord, but also notice the direction of Ephesians 5:19, which says "speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs…" (emphasis added). Our worship is both vertical to Christ yet horizontal to one another. We need each other for worship to be done well! Christians need to remind one another of the gospel that saves and sustains. Worshipping together is a primary reminder.
When you embrace worship wars, everyone loses on the battlefield. And with all the time and energy spent on the "wars," the lost and dying without Christ are continually bludgeoned by the enemy, perhaps without a gospel witness.
What can you do to fight against the war that never was?
Embrace the teaching of Jesus from John 4: Worship in Spirit and truth, not in "you." If hymns are not your thing, worship with them! Do not let a style stop your declaration of salvation so highly paid.
Remember that your preferences can be set aside for another believer or another worship service. Paul instructed the church at Philippi to not do anything out of selfishness but to consider the needs of others greater than themselves. He added that the church should not look to their own interests, but to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4). Maybe you have been tempted to make fun of a contemporary song, calling it a 7/11 song, "we sang the same seven words eleven times." But perhaps, those seven words have deep meaning and bring healing to a brother or sister in Christ!
If you prefer modern worship, attend a traditional service. If you prefer traditional worship, attend a modern service. Sit next to the saint who is singing hymns with all of her might. Her tithes and offerings from years gone by might have helped pay for the seat you sit in for worship. Maybe you think the music at the contemporary service is too loud. Foam earplugs are cheap! Grab a pair and watch a generation worship with their whole bodies. You will not be disappointed.
As believers, let us all put the war back where it belongs. The war that exists is between an unseen enemy, the powers of darkness, and the One True Reigning Messiah. When we have a pride-filled preference, when we change churches because of preference, when we bemoan the worship of another, our energies run sideways, not with the advancement of the gospel of Jesus.
Satan hates our worship, but I fear Satan loves our preference when it yields division.
Worship Christ in Spirit.
Worship Christ in Truth.
Dr. Jonathan L. Smith is the statewide director of Church Health Strategy for Texas Baptists. A twenty-nine-year veteran of preaching and pastoring, his calling is to equip pastors and lay leaders to grow God's Kingdom. Dr. Smith holds degrees in Christianity and Speech from Houston Baptist University, a Masters degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a D.Min from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.