Pop Goes the Worship War

(Or, How to Start Your Own Worship War With 7 Simple Tools You Probably Have Around Your Home If They Haven’t Burned It Down Yet)

– A response to “Pop Goes The Worship” – 

Why do people quarrel and fight and split hairs and churches over something as seemingly petty as “traditional vs. contemporary music”? In one church split I lived through, that meant “traditional (songs from the 1950s) vs. contemporary (songs from the 1970s).” After a point, you have to wonder what’s really going on under the surface. Is it really about worship, or even about music? What starts a “worship war”?

In a recent interview with Christianity Today, Dr. T. David Gordon provides us a with a vivid example of exactly what causes worship wars. Only, I don’t think he meant to. He appears to be trying to win a worship war.

Gordon discusses his new book, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (P&R, 2010) — Rudolf Flesch deserves a few back royalties for the snowclone — about worship wars and “media ecology” and traditional hymns. The book contends, apparently, “that modern worship choruses have trumped hymns in many congregations because for decades, we have been inundated with pop music–to the point that many of us don’t know better.” I suppose we can’t put a spoiler warning on the word “better,” but it does give away a lot about his conclusion.

This isn’t a review of the book, or even strictly speaking of the interview. Otherwise, I’d have to deal with “media ecology,” which somehow sounds like the worst of both worlds. (When I want ecology, I turn off the media and go for a walk in the park.) Instead, I want to look at the attitudes behind the worship war as Gordon plays it out. In fairness, they were almost certainly my own attitudes too when I was 15 and a prig. Growing up and getting an education in music and hymnology can do wonders.

So here, as found in “Pop Goes the Worship,” are seven ways to start a worship war.

1. Ignore Logic and Historical Perspective.

Have we really rejected [hymns], or do we just prefer modern music?

It’s closer to rejection at this point. In every generation, gifted people would write some good hymns, and subsequent generations would enjoy them. Nothing new there. What’s new is the notion that you have to have new music in a worship service. That’s unprecedented. I’m asking why people feel this emotional distance from hymns that was not felt by generations before.

The more I read this, the more illogical it seems: In every generation people write new hymns, but it’s unprecedented that people need new music in a worship service. Huh? When people wrote new hymns in past generations, did the worshipers say, “Well, we prefer old music, but it looks like this is going to be a traditional song in a hundred years, so that’s all right”?

“Sing to the Lord a new song” is a scriptural mandate (nine times, no less), and musicians throughout church history have taken God up on it. When Fanny Crosby and Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts and Ira Sankey and Martin Luther and John Newton and Horatius Bonar and Keith Getty wrote their songs, what were they? New music in a worship service, of course!

And, like all new songs, they got their share of criticism from people who preferred old songs. In a 1775 essay, British clergyman William Romaine railed against the latest form of new music driving out the traditional: “Christian congregations shut out divinely inspired psalms, and take in Dr. Watts’ flights of fancy.” So Gordon’s view isn’t that unprecedented, either.

2. Use Unfair Generalizations.

Traditionalists have never excluded the contemporary; they have always encouraged the best artists of every generation to add to the growing, living tradition of hymnody. It is the contemporaneists who are often exclusive; there are some who exclude almost the entire Christian tradition.

[Emphasis added–EP.]

Read any good book on interpersonal communication, and you’ll learn that the two words to avoid in conflict are “always” and “never.” They betray unfair generalizations: “You always do this! You never do that! The problem is always with you, it’s never with me!” That’s not the sound of a constructive, conciliatory conversation. It’s the sound of self-righteousness, anger, blame-shifting.  (“Often” and “some” in the second sentence are the same thing, just slightly subtler. The term for that is “weasel words.”)

A moment’s reflection shows how unfair this is. “Traditionalists have never excluded the contemporary,” really? A lot of people who grew up in the sixties beg to disagree! Obviously, there’s been a lot of closed-mindedness on all sides of the controversy.

Also, if you ever meet anyone who identifies himself as a “contemporaneist,” I’ll give you your very own handmade straw man.

3. Foster an Us vs. Them Mentality.

I have consistently encountered this irony: Almost all defenders of contemporary worship music are aesthetic relativists (“It’s just a matter of taste”), yet they are the ones who insist that the church abandon everything else in the name of what they deem “good taste.” But why are they willing to see the church divided over what is “merely” a matter of taste?

[Emphasis added–EP]

Yes, it’s our old friends “them” and “they,” reprising their world-famous routine, “Divide and Conquer!” Creating lines down a group fosters elitism and factions, and everybody loses.

The factions, of course, are “us” and “them”– or, when you think about it, “People who want to worship God through Christ” and “Other people who want to worship God through Christ.” Read that again. If you try to keep Christians in any two other categories, you’re creating a division that’s contrary to Christ. “Is Christ divided?” asked Paul, aghast at the thought of factions in the church (1 Cor. 1:13). If Christ doesn’t unite us in Him, we’ve missed some crucial things about the Gospel.

In another irony, as we’ll see below, Gordon himself insists alarmingly on abandoning everything in the name of what he deems good taste. Eagerness to criticize the errors of “them” makes us blind to the faults of “us”–even when they’re the same faults.

4. Present Subjective Opinions as Objective Facts.

Are there objective criteria for evaluating music?

Yes, and there are objective criteria for what makes some music better than other music.

No, there aren’t.

I could pull the “And I’m a classically trained composer with a degree in sacred music, so don’t kid me” card here, but there’s no need. Gordon’s own criteria agree; they’re a splendid example of subjectivity.

He says that a song should be “easy to sing.” Easy for whom? For “the average person.” Who’s that? “Hymns should be easy enough to learn for people who do not read music, so people can pick up the melody quickly.” How quickly? Do these non-music-reading people have a good sense of pitch? Are they musically gifted or not? Do they get to hear the tune more than once? How many times? These are valid criteria, sure, but they’re all subjective. It’s arrogant and ignorant to present your subjective opinions as objective facts.

Don’t get me wrong: there are good criteria for evaluating music, and there is a real difference between good music and bad. But anybody who tries to raise this to the level of objectively verifiable truth is talking through his hat. It just doesn’t work that way, which is part of what makes it so endlessly beautiful.


5. Use Double Standards.

When I was a young child and we’d take drives, the family would sing folk music or hymns. If Mom or Dad started singing “Fairest Lord Jesus,” we sang along, and before long we were harmonizing. And we couldn’t read music. Hymns aren’t too difficult to sing; most of them are easier to sing than the contemporary stuff.

[And just one paragraph later…]

But musically speaking, [modern tunes] are not, as a genre, substantially easier; they just sound more familiar to our culture. When people describe them as “easy,” what they mean is “familiar-sounding.”

“Familiar-sounding,” as in… we grew up singing them in the car with our parents?

I’m familiar with hymns, so I think they’re easy for me, and that’s a very good thing. You’re familiar with contemporary music, so you think it’s easy for you, and that’s a very bad thing. That’s a double standard: giving your own pet cause special treatment that you don’t give others. It reeks of unfairness, illogic, preferential treatment, intolerance, partiality. When you want to win something (like a worship war) so badly that you stoop to bending the rules, you want to win too badly.

6. Define Your Preferences as the Gospel.

Many believe that kind of music is more “seeker-friendly.”

But it’s like reaching the rich young ruler by throwing money at him. The desire to reach the lost is wonderful, but that doesn’t mean the strategy is well-suited to the task. I’m not so sure that accommodation to an individual’s consumerist preferences is consistent with the gospel call. The gospel doesn’t say, “You’ve got most things right, you just need to throw some Jesus in there.” Rather, it says, “You’ve got everything wrong, because you’re not correctly related to God. Therefore, you’ve got to be willing to give up everything–mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, whatever–to follow Christ. And if not, you’re not worthy of him.”

Here Gordon “insist[s] that the church abandon everything else in the name of what they deem ‘good taste.’” If you find contemporary music brings people to the Lord, too bad–it’s popular, so it’s in bad taste, so you have to abandon it. He even clarifies “abandon everything” with “mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, whatever…” or else you’re an unrepentant consumerist like the rich young ruler. Ouch.

Of course, the Christian life does require sacrifices. Jesus said so, and lived so. But if, as Gordon suggests, we’re really supposed to be willing to give up everything to be worthy of Christ (hold that thought–I’ll come right back to it), then answer me this: How come we only have to give up popular music? Why not be willing to give up hymns?

But the most frightening part is the last few sentences. It sums up “the Gospel,” what you present to people who are “not correctly related to God,” with this phrase: “if not,”–if you’re not willing to give up your consumerist music–“you’re not worthy of him.

That’s not the Gospel. The Gospel (thank God) means we can never be worthy of Christ, so He saved us by His grace and mercy. For Gordon to define the Gospel as “be worthy of Christ,” and to insinuate that that has anything whatever to do with the kind of music we like, is sickening. I’d like to hope that Gordon would agree with me about the Gospel if the question was put to him outside of the debate over music. But within the debate, his eagerness to make a point about our sacrifice made him obviate the significance of Christ’s.

7. Give Lip Service to the Right Ideas.

It might be better to say, “You may wonder why we sang a hymn today written by Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century. We do it because we think it’s a good reflection on what our Redeemer did. We don’t really care whether it’s new or old.”

Oh, good. That’s what I was hoping you’d say. I was starting to get really worried that you were preoccupied with using music that was old rather than new, for instance by making sure that hymns didn’t sound contemporary or by rejecting anything that sounds like pop culture.

I approve blended approaches only when the alternative is a split church. It’s better to blend than to split. But better yet to be entirely unconcerned about whether a hymn sounds contemporary…. The commercial forces that shape pop culture should not be the arbiters of how we worship God.

Hmm. I see. Right, cancel that last one.

This is poignant, because Gordon has put his finger on something that can resolve “worship wars,” and twisted it into another stab at contemporary music. No, no, no–the point of “We don’t really care whether it’s old or new” is not “So we may as well make it old, not like that commercial pop culture stuff!”

This is the nature of bigotry, actually. All the most legalistic people I know of say “Of course we believe we’re saved by Christ alone,” and then go on to preach works. All the most misogynistic people I know of say “Of course we believe that men and women are equal,” and then go on to preach that a woman’s place is to submit to men. All the worship warriors I know of say “Of course God doesn’t care about a style of music,” and then go on to preach that their style of music is best for worshipping Him.

But if you believe A, how come the rest of what you say is non-A? Because it’s lip service.


Anyone with a bit of free time on their hands could easily write an article just like professor Gordon’s the other way around (“It is the traditionalaneists who are always exclusive!”), but what would be the point? It would just add fuel to the fire, and that’s not how you end a war. “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.” (Proverbs 17:14).  

Or as Paul puts it, in a passage all worship warriors ought to memorize:

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. (Galatians 5:13-16, NASB)

It would be easy to conclude, as many do, that worship wars are about people trying to impose their personal preferences on others. That’s oversimplified. Another thing I learned from the worship wars is that whenever someone is so passionately arguing for something that they neglect logic and facts and objectivity and even humility, grace, and charity…

… what they say they’re arguing about is very rarely the real issue.

Oh, they’re talking about “music” and “worship,” all right, sometimes nothing else. But usually, people whose true passions are music and worship know enough about them to construct a well-informed argument.

“Worship wars” aren’t about worship. They aren’t even about music style. Not really, not deep down. Even if that’s the only subject ever discussed, it’s not causing the conflict.

I’ve seen worship wars that were started by personality conflicts, by power struggles, by priggishness, by authoritarianism. I’ve never in my life seen or heard of a worship war that broke out because everyone was worshiping God too much.

And if you think “Yeah, they’re not…” you’re not worshiping God enough.

Worship isn’t about music. It may be expressed in music, but it’s about Jesus. (See “The Problem With Worship” for a fuller exploration of that idea.) No one can serve two masters. You can’t worship God and music. Worship occurs when we see God as revealed in Christ. That can happen whatever kind of music is involved, but who cares? You’re looking at Jesus, so music doesn’t matter.

What do we see when we look at Jesus together? Perhaps something like this:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus… (Philippians 2:1-5)

And that’s followed, of all things, by a worship song to Jesus, who humbled himself and gave up everything.

When we worship Jesus, we become like Him.

The cure for worship wars is worship.

AuthorEric Pazdziora

Composer, Author, Pianist

13 replies to Pop Goes the Worship War

  1. Amen! Amen! And Amen! I LOVE this, Eric!

    By the way…I notice you use the word “all” several times in the paragraph above the cartoon. I guess it’s OK, though, since you clarify they are the ones you “know”…so I guess that narrows it down from a total “all”. 😉

    • Touché! At least I didn’t say “always.”

  2. Thank you for talking so much sense.
    I can’t remember offhand — but I’m sure C S Lewis said something somewhere about the dangers of regarding ‘good taste’ as a Christian virtue. Funny you know, I can’t recall ever hearing someone say “I have bad taste”. I suspect good taste is really code for “people who like what I like”
    And another observation: why is the pressure always greatest on young and new Christians to give up their own ‘likes’ for the sake of the gospel? Shouldn’t the greater demand be put on those of us who are more mature in Christ?

    • You’re welcome, Lynne! Great observations.

      It’s par for the course in this kind of debate for people to say, “We’re supposed to be sacrificial, so you ought to sacrifice what you want for me because what I want is better!”

    • Lynne, what you say is too true. I was just reading C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy today and came across, possibly, the quote you were alluding to:

      “And if ‘our’ taste, then–by a perilous transition–perhaps ‘good’ taste or ‘the right taste.’ For that transition involves a kind of Fall. The moment good taste knows itself, some of its goodness is lost. Even then, however, it is not necessary to take the further downward step of despising the ‘philistines’ who do not share it. Unfortunately, I took it.” – C. S. Lewis

      Thought you might enjoy hearing it again without having to look it up yourself.

      • Thanks, Lauren! I had forgotten about that quote. (I was looking for it in “On Church Music,” which mentions “taste” but takes it a different way.)

  3. I greatly appreciated this. Particularly, ” . . . but who cares? You’re looking at Jesus, so music doesn’t matter.” What a happy place to be looking. =)

    • Thanks, Lauren. I’m sure I’ll have opportunity to write elsewhere about how music can help us look to Jesus, but if it gets in His way (as in this case), chuck it.

  4. Hey, thanks for the thoughts. I read the article in CT and had a similar feeling about it.

    • Yes, it was a disappointment after the other worship articles in that issue, which were excellent.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. Eric, I am so proud of you! I’m glad I took the time to jot down some quotes from Gordon’s article to show you. You addressed the problems in it much more graciously and logically than I would have! I’m so thankful for your gift to think so Christ-centeredly about these things, and to put your thoughts into such meaningful but accessible terms for the rest of us. Love you, my darling!!!

    • Thanks for the inspiration, love!

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