Moving Away from Music-Specific Services
“Traditional Service, 9:00 a.m; Contemporary Service, 11:00 a.m.”
If you do a quick search online for churches in your area, chances are that at least some of them have multiple services. And among churches that have multiple services, many of them have “music-specific services.”
A “music-specific service” is a worship service where the primary difference between it and the other worship service(s) at the same church is the style of music and the type of songs. I believe churches should move away from these kinds of services. My reason is simple: music-specific services actively promote division in the body of Christ.
Very often, that division shows up demographically, with older saints tending toward the traditional-music services and younger saints toward the contemporary. And each group misses the goodness the other group has to offer.
DIVIDED BY TUNE
In 1 Corinthians 1:10, Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
Paul appeals to the Corinthians to eliminate divisions in their church and pursue unity instead. But when we offer music-specific services, we encourage Christians who are members of the same church to divide according to musical preference. If God has a problem with us dividing over our favorite preachers (the context of 1 Corinthians 1), how must he feel about us dividing over hymns and praise choruses, pianos and guitars, older and newer songs? I have to think Paul’s correction applies here as well: “What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not” (1 Cor. 11:22).
In John 4:24, Jesus tells the woman at the well, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” When Jesus uses the word “worship,” he has more in mind than just singing. But since we’re commanded to sing as part of our worship (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19), we can conclude that the words we sing (truth) and the posture of our hearts while we sing (spirit) are the most important aspects of our singing.
If we can agree on that, then we should also be able to agree that the kinds of songs we sing, the way they are arranged, and the way they are sung are less important. We should prioritize singing what is true about God and what he has done on our behalf in Christ, and we should de-emphasize the importance of the kinds of songs we sing and the way they are accompanied. As Matt Merker writes in Corporate Worship:
As a people reconciled to God and one another, we should showcase our peace when we gather to sing. Our love matters more than our preferences. Pastors, therefore, should teach members to engage with the singing whether or not a certain song is in their favorite style. These days, we can all listen to our favorite music in headphones whenever we want. But when we gather on the Lord’s Day, we can display that the bonds of Christ are stronger than shared cultural background or musical opinions. (144-145)
So, if you pastor a church that has music-specific services and you’ve been convinced that it’s not best for your congregation, what should you do?
HOW TO REUNITE YOUR CHURCHES
First, you should do nothing—at least not right away. Chances are your church has had music-specific services for years, possibly decades. They didn’t get there overnight, and you shouldn’t try to change things overnight. That would be both unwise and unloving.
Second, you should pray for your church’s unity, and pray for this publicly. They’re called “worship wars” for a reason—people have strong opinions about music. But it doesn’t have to be war and, according to Scripture, it shouldn’t. It would be naïve to think you can make changes to the music at your church without any friction or disagreement, but that doesn’t mean it has to be divisive. Pray that God would give the leaders and members of your church a unified vision and the humility required to lay down preferences for one another (Phil. 2:3).
Third, you should listen to members of your congregation, especially those who have been in leadership for some time. Fools rush in, but wise leaders seek to understand why things are the way they are. Ask good questions about when the church began music-specific services, why they began, and who led the change. It’s likely that the changes were made with good motives—such as wanting to honor the preferences of other saints, not wanting to distract from more important matters, or wanting to reach unchurched people. Those are all commendable motives, even if the decisions based on those motives promote disunity.
Fourth, you should teach your congregation about the purpose of corporate worship from Scripture. It’s ironic that churches of all types spend so much time, energy, and money on worship in song, but many Christians have never heard any teaching on the subject. When I preached on the role of singing in corporate worship last year, I was surprised by the number of church members who told me they had been in church their whole lives and never heard a single sermon about singing. Don’t assume that your church members know what the Bible teaches about singing in worship. If my experience is any indication, many do not.
Only after you’ve waited, prayed, listened, and taught should you seek to lead change at your church. Again, going “cold turkey” and transitioning overnight is probably unwise. Be patient with those who are accustomed to and enjoy one particular worship style. Make gradual changes over time, and continue to pray, listen to, and teach the members of your church. Such work is never finished.
Having music-specific services doesn’t promote unity. In fact, it builds preferential division into the structure of the church. If you agree, then I hope you’ll do nothing about it. And then I hope you’ll pray, listen, teach, and lead your congregation to change.