Moving Beyond the Worship Wars

The worship wars seem far from over. While they don’t occupy the front page of current Christian magazines, and public disputes seem to have decreased, a quick meeting with your local pastor or music minister will show you how prevalent these concerns still are. Congregants have strong stances, and rightfully so. Decades after the rise of contemporary Christian music (CCM), local churches continue to wrestle with how musical style and emotional expression work in their own context; this seems especially true in the Baptist tradition.

Simply choosing one side or the other in these disputes would be easy. If we desire to contextualize and be relevant within our community, we sing contemporary songs; or if we hope to sing historical truths, and benefit from the rich history of Christian music, we sing old hymns. The problem, of course, is when we step to one side or the other, we invariably deepen the divide.

Beyond concern about the forms of worship music, we may question what type of emotional expression is appropriate for corporate worship. We fear becoming too charismatic on one side or too high Church on the other—though these caricatures are unfair. In doing so, we become emotionally stunted and confused.

My aim in this article is to connect these two concerns and offer one solution. I believe we ought not confine ourselves to either style or emotional expression. Instead, I think the answer lies in diversity of styles and emotions. By this, I do not mean that we give in to stylistic and emotional chaos. Instead, we ought to seek the balance we find in the full spectrums of style and emotion.

Diversity in Style 

To begin this paradigm shift in thinking, we must implement what many have labeled “blended worship.” Though this moniker is often hijacked, true blended worship enlists centuries of music and myriad styles to enrich corporate worship. In Perspectives on Christian Worship, Michael Lawrence and Mark Dever write,

Rather than have corporate gatherings defined by the style of music (contemporary service vs. traditional service), our gatherings would include a mix of hymns, choruses, and praise songs that span the centuries, from hymns composed by Augustine to the latest offering from Sovereign Grace. But the variety should not just be chronological and generic. It should include style as well, drawing from hymn tunes composed by Bach as well as anonymously composed Appalachian shape-note tunes and almost everything in between.[1]

By not implementing this, we effectively cut “ourselves off from previous human artistic expression—and none more so than musical expression.”[2]

Lawrence and Dever indicate how to create such a blend: “Whether we are pastors or service leaders, or simply members of the congregation, we should all want to make sure that the service is filled with music that reflects the truth talked about in the Scripture that is being preached that day.”[3] The truth of God is the bond that ties these various songs together. After all, He is the one Who has instructed us to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).

To think about it another way, we may think about how our singing demonstrates two seemingly competing attributes of God: His immanence and His transcendence. In singing brand new songs, we show that God is ever relevant and near today and that He is still working among His people even now. When we sing songs that are hundreds of years old, we communicate to our people that God is the same God that our fathers and forefathers worshipped. God is the God of yesterday and today and forever, and our musical choices should reflect that truth.

Spectrum of Emotion

I would also argue that we need more and not less emotion in our worship, specifically when we sing. This, of course, requires a disclaimer: one should not be emotionally licentiousness in Christian worship. Emotional frenzy is more akin to pagan worship than Christian. After all, the Christian is to be of a sober mind and self-controlled (Gal. 5:22-23; 2 Pet. 1:5-8). Yet too often our corporate worship is monotone in its emotional expression. We celebrate, but we can often fail to have words to express the other feelings that God has instilled within us. We may appear highly emotional, but we are often reduced to this one emotion in worship.

Diversity in emotion and style are themselves ideas rooted in the Psalms. If the Psalms are our starting point and guide in corporate worship, and I think they should be, then they set a helpful example for us. If we want to engage the whole person in singing, we must tap into the fullness of worship that the Psalms provide for us. That means expanding our worship to include songs not only of celebration, but also of contrition, lament, delight, grief, confusion, and hope, among others.

Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Seminary, stated,

All worship should be built on the foundations of the Psalms; that is the only inspired worship book for the church. We have drifted so far from the Psalms that we can hardly see our way back. We must take this drift very seriously. It is wonderful that new hymns and choruses are being written, but they must be built on a proper theological foundation.[4]

Accordingly, this is why hymns must be built on the principles of the Psalms. In worship, the Psalms give Christians words to express our emotions when we may not be able to articulate those words ourselves. The Psalms help us express our gladness (Ps. 9), fear (Ps. 2), gratitude (Ps. 35), pain (Ps. 69), confidence (Ps. 27), sorrow (Ps. 31), shame (Ps. 44), love (Ps. 18), and awe (Ps. 33). The Psalms remind us that we are not mono-emotional beings but are instead people who are affected by the world around us. We are people who empathize with others (Rom. 12:15). We are people that feel.

All the while these emotions are directed by a singular purpose. James K.A. Smith argues, “[O]ur identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate—what, at the end of the day gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world.”[5] He continues later, noting, “We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends.”[6] While Smith implies this, I would overtly state that we should think about this “love” as our desires or affections. One may understand the word love as a singular emotion, but our affections or desires can encapsulate the wide range of human emotions. Therefore, these emotions, directed and transformed by God in worship, are ultimately changing our affections.

As shown in the Psalms, God may use these various emotional expressions, as well as musical styles, ultimately to correct our desire(s). He may guide us from lament or hope, contrition or love, toward a fullness of worship toward Him. As John Newton wrote in his hymn of lament, “I Asked the Lord,” God may be using this grand spectrum of songs so that “thou mayest seek they all in [Him.]”[7]


This paradigm shift highlights a strong point of unity in these tired “worship wars.” In a sense, it reframes the argument. I appreciate what Russell Moore, in his blog post “Let’s Have More Worship Wars,” states:

What if the young singles complained that the drums are too loud, that they’re distracting the senior adults? What if the elderly people complained that the church wasn’t paying attention to the new movements in songwriting or musical style? When we seek the well-being of others in worship, it’s not just that we cringe through music we hate. As an act of love, this often causes us to appreciate, empathize, and even start to resonate with worship through musical forms we previously never considered.[8]

We’ve seemed to settle for a compartmentalized, scaled-down, soft version of the worship we find in Scripture. The answer, however, is not in curbing the elements to our own preferences. Instead, we should let God’s worship stand on its own—fully realizing the depth, width, height, and profound wonder that is on display. Let’s root our singing in the Psalms, engaging the whole person in song and expressing the immanence and transcendence of God.


[1] Michael Lawrence and Mark Dever, “Blended Worship,” in Perspectives on Christian Worship: Five Views, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 223

[2] T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2010), 13.

[3] Lawrence and Dever, 262.

[4] Jesse Owens, “Culture & the Kingdom: An Interview with Dr. Timothy Tennent” March 25, 2013, Helwys Society Forum,

[5] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Cultural Liturgies, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 26-27.

[6] Smith, 40.

[7] John Newton, I Asked the Lord/Prayer Answered by Crosses

[8] Russell Moore, “Let’s Have More Worship Wars” February 13, 2012, Russell Moore;; accessed November 12, 2017; Internet.

Author: Chris Talbot

Share This Post On

What do you think? Comment Here:


The best way to stay up-to-date with the HSF

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This