Embrace the variety

I read a blog post recently that really got me thinking.

In the post, fellow ABP blogger, Alan Rudnick advocates for services based on differing worship styles to be de-segregated, that is, to be replaced by blended services containing multiple worship expressions.

Alan’s title and thesis are about age segregation in worship services. The assumption being certain styles attract particular age groups. My 23 + years of church experience lead me to partially agree. However, I have not found the “segregation” exclusively tied to generational markers. Traditional services have attracted both young and old, as have contemporary services. I will concede that the majority of traditional service attendees are of a certain age, but not an overwhelming majority. The same is true for contemporary services. The “segregation” in my experience has been related people of all ages having a preferred worship style.

Alan asks if churches will reverse the segregation and predicts that over the next decade, churches will de-segregate through blended worship services.

I hope they do not.

I think a church should have as many different styles of worship as they can offer with excellence. The more, the better.

Now, I really like Alan’s blog. I agree with much of what he writes, and I hope my thoughts here serve not to rebut Alan’s, but to offer another perspective…not necessarily a better one, just another one.

First, I am not convinced that “segregation” is the right word to describe the presence of various worship services. This assumes a deeper divide than may actually exist, and creates a problem that may not be present. Segregation describes being forced into assigned restrooms, classrooms, bus seats, water fountains, etc., based on attributes one cannot control. Segregation is something that is enforced. I don’t think we have that issue when talking about worship services. To frame the discussion with such a negative term like “segregation” overstates the issue and can short-circuit meaningful evaluation of other perspectives.

What if instead, we use words like “variety” or “variation?” Variation recognizes and could even promote the presence of differences, but within a related system or family. It can also communicate the preferential quality of the differences, as well as the voluntary aspect of differences. This seems a more appropriate and positive word for the discussion.

Second, I think worshippers would better navigate the variations of worship style if we better understood the source of our own preferred worship expression. This is largely a sociological issue. The style of music that moved us in seasons of meaningful growth as well as the style of music embraced by the community within which we were raised socializes us toward a preferred style. The music is “meaningful” as it causes one to re-experience feelings of positive familiarity. It’s much less about what is spiritually sound, since there are popular hymns with both solid and horrendous theology just as there are popular modern worship songs with both solid and horrendous theology. Musical style is largely a socialized preference.

Unfortunately, Christians take their preferences and attempt to spiritualize them as principles for everyone. Such an attitude diminishes unity in Jesus, to whom worship is due in all its varied expressions.

Such an attitude also fails to account for the variation of worship expression found in the Bible itself. There are seven Hebrew words used to describe worshipful praise – a wide variety of meanings from solemn silence, to instruments playing loud, to hand-waving dance. It seems the very word describing how worship looks includes varying styles. Not only should varying styles be acceptable in church, they should be encouraged, expected, and experienced – as long as they point to the Lord as the One being praised.

• Halal – Halal is a primary Hebrew root word for praise. Our word “hallelujah” comes from this base word. It means “to be clear, to shine, to boast, show, to rave, celebrate, to be clamorously foolish.”
• Yadah – Yadah is a verb with a root meaning, “the extended hand, to throw out the hand, therefore to worship with extended hand.” According to the Lexicon, the opposite meaning is “to bemoan, the wringing of the hands.”
• Towdah – Towdah comes from the same principle root word as yadah, but is used more specifically. Towdah means, “an extension of the hand in adoration, avowal, or acceptance.” It is used in the Psalms and elsewhere for thanking God for “things not yet received” as well as things already at hand.
• Shabach – Shabach means, “to shout, to address in a loud tone, to command, to triumph.”
• Barak – Barak means “to kneel down, to bless God as an act of adoration.”
• Zamar – Zamar means “to pluck the strings of an instrument, to sing, to praise; a musical word which is largely involved with joyful expressions of music with musical instruments.
• Tehillah – Tehillah is derived from the word halal and means “the singing of halals, to sing or to laud; perceived to involve music, especially singing; hymns of the Spirit.

Third, a blended worship service is itself a particular worship style. To offer this style exclusively appears to contradict the very diversity called for in the original piece. I can appreciate the idea of a worship service with “something for everyone.” I just find it to be less than practical and largely inauthentic when attempted on a regular basis. I’ve attended services that tried to cater to a multitude of palettes but it came off as just bland.

In my experience, what does work are special services dedicated to bringing the whole church together. Several times per year churches can hold joint worship services that function as a sort of “family reunion.” These can provide a harmonious sampling of the various styles present within the Body while celebrating the mission being pursued in unison by the whole church. These moments are sacred, special, and powerful… they were EPIC!

In support of its thesis, the post quotes influential thinker, author, and Semiotician, Leonard Sweet. Sweet coined the acronym E.P.I.C. to describe the elements of a meaningful worship service. EPIC stands for Experiential, Participatory, Image Based, and Connective.

EPIC worship, however, is a goal to be pursued in worship regardless of preferred stylistic expression. A contemporary, traditional, hip-hop, cowboy, or blended service should pursue EPIC status. Len Sweet is my friend and mentor, so I’ve discussed this acronym at length with him over coffee from his collection of uranium-enhanced Jadite mugs. In my conversations with Sweet, although he certainly has preferences of worship style, his hope is that worship services of any and all styles would be EPIC.

Finally, one’s preference of worship style is often a moving target. It can vary within one’s own comfort zone, or in cases of myself and my circle of friends, it can vary wildly, depending on the mood we’re in. Since I’m a drummer and bass guitarist my first preference is music with solid rhythm and bass you can feel. On other days, I like bluegrass. Because I grew up with a Grandmother that sang gospel, there are some days I want some southern gospel (then some fried chicken and biscuits after church). Then again, few songs move me like the hymns, Be Thou My Vision and A Mighty Fortress is our God. It might be wise for us to address the variation in our own preferences as a way to understand the space needed for the variation of worship expression in the church.

Given the thoughts above, I question whether or not variation of worship styles within a church is necessarily negative. In other words, should churches seek to reduce the amount of variation present in the worship services? I say no.

C.S. Lewis used the metaphor of a great house when talking about how differing groups practices both unity and diversity. In the hallways, they were united, in the rooms, they practiced differences. I like his metaphor and think it can make for a practical template.

My family is at once very similar and very different. We love each other, we love our home, and we love being together. However, we have very different tastes and interests as reflected in how our rooms are arranged. My man cave looks nothing like my daughter’s room. We live in the same house, but it would counter-productive and damaging to our relationships to insist we all stay in one room, or to require that every room look the same, or to require that each room contain elements of interest to other family members. What unites my family is our common love for each other and the time we invest working with, living with, and serving each other. For the church, it is our common mission as a Christ-centered Body that unites us, not a forced tolerance or acceptance of preferential tastes.

 I don’t believe it necessary for a church to unite over worship style any more than a mosaic should be comprised of all one color or shape. What makes a mosaic such an interesting piece of art is the diversity of shapes, colors, and textures combined in a manner that creates a unified image. The church is such a mosaic, united in Christ, our Master Artisan.

 What holds this mosaic together? Love for Christ and loving service to others.

I don’t prefer hip-hop music, but I love Jerry, a former student of mine who is a hip-hop artist. I’ll listen to Jerry rap, not because I pretend to like rap, but because I love Jerry. But even Jerry knows I wouldn’t go on tour with him. I may not attend a hip-hop service, but if Jerry were on my staff, I would advocate to have a hip-hop service. I would never make the people attending that service feel they have to attend the service I attend, nor would I tell traditional worshippers they should trade the organ for a drum kit. It’s what moves them, so I rejoice in what they prefer, even if I don’t prefer it.

However, when it’s time to be the hands and feet of Jesus, I would serve alongside people from the hip-hop service, the traditional service, the cowboy service, the reggae service or whatever other service might be offered. I would get to know them and their preferences at the common ground of love for and service through Christ. When you’re my brother or sister in Christ, who cares what your musical preference is? When someone comes to Christ, does it matter which service they attended? Regardless of the particular church service, the whole church wins! We may hang out in different rooms, but we’re in the same big family, in the same big house. And that’s a good thing.

Israel was called as one people to love and serve God and neighbor. They loved and served in unity. They worshipped One God in and through a variety of expressions. As long as we’re not building silos and fortifying our different rooms, why not celebrate the reality that Audio Adrenaline proclaimed loudly many years ago; “it’s a big, big house with lots and lots of rooms?”

Kevin Glenn

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About the Author
Dr. Kevin D. Glenn is a native of Central Florida, calling Auburndale his hometown (go Bloodhounds!). Kevin is a pastor with more than 23 years of church ministry experience, a contributor to local and national religious news outlets, a consultant to churches seeking healthy growth, and author of, Hand Over Fist: An Invitation to Christ-Centered Civility. Kevin is a graduate of Trinity College of Florida, Fuller Theological Seminary, and George Fox University, where he earned the Doctor of Ministry degree under the mentorship of Dr. Leonard Sweet. His hobbies include playing drums and guitar, fishing and being a fanatical Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan. He lives in Columbia, Missouri with his wife of 21 years and their two children

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