The Wars of Worship

July 17, 2002

What will be the judgment a century hence concerning the lorded works of our favorite composers today? Inasmuch as nearly everything is subject to the changes of time, and -- more's the pity -- the fashions of time, only that which is good and true will endure like a rock and no wanton hand will ever venture to defile it. Then, let every man do which is right, strive with all his might towards the goal which can never be obtained, develop to the last breath the gifts with which the gracious Creator has endowed him, and never cease to learn. For life is short, art eternal. - Ludwig van Beethoven
It used to be so easy. Big churches had big choirs. Little churches had little choirs or -- in some denominations -- no choirs at all.
Then, in dizzying succession, came Vatican II folk masses, youth choirs, contemporary Christian music (CCM), church orchestras and praise and worship music. Some churches now do one, some do another and some do a combination of all of the above.

What's a music minister to do?

One person who recognizes the problem is Baylor alumnus and former regent Billy Ray Hearn, a noted musician, producer and promoter. Hearn also is chair of EMI Christian Music Group and the founder of Sparrow Records, which was acquired in 1992 by EMI of London, an international megalabel company. Sparrow, based in Nashville, Tenn., is the largest CCM label in the world, home to artists such as Steven Curtis Chapman and Bebe and CeCe Winans.
"What's happened is, the ministers of music or the worship leaders have not been trained to do what they are being asked to do now," Hearn says. "They are very insecure in what they're being asked to do."


Part of the reason is they're being asked to do a little bit of everything -- lead a sanctuary choir, run a youth praise band and, in their spare time, counsel with congregation members. 
The job schizophrenia music ministers increasingly experience comes from unrealistic expectations and pressures, Hearn says. For example, a pastor sees the church down the street growing rapidly, assumes it's because of the music used in worship and tells his music minister to use the same kind of music. Or, Hearn adds, a music minister goes to a conference, loves the music he hears there and wants to incorporate it in his church -- but his pastor refuses. "It's splitting more churches than theology," Hearn says.

Church wars

Among those who agree with Hearn is Dr. William V. May, dean of the Baylor School of Music. His sympathy, not surprisingly, is with the suddenly embattled music minister.
"They've found themselves embroiled in the church wars," says Dr. May, also a Baylor alumnus. "Churches have divided over these issues. In those places where it has become genuine conflict, where congregations have literally divided, then it's even more tragic. Then, the whole issue of worship style has overshadowed the real mission of the church to the degree that people succumb to human frailty, put the worship of God out of the picture and put all of their own personal prejudices in place."
Dr. Donald Balmos, another Baylor alumnus and music minister at Seventh & James Baptist Church, adjacent to the Baylor campus, has an even blunter assessment of the current state of affairs: "Ministers of music, as they are currently trained, may become a prehistoric animal. They will need to become not just choral musicians, but musicians who understand jazz/pop elements as they apply to church music, musicians who understand instrumental music as well as they understand vocal music." 
Recent surveys confirm these observations. Christianity Today magazine commissioned a survey that revealed a significant trend in church worship styles. In 1993, "traditional" was the dominant form of music in more than 50 percent of all U.S. churches. By September 2001, that number was down to 24 percent. Another 22 percent of the churches characterized their music as "contemporary." The biggest gain, 43 percent, was found in the category called "blended," services that incorporate both traditional and contemporary music styles.
Those numbers also reflect the attendance figures of the responding churches. More people now attend churches that use a blended music style than those that feature contemporary music, with traditional music churches a distant third.
Dr. Terry York, associate professor of Christian ministry and church music at Baylor, has given this topic much thought. He is author of America's Worship Wars: Veterans of the Front Versus Veterans of the Fort, set for a fall 2002 release by Hendrickson Publishers. For Dr. York, who holds a dual appointment to the School of Music and Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary, the source of the conflict is clear. It is part of a "shift from modernity to postmodernity as it funnels into and is played out in the sanctuary," he says. 
"The short answer is that what we're experiencing in worship and all the different styles of worship is warfare," he says, adding that what worship and warfare have in common is they are both the ultimate in human expression.
"Warfare is the most terrible thing that we've ever created and worship the noblest thing we've ever been a part of," Dr. York says. "Both of those find their seedbed in the deep soul of the human being. I think that is why at some point, unfortunately, we talk about current developments in worship in the vocabulary of warfare."
On the front lines of this battle are the music ministers. As church worship styles change, music ministers either must adapt or flee the ecclesiastical battlefield. Some are equipped to change from leading a 100-voice choir one Sunday and an eight-member praise and worship band the next. Many are not. 

What is church music?

Defining church music becomes the central challenge. A traditionalist would say it always must be a large choir, accompanied by a thundering pipe organ performing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." Those of the contemporary bent would argue quite differently.
Even in the late 1960s, this question was on the minds of Baylor music students, says Dr. May, who was an undergraduate at the time. He remembers when School of Music Dean Daniel Sternberg addressed it.
"Dean Daniel Sternberg said, 'Church music is music that takes place in church. If we place any other boundaries on that definition, we find too many exceptions,'" Dr. May recalls. "Something that simple took me years to think through. Why would he stand there and say something as simplistic as that?"
Today, Dr. May believes he better understands Dr. Sternberg's wisdom: "As a musician, I want people to recognize the powerful force that music is in our lives, in our culture and in our day-to-day existence. In the act of worship, music creates powerful emotions, feelings and detachment from trivial, everyday things. We want to use that as a tool to get people in a worshipful frame of mind." 

Proper focus

Advocates of all styles of worship music would agree that, in most churches, worshiping the Almighty is the proper focus, not the music itself. 
"People react in different ways to achieve that worshipful state," Dr. May says. "Because it's such a powerful feeling and something that's so personal, we not only want to reproduce it for ourselves, but we want to reproduce it for others. We want others to feel those same feelings that we have."
Gary Rhodes graduated from Baylor's School of Music in the early 1980s and is worship pastor at Waco's Highland Baptist Church, a forerunner in the praise and worship music phenomenon. As a composer, his musicals "My Utmost for His Highest" and "A Christmas to Remember" have won the coveted Gospel Music Association's Dove Award. He believes music preference is intensely personal.
"For me, as a music minister, I can't do a chorus or a hymn that I can't own in worship," he says. "You feel like a hypocrite up there leading it if it's something that you feel is not where you are in worship."

Lines that divide

Dr. May asserts that the problem with church music is not music at all, but deeper, underlying divisions in individual expectations of what the worship experience should be, and those are as diverse as each person sitting in the sanctuary pews. 
"When two different things cause two different people to come to that worshipful moment, then we have a problem," Dr. May says. "But it's not the music. It's the differences in worship. And when attitudes collide, we have church wars."
And they're getting worse. Dr. Randall Bradley, professor of church music and director of Baylor's Church Music Program, says the music wars in churches have been brewing for about 20 years. They've escalated in the past decade as membership in more churches declines, populations become more urbanized and more baby boomers and busters move into senior pastorates.
"The wide disparity in seminary education concerning the role of music and worship that was prevalent until very recent years is also taking its toll," Dr. Bradley says. "Until the last few years, many seminaries did not require specific courses on worship or music for students studying for the pastorate. Meanwhile, students preparing for music ministry were being educated very differently." 
Confusing the issue further is the continued flood of new music at the disposal of music ministers. Thirty years ago, the typical music minister chose pieces mostly from the denominational hymnal, Dr. Bradley says. Things are different today. Music ministers use several hymnals, as well as various songbooks, recently released CDs and songs that debut at conferences. Even the Internet is a source.
"It's an overwhelming task," Dr. Bradley says. "Ten to 30 years ago, suggestions from congregants included a hymn or a new choral anthem heard in another congregation. Today, many congregational members listen to lots of recordings and are often more savvy regarding new music than their music ministers."

Listening sessions

The School of Music's first response was to acknowledge a problem exists. With that in mind, Drs. May, York and Bradley hosted six different listening sessions with music ministers from across Texas -- nearly 300 ministers in all.
"One of the things we heard a number of times was, 'I would never want my child to do this as a career,'" Dr. Bradley says. "That's very scary. The fact that two or three people were bold enough to state that in a large group setting makes one wonder how many other people were feeling that and would never be willing to say it?" 
As a result of those discussions, the church music faculty studied existing curriculum and recommended revisions. 
"We're going to address the preparation of church musicians at Baylor by training them to be the very best musicians possible," Dr. May says. "We're going to give them the skills to deal with the most complicated, most demanding musical styles that we have. And while making them into successful musicians, we're also teaching them to be flexible, effective worship leaders."
Dr. Bradley says the majority of the music ministers they talked to didn't believe Baylor needed to drop courses from its core curriculum, but rather broaden it.
"Church music curricula are getting bigger as music ministers are expected to know more and more," he says.
Major revisions included discussion of practical issues such as staff relationships, dealing with change, working with difficult people and leadership skills. Other topics include pastoral care and basic counseling skills -- subjects music ministers traditionally have not been taught.
"Music ministers have to be ministers first and musicians second," Dr. Bradley says. "That doesn't mean they don't have to be excellent at both. However, with today's congregations, the ministry aspect of music ministry is not negotiable."

Joint degree program

The joint degree program between Truett Seminary and the School of Music began in 1997. The first graduate was in 2000, followed by one each in the next two years. Dr. Bradley expects as many as six graduates in 2003. Baylor's program is unique among Baptist institutions, although several others are watching to gauge the success of the joint degree concept, he says.
The joint degree program continues to build as Dr. May seeks additional faculty and assembles the resources to begin a doctoral program in church music. "With the doctoral program in place, we'll equip people to go out and teach in these programs at other institutions," he says.
Dr. York agrees that a music minister must be as much minister as musician. "Now, they are studying theology and Scripture just as if they were going to be pastors. I'm teaching future pastors in the Seminary and I'm teaching future ministers of music in the School of Music that the music and the ministry are equally important," he says.

Coming together

Meanwhile, others actively are seeking ways to end the "church wars," including Hearn, who is the driving force behind the inaugural "Music and the Church: Relevance in a Changing Culture" conference, hosted by Baylor's Center for Christian Music Studies. The conference is part of the Billy Ray Hearn Endowed Symposium on Christian Music and will be held Oct. 7-9. The symposium will bring together for the first time representatives from churches, the CCM industry and academia to explore common ground, Dr. York says. 
"These three entities often go about their work without consulting each other," he says. "From the academic side, there is the fear we'll water down our responsibility to give church musicians a sound and solid foundation. But we should be prepared to deal with trends; we should not stick our heads in the sand. The Christian music industry sees academia as being stuck in an old paradigm. Both of these perceptions are untrue."
The symposium and the larger questions it addresses are close to Hearn's heart, not only because of his love for Christian music and worship, but because of his devotion to Baylor.
"This is not a 'how-to' symposium, this is a philosophical, theological approach to the question, 'What is music's role in today's church?'" Hearn says. "I believe that it's time that all elements, all equations in the Protestant church, come together and talk about music and worship and see if we are relevant to the present culture. I just think that's something that should be done, and I'm working hard to see that it's done on the Baylor campus."
Dr. York agrees. "Many of the people in the CCM industry in Nashville are Baylor graduates. They have a desire to have their alma mater affirm their innovative work. We want them to feel comfortable about coming home to Baylor. They no longer have to sneak in the back door. We want the world to know they came through here." 

Unifying force

Dr. May also hopes this conference can act as a unifying force in church music. 
"I hope it makes people recognize that we can move from style to style in church music, but the intent is the same," he says. "If we're going to have wars, let's not war over the styles of music. People will value some styles over others, and musicians will value some styles over those of nonmusicians. That's the way our culture is, and that doesn't have anything in particular to do with my belief in Jesus Christ."
Dr. Balmos has been in the middle of these worship wars for almost three decades, at First Methodist Church of Waco and now at Seventh & James Baptist. Classically trained through Baylor's School of Music, where he received both his bachelor's and master's in music, he has been worship leader at Seventh & James since September 1999. He annually conducts a combined civic and church choir numbering more than 200 in Handel's "Messiah." Although Seventh & James features traditional music exclusively, Balmos also plays in a jazz combo on his own time. He hopes the symposium and other efforts at musical reconciliation do, indeed, signal the beginning of the end of the church wars.
"In my perfect world, I would hope that church congregations, pastors, ministers of music and all church staff would seek to educate each other in quality worship," he says, "not worship for convenience or entertainment, but worship that challenges the mind and the heart and causes the person to grow artistically as well as spiritually."