music, worship wars

Franks Answers About Worship Wars Peace Negotiations

Question: Frank, you were a speaker at the Canadian Rockies Theological Conference on “Worship Wars Peace Negotiations.” Was peace achieved?

Frank answers: This is a churchly issue, but it may be of more general interest. Let me first fill in the general reader on the issue. The “worship wars” concern the battle between so-called “contemporary worship” and so-called “traditional worship”. I say “so-called” because any worship happening now is contemporary, and “contemporary worship” has been around long enough (since the 1960s) to have become a tradition in some places. Usually the issue concerns the music: popular musical styles for contemporary worship and classical church music and congregational hymns for traditional worship. The battles are fought in the trenches in congregations over what kind of worship will be offered and why. This is a worldwide issue.

The speakers at the conference you reference were me (addressing issues of liturgical order—the order of service), Dr. Amy Schifrin, President of the North American Lutheran Seminary (addressing issues of the relationship of words and tunes), and Steve Bell, a Canadian composer and singer (demonstrating his settings of some traditional liturgical texts). We quickly achieved a convergence of views and tried to promote a convergence of worship music within one liturgical celebration (as opposed to blended worship). “Blended” worship suggests having different styles within one order of service just to satisfy particular preferences within the congregation. We chose the word “convergence” to indicate different styles coming together in one worship service in an integral way. We were able to demonstrate this in the final Eucharist (Communion Service) of the conference in which primarily contemporary music was used in an historic order of service.  And none of this was planned in advance! We built to this finale during the course of the conference.

Three principles that I think we agreed on are these: Christians in the mainline churches come together to hear the word of God in Scripture and sermon and to celebrate Holy Communion. A service that is a concert followed by a message and some kind of response is inadequate. The full order includes gathering, word, meal, and being sent. Various types of music can be chosen to fit into this order. The two things that are most important in the selection of the music are: (1) that the words of the songs fit the liturgical moment, the seasons of the church year calendar, and the readings; and (2) that they facilitate the people’s participation. Worship songs are not just performance pieces.

One other thing that Amy, Steve, and I agreed on is that our worship needs to be more sensual. We receive information through all five senses (hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, tasting) and our responses to this information should be expressed bodily in various postures such as standing, sitting, kneeling, raising hands, turning, and walking. Worship should be in motion. It needs to engage the whole body, not just the mind. That makes both worship books and projection screens less than helpful. (Pews aren’t too helpful either!) What we need are songs and responses that the people can easily learn and sing while they are bodily in motion. These musical pieces would include psalm antiphons (refrains), hymn refrains, and prayer responses (e.g. Kyrie eleison – Lord, have mercy). Bodily worship is best seen in Eastern Orthodoxy and Pentecostalism. Talk about convergence! Taize prayer may be a way to enter this kind of worship experience (see the image following this post).

Was peace achieved? The conference was to negotiate peace. I think we provided a framework. It needs to be worked out in every congregation. And that will require the engagement of the pastor, the musicians, and the worshiping assembly.

Pastor Frank Senn



1 Comment

  1. Karl Johnsen

    As one of the organizers of the conference mentioned, I offer the following observations:

    1) It was interesting to note the degree of convergence that already existed between our three speakers, even before they shared their presentations. Even at dinner on the first night of the conference Steve Bell perked up right away when in the course of mealtime conversation Frank and Amy mentioned that they believe we need to engage our whole bodies and our all five senses in our worship. Steve has been on a similar trajectory in his thinking for quite some time.

    2) There was also a high degree of prior convergence in thinking in terms of the inherent deficiencies in the “revival meeting” ordo that has become the default ordo in so many of the churches that practice so called “contemporary worship”.

    3) The question of musical style came up again and again. And once again all three speakers agreed that a variety of musical styles are desirable, and that the context of the worshipping community needed to factor into the musical choices made. But it was also agreed that not all musical styles would work in every instance. Amy showed us how this is true even with the hymn settings within the LBW. Even if the meter fits, the text and the tune did not always “talk to one another”. Try singing LBW 117 (O Sacred Head Now Wounded) to the tune of LBW 25 (Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers) and you will see what she means.

    Anyway, I could go on. Suffice to say that it quickly became evident that there is the possibility of more convergence between the two liturgical worlds than we might sometimes suppose. Depending of course upon to whom one is speaking within those worlds. I am excited about what might come of further discussions between Frank, Amy, and Steve.

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