Blended Worship or Balanced Worship (Part 1)

Not long ago, a Florida mega-church abandoned split services (traditional and contemporary) for a more unified, “blended” service. The church, led by their new pastor, Tullian Tchavidjian (grandson of Billy Graham), decided to bring their church under one umbrella, united around the gospel. Tchavidjian said, “Generational appeal in worship is an unintentional admission that the Gospel is powerless to join together what man has separated”(click here for the article). This move triggered quite a bit of buzz in the church community. This move seems to be counter-cultural to much of the prevailing thought in church-growth today. Time will tell how well this works for them, but I applaud their consistency and vision for why they have made such a move. My forthcoming attempt to choose better terminology is by no means a criticism of this church–I simply give this as a high-profile example of a trend that is happening in the local church. While many of our churches have chosen their battles in the “worship wars”, many are still looking for answers to this complex question.

As in most conflict, much of the problem arises out of a misunderstanding of the language and intentions of those with whom we disagree. So, it is highly important that we define our terms and give everyone the benefit of the doubt in that we all want the same thing–a gospel-centered community of faith. Once we can agree on terms and trust the motives of our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we can begin to find answers as we participate in the free exchange of ideas that are based on biblical principle–not personal attacks and ideology based on personality and preferences.

Let me start with the idea of “blended” worship. First of all, I think I understand what most church leaders are referring to when they use this term, however, unless this is defined, it can still create several issues. First, the term blended worship was first put into the mainstream church lingo by Robert Webber, author, seminary professor, and founder of the Institute for Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Florida. The problem with this term, as it is commonly understood in non-liturgical, free church worship (which would characterize most independent and Southern Baptist churches), is not the way in which Webber defined it. Webber’s definition involved the blending of the ancient, liturgical practices with more contemporary expressions. He was an advocate of using liturgical church structure and infusing contemporary expressions within that structure. It’s not the intention of this post to debate the merit of Webber’s writings at this time (though, it is a worthy discussion for future posts), nor to debate the use of liturgical elements in worship, however, it illustrates the point that this term is greatly misunderstood. What we find is that those of us who often use the term the most, define it vastly different than the one who coined the term and wrote over 40 books that dealt with the idea.

My experience has been that most pastors and church leaders that I talk with define “blended” as a mixture of hymns and choruses. This is fine, and many churches have blended these two expressions somewhat successfully. However, I also believe that many that are attempting to move to a more “blended” format, carry some unrealistic expectations of what this format will do for them.

First, many attempt “blended” worship to try to “make everyone happy”. If you carry this motive for “blended” worship, you will find yourself sorely disappointed. What you will most likely find is that you will really make no one “happy”, but that everyone will be sufficiently dissatisfied with the music choices. The preferences of virtually no one will be satisfied and you will once again have a “fight” on your hands. The extremes of the personal preferences in most of our churches usually lie with the very young and the very old, and these two groups tend to be the most vocal, also assuring that “blended” worship will still fall tragically short because it still fails to address the preferences of these two groups. If we go to a blended format to make everyone “happy”, we are still relying on music to be the unifying factor, which doesn’t find it’s root in the Scripture.

Second, “blended” worship doesn’t typically address the content issues that we find in our songs. “Hymns” and “Choruses” are both broad terms that are equally as misunderstood and poorly defined as “blended”. What is a hymn? Is it what Paul talked about in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, or is it anything that was written prior to 1950? What is a chorus? Is it the refrain of a hymn or gospel song like “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus” or is it a contemporary song like “In Christ Alone”, which resembles more of a modern hymn than a “chorus”?  If you think that a “chorus” like “Gone, gone, gone, gone, yes my sins are gone…” is going to strike a nerve with the youth culture of this generation, you are probably going to be disappointed. Or if you think a “hymn” like “Mansion over the Hilltop” (which never mentions any attribute or name of God) is going to bring a Christo-centric unselfishness to your church, you may be disappointed there as well.  I have no problem with either of these songs in the right context, but they help to illustrate the misunderstanding that can often occur when we don’t define our terms.

Third, “blended” worship, as it is commonly defined, fails to address context. The context of a church and the culture it is trying to reach is incredibly unique from church to church and from culture to culture. There is no way that being overly simplistic in saying that we do “blended” worship can adequately define or describe the way that you do church. The corporate worship needs of a new church plant are vastly different than a church that has been in existence for several decades. Each presents unique challenges and opportunities for unity and gospel-centered community.

Lastly, “blended” worship does a poor job of addressing the aesthetics of the music that we present. Does this mean that we do hymns that are “updated” and choruses that are “sanitized”, or does it mean that we do 50%  traditional hymns and 50% contemporary choruses? Should “blended” worship look pretty much the same from church to church? What of the music, then? Does blended mean a mixture of drums and organ or electric guitar and timpani? What if you don’t have an organ or an electric guitar–can you still do “blended” worship? What does this sound like? Can we find this sound anywhere else in culture? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? These are a few of the questions that we need to wrestle with as we look at the concept of “blended” worship.

In the following post I will discuss the idea of “balanced” worship and see if this concept can provide a greater understanding of both the biblical and cultural implications of effective, gospel-centered ministry. What challenges do you see in some of our terminology and how are you addressing this in your church?

Key Thoughts on Corporate Worship

Corporate worship is based first and foremost on our common relationship in Christ. At first glance, this sounds pretty elementary and foundational to Christian doctrine. However, if you’ve ever tried to unify a diverse and multi-generational body in worship lately, you might find that it is easier said than done. Does that negate the truth of our unity in Christ? Not at all. However, the unnecessary conflict (some conflict is both healthy and necessary) exposes the fact that we enter into corporate worship with motives and expectations that aren’t based on our unity in Christ. Also, how we deal with that conflict is a tell-tale sign of where we are in our own relationship with God as well as an indicator of our love for our fellow believer.

So, what are the principles that should guide corporate worship in the church? Are we left to the whims of culture or are we confined solely to the traditions of man as they’ve been handed down to us? Is there middle ground, or is that simply compromise? These are questions that I have asked over the years.

As a leader, I want my actions and decisions to be founded on practical principles that won’t change through the passing of time. Does that mean that I lock myself in a cultural time-bubble, stick my head in the sand and decide right now THIS is the way it should be? I think not. I don’t want to make blanket statements today that I have to retract 20 years from now simply because I succumb to pressure or because I realize that my past decisions were based more on comfort and convenience than on what is biblical, practical, and effective.

Below, I have lined out some key thoughts that help guide me in my decisions for corporate worship. I pray that as we seek the Lord and learn to love people, our churches will once again experience the joy and unity of our common relationship with Christ.

Principle #1: Though Christianity is supracultural in its origin and truth, it is cultural in its application—this includes the arts when used as medium to the gospel message. (Acts 2; Acts 17:26-30; 1 Cor 9:19-22)

Principle #2: Through Christ, the church has experienced the redemption of articles and practices that may have at one time been considered common or undesirable for believers (Acts 10:9-15; 1 Tim 4:1-5; 1 Cor. 10:29-31; Titus 1:15).

Principle #3: God is both transcendent and immanent in His relationship with His people and the nature of this relationship will be evident in a balanced view of this truth as it relates to corporate worship. The fear of God is our foundation for our friendship with Him (Acts 17:24-27; Psalm 25:14).

Principle #4: Recognition should be made that sola Scriptura requires consistent reevaluation of even the most revered human traditions (Matt 15:3-6; Mark 7:9-13; Col 2:8; 1 Peter 1:18-19).

Principle #5: Clear communication is vital to corporate worship, and communication must be contemporary, at least in the sense of being familiar to the hearers. Anything that varies greatly from common forms and styles will do more to detract from the message rather than contribute to its communication (1 Cor 14:7-9).

Principle #6: Sensitivity to the potential presence of unbelievers in corporate worship gatherings should influence, at least to some degree, the elements of public worship events (1 Cor 14:23-25).

Principle #7: The Great Commission requires us to engage with the culture of people outside the church (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 17; Romans 15:20; 1 Cor 9:19-23).

Principle #8: Maintaining unity among the diversity of the church’s membership requires that we defer to one another in love, being willing to submit one another’s preferences to that which is most edifying to the church body as a whole (John 13:35; 1 Thes 3:12; Gal 5:13; Eph 5:21).

Principle #9: Expressions of art have no inherent power other than what the creators and interpreters of the art willingly give to it (Isaiah 2:8; 2 Tim 1:7; 1 Cor 8:1-13). This has two main implications concerning corporate worship music: (1 Cor 6:12).

  1. There is no music that is unlawful for Christian expression in and of itself. However, not all music may be appropriate for all cultural contexts. (1 Cor 10:23)
  2. There is no particular music and/or artistic expression that is necessary for corporate worship. However, certain expressions/styles will be more appropriate for particular cultural contexts. (Psalm 34:18; John 4:20-24)

Principle #10: God accepts and desires the worship of people from every race, nation, and tribe. (Psalm 66:4; Rev. 14:6-7;  Rev. 5:9-10; John 4). These distinctions are largely cultural and the Scripture does not prohibit the free expression of worship based on cultural grounds only, unless the heart of the one who offers is not authentic (spirit and truth), or the expression is expressly forbidden in Scripture. (Mark 7:7; Gen. 4:4-7).

Let me know your thoughts.

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