Anyone who has visited a shopping mall understands the big idea behind a food court.
“If you want Mexican food, you go here. … If you want pizza, you go over there,” said Kenny Lamm, the worship ministry strategist for the Southern Baptist Convention of North Carolina. “Then we sit together and eat whatever we want.”
“The question is whether a food-court approach works if you are seeking unity while leading worship in a church.”
In the latest wrinkle in what researchers have long called the “worship wars,” some church leaders are asking a blunt question about the decision to trade traditional hymnals for contemporary Christian music. That question: Has the typical Sunday service become a semiprofessional concert instead of a communal worship experience for all believers?
As part of his work, Lamm hears from many pastors, musicians and church members. One recent letter — which he posted while keeping the writer anonymous — combined many hot-button issues in this debate. After four weeks of visiting a church, the writer noted that he was constantly distracted during worship by “haze machines,” “programmable lights that blind the audience,” concert-level darkness in the auditorium, as well as musicians wearing “ball caps,” skinny jeans, “Chuck Taylor” tennis shoes and other “stage” apparel.
Many of the new songs seemed to confuse the congregation.
“The melody is unmemorable. Very few in the audience seem to know the songs either; indeed as we looked around during one of the songs, we did not see one person singing — not one,” noted this visitor. “Some of the songs are so high I cannot sing them. I wish the leaders would consider the average singer! Why does just about every praise and worship song go up an octave and double in volume halfway through, then die back down at the end?”
Concerning volume levels, he added: “Driving home, my wife indicated that the excessive loudness was starting to cause some serious anxiety. Having earplugs available in the lobby is a sure sign there might be a problem.”
For generations, noted Lamm, most Protestant worship music came from hymnals that developed over time, shaped by denominational leaders who weighed whether these songs and anthems were “theologically sound” and familiar to most worshippers.
VIDEO: Companies sell fog machines specifically to churches
But traditions began changing in the 1970s. While trying to appeal to young people and the unchurched, worship leaders replaced classic, familiar hymns with hit songs from contemporary Christian radio shows and publishing houses. Hymnals disappeared, replaced by song lyrics projected with multimedia equipment — which assumed worshippers already knew the melodies and the arrangements.
In the 1980s, the big hits “might stay around for several years,” said Lamm, reached by telephone. Then songs began drifting out of popularity every few months. Today, “worship bands” — usually with drums, bass, guitars, electronic keyboards and multiple vocalists — may rotate new material into services every few weeks.
“It’s a consumer mentality,” he explained. “Worship leaders are thinking, ‘If I’m not singing the latest, greatest songs, then I’m behind, which means that our church is behind everybody else, and we need to catch up.’”
Lamm stressed that he supports church musicians seeking excellence in everything they do, including the use of contemporary songs and technology that improve worship, as opposed to creating a “concert” environment that separates stage performers from the congregation. It’s possible, he said, to create services that — while avoiding food-court syndrome — combine classic hymns, popular modern songs and new pieces, perhaps one per service, that worshippers will need to learn.
Right now, said Lamm, worship leaders should ask this question, Are church members still singing together, or have they become isolated listeners?
“It is moving to come to worship and see a family present that just lost a loved one and see them worshipping with all their might; it really encourages those around them,” he wrote, in an online reflection. “Seeing a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter standing side by side, boldly singing songs to the Lord together motivates others to worship wholeheartedly.”
Too often, he added, modern churches “transform their times of gathered worship into personal worship for the congregation at best and spectatorship at worst. Essentially it denies the existence of the corporate body journeying together in this act of worship.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.