The False Dichotomy of Choosing Worship Sides


dividedA false dichotomy is the belief that if one thing is true, then another one can’t be. This comparison is typically used to force a selection between one side or another by making the assumption they are two opposing positions. So either/or options are initiated in order to elevate one side over the other or to coerce participants to choose.

Even after a couple of decades, opposing or contrasting views are still being openly expressed and written about when it comes to worship styles, especially hymns or modern worship songs. Those dialogues perpetuate either/or dichotomies by attempting to elevate one side at the expense of the other. The use of all encompassing statements such as “modern worship songs are trite” or “hymns are archaic” continue to perpetuate the conflict. And those 7-11 monikers and old time religion epithets that are neither funny nor accurate exacerbate the right/wrong and good/bad worship comparisons that are still dividing churches.

Defending one by criticizing the other is actually an act of self-defense so it’s usually preferential, not theological. Attempting to protect our favorite hymns or modern worship songs by vilifying the other can actually have the opposite effect of marginalizing the one we are trying to protect. If they really need our feeble attempts to prop them up, then are they actually viable options? If, however, both can stand on their own merit as many of us believe they can, then they will endure in spite of our criticisms and defenses.

We have a tendency to compare and contrast God’s artistry based on our own musical history, practical experiences and preferences. So limiting art to only what we know and like assumes He only likes what we know. False worship dichotomies discount God’s calling for us to create and offer new art in response to His diverse revelations. And since those callings are so unique to our contexts and cultures, how can our new art responses be contained in one generation or genre?

Modern worship songs or hymns and what follows them are here to stay. So instead of defending one by maligning the other, we should be praying that the peace of Christ would keep them and us in tune with each other. And we should pray that our unity instead of theological and stylistic aspersions could lead us to places way beyond our previous identities and imaginations.

Hymns and modern worship songs aren’t mutually exclusive, so it is not necessary to choose one over the other. And as long as we are filtering them according to theology instead of partiality they can both live in harmony and compatibility as worship allies instead of adversaries. When they do we’ll discover what it means to glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one mind and one voice (Rom 15:6).


17 Responses to “The False Dichotomy of Choosing Worship Sides”

  • Tony Says:

    Anytime the “Church” goes through change, ginormous or tiny, history* has shown people. whine about it. And the last 30(+) years is no exception. I’m confident as long as ministry remains a “business” of imperfect, broken opinionated people, this along w/other elements of the “Church experience” will continue.
    * going back to well before Apostolic times.

    My Lead Pastor uses the euphemism worship preference for worship wars*. Yet I continue to read articles on the same*, always seeing in the Comments, more than half the “ugly” directed at Contemporary, that, SOMEHOW, traditional is better.

    In Heaven it won’t matter.

  • Todd Swanson Says:

    This is an interesting article but if one simply removes the protestant lens the argument goes even deeper. Every couple hundred years the church goes through an epoch musical shift. Ancient plainchant was succeeded by shape note singing approx 1500. Shape note singing was relaced by European styled hymns approx 1800. European hymns were replaced by choruses 1960’s Choruses are currently being displaced with modern hymns approx 2010+. Look past personal tastes to see God establishes contemporary worship styles for each generation. See Ps 90:01b Lord thou hast been a dwelling place in all generations.

  • Todd Says:

    Let’s say someone from Tennessee believes that country and bluegrass truly expresses the “right” and honoring way to worship. They choose a regionally specific cultural expression (music) and communicate clearly this is the worship God desires (reasons supplied). The person who thinks traditional Euro/American hymns does the same thing. How Great Thou Art is a Swedish folk tune. I choose country and bluegrass to throw us all off. Hum, I guess that’s possible. To hold that a cultural expression (music) is now right next to Jesus in making us acceptable or making our worship acceptable is the Galatian heresy. Acts 2, Acts 10, Acts 15, and Revelation 7 — the barriers from one cultural expression (language, food) have now been removed in order that Christ alone makes our worship and our very lives acceptable. The leaders of the church observe what is appropriate in lyric and style. It is love that should motivate a church in Tennessee to sing country and bluegrass not preference. That church should also acknowledge black gospel music if there are blacks in their neighborhood. It is love that motivates missionaries to not say “hey, don’t worship until the pump organ arrives!” All songs fall short of expressing God’s greatness just like our works as believers. The “vibe” one gets when some cultural expression is held as the standard is LAW. It is not quite at the level of Mt. Sinai — but it is law nevertheless. The African, now living ins Sweden, observes exclusive Swedish folk songs. They think to themselves, “this must be the acceptable way to worship God”. (Jesus is the acceptable way to worship God). Jesus did not die so Swedes could communicate that their tiny cultural expression would be communicated as the way to worship God. It’s awful stuff. Gospel culture includes the nations, tribes and languages of the world.

  • Carlos Says:

    I love harmony. I love to sing the correct words, with the correct rhythm, on the correct pitch, whether it be melody or harmony. And I most love it when there are other kindred souls around me doing the same.

    I am sad to see congregational harmonic singing being lost. Everyone only sings the melody, and meekly.

    I will not sing a praise song the first time I hear it. After I become familiar with the new songs, I will join in joyfully, mimicking the bass players licks. But there is never a printed song sheet available for the new songs. Why is that?

    The hymnals have everything one needs to sing correctly. Can we make the big screens have just words for the non-readers, with words and notes on the other screen for those who can read?

  • Terry Says:

    I see your point when it comes to worship….its to praise Jesus not appease us. There are now churches that put on Christian rock shows to try to bring in anyone they can….sadly I believe they just want to increase there numbers and not so much to just praise the Lord. We as Christians and worship leaders need to remember what we are there for……That is to praise Jesus lift him up in a Holy way. There are upbeat newer songs that do that. But we don’t need a loud rock show. We need to keep in prayer about this. Remember it’s to glorify Jesus.

  • Todd Malcolm Says:

    This has been very troubling to me. My only plea is to ask “Why”? It isn’t so much the songs themselves…it’s the format. Growing up, there was typically a song leader, they were in a suit, you may or may not have heard his/her voice over the congregation. Today, we have rock bands on stage playing so loudly you rarely can hear the congregation…many offering ear plugs as you walk in. Who is this edifying? I would offer that it unintentionally lends itself to idol worship and I often feel it’s somewhat of an act…I’m not saying insincere love of the Lord…but, often feels some of the band members are forcing their “holiness” up on stage. It’s true that I personally believe modern worship songs are pretty empty and shallow, but I can live with that. (It appears I have to)

    I just know that when the church tries harder to mimic the world than they do to actually humbly glorify the Triune God…that’s a problem…and it falls at the feet of the senior pastor. I fear it’s a precarious thing to take focus off of the vertical and make it horizontal. Again, trendy haircuts and skinny jeans on stage certainly don’t lend to taking the focus off the leaders and putting it on God…the true focus.

    I personally witnessed at a church I came early to help set up for service the praise band telling off color jokes as they were getting set up. We all have made mistakes, but it doesn’t seem the reverence is there and it’s understandable. It’s concerning when young performers go from crude joking to lifting their hands in praise. It often seems it’s about the performance, not the worship. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need flawless music, just open hearts.

    I also find it fascinating that you OFTEN hear bands say, “sing out church”…why is that? That NEVER happened in the days of traditional worship, because the congregation was ALWAYS singing already. Why sing when you can’t even hear your own voice??

    Again, I would never judge anyone’s heart or motives, but between volume level and shallow songs nobody knows…what’s the reasoning. The congregation IS NOT THERE to be groupies for the band…the song leaders are there for the congregation. It rarely feels like that today and that isn’t progress.

    I DO love Christian rock music, but it doesn’t belong in our corporate worship. There is what’s “good” to men…and there’s what’s BEST according to God.

    Sorry for the rant!

  • Ryan Says:

    This problem is something that we have faced multiple times. Even when you have an even mix of music. I think we need to stop thinking about what music we want and start thinking about what music our neighbor can connect through.

    Example – The young man should want the older person to be able to connect through the timeless hymn they love, and the elderly woman should be glad that the youth have modern music that brings them a deep closeness with God.

    This should cause each person to connect to God as well by seeing the other person in a state of worship. Even if it is not there preferred music choice. “Love your neighbor more than yourself” comes to mind.

  • David Manner Says:

    Jon, What a great idea! This is a creative way to expose all generations to worship music with timeless text and tunes. And what a great way to celebrate 150 years of ministry. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jon Zerkel Says:

    Wonderful, insightful article. Thank you for sharing! This year, my home congregation is celebrating our 150th anniversary. My wife is the worship leader; and during the past five weeks, we have been taking “a look back” at some of the songs that were popular during various times in our church’s history. For example, Week one we sang songs that were popular during the late 19th century, week two was the early 20th century, week three was the mid-20th century, the late 20th century, and next week will be songs written/ popular during the early 21st century. It has been wonderful to hear some of the younger generation comment on how they actually liked some of the “old songs,” as well as the older generation say they same thing about the “new songs.”

    One last thought… I always hate to write or talk about “my home church” or “our congregation.” The church always has and ALWAYS WILL belong to one person and one person only…. Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

  • David Manner Says:

    Great way to focus more on those foundational worship elements we often minimize. I can’t wait to hear from you how that service goes.

  • Duane Hines Says:

    More incredible insights on this huge and sensitive topic! This comes up rather more often than I care to admit in my church. We’re going to be having a “special” service without music in a little over a month and it’s going to focus on worship and the role it is to play in our lives, not just on Sunday morning but the other 167 hours of the week as well! We’ll have scripture readings, communion, sharing, praying and teaching! Should be an awesome service! Really looking forward to it!

  • David Manner Says:

    Thanks Matthew. Give me a shout sometime. I’d love to visit with your students.

  • Matthew Swain Says:

    David, thank you for your thoughtful words. Appreciate all you are doing to encourage thoughtful theological discussions on these topics. I still want to have you to Midwestern Seminary one of these days! Let’s make it happen. I know you would be a real blessing to our worship students who are being equipped to serve the local church.

  • David Manner Says:

    John, I can’t wait to get your new book when it is released in September. I’ll definitely share it with our worship leaders. Sounds like a great comparison.

  • Phil Womack Says:

    Thank you for giving me a very insightful article to base help people understand my own point of view about the “Worship Wars” & how they are destroying each other & promoting divisions in the church.

  • John Gage Says:

    I Totally agree..I have a book being released on Amazon by September 15 entitled “Hymns In Worship: Rediscovering the Power of the Familiar” in which I compare the top 10 CCLI contemporary songs, and the top 10 requested hymns in our “traditional service”..the lyrics comparison will surprise you!! BOTH can be used of God, and are ministering to people of ALL generations!

  • Marie Says:

    AMEN!!! I love both modern worship songs and old hymns. It hurts my heart to see either side disparage the other because of personal preference. I think as long as a song lifts up the name of Jesus in a theologically sound way, it doesn’t matter what century or decade it was written in. I am the assistant to our worship pastor at our church, and he is a prolific, Dove Award-winning songwriter. He often incorporates snatches of old hymns in some of his songs, but not every time. All music is capable of exalting Jesus, but it begins in the heart of the worshipper, not the style of worship.

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