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When a Blended Service Doesn’t Really Blend

January 17, 2012

How to Maximize Gospel-Unity in the Gathered Worship of a Diverse Congregation

At Westgate Church we are excited to begin applying our recently articulated vision to be a gospel-centered community living each day on mission for Christ. One of the key areas we’re focusing on in early 2012 is our gathered worship. Our vision statement reads in part:

As a gospel-centered community, we envision our partnership in mission to be so shaped by the gospel that our service to God expresses itself in:

WORSHIP that recognizes God’s holiness and reflects that holiness in our daily lives while depending entirely upon God’s grace (Psa. 15).  We see our gathered worship shaped by the Scriptures, centered on God, and marked by the following values:

  • Reverence and joy expressed by humble hearts in gospel-saturated song and prayer (Psa. 145; 146; Rev. 5:8-14)
  • Faithful, gospel-centered sermons that engage both our personal lives and the cultural stories that surround and shape us (2 Cor. 4:1-6; Acts 17:16-34)
  • Appreciation for diversity in the Body as we unite under our common Head, Jesus Christ (Rom.12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:12-26; Eph. 4:1-6; Jms. 2:1-13)
  • Hospitality and winsomeness toward newcomers; accessibility toward all (Col. 4:3-6)

You can read the whole vision statement here: Westgate Vision Statement 1.9.12

Despite the way the word worship is used in most North American churches today, the Scriptures are clear that it is not only, or even primarily, what we do when we gather together and sing. It’s what we do to make much of God with the whole of our lives (cf. Ps. 15; Rom. 12:1-2). Yet gathering for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day is an important part of the life, community, and mission of the church (cf. Acts 2:42-47; 20:7; Heb. 10:24-25). And a significant part of that corporate worship is singing as one body to the Lord (e.g. Ps. 95100; Col. 3:16; cf. Rom. 15:5-6; Heb. 13:15).

One of the difficulties many churches face in their gathered singing, however, is how to handle the generational or cultural diversity that results in a variety of dearly-held musical tastes. A common posture over the last several decades in North America is the so-called “blended service”—a worship service that tries to incorporate both traditional and contemporary styles of music. In fact, unless both a congregation and the community it’s seeking to engage reflect the same narrow ethnic, generational, cultural, and social demographic, then the church likely needs to consider some sort of blended approach. Not because the goal of worship is to please as many people as possible, but as a way to unite a diverse people together in order to make much of Christ.

That being said, the uncomfortable reality is that many blended services don’t actually blend that well. Here are three principles for navigating this dilemma in order to maximize gospel unity in the gathered worship of a diverse congregation.

1. Recognize that only the gospel of Jesus can truly unite us.

Music plays an important role in our lives, both personally and as the family of God. Not only does it help us remember the truths about who God is and what he’s done, it stirs our hearts in deeply emotional and often expressive ways.

But because music can play such a significant role for us both personally and corporately, it can also become a source of great tension in the church. Hence, the so-called “worship wars” of the last few decades. As the cultural has shifted and changed, corporate worship has become a battle ground where differences of opinion and conviction clash, and the casualties are God’s own people and God’s own name. It’s a genuinely sad state of affairs when something designed to bring us together in surrender and celebration to our one God becomes an occasion for divisiveness, selfishness, and even worse, idolatry. We lose sight of God’s holiness and unique worthiness, and give way to the consumerism of me-centered worship—the kind of consumerism that fuels church-hopping and causes churches to split their congregation into different kinds of services based on personal preferences of style and taste. Or else we lose sight of the fact that our worship depends entirely on God’s grace, and think that if we can just use the right form of worship (liturgy, musical style, certain prayers, etc.), then God will be pleased to accept our offering regardless of whether our hearts and lives reflect his holiness or depend upon his grace.

All this is testimony that only the gospel of Jesus is capable of creating and sustaining unity among God’s people. Music is not. It is the perfect sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf and our common faith in him, through which we are united with Christ and adopted into God’s family, that form the ultimate basis for our unity. All other foundations will falter and give way.

So before we can talk about musical unity, we have to work toward gospel unity—the kind of unity that comes from humble hearts that are so satisfied in Jesus that their free to love one another genuinely and lay their lives down for the cause of the gospel (cf. Phil. 1:27-2:11; Eph. 4:1-16).

2. Appreciate the diversity of your congregation and what each musical genre can contribute to it.

Just because music is not sufficient for our unity doesn’t mean that some degree of musical coherence is unimportant or unnecessary for our health and growth. And so the question: How do we shape a Sunday worship service that not only reflects and respects the diversity of those gathered but also highlights our union together in Christ? This is the potential value of a blended service.

Different styles of music resonate with different kinds of people, and each style brings something to the table that all can benefit from. For instance, traditional hymns are often filled with rich theology, helping worshippers reflect on and celebrate the objective truths of who God is and what he’s done for us. Though the words and images employed are sometimes dated and difficult to understand for the non-initiated, these hymns represent a rich theological and fine musical heritage for the western church that ought to be appreciated and not quickly forgotten. On the other hand, many of the contemporary songs (also known as “praise choruses” or “CCM,” Contemporary Christian Music) give fresh and creative musical shape to some of those same great truths, often capturing them in more readily understandable words and imagery. Though the content and structure is often simpler and more repetitive than the hymns, this style invites worshippers to meditate and joyfully express their praise to God. And then there are what’s called modern hymns, which try to capture the theological richness and strophic pattern of traditional hymns while using fresh and contemporary rhythms and sounds. Sometimes they simply take the words of old hymns and give them fresh melodies; other times they are completely new works.

But crafting a blended service can be much harder than it looks. Sometimes the net effect simply highlights our diversity with no real sense of our unity in Christ. That is to say again, sometimes blended services simply don’t blend very well. We can find ourselves bouncing back and forth between two stylistic extremes (e.g. traditional and contemporary), with half the congregation tuned out during any given part of the service’s music. Without realizing it, we might actually give way to the consumerism of separate services—two different worship services during the same time slot in the same room—one part traditional, the other part contemporary.

When a church finds themselves in this situation, there are several different ways they can try to address it. They might embrace reality and make the split official—Traditional at 8:30 a.m., Contemporary at 10:00 a.m. (because young, “contemporary” people like to sleep in). They could opt for a majority rules approach and risk losing the minority who have just been musically marginalized. They might do a hostile takeover for the forward progress of the church, prioritizing all that appeals to younger generations, often without warning or explanation to seasoned veterans. They could completely disregard genre and focus exclusively on the content and fit of the songs to the particular theme or sermon text for that Sunday, resulting in a rather scattered and eclectic experience from week to week. Or they could leave well enough alone and carry on in the same liturgical dissonance.

But all of these options, it seems to me, fall short of the goal of uniting a diverse people of God under their one Head, Jesus Christ. What’s needed is a musical approach that not only reflects our diversity but also our unity in Christ. The above options give attention only to our diversity.

3. Identify a “musical center” to bring coherence to the worship service.

What is needed, in other words, is what Bob Kauflin calls “a musical center that effectively communicates to most people in the congregation” (Worship Matters, 106). What genre or style resonates with and engages the broadest sampling of congregants (including soon-to-be-congregants from among the people your church is engaging with the gospel)? This is a musical center.

A musical center is not exclusive; it’s the center, not the whole thing. It makes room for other styles to be employed, but gives a consistency and coherence to the whole of the service, helping people connect the dots among diverse genres and providing a consistent expectation as the congregation gathers week to week.

For example, at Westgate Church we are committed to a blended service for all the reasons listed above. And yet, we want to continue to improve the quality of blend in our service so as to highlight not merely our diversity of musical style but also our unity in Christ. As I’ve been wrestling with these questions in our context, dialoguing with musicians, congregants, and other leaders, I am increasingly persuaded that the modern hymn is the most appropriate musical center for our congregation at Westgate. Again, these songs often have the theological meat and the strophic pattern of traditional hymns, but are set to music or tempos that are more contemporary. They include newer songs like In Christ Alone and All I Have is Christ, and older songs with new tunes, like Before the Throne of God Above and O Love That Will Not Let Me Go. And happily this is a burgeoning field with new music being produced regularly from musicians like Stuart Townend, Keith and Kristyn Getty, Sovereign Grace Music, Indelible Grace, and Sojourn Music.

I’m not suggesting that modern hymns should serve this purpose for other churches; each congregation has to work through these issues for themselves. Neither does using modern hymns as our musical center mean we will neglect either traditional hymns or contemporary choruses. We will continue to use both of those styles to the glory of God and the edification of his people. But my hope and prayer is that by centering our music at Westgate on a genre that resonates more broadly across the congregation, we will draw less attention to form and more attention to Christ. I am eager to see what God might do to increasingly unite our generationally diverse congregation under our common Head, Jesus, and to reflect that unity not only in the pulpit, prayers, and Table, but in our corporate singing as well.

Related Articles:

The Holiness of God in the Presence of his People (Psalm 15)

Change: Obstacle or Opportunity?

Only One Thing Can be the Main Thing (Phil. 1:9-11)

Recommend Resources:

Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008). See also his blog, www.worshipmatters.com.

D. A. Carson, ed., Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).

David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rick Mitchell permalink
    January 17, 2012 5:54 pm

    Very well done! Having the focus be on Christ and not the musical preferences of people is the critical message here. I do believe that we need to recognize that all hymns were once contemporary. Why none have been added to the hymnal in the past several hundred years is a good question. I for one like old hymns. I grew up on them. I also like the more modern praise songs, they are inspiring in a different way. But it doesn’t matter what I like. What matters is that we create an environment where we can worship our Lord and where newcomers (and yes, seekers) feel comfortable and welcome. We have to recognize that we often put up unnecessary roadblocks that get in the way of our call to share the gospel with our unbelieving friends. This solution seems to me to be the right one given our vision and journey.

    • January 17, 2012 8:28 pm

      Brandon, thanks for a great article!

      Rick, I’m not sure what hymnals you’ve been looking at, but grabbing the one beside me (Worship & Rejoice by Hope Publishing Company) and looking at the authors, composers and sources index, I’ve already counted over fifty authors or composers still alive as of the time of publishing (2001) in just the A through C names. The foreword explicitly mentions “the best new hymns by today’s hymnwriters” and “a wide selection of praise and worship, and contemporary Christian songs”, and this sort of inclusion is typical of every hymnal I’ve ever used – it’s the whole reason why new hymnals are produced instead of just reprinting some old one for the hundredth time!

      • Rick Mitchell permalink
        January 18, 2012 9:47 pm

        have to chalk that up to a church that hasn’t bought new hymnals in a long, long time.

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