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Lead Worship Change, not Worship War

Though no one wants a worship war, discussions about worship change are often more divisive than divine. Howard Vanderwell explains how to ask questions that focus on worship principles, rather than on passions and preferences. A feature story exploring ways to lead worship change, rather than worship wars.

Profile: Howard Vanderwell on How to Discuss Worship

The phrase “worship wars” doesn’t turn up as often in book and magazine titles as it did five years ago. This is not to say, however, that every congregation now worships in perfect harmony. (Especially not in churches that project lyrics on screens, say some disappointed alto, tenor, and bass singers.)

“I’m surprised how much disagreement about worship I do encounter yet. It simmers more than it boils. Churches have seen in others the pain that worship wars inflict, so they want to hold back,” says Howard Vanderwell, who spent 40 years in Christian Reformed church ministry before becoming a worship consultant.

“When worship issues simmer, there’s uneasiness, tense conversations, and rigorous debate. I value passion. But it all depends on what you’re passionate about,” he adds.

Vanderwell says that the best way to work through conflict about worship changes is to identify flashpoints and ask the right questions.

Lead to prevent conflict

He notes four areas that frequently simmer in congregations:

  • music styles and song choices
  • use of drama in worship
  • whether or not to regularly include confession in worship
  • how formally or informally to treat sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper

Left alone, simmering worship issues bubble up into worship wars. That’s why the group responsible for overseeing worship—such as the council, board, vestry, trustees, or worship committee—must truly lead.

“Ask yourselves ‘What is our role of leadership? Do we give the people what they want or uphold worship based on biblical principles?’ ” Vanderwell advises.

Know the difference between a worship principle and your own passions or preferences. “Simmering can be healthy—as long as people discuss, or even debate, worship differences without getting personal or making either/or threats,” Vanderwell says.

Address worship principles in the abstract, ahead of time…before you replace the sermon with a drama or install a large screen that rolls down over the chancel cross.

“Churches get in trouble because they do it first and talk about it later. Musicians and worship leaders who prepare well are breathing out their souls. They’re going to take it personally and feel very demoralized if you criticize them after the fact,” Vanderwell says.

He suggests that leaders ask, “What are the strongest characteristics of our worship that need to be affirmed?” Keep talking even if the discussion feels painful.

For example, a congregation with a strong history of congregational singing needs to avoid polarizing people over musical styles. Otherwise people lose heart during that portion of worship.

Vanderwell says his last congregation, Hillcrest Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Hudsonville, Michigan, has “a large number of people very gifted and able to lead us in groups and ensembles. So we resisted the practice of hiring special music from outside.”

Learn about worship

Vanderwell advises worship overseers to ask, “How knowledgeable are we on matters of worship?” Most often the answer is “not very.”

Worship study leads planners to ask questions that reflect principles, such as:

  • How does this drama fit with other elements of worship?
  • Does this drama merely present our lives to each other…or does it help us enter a dialogue with God?
  • In this service, will we hear the historic voice of the church universal while also including elements that children and youth can understand?
  • Does the music reflect only me as an individual or does it reflect us or we as the body of Christ?
  • Do the lyrics reflect the Triune nature of God?
  • Do songs reflect the whole range of human experience?

Regarding song choice, many people come to church feeling angry, sad, or burdened. “Look at the Book of Psalms,” Vanderwell says. “It was written in the presence of God and communicates to God everything in the psalm writers’ hearts. This heritage of the church’s life shows that for many worshipers it is as legitimate to lament or confess as to praise.”

He says it’s important to preach on what worship is. Studying worship regularly helps preachers base sermons on principles, not preferences.

Keep asking good questions

Problems may surface even after worship planners and overseers have begun studying worship and defining principles.

Polarization is usually a sign of having proceeded too aggressively, Vanderwell says. He suggests asking what polarizing factors—such as a drama, praise band, or liturgical change—need to be cooled down. “Back away from it for awhile. Think things through rather than forge ahead,” he says.

Prevent or deal with polarization by asking these three questions:

  • How does the character, personality, or culture of this church shape our worship life?
  • What is negotiable in worship and what is not negotiable?
  • How has our church’s personality changed in the last 25 years and how does this change affect what’s negotiable?

You can agree on worship principles yet still labor to apply them.  

Hillcrest CRC agreed that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated thoughtfully, in way that honors Christ and preserves the mystery of his real presence among the celebrants.

People were accustomed to being served in the pews by elders who passed trays of bread cubes and little juice cups. Being served helped people experience God’s grace coming to them. But some members wanted communion to be more participative. So Hillcrest experimented with having people come forward to eat and drink at stations served by elders and the pastor.

Vanderwell loved being able to greet everyone who came to his station. “I was very surprised that a large number of people felt this practice diminished communion. They said that eating and drinking simultaneously is a symbol of congregational unity.”

The upshot? Hillcrest people continued to go forward to receive bread and juice. But they brought the elements back to their pews so everyone could partake at once.

Three Churches that Keep the Peace

Worship changes don’t have to split a church. Consider three congregations, all part of one denomination, yet different in personality and history. Each demonstrates qualities that help congregations work toward full, conscious, active participation in worship.

You might think of these congregations as applying the kaizen principle to worship, because they look for small, doable, repeatable ways to help everybody learn and improve.

Teach in small doses

Until a few years ago, the elders at Fairway Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Jenison, Michigan, left most worship matters to the worship committee. Worship committee meetings centered mainly on mechanical issues and policy matters.

Pastor David Den Haan suggested two changes. As a result, the worship committee began reviewing services. And, given that CRC church order directs elders to supervise church worship, Fairway elders added a 15-minute study element to the monthly agenda. They alternate studying worship and prayer.

“If I sense there isn’t much to discuss, I’ll personalize the discussion and ask how individual elders have been blessed or distracted in recent worship services,” Den Haan says.

Besides reading a lot about worship, the pastor says he looks for ways to educate Fairway members through “simple quick lessons in the worship service—not more than one per service.”

He bases some quick lessons on things he’s planned, such as interactive Scripture discussions that alert worshipers to what they should listen for. Den Haan also spontaneously responds to teachable moments that arise unexpectedly, such as when a worship change catches someone off guard.

Know your congregation

Church planter Ron Vanderwell grew up in congregations where even the children knew Bible stories, hymns, and creeds. The situation is far different at The Gathering, the church Vanderwell pastors in greater Sacramento, California.

“Most of our people have attended church in the past, but only sporadically. They have almost no awareness of the church year or liturgical traditions or what life in the body of Christ involves.

“We aim to incorporate one traditional hymn in most services. Learning a hymn from one or two centuries back brings a big increase in their sense of being connected to something bigger,” he says. Singing hymns grounds new believers in Christianity’s historic dimensions.

Another worship principle at The Gathering is to help people see the connections between the ancient message of Jesus and their own complicated lives. “Many of our people are limping together into God’s presence on a Sunday morning. Some have been through crises on their return to God. Believers have obvious sanctification struggles,” Vanderwell says.

That’s why he’s done a sermon on “The Gospel According to Metallica” and why an Easter drama included spoofy interviews with “people who see dead people.” The drama “set the stage for a message on 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul claims that yes, the resurrection is a crazy idea, but it’s the foundation of everything we believe,” Vanderwell explains.

Stay open, get feedback

Dave Vroege describes his first pastorate, All Nations CRC in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as a place where “most people like studying worship! Go figure…The discussion at our last worship committee meeting was so rich and invigorating that everyone wanted to quit their day job and be on the committee full time. Several church members would go to the Calvin Symposium on Worship every year if we could afford it.”

Vroege freely admits he didn’t create this situation. Instead he nurtures it. All Nations members regularly study worship whether they gather for worship committee, council or staff meetings, or adult education.

This wide, deep knowledge helps people adjust to worship changes as long as they understand the purpose. “Using a new instrument can clearly involve someone and use her gifts. Moving the confession to after the sermon makes sense when the sermon is on Psalm 32, a psalm that calls us to confession,” he explains.

All Nations people have vigorous debates over issues such as changing the time of morning worship or how to involve children in communion.

“What helps us through is that our church leadership and congregation stay open during a discussion process. And we ask for feedback the whole way,” Vroege says.

Real Life Ways to Teach Worshipers about Worship

David Den Haan, pastor of Fairway Christian Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan, plans quick simple worship lessons but also looks for teachable moments.

Planning ahead

For example, before reading Romans 6:1-14, the text for his sermon, he came down to the sanctuary floor and asked, “If we were about to read from the Psalms, what kind of literature would you expect to hear?”

Den Haan recalls, “Several people responded correctly: ‘Poetry!’ Then I asked, ‘If I were to say to you that we were going to read something from Luke or Mark, what would you expect?’ The answers were more varied: ‘gospel,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘story.’ ”

Next he asked what they’d hear in a reading from Joshua, which is, of course, mainly a book of history.

Finally he said, “We are actually going to read something from Romans. What should you expect to hear?”

Worshipers anticipated hearing theology and doctrine.

“Yes,” Den Haan replied. “And that means that we are going to do some heavy thinking. I hope that you are up for that! I hope that you will prove wrong the cultural assumption about us Christians that we turn our brains ‘off’ when we become people of faith. We’re going to delve into the theology of grace and it is going to take some brain power. Are you ready?”

Then he climbed two steps up to the pulpit and read the text.

Den Haan says this brief Scripture discussion primed people for the theological material in Romans and helped them understand these ideas:
• There are different genres in the Bible, and these different genres require different things from us as we read them.
• Worshipers have a responsibility to participate through listening and thinking just as preachers have a responsibility to preach and proclaim.
• Rather than live down to the negative cultural assumption that Christians don’t think, worshipers can commit to listening well.

Responding to the moment

Regular elders meeting discussions about prayer and worship sometimes result in prayer experiments at Fairway.

Since the sanctuary chairs are moveable, it’s easy for Fairway to occasionally do a small group prayer exercise during an evening service. On one such evening, a member who suffers from depression glanced through the order of service, noticed the scheduled prayer, and walked out.

“I looked up to face the congregation to begin the prayer. I saw through the window this woman walking with her husband to their car. I stumbled a little, because I immediately knew that small group prayer terrified her,” Den Haan says.

Voices rose and fell throughout the sanctuary as groups worked through sections of prayer. After the last Amen, the pastor asked whether anyone had noticed that someone had left before the prayer. Without naming names, he explained that he’d been praying for the woman and asked people to remember her in prayer.

That week he talked with the woman, who told him what he’d guessed had happened. She said it was encouraging to know others were praying for her.

“We discussed this at the next elders meeting and decided we need to be more intentional about saying to our congregation that people are free to participate in many ways—speaking prayers aloud in their small group, listening to others pray, or offering their own private prayers to God. We want to stretch our people out of their comfort zones while being sensitive to special needs,” Den Haan says.

Learn More

Read Howard Vanderwell’s Reformed Worship articles. Each week he and Norma de Waal Malefyt post a complete, new worship service plan. They co-authored the book Designing Worship Together: Models and Strategies for Worship Planning. You can book Norma de Waal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell to speak on many topics of worship, either individually or together.

Several excellent books can help small groups or church education classes learn more about worship together.

You might also donate a subscription to your church library, perhaps Reformed WorshipWorship, or Worship Leader Magazine.

Read studies about worship practices. Zip through this crash course in worship planning. Sample this Q & A on worship conundrums. Decide whether you agree with how these worship principles apply to music.

Check out, a website for clergy and lay leaders to find information on everything from church administration to worship issues.

Browse related stories on baptism and architecturedesigning worship together, hiring a worship minister, using projection technology, and worship renewal.

Start a Discussion

Talk about how to have a healthy discussion about worship principles and proposed changes:

  • This story states that it’s vital for churches to study worship regularly. Which other things should or do take precedence in your committee?
  • Who is responsible for planning worship at your church? Who oversees worship? How and when do these two people or groups study and discuss worship?
  • Which of Howard Vanderwell’s suggested questions do you find especially helpful—either because you have asked them or because you’d like to see where the discussion would go?
  • In what ways do your worship leaders teach worshipers about why and when certain things are done in a typical service?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to address and talk through worship issues? 

  • Did you find a resource—visual, online, printed, multimedia, or seminar—that helped your church productively discuss worship principles?
  • If your congregation has committed to continuously learning about and enriching worship, what form does that commitment take?
  • Has your council or worship committee come up with any pre-arranged cues to graciously alert people when their worship debates cross the line from principle to impassioned opinion or preference?