If newcomers walk into a Protestant church on Sunday and hear an organ playing, and see hymnals, the odds are good between 50 and 250 people will be in the pews.
If a church’s attendance is larger than 250 — especially if it’s 1,000-plus — visitors usually will see pop-rock “praise musicians” on stage, including a drummer. The hall will feature concert-level lighting and video screens displaying song lyrics.
But here’s a news flash from the front lines of what church leaders have, for several decades, called the “worship wars.” According to a LifeWay Research survey, there’s evidence of a truce between the contemporary and traditional worship forces. Then again, it’s possible church leaders have made up their minds, and old debates inside many congregations have calmed down.
“We’re not really talking about two enemies negotiating a cease-fire,” said Mike Harland, director of the LifeWay Worship team. “What I’ve seen happen in the 20 years that I’ve been part of this story is that the distance between the traditional and the contemporary churches has narrowed a bit. ... People on each side of the divide have become more willing to compromise with the other.”
This study was built on random telephone surveys of clergy in a variety of Protestant traditions during 2018, with the results weighted by church size and region, seeking balance.
A key finding was only 15% of these American clergy said the biggest challenge they face linked to music and ministry was “navigating the varying preferences of members.” A higher percentage (21%) said it was a bigger challenge to find vocalists and musicians to handle essential roles in worship.
When talking with individual pastors and worship leaders, Harland said he frequently hears them admit that their flocks simply don’t contain members with the talents necessary to create a pop-rock band or “praise team” that can, week after week, perform contemporary Christian music at semi-professional levels. Thus, in many Protestant settings, individual talents — not church tradition — help shape a local congregation’s worship style.
Many pastors voice variations on this theme, he said: “We would love to sing all those new songs, but we don’t have anyone who is talented on guitar, and we don’t have a drummer.”
There is no question that, in addition to denominational worship traditions, some musical style questions are linked to church size.
Note this divide: About half of the surveyed churches (47%) feature organ music, almost exactly the same number as those (46%) with praise bands. However, twice as many churches (85%) with attendance lower than 50 reported using hymnals, compared with fewer churches (41%) drawing 250 or more worshippers. Churches drawing 250-plus almost always (79%) feature a praise band with a drummer. Only 33% of those surveyed said their services include songs led by a choir.
Tradition does matter. Pentecostal clergy were most likely (82%) to say praise bands lead their services. Lutherans were the most likely (88%) to say they still used a traditional church organ.
ZIP codes mattered, as well. Church organs were more common in the Northeast (58%) and Midwest (54%) than in the Bible Belt (43%) and West (36%).
There is evidence, said Harland, that many modern composers are returning to forms resembling traditional Protestant hymns — offering three or four verses, often with strong doctrinal content, alternating with a chorus that “resembles a chorale.” These modern hymns are “clearly structured to be sung by a mixture of male and female voices in what is usually four-part harmony,” as opposed to dramatic melodies that would best be sung by outstanding solo voices. Older “folk” hymns with acoustic instruments are also making a comeback.
Worship song lyrics may be changing, as well.
“We came through an era in which we sang many, many songs about how we feel about God. The language in these songs was very personal and focused on the feelings of the individual,” said Harland. “Today, we are beginning to see the return of more hymns that focus on who God is and the role of the church in the Christian life.
“There’s more of a mix out there. ... I truly believe that we’re going to see the church swing back towards art and beauty and theology in our worship services.”