Perhaps you’ve heard it said that a blended worship service is an “equal opportunity offender.” Its critics argue that it’s better to pick one style and offend some people than to try to do everything and offend everyone. What do you think?
Before we continue, let’s define “blended worship style.” It simply means incorporating different musical traditions into a worship service.
Ostensibly, the goal of a blended worship style is to use music that resonates with a wide variety of current and prospective congregants. The theory is that appealing to more people is better than appealing to less. Detractors respond that the quest for “relevance” leads to choosing whatever will attract and retain the greatest number of people at the expense of more important priorities. They decry blended worship as an expedient, man-centered marketing strategy rather than as a biblical, God-centered worship posture.
But let’s face it: music is the language that connects the hearts of worshipers to the object of their worship. [This principle applies to both secular and sacred music.] If we don’t use words and music that resonate with our congregation, then we create an impediment to worship. If we’re going to use music in a worship service, then we’ll have to wrestle with the issue of style.
The challenge is that we live in a multi-cultural and multi-generational world. What is relevant to one person may be irrelevant to the person sitting next to them. When we limit our worship to a narrow musical tradition, we risk filling our sanctuaries with people who only speak that “language.” The increasing homogenization of congregations based on worship style works against genuinely multi-cultural and multi-generational churches.
The problem is that we don’t see this as a problem.
Our implied response may be, “If they don’t like the music, they can always go somewhere else.” Or we may explicitly say, “We’re doing the music we feel God is calling us to do.” Both of these may be true. Nonetheless, the issue may be bigger than style; it may involve spiritual self-centeredness.
Instead of asking ourselves how we can honor and serve the diverse people who come into our sanctuaries, we give ourselves permission to limit our music to what we—and our most vocal supporters—enjoy. In contrast, our colleague Luke Woodard, in his article “Good Worship,” challenges leaders “to guide your people away from the mindset that ‘worship is good when I like all the songs.’”
Similarly, there may be an element of spiritual elitism involved. We may be tempted to act as if our particular musical expression (insert your preferred style here) is superior to that of other expressions created by faithful brothers and sisters over the past 2000 years of Christendom.
So consciously or not, churches on both ends of the debate end up “narrow-casting” their music to appeal to a specific demographic. And you know what? Narrow-casting often works in drawing larger numbers of a less diverse group. [That’s why radio stations seem to play the same dozen similar-sounding songs over and over.] But as long as the numbers are up and the folks are happy—what’s the problem?
Again, the problem is that we don’t see this as a problem.
It isn’t a problem if we don’t want to minister to a multi-cultural or multi-generational congregation. It isn’t a problem if we’ve excluded all other forms of worship except the narrow style we think is valid. It isn’t a problem if we’re content in filling our pews with people just like us.
This is why a blended worship music style has validity. When done with intentionality, sensitivity, and creativity, it can take worship “out of the box” of comfortable habit or personal preference. Our services can feel timely yet timeless. No blind adherence to what was relevant decades ago or what is topping the charts this very moment. We are not guided by style but rather by the desire to honor God and serve our congregations.
A blended orientation embraces the “Both/And of Worship.” We recognize that true biblical worship is inspired and empowered by God’s Word and God’s Spirit. It can be modern, atmospheric and nouveau; but it can also be traditional, liturgical and intellectually challenging. It can be simple and unison; but it can also be complex and polyphonic. It can be accompanied by a 4-stringed instrument or by a 40-piece orchestra. It can be whispered or shouted, knelt or danced, thousands of years old or spontaneously created. Sung by folks in robes, sandals or bare-footed.
Your responsibility as a worship leader or choir director is to create musical moments that invite your congregation to encounter a holy God and respond with authenticity and awe. Pushing their emotional buttons isn’t leading them; it’s manipulating them. Giving them what they’ve always gotten so that they’ll respond like they always have leads to worshiping worship. They’ll say “Wasn’t worship awesome!” instead of “Isn’t God awesome!” The difference is more than semantics.
So whether you’re a hard-core traditional choir enthusiast or a CCLI Top 20 modern worship exclusivist, consider expanding your stylistic horizons for the spiritual benefit of your congregation. Here are seven principles to help guide you if you choose to take this journey—and to encourage you if you’re already well down the road.
- Take a census of not only who is in your services, but who isn’t and should/could be there. Is your worship service musically accessible to children, parents, and grandparents? How does your congregation’s current demographic mirror the community immediately surrounding your church? If your worship music style is accommodating and inviting, great! But if there’s a cultural and generational disconnect between the people that could come but don’t, you may be missing a huge ministry opportunity in your own back yard.
- Start modestly and naturally. The simplest example would be blending a traditional hymn with a modern worship song (or vive versa). If your church loves singing “How Great Thou Art,” you could blend that hymn with Chris Tomlin’s worship song, “How Great Is Our God.” Likewise, if your church loves singing “How Great Is Our God,” you could introduce the chorus of “How Great Thou Art” as a bridge. Don’t force the parts. See what words and melodies fit together naturally and begin there.
- Transcend style with authenticity. Have you ever watched a choir director or worship leader present something that is completely out of character with the congregation? Its awkward, to say the least. So rather than trying to force a square peg into a round hole, consider using your current musicians and singers—with an additional instrument or two—to introduce a stylistically different song to your congregation. As you introduce the song, share why and how it’s meaningful to you. If you’ve earned your congregation’s trust, they’ll be willing to go on the journey with you. It’s usually not the style of the song that matters; rather, it’s the spirit in which you introduce and lead it.
- Use music to build generational bridges. If you’re a particularly contemporary congregation, consider asking a beloved senior in the church to share why a hymn or gospel song is personally meaningful. Then celebrate that person’s testimony by leading that hymn in worship—respectfully infusing it with some of your team’s musical style. Likewise, if you’re a fairly traditional church, consider having a young person talk about how a particular worship song drew him/her closer to the Lord. Then use your singers and musicians (and perhaps an additional instrument like an acoustic guitar) to introduce the song to your congregation.
- Be intentional about adding songs. When you introduce a song to your church, have a plan to use it several times over the next year so that it becomes part of the fabric of your community. Arranger Marty Parks has some terrific suggestions about how to “teach a new song” to your congregation without it seeming artificial or forced. Likewise, click on the highlighted sections for some additional thoughts on updating your congregation’s unique song list and leading worship through songlist curation.
- Avoid musical whiplash. Resist the temptation to add diversity for shock value or to make a point about diversity. Instead, prayerfully consider why, how, and when to expand the stylistic range of your worship program. Going from pipe organ to screaming electric guitar in the same song may not serve the song, your congregation, or the Lord. But then again, it might—depending on the context. Remember that context is what makes content meaningful.
- Understand that music is the means, not the end. In the end, sacred cows are better sacrificed than worshiped. We are called to lay aside our preferences for the greater good. The apostle Paul realized this principle when he wrote:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Thanks for reading to the end. Our company, Discover Worship, has been honored to serve the worship music needs of thousands of churches—especially those that are looking for choir arrangements for blended worship service.
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--For more helpful articles about blended worship services and the issue of musical style, check out www.discoverworship.com and these articles:
- Arguing the Merits of a Blended Worship Service
- How Can We Add Musical Diversity to our Services?
- The Non-Issue of Style: It's Just Worth It
- Can Too Much New Get Old?
- Variety for Variety's Sake?
- 5 Compelling Reasons to Do More A Cappella Singing
- Worship on the Radio
- Expanding Our Worship Playlist
- The Age of the Top 25 CCLI Worship Songs
- The Both/And of Worship