Nov 19, 2002

From the Archives

Focus On “Worship Wars” Hides The Real Issues Regarding Connection to God

Magazines have featured articles on the “worship wars” said to be raging in the nation’s churches. According to data from a new study presented at Baylor University by researcher George Barna, however, the real issue is not the choice of music by churches but rather people’s interest in, understanding of, and engagement in the act of worshiping God.

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Describing the national research conducted by his company for the Billy Ray Hearn Symposium on Christian Music, held at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Barna indicated that the coverage afforded the “worship wars” has exaggerated the scope of the problem while ignoring the real issues regarding worship. “The major challenge,” according to Barna, “is not about how to use music to facilitate worship as much as it is to help people understand worship and have an intense passion to connect with God.” Citing various findings from three recent nationwide surveys he directed on the issue, Barna noted that relatively few churches have intense musical battles but most churches have too few people who truly engage God in worship.

“Most of the church people who fight about their musical preference do so because they don’t understand the relationship between music, communication, God and worship. Church leaders foster the problem by focusing on how to please people with music or how to offer enough styles of music to meet everyone’s tastes rather dealing with the underlying issues of limited interest in, comprehension of, and investment in fervent worship of a holy, deserving God.” Barna also stated that although music is important in the worship process, it is often elevated beyond its rightful place in the worship effort. “Music is just a tool meant to enable people to express themselves to God, yet we sometimes spend more time arguing over the tool than over the product and purpose of the tool.”

Creating A Controversy

Drawing on national surveys among church-goers, Senior Pastors of Protestant churches and worship leaders from those churches, Barna revealed that while there are definitely battles being waged within Protestant churches regarding music, the battle is not widespread. One-quarter (24%) of Senior Pastors say their church has music-related tensions, but only 5% of them claim that those tensions are “severe” – which amounts to just 1% of the Protestant congregations in the U.S. About three out of ten pastors at the music-conflicted churches say the tensions are “somewhat serious.” All together, then, only 7% of Protestant churches have “severe” or “somewhat serious” music issues rattling their congregation.

One reason identified by Barna for the limited severity of the tensions is that most church people appreciate the use of music for worship, but are not obsessed with the style used. The research found that the style of music relied upon in the service is a matter of high significance to just one-third of all church attenders. In fact, only 17% said that they would definitely or probably change their attendance pattern if their church altered the musical style of the service they usually attend, while three-quarters (76%) said they would just go along with the new style and not make any change in their attendance habits. These figures suggest that in spite of the controversy surrounding church music, people may be more accepting or flexible than assumed. The study did find that the segment of adults most likely to change services or churches rather than accept a style of music they did not like was evangelicals.

As confirmation of the limited significance of the “worship wars” controversy, the research also pointed out that only three out of ten adults say that worship music is the single, most important factor in their choice of what church to attend. The people most likely to list music as a key factor were blacks, people 56 or older, adults who attend a church that has 500 or more attenders, women, and born again Christians.

Music That Dominates

There is plenty of opportunity for people to gain exposure to the style of music they prefer. Three-quarters of Protestant churches (73%) have multiple worship services. Overall, 27% have just one service, 32% offer two services, 33% provide three options and 8% have four or more distinct services.

The styles of music used in church services vary tremendously. Nearly half of all Protestant churches (46%) offer at least one service featuring traditional worship music – hymns and other tunes utilizing a choir, an organ or congregational singing of that music. Just as prolific is the number of churches (43%) using “blended” music – a combination of two or more different music styles within the same service. Less common styles used include rock or contemporary Christian (used in 24% of churches), praise and worship (in 8% of churches) and gospel (in 7% of churches).

The profile looks slightly different if the figures are based on the number of worship services rather than the number of churches using a given style. Viewed from that angle, the data indicate that 35% of all Protestant worship services, including those held Sunday nights and during the week, utilize traditional worship music; 30% are blended; 16% are rock or contemporary Christian; 7% are gospel; 6% are praise and worship; 4% are acappella; and 2% use no music at all. (The percentage of churches using a musical style is different than the percentage of services in which that style is used because many churches have multiple worship services, causing the base number of services to be larger than that of the number of Protestant churches. Also, some churches may have more than one worship service that uses the same type of musical style.)

What type of worship music do congregants gravitate toward? If the service attended is any indication, traditional worship music still reigns, although a minority of church-going adults experiences it. Presently, 40% of adults say they attend a service that uses traditional music (e.g., a choir, hymns, organ). The next most common styles are “blended” music (used in the services frequented by 12% of adults); gospel (11%); praise and worship (10%); and contemporary Christian (i.e., CCM) or Christian rock (9%). One out of every eight attenders (13%) said they don’t know what the style of music is at their services.

The Real Issues

The Barna study discovered that among the key worship issues is that church-going adults and Protestant Senior Pastors do not share a common perception of the most important outcome of worship. Congregants were most likely to understand worship as activity undertaken for their personal benefit (47%) while Senior Pastors described the purpose of worship as connecting with God (41%) or experiencing His presence (30%). Only three out of ten church-going adults (29%) indicated that they view worship as something that is focused primarily on God. One out of every five attenders admitted that they had no idea what the most important outcome of worship is.

Another relevant research finding was that most pastors do not prioritize worship as a main thrust of their church’s ministry. When asked to list the two or three top ministry priorities of their church, the survey revealed that worship was included in that list by only one out of every four pastors (26%). Other top-rated priorities included evangelism (listed as a top-3 priority by 41%), preaching/teaching (34%), ministry to youth and children (25%), and discipleship (19%).

Some Mixed Signals

If significant changes will be made in worship, don’t expect them to be driven by the laity. For the most part, people are satisfied with the worship experiences they currently have. Four out of five individuals (83%) say they leave the services feeling accepted or completely loved by God “every time” or “most of the time.” Two out of three adults (69%) usually leave feeling inspired. Three out of five (62%) say they typically feel like they have connected with God or been in His presence in most cases. Half of the congregants (50%) frequently leave feeling challenged to change. Relatively small numbers of people say they usually feel guilty or disappointed in themselves (10%), or frustrated because their needs have not been met (8%).

Adults are typically satisfied with the quality of the music, the sermon and the prayer in their services. Four out of ten are “completely satisfied” with the music and with the sermons, and half are “completely satisfied” with the prayer. Most of the remaining adults said they were “mostly satisfied” with each of those elements.

However, Barna pointed out that church-goers and pastors have conflicting notions of what is considered necessary in order to worship effectively. Out of ten facilitation factors studied, parishioners and pastors differed substantially on the importance of six of these items.

The areas of agreement related to prayer, which nine out of ten pastors and parishioners said was very important to facilitate effective worship; having communion (mentioned by two-thirds of each group); giving money (mentioned by slightly more than half of both groups); and having a time for the “turn and greet” experience (mentioned by half of each group).

Among the factors of divergence were having time for quiet reflection during the service, deemed very important by two-thirds of all adults – twice the proportion measured among pastors. Half of all congregants said that having time for private confession was very important, but just one out of every three pastors agreed. A surprisingly large number of people (38%) expressed the importance of reciting creeds, which was more than double the percentage of pastors who concurred (14%). On the other hand, pastors were considerably more likely to assign importance to the sermon, the public reading of Scripture, and the use of music than were congregants.

More than four out of five pastors (84%) said music is very important to facilitate effective worship. However, barely half of the congregants (55%) agreed. In fact, in assessing the ranking of the ten worship elements studied, pastors rated music second only to prayer, and tied with the sermon, in importance. Congregants, however, rated music in a tie for fifth place, following prayer, the sermon, communion, and a time for reflection. The music was deemed no more important than the public reading of Scripture, confession, the offering and the turn-and-greet time. In fact, music was more important than only one of the ten elements evaluated: reciting creeds and responsive readings.

If the people in the pews are going to push for changes, those transitions may relate to the substance of the songs they sing and being able to sing songs they know more often. Overall, nearly half of all worship attenders said that the words in the currently popular praise and worship songs lack the spiritual depth of traditional hymns while three out of ten adults noted that too many new worship songs are introduced into their services.

Opportunities for Growth

Barna expressed gratitude to Baylor University for funding the study and expressed the hope that the information can help more pastors and congregants get on the same page regarding worship. “The study does not minimize the fact that some churches are enduring painful divisions regarding worship music. The good news, however, is that those tensions are less common than anecdotes and journalistic hype have suggested. The Baylor study puts the controversy in perspective and places the ‘worship wars’ notion in the category of ‘myth.'”

Based on the data from the studies, Barna cited two important patterns of behavior. “Notice that the churches most likely to have worship-related problems are those that utilize blended music, which is a questionable attempt to please everyone at once. It appears that the use of blended music merely reminds people of the fact that they have to share the music space with others who cannot tolerate their own preferences – just as they cannot tolerate those of others. The reliance on blended music seems to actually fuel rather than dampen the fires of discord. Other recent studies we have conducted even show that people are less likely to feel connected to God in a blended service than in one that uses a single style of music.

Returning to his main takeaway from the research, Barna encouraged church leaders to get back to basics. “Many church people fight about music because they have yet to understand the purpose of music in the worship process. That lack of insight causes them to focus on and fight for their preferred sound, instruments, presentation techniques, or their desired order of service. Too often, church leaders get caught up in the fuss.

“These battles are inappropriate distractions from meaningful ministry and fruitful discipleship. Christians need to be more zealous about, and devoted to worshiping God. The Church needs to move on and focus on the One worthy of worship and the desire of His heart – which is to be worshiped with intensity and passion by His people – rather than to focus on the tools used to facilitate our expressions of love and gratitude.”

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Access to the Information

The worship research and a series of worship-related presentations were funded by the Billy Ray Hearn Symposium on Christian Music in association with Baylor University. Also speaking at the recent symposium on the Baylor campus in Waco, Texas were Pastor Jack Hayford, Christian musical artist Charlie Peacock, theologian Robert Webber, worship leader Louie Giglio, and other individuals involved in Christian music and worship. Barna’s research report, along with presentations by the symposium speakers, will be available in a book, entitled Music and the Church: Relevance in a Changing Culture, to be published by Baylor University in Spring 2003.

Research Methodology

The research data were generated through three separate surveys. Using a national omnibus survey conducted in April 2002 by the Barna Research Group, 1007 randomly sampled adults were surveyed, of which 727 described themselves as Christian who attends a Christian church. In April and May 2002, 601 Senior Pastors of Protestant churches were interviewed, as well as a sample of 69 worship leaders serving at churches from which the Senior Pastor had already been interviewed. Many of the questions asked of each population were identical, to allow direct comparisons for many important factors under scrutiny.

All of the survey respondents were drawn from random samples of qualified individuals living within the 48 continental states. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate national sample of the 727 adults who described themselves as Christian is ±3.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level; the maximum level of estimated sampling error among the 601 Senior Pastors, also randomly selected from all U.S. Protestant churches, is ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% statistical confidence level. (The sampling error for subgroups may be higher because the sample size of those segments is smaller. There are other types of error besides sampling error that may also be present in surveys.) All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. The distribution of the survey respondents coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population according to Census Bureau estimates, while the distribution of pastors was based on estimates of denominational affiliation in the country. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable sample of adults.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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