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Blurring doctrinal distinctives with Praise and Worship

Over the past several weeks I have been showing that, while differences over worship theology and practice have been one of the most significant doctrinal dividers, traditional psalmody, hymnody, and liturgy provided a means by which distinct denominations were able to enjoy an appropriate unity while at the same time maintaining necessary theological and practical boundaries.

This delicate balance between healthy unity and appropriate diversity among denominations has been diminished, however, in more recent worship trends. Indeed, as I will demonstrate over the next few weeks, contemporary worship movements have significantly contributed to the blurring of significant doctrinal distinctives, primarily due to the emergence of music style as an essential feature in church identity.

images (1)The first contemporary worship movement to contribute to blurring doctrinal distinctives is the Praise the Worship movement, which emerged out of the Charismatic movement of the 1960s.1 Whereas Pentecostalism had produced its own denominations,2 the Charismatic Movement infiltrated traditional denominations, largely due to the rising popularity of the contemporary music styles of charismatic Praise and Worship, which some saw as a force that would end denominationalism altogether in the name of ecumenical unity.3

Christopher J. Ellis observes that charismatic worship contributed to “what we may call a “pan-evangelical culture” with its contemporary expression in music and informal worship.4 Randall Bradley agrees:

In recent decades, as denominational lines have blurred, Free Churches have been most influenced by music that finds its origins in the charismatic stream, of which “Praise and Worship” is the best known.5

The importance of contemporary music styles in this movement flows directly from its theology of worship. Praise and Worship uses the typology of the Hebrew tabernacle or temple in its worship theology and design. Breaking from a more confessional liturgical structure, Praise and Worship instead aims to bring the worshiper through a series of emotional stages from rousing “praise” to intimate “worship.”6 Early Praise and Worship proponent Judson Cornwall explains this process:

Praise begins by applauding God’s power, but it often brings us close enough to God that worship can respond to God’s presence. While the energy of praise is toward what God does, the energy of worship is toward who God is. The first is concerned with God’s performance, while the second is occupied with God’s personage. The thrust of worship, therefore, is higher than the thrust of praise.7

This progression through which worshipers are helped to experience “the manifest presence of God” is engineered primarily through musical style. Worship leaders are encouraged to begin with enthusiastic songs of thanksgiving, leading the worshipers to an emotional “soulish worship,” and then bringing the mood to an intimate expression where “a gentle sustained chord on the organ and a song of the Spirit on the lips of the leaders should be more than sufficient to carry a worship response of the entire congregation for a protracted period of time.”8 As Chapell notes, “In this modern tradition, contemporary praise music has been the prime instrument to lead worshipers from celebration to contemplation to preparation for preaching. In fact, what many think of as ‘contemporary worship’ is defined only by the style of music.”9 This raised the matter of musical style to a level of significance it had never before seen.

Because of the transdenominational influence of charismatic theology and the Praise and Worship movement, this philosophy and method of worship that places a high emphasis on musical style to bring people to worship has influenced many non-charismatic churches as well. According to a 2010 study by Faith Communities Today, the percentage of Protestant churches characterized by contemporary Praise and Worship rose from 29% in 2000 to 43% in 2010. The percentage change was even higher when they factored out mainline denominations and focused exclusively on Evangelical Protestants (from 35% to 51%).10 Today, the worship in a majority of evangelical churches is more characterized by Praise and Worship philosophy and contemporary music than by traditional practices.

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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Brian D. Walwrath, The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise and Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 14. []
  2. Examples include Foursquare and Assemblies of God. []
  3. See Margaret M Poloma, The Charismatic Movement: Is There a New Pentecost? (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982), 202. []
  4. Christopher J. Ellis, “Duty and Delight: Baptist Worship and Identity,” Review & Expositor 100, no. 3 (June 1, 2003): 337. []
  5. C Randall Bradley, “Congregational Song as Shaper of Theology: A Contemporary Assessment,” Review & Expositor 100, no. 3 (June 1, 2003): 353. []
  6. See Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship, 70. “By contrast, the worship of the charismatic renewal movements lost some of its gospel shape and became more distinguished by the emotional flow of the service.” []
  7. Judson Cornwall, Let Us Worship (Plainfield, NJ: Bridge Pub., 1983), 146. []
  8. Ibid., 158. []
  9. Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship, 70. []
  10. Marjorie H. Royle, Facts on Worship: 2010 (Faith Communities Today, 2010), 12. []

6 Responses to Blurring doctrinal distinctives with Praise and Worship

  1. Your observation is true, but cannot that also be said for the other extreme, too? I am sure you know people who have deserted doctrinal distinctives, polity, and so on, not because they were absolutely convinced that the principles they were leaving were necessarily wrong, but because the approach to worship was deemed to be more consistent with what they believed to be correct. I can think of people who have left Baptist churches for Presbyterian or Covenant-oriented ones, for example. Some have even gone more extreme to the point of giving consideration to the errors of Rome. I suppose one could argue that this is another manifestation of what you have observed above, but as Baptists have often covenanted between themselves:

    “We moreover engage that when we remove from this place we will, as soon as possible, unite with some other church where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s Word…” and, as some have added, “…or to start one.”

    So, which should win out? Do you find a church that shares your eschatology and heremeneutics but whose worship you believe to be somewhat inappropriate, or do you choose the option where the worship is traditional and reverent, but they confuse Israel and the church and sprinkle infants (assuming you are a dispensational Baptist, here)?

    Again, your observation is accurate, but it seems that it is applied more broadly than you acknowledge.

  2. Greg, if I could butt in, there is another side to consider:

    Suppose a man comes to the following conclusions:
    1) loving the Lord is primary;
    2) contemporary worship is not up to the challenge of mediating that love;
    3) his own theological tradition relies on contemporary worship, modern and ancient;
    4) he could hold his nose at some arguably defensible theological deviations from his own systematic understanding of Scripture, while he could not endure (again, from his understanding) God being reduced to an object of the lower appetites.

    Question: is it or is it not legitimate for him to begin searching outside his own tradition for something that answers his primary concern better?

    I admit that this is a perspective: it is not necessarily an argument, and I am sure that it will not persuade anyone to change his/her mind. Neither is it an accusation or the casting of aspersions. But perhaps it might help some to see that it might not be elitism or nostalgia behind desire for reverent worship, but wrestling with the implications of the first great commandment.

  3. Chris,

    The question you pose strikes me as similar to the one we seemed to be faced with in this year’s presidential race. :) If it is a binary choice, there’s going to be something you have to hold your nose for.

    The reason I brought up the typical Baptist church covenant is that if both principles are important (doctrinal distinctives AND appropriate worship), why not consider starting a new church rather than holding one’s nose.

    The “ushering into intimacy” approach is not unique to the contemporary methodology, either. There have been those who seek to produce similar responses from “smells and bells, icons, and so on. Case in point:

    Seeking outside one’s tradition for ideas is one thing. Abandoning it is another. From where I sit, it seems that loving God is primary, but it is expressed in more ways than just corporate forms. It’s not that the forms we employ aren’t important, but leaving both principles and people for a “quick fix” in greener pastures vs. seeking to influence and improve where you are is something that ought to be considered.

  4. Hi, Greg. A couple thoughts.

    First, my point here is not to evaluate (yet) but to observe cause and effect. I think it is undeniable that before the Praise and Worship movement (and the Church Growth movement, which I’ll discuss next week), churches did not find their identity in musical style, nor did people choose a church based on style. Rather, identity and choice were based on doctrinal distinctives.

    Second, after P&W made musical style an issue of church identity, you are certainly correct that plenty of people make their choice of church dependent upon their preferred “style” on all sides of the debate, including “traditional.”

    Third, while this is certainly true of some who choose “traditional” worship, it is not true of every case to which you allude. For many conservative Christians, musical style is not the main issue, although it is often what is most obviously cited. Rather, many recognize that deeper philosophical and theological commitments with which they have significant disagreement are what have led a given church to use pop music, and those philosophical disagreements are actually why the choice is made to not join the church despite other doctrinal agreements.

    Third, and this is actually a central point I made at CCGG Monday, I would argue that worship philosophy falls rather high on the list of “secondary” issues affecting my ability to join a church. For me personally, that a church preaches the gospel and that it is Baptist are non-negotiables for whether I will join a church.

    But I would place worship philosophy next on the list. Not musical style, mind you, but philosophy of worship (which will, of course, inevitably lead to certain musical styles). This is because what aesthetic forms you use in worship affect the presentation and interpretation of truth, and thus they affect everything. So I may technically agree with a church’s stated doctrinal statement, but if they use cultural forms in their worship that I believe to be banal, then we really do not believe the same thing. They have chosen to express certain ideas about God entirely differently than I do, thus rendering them different ideas, both of which cannot be true.

    When it comes to things like pre-Trip, pre-Mill dispensationalism, even though I think that is very, very important, I’m first not sure whether that should be in a church doctrinal statement in the first place (I’m open to the argument that it should; I’m just not convinced yet), and even if I agree that it should be, if I had to choose, I would put worship philosophy higher on my list of priorities than dispensationalism and other important “secondary” doctrines that I hold.

    Fourth, you mention the need to plant a church given a situation where you can find nothing acceptable, and I agree this is often necessary.

    But would you really insist that if there were a church with whom you found full agreement except for the fact that they did not have dispensationalism clearly in their doctrinal statement, you would find it necessary to plant a dispensational church? I’m not sure I do.

    However, if I lived where there were churches whose doctrinal statements I completely affirmed but no church with conservative worship, I would see a need to plant.

  5. ‘But would you really insist that if there were a church with whom you found full agreement except for the fact that they did not have dispensationalism clearly in their doctrinal statement, you would find it necessary to plant a dispensational church? I’m not sure I do.”

    Depends if they are ambiguous or take a definitive position in opposition to a Pre-trib, pre-mil view.

    Re: Conservative worship, again, it depends on just how conservative. Often, that depends on the leadership, and if the leadership has more definite ideas on this than what might be actually practiced in the church, for example, it’s a different situation.

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