We have heard that it is too loud, the temperature is too hot or cold, and that the services never end on time. In our efforts to make worship inviting, we deal with taste as well as spiritual maturity. How do we know the difference? In one case we need a strategy to challenge the thinking of our people. In the other case, we need to compromise and change our leadership thinking. Are we ready to do both? We have lived through at least a couple decades of worship wars, so the path of discussion and debate is pretty well worn these days. One word remains a taboo today: compromise.
When To Challenge Or Compromise On Worship
I have to admit that in every ministry setting, regardless of size or age of the congregation, the volume of the worship music has been an issue. The season I am about to recall was no different. Having dealt with reasonable people, I decided to employ a scientific method of addressing the concerns to the leadership. Some disliked the volume but loved the songs. Others were happy with none of it. And, yet there was a large portion that were fans of exactly the way things were. This particular church already weathered a church split and loss of scores of people in the recent history. Instead of a prompt patient dialog, a culture of risk aversion produced fear in the leadership. I decided that this method might indeed help take things from subjective to object so that our leadership team was equipped with data to balance the emotion. Here’s what happened.
Our sound team, full with a couple of professionally trained volunteers as well as capable engineering minds, decided that a 10-week test could be done taking volume readings from the same three places in the church during the same times in every service. We took the comment cards and any available documented feedback and put it into a couple of categories. One was compliment versus complaint. The second was song choice that was listed as “up-tempo” or traditional hymn. An additional column contained the three volume readings and their average. A map of the room was also there that listed the hot spots for sound in the room. Our team found out that these hot spots could be up to double the volume of the average in the room! All of this data was compiled by a very dedicated volunteer team. Now came time for the report.
In the report, I noted that when there was a complaint, the volume was the same as when the same person gave us a compliment. What was the difference? It was the style of music. This happened time after time and was an overwhelming pattern. Our sound team was careful to record the volume, and we kept it at 95 dB or less. But, it became clear that what we thought was simply an issue with turning down the volume was an issue of preference. As the worship pastor, my job was not to decide policy. In this report, I had hoped to find solutions that myself and the amazing team of volunteers under me could successfully execute. Some ideas from my team came in such as adding an “unplugged” service with no drum kit. It could do the same songs and maybe even add a hymn. The energy with my team was such that they owned the issue and offered their time and talent to move our church further and help people worship.
This report was sent to my board. They could not refute what an entire team had developed. What was missed, however, was a compromise. The leadership did not want to change a style of worship in one service or consider adding time. Even though it was clear resources could accomplish this move, they decided to basically keep things the way there were and as a result boxed in my pastor. This strained the relationship with my pastor and supervisor because it was my thoughts that swayed the board to agree preference was indeed the problem. In reality, the difference between myself and the leaders, in this case, was a willingness to compromise—at any level. We could change our music—instrumentation and all. But, retreating was not an option. Without a clear philosophy of worship, it is impossible to compromise, even if the solutions are right in front of you.
Why is compromise such a bad thing? When is it good to challenge each other or our leaders about worship? Is preference a valid thing to address? I think we can develop a process with three levels of thought to filter what we should compromise on and what we should challenge. Not every worship item is an issue of conscience. Not every part of the discussion is theologically based. But, before we can take the heat out of the room we need to clear the table of the most important thoughts about the issues we are discussing. What do we believe? What do we value? And, how is our mission affected by the choices we need to make?
Theological Framework: What Do We Believe?
I want to offer some examples that might help us find out where our framework of theology and guide our thinking about worship. If we don’t start here, even discussions about volume are a waste of time. We can do all we can to solve a technical issue, but if we lack the clarity of what we believe, we fail to lead in it.
If we are sacramental, we view the worship service as word and table–everything you do supports the communion and the hearing and preaching of the word. In a way, the biblical model of the Temple is more closely mirrored because there is more liturgy that fills the service. Knowing and anchoring to our theology means we can draw a line if necessary. These are the items that will not change—the essentials in our worship.
Other churches, in the evangelical world, for instance, have a revivalist view. Preaching and singing mirrors the ancient synagogue more than the model of the Temple. Lay people preach and administer communion if necessary, where in some sacramental traditions only ordained clergy serve. There is overlap in these areas. But theology about the form and purpose of worship is important and if not clarified the expectations will be lost.
If we believe that the Holy Spirit moves in worship and people will feel and know it, but we don’t teach it, then there can be confusion. What is our tradition, doctrine, and theological expectation for our Sunday worship services? What would you teach to another culture across the world about worship? The answer to that question is the beliefs you hold to about worship.
Principal-Centered Leadership: What Are Our Values?
A second filter here is the idea of values and how they shape into implementing our beliefs. Your beliefs can take you a far distance, but at some point there are other issues that we derive from our motives. How we implement our beliefs will vary and should. These also need to be defined so that those whom we lead can be on the same page. If we appreciate liturgy, it may mean a certain kind of structure in our service, for example. If risk aversion is a value, then doing things that are untried will not happen very quickly. It may take a church longer to adopt a modern worship instrumentation. This is not a moral or theological issue! It is valid to be that pioneer and forge new ground. But, it is also perfectly fine to wait and see before investing in a church haze machine. Risk aversion is just one value issue. But, as you can see, it can shape how two church leaders with the same theology might differ in approach.
Do we value an attractional model of church worship? This thought holds the value that Sunday can and should be an evangelistic event. If you are trying to attract the community, you will decide how to teach them. In the culture of America, people are accustomed to having their attention grabbed by marketing, messaging, and invitation. In some cultures, it could be offensive or confusing to craft a service in this way. However non-essential some of these values appear, they are deeply held and often come from theological anchors. For instance, a strong view of Dispensational theology–a teaching about periods of time in which God reveals himself differently–might inspire a church to build a more temporary structure rather than an ornate cathedral.
Another group of us might be gather and scatter. Our weekend services are not so much directly about evangelism but about bringing the church together to be fed and be sent out into the community. This idea of being fed comes from Jesus who says that he is the bread of life. A value that comes out of this may be sermons that are geared to feed the Christian in their walk instead of ones that your non-Christian friend is meant to hear. What can we do in a service to send out the people to preach the gospel? That is a different value than asking this: What can we do in a service to encourage people to bring their friends? Which of these two is more important?
Musical choices also come from what we value about worship. If we value spontaneous worship, we will make space in the music for people to pray, both in word and song. Do we value excellence since the act of worship should be our best efforts? If so, we might only let the best singers lead our worship services. Another church might have a similar value, but the reasons may be different. They may desire excellence because it is what they know will reach new people to their church.
After the theology is clarified, values need to be articulated. Articulating your values allows a healthier conversation about differences in opinions. It is entirely possible that you and another may agree on the basic theology of worship but have strong opposing views on what you value. Two pastors in the sacramental tradition could easily differ on how formal to make the service. Is a robe necessary? What if the order of worship is slightly changed? You can have a lot to argue about. But, articulating our values with one another will likely be profitable in the end.
Our Mission: How To Keep On Track?
Our mission to reach people comes out of the context of our theological framework as well as our declared and articulated values. After our vocabulary is seasoned in the first two, we are better to move forward on our mission in worship. Times do indeed change and at a faster pace every year. Some of us are wired to start with mission first! However, if we decide without first knowing who we are and what we believe, we might trip up the process and leave many behind in the dust. It’s better to delineate the non-negotiable items before we can start to offer things that should change. Should we give up on a darkened room for worship? Do we need a haze machine? Who we want to reach will help us answer the next steps in our process. But, if we skip the homework of the other, we build on sand instead of a sound foundation of thought.
The mission is flexible in that it has to happen in the world we live in. While our theology and values can and should transcend time and place, our mission must be alive in the real world of today. The mission is a lot like GPS. There are constant variables in the mathematical sense. We are here to live out the words of Jesus and love God and others. We need to be with the people who are our neighbors and love God. The GPS of mission tells us who and where both God is and our neighbor. We cannot seem to find our way without the GPS that mission is.
My mission in Southern California is different from the mission I had in Texas. The cultures are different. The people are different people. In one, the BBQ was super slow cooked, and the guy in the car at the intersection waved with two fingers. In the other, everyone hurries and honks their way down the road with rage and your ice cream might be vegan. My mission to love is constant, but it is not real until the location is locked. To be out of step with where you are means you are lost in your mission.
Do you love your church or the church you wish they were? With Instagram, we can see the cool people and their worship teams each week in our feed. But, do we pay attention to the location and season God has planted us in? So many conversations about worship go sideways because we are fighting for a church model that was planted with a different GPS location number. While we can and should learn from what is working, none of it matters until we zone in on our own neighborhood.
When To Challenge Instead Of Compromise.
We will call her Lorna. Lorna was a leader of a growing faction of older people in a church where I served some time ago. She was tough, but also a sweetheart behind the strong exterior. She scheduled a meeting with me and came prepared. When Lorna would claim that “people are saying,” she did not exaggerate. Her heart was in the right place. She was concerned that our style of music was a problem for her and her group of older folks. She didn’t mind it being loud, as some would complain. She just didn’t like it. And, rarely do you get a church member to be upfront about what their issue truly is. For this, my view of her softened.
Remember the story with the volume and the report I made? Well, I had to represent the board which decided that they would not do hymns or an additional service. What Lorna asked for actually was what my team had proposed. It would have been a compromise. The purpose here is to not gloat in how right I may have been but to show that often we cannot compromise when our leadership has defined values. So, even though I empathized with Lorna, I had to move the items to the mission. Were the GPS coordinates correct?
I listened and then let her know she had every right to her views. Too often we treat grown-ups like children. It makes everything rather unhealthy. I articulated our values about what music we chose and why we chose it. We were trying to reach people who didn’t go to church. It was a different opinion about values than she had, but it was the one our leaders have stated. She admitted that she and her husband had not walked in on time to miss the music. As a brother in Christ, I asked here. The only thing that matters is this: What would God require of us on Sunday?
I woke up in the morning to an email from Lorna. “Rich, it is now 3 a.m., and I cannot sleep!” She went on to say that the question I posed to both of us kept her up late. She admitted that her choice was to come in on time every Sunday, even if she hated the music. She felt that is what God required of her and her husband and wanted to share that with me. This gruff lady backed down and because we were able to discuss like adults, made a choice. Others may make a choice to leave the church. But, if they leave at least it would be out of clear differences of importance instead of childish emotion. Lorna did what she wanted! She chose to support our leadership.
Compromise Is Not A Bad Word.
Now that we have taken the journey of conversations through belief, value, and mission the voice to compromise should be very clear. In one growing ministry I served in, the pastor wanted to expand our worship service options. We were out of space. It was an opportunity to compromise on many levels. If we moved some people next door to a rented school, what could we give them to help ease the transition? The core of some older saints took on making coffee and refreshments a priority! And, they could be in a service that wouldn’t have a full drum set. The drum set issue had more to do with the echo of the gym, but the compromise was in offering a sound most of the core group would enjoy. This compensated, to some degree, for the fact of walking next door.
Here are five principles to compromise:
Choose the big battles that matter most in the long run.
There are many fights to fight, and the proverbial marathon is a run instead of a sprint. Is the issue at hand a Pyrrhic victory or vital to the mission? We can fight over one worship song, or we can fight over the style of music we are looking for. Choosing battles is one of the most important reasons to compromise on our position. We can give up on small stuff to save energy for the things that will matter more in time. Legacy is more important than our egos.
Think win-win and work for the middle ground.
If we are in a posture of winning at all costs, we will likely be on the losing end. Backing the other party into a corner surely is a way to build a hostile environment. I have made this mistake. We may have the best intentions, but do we have to rub the other party’s nose in the mess? Producing dignity means we allow each other a middle ground that achieves progress. Compromise means I allow the other party to win as much as possible. Why can’t both parties be winners?
Put principles above feelings.
Too often our emotions get the best of us. We can compromise feeling comfortable if it means what we believe in wins. Are we willing to be humbled for our cause? As leaders, the idea of emotional comfort should be one of the easiest choices. However, we are human and the more aware we are of the cost of our feelings the more better we can prepare to compromise them. A momentary emotion for a win with our value means we can sleep at night.
Don’t underestimate the need to address feelings.
Those we are in conflict with potentially have deep feelings about issues as well. Are we humble enough to consider their emotions in the equation? Empathy, however taxing it may be, will be a powerful ally in compromise. To consider the emotions of others is to humanize those around us. Doing so might take the sting away from giving up something to them. The compromise that comes from empathy will earn trust.
Don’t compromise If asked to deny conscience.
The one time we can stand our ground is out of conscience. We have a set of ethics. We won’t cheat on finances, for instance. If asked to lie, we have a line drawn in advance that allows us to leave the bargaining table. The idea of making someone look bad politically may turn our stomach. We must be free to shed the idea of compromise when our deepest values and beliefs are in jeopardy. If we compromise our conscience, we lose part of ourselves. That is an abdication of our leadership as well as our human dignity. However, be careful to know what is an issue of conscience versus an issue of preference.
It will cost us to compromise.
Compromise is not a bad word! Get accustomed to the humility of giving up when you can. Learn that coming in the direction of others does not always mean giving up who we are and what we believe in. While the our worship leader role calls us to be a maestro, the example of Christ demands us to be servants. Ultimately, healthy compromise is serving others for a greater purpose. But, at times compromise might cost dearly. Are we ready for the challenge?