In the Middle of the Worship Wars…
The Quest for Authentic Worship in the Postmodern Era

By Cathy Townley

Worship wars are alive and well. I’m surprised. I thought we had moved beyond them. But lately, I’ve been working with pastors who want help stopping fights between factions because one group thinks the other’s worship is “inauthentic.” For one thing, some churches are just now starting new styles of worship, with repercussions. But danger can be imminent even for churches that have been doing well for years while representing different cultures with their targeted worship. You can hit your sweet spot, only to discover you’re missing an entire non-churched population who needs to hear Jesus’ message of salvation. Truthfully, people get arrogant about their way of doing worship, so that when you try something new, the change causes a disturbance. Then some antagonists will point to books that say, “If you do this thing or don’t do that thing, it’s not worship;” others will just create division under the guise of holiness.

Something worship antagonists worry about is style. There’s a view that certain things have to be present in certain ways for it to be “real worship.” But I find that arguments over style and form often leave God out of the equation. God’s power can supercede all that. It’s difficult to express what happens when human meets God since words are finite and worship dynamics are supernatural. Still, understanding a bit about how God operates can be a way to build community around a difficult topic.

Personally, I’ve both connected with God — or not – through traditional liturgy, praise and worship, multi-sensory, performance, participation, “contemporary,” “indigenous,” gen-x, high energy and contemplative worship. Sometimes the style or form enhances worship and sometimes it detracts. I’ve even found God in “entertainment evangelism,” though some would say that by definition, I haven’t worshipped. Worship implies participation, which is something you do or say, while in an “entertainment evangelism” style service, you don’t do much of anything.

But on a deeper plane, worship is also about valuing God. Just doing something in worship doesn’t mean you value God. You can watch two people side by side in the same “participative” worship setting, and one is valuing God and another is going through the motions, and you can’t tell which. However, in some entertainment evangelism settings in which I’ve “done nothing,” God has ambushed me, and I find myself rapt upon him. I’m not advocating for entertainment evangelism; I’m only noticing that God can use anything to break down barriers. Then what seems like a bone of contention for some suddenly becomes for others a lasting moment of God’s power. That’s worship.

When God enters into a heart, it’s less about what someone’s doing than it is about what God’s doing. I think it’s helpful to see a worship service as a series of moments strung together. God can use any moments to enter into someone’s awareness – or not. Truthfully, in the same worship setting, it can happen to one and not another, so the process is mysterious and unpredictable. But when God comes crashing into someone’s consciousness, it’s worship, because that’s the moment in which God becomes real.

Of course, that may seem radically “unholy.” For some, the issue of authenticity in worship is around the topic of intent: “if the heart of the worshipper isn’t fully submissive to a holy God, then it isn’t authentic, it’s self-indulgent.” Would that it were that everyone who entered into the presence of God came always for the right reason… On the other hand, why would we choose to keep God from turning hearts of stone into jars of clay by defining someone out of worship for lack of good intentions?

This is a whole new world, and most of us probably have little insight as to the implications. Today’s mission field is huge, and it’s important to see how worship evangelizes. The problem is, worship antagonists are probably modern, by some combination of age and outlook. For one thing, modernity is characterized by – among other things – a belief that everyone grew up in the church, and therefore has a common experience of Jesus.

However, our dominant culture is postmodern, not modern. Post modernity is characterized by – among other things – the death of Christendom. Emerging post moderns are pre-Christian – or pagan. They have gods. They take a little from Jesus, Buddha, Oprah and crystals… and may have no experience inside a Christian sanctuary. In a sense, modern worship antagonists may be right about newcomers knowing Jesus, because most newcomers are probably in the age range of baby boomers and older – moderns, or have grown up in the church and have been influenced strongly by modernity. Pre-Christian post moderns are not in most of our traditional churches, since most of our church experiences are modern.

So if you’re in a traditional church that’s trying to become more culturally relevant, you need to discuss post modernity. What’s ironic is that authenticity and intent are actually critical issues for post moderns. However, the reason intent may be important to a modern may be because of a desire for purity and the preservation of certain traditions. A postmodern probably wouldn’t care about preserving a tradition for the sake of it; what’s important is if the tradition, style, form or intent somehow deepens the experience of the truth.

Worship and community

I have to admit, I’m modern, by birth. But Jesus and worship are my passions, so I’m willing to give up my paradigms, however painful—even though I know I’ll never be fully postmodern like my children or, someday, my grandchildren. However, I worry about my contemporaries in the church. For one thing, I think I’m ahead of the learning curve from most of them, even though post modernity started in the 1950’s, and here we are in the year 2000. Some will catch on, but I fear that for others, the temptation to be judgmental may become more irresistible with time.

Still, I think an intercultural connection of hope is possible, though difficult. The battle over worship isn’t easy, because worship is so deeply embedded into our being as disciples of Jesus. But if the battle can change from a war between cultures to an internal struggle of letting go of pompous agendas over who’s more holy, then it’s worthy. Jesus sent us into that battle, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Only when the Holy Spirit shows up, he’s usually speaking a different language. So either you have to study linguistics or get an interpreter…

Or, you can tell your story. How did you first connect with God? What was the first worship experience you remember? How did God make himself real to you? What is it that keeps bringing you back to the worship setting to which you most relate? If you as a leader can tell that story, and teach your church’s worship antagonists to tell their stories, the door can get pried open a bit for diversity and acceptance. Stories can transcend culture and dialect, and can reveal a pathway into God’s heart.

It would be an enormous surprise if moderns and post moderns had more in common than they thought, finding that God had chosen separate but equally unexpected moments to bring impure hearts into a connection with the Holy. The specific circumstances of each revelation may vary, but that doesn’t matter, for if the God of Jesus has imposed his presence upon the moment and worship has happened, none of us ever has the right to say it’s not real.

Cathy Townley can be reached at

Reading list on worship and / or culture:

Growing Spiritual Redwoods Bill Easum and Tom Bandy, Abingdon Press
Worship Evangelism
 Sally Morgenthaler, Zondervan
 Leonard Sweet, Zondervan
Ancient Future Faith
 Robert Webber, Baker