Above the Battle?

by John Frame

[Photocopied for worship course.]


Several recent books on the “worship wars” have sought to transcend the partisan arguments to find the basic theological principles that should constrain all Christian worshipers, “common criteria” that should help Christians come to greater agreement.

Marva Dawn claims to have done that in her Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down,1 but in my judgment she ended up writing a rather partisan tract for a traditional approach to worship.2 In her more recent A Royal “Waste” of Time,3 she responds to some critics.4 She mentions five reasons why in Reaching Out she may “seem to be advocating traditionalism.”5 She says she is concerned with (1) understanding the history of the church’s worship, (2) not substituting style for substance, (3) distinguishing evangelism from worship, (4) making good choices among hymns, and (5) avoiding “dumbing down.” In formulating these concerns, she found more negative examples in contemporary services, more positive examples in traditional ones. But she does recognize that there are also positives in the contemporary approach and negatives in the traditional. My review, perhaps, failed to understand the breadth of her overall perspective, or perhaps she was not clear in expressing it. I still think that Reaching Out was, whatever Dawn’s intention, an argument for traditional worship, and her more recent book is not terribly different in that regard, despite her disclaimers.

Her example shows how hard it is to really get above the battle. There are two dangers: (1) When one gets above the battle, one may find oneself in an air war, and (2) However much we can accomplish above the battle, eventually we must descend to the ground.

What I mean by (1) is that sometimes when we try to ascend from petty details to broad theological principles, we may still find ourselves in a conflict over what those principles are. Although I can accept Dawn’s five concerns in general terms, I have questions about all of them. These principles as she states them, therefore, do not resolve problems for me: (1) I agree that someone in the church should understand the history of worship, but I don’t think every worshiper needs to understand it, at least to the extent that Dawn recommends. (2) I find it more difficult than she to distinguish substance from style. A morose style conveys a morose substance; a friendly style can be a means of communicating grace. (3) I agree that evangelism and worship should be distinguished, and I agree that worship is primarily for believers. But I also think evangelism is part of worship (1 Cor. 14:24-25) and that worship is an effective way of reaching unbelievers. (4) I agree with Dawn that we should make good choices among hymns, but I do not agree entirely with her aesthetic standards, and I put a higher priority on communication and intelligibility than she does. (5) I too have attended some services that I could criticize as “dumbed down.” But we must be careful here. Worship should be intelligible; it is communication (1 Cor. 14): communication with children and teens as well as adults; communication with various ethnic, socio-economic, and educational groups.

So if Dawn and I don’t quite agree on the principles, how are we to agree one the application of the principles? When we come down to the ground, we will still be at war, insofar as the military metaphor applies to loving disputes between brothers and sisters in Christ.

Michael Horton’s A Better Way6 also tries to reach above the stereotyped arguments:

In all of this, however, there does not seem to be enough discussion of the deeper issues—the biblical and theological issues—underlying a distinctively Christian view of worship. With notable exceptions, such as Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down and A Royal Waste of Time, there has been a dearth of approaches that move beyond the traditional-contemporary impasse… It seems to me that we need to take a step back and say, “Wait a minute. What is worship anyway? Why do we do it? How do we know when we’re doing the right thing?”7

This introduction leads the reader to expect a fresh approach. But the approach here is very familiar to those who have read other Horton books. Popular culture is bad, marketing is bad, and especially advertising is bad.8 And anything in worship that even looks a bit like pop culture, marketing, or advertising is a betrayal of the biblical doctrine of worship. Horton thinks that the broadly evangelical churches (as distinct from the Reformed and Lutheran confessional traditions he respects) are badly compromised on this score.

With these convictions, Horton tends to read the words of broad evangelicals in a far worse sense than they should be read. When Lee Strobel says about preaching,

I begin in the real world, connecting with (the seekers’) needs, and show them that I do understand where they’ve been and where they are. Based on that, I show the relevance of Scripture. I build a bridge from the real world into the world of Scripture.9

Horton replies,

But that is just the question, isn’t it: Do we even know what the “real world” is apart from its divine description?… Furthermore, hasn’t God built that bridge from the Word to his hearers by sending us preachers who announce his judgment and pardon?10

But it is not plain from Strobel’s words that he would deny the points Horton wants to make. Strobel is making a simple point about communication: we start where people are, and we move to what they need to hear. Horton takes him to be denying the primacy of Scripture and of its message of judgment and grace. One who would fly above the battle, metaphorically, should be expected to deal with the real concerns of those on both sides, not caricature them.11

Horton does make some concessions along the way. He perhaps surprises some of his readers by saying that “Churches definitely must be seeker-sensitive, warmly welcoming unbelievers and inviting them into the circle”12 while disparaging seeker-driven churches that “have gone too far in that direction.”13 Here he acknowledges the legitimacy of a concern with seekers, and also that the difference between seeker-sensitivity and seeker-drivenness is a matter of degree. He also recognizes that there is such a thing as “dead traditionalism”14 and concedes that “no past age can be regarded as normative.”15

I was also pleased to see that in this book he recognizes the importance of communication. He emphasizes that preaching is God’s work, the powerful Word of God that comes to the congregation through the preacher. But he recognizes that

However, this may be understood to give license to laziness on the part of preachers: “Let go and let God.” It may also be understood to justify poorly planned and executed services in general. However, the opposite is intended.16

He advocates that preachers study the Scriptures closely and also come to know their congregations, presumably so that they can preach with relevance. He rather disparages, however, preaching to “felt needs.” What he says here is that worshipers should not bring “demands” that sermons address their felt needs. I agree. But the issue of felt needs arises, not so much in response to the demands of worshipers as in the realm of worship planning, where preachers and worship leaders seek to find the best ways of communicating the Word to their hearers. Since Horton agrees that preaching should be relevant to the congregation, it is not clear why he does not also endorse preaching to felt needs. How are “relevant preaching” and “preaching to felt needs” actually different from one another? But Horton seems to have bought into the idea that the phrase “felt needs” always connotes something bad.

The main thrust of the book is that worship is by Word and Sacrament, and therefore not by gimmicks, appeals to felt needs, or anything like pop culture, marketing, and advertising. But those who argue the contrary (to be sure, with a different view of the value of popular culture and so on) hold that these emphases help us to communicate, clearly and relevantly, the Word itself. If we take communication seriously, inevitably we will see analogies (not identities) between preaching, marketing, and advertising. And we will have to think about how far this analogy goes, not blindly reject it.

So the antithesis Horton draws is not at all self-evident. If Horton really wanted to fly above the battle, he would look at the nature of communication itself and ask what, if any, are the biblical principles governing such communication. And he would also ask how much freedom Scripture gives us to use cultural forms in our communication. These are important background issues that divide people in the worship wars. They need to be explored far more than Horton is willing to explore them. Although he acknowledges these questions, he continues to write as though his theological perspective exempts him from any serious consideration of them. So Horton’s book is pretty much traditional ground warfare, rather than an aerial view of things.

The book With Reverence and Awe by Darryl Hart and John Muether17 also seeks a standpoint above the battle. The authors introduce the book by saying that discussions of worship have been derailed by questions about organs and guitars, hymnals and overheads, pulpits and stages, informality and formality, the place of evangelism. Rather than beginning with such questions, they think it important to “return to the basics on worship.”18 Horton sought to get the basics by focusing on Word and Sacrament. Hart and Muether, however, appeal more broadly to the general theology of the Reformed confessions and tradition. They believe that adherence to the Reformed faith will necessitate a certain type of worship. “This connection between theology and worship,” they say, “is so vital that it is impossible to change the form (worship practice) without altering the content (theological conviction).”19 Similarly, in a 1998 email debate between Hart and myself, Hart said several times that I was seeking to “change Reformed worship,” which was incompatible with a Reformed profession. One cannot, he said, claim that the Reformed are “wrong about worship” while sincerely subscribing to Reformed theology.

I would agree that Reformed theology implies certain convictions about worship. Our emphasis on the sovereignty of God implies that God is the one who ordains worship, governs it, sets the standards for it, and assembles us to do it. The sovereign God is the only proper object of worship. Reformed theology also dictates, in general, the content of sermons, prayers, and hymns, and the administration of the sacraments. One cannot reasonably claim to be Reformed if he advocates the worship of images, preaches Arminian theology, or cultivates irreverence.

But Hart and Muether go beyond these obvious points. To them, to be Reformed means that worship must have a “dialogue” structure, that there is to be no believer-to-believer communication in the service, only God-to-man and man-to-God.20 Only ordained elders may preside, for only they can speak in the name of God.21 Choirs are excluded, for they don’t have a precisely defined role in the dialogue.22 “’User friendly’ or ‘seeker-sensitive’ worship is not an option for the people of God.”23 To seek “meaningful” or “dynamic” or “exhilarating” worship is to “obscure the biblical standard of worship.”24

They quote my statement in Worship in Spirit and Truth25 that worship should be carried on in “a friendly, welcoming atmosphere,” and they comment that “following this logic, worship style becomes a matter of taste.”26 They then equate my recommendation with “irreverent worship.” Nevertheless, they say later, as I do, that worship should involve joy.27 And of course they, like Horton, want no truck with anything from popular culture.

Does Reformed theology really require all this? Does one really forsake the Reformed faith if one seeks to take visiting unbelievers into consideration (as 1 Cor. 14:24-25), or if one allows for believer-to-believer communication in worship (as in Heb. 10:24-25), or if one seeks to be friendly to visitors?28 Does the use of praise and worship songs really conflict with a Reformed commitment? Doing such things may be unusual in the context of Reformed tradition, but do they really conflict with Reformed theology?29 And weren’t the Reformers themselves quite willing to oppose tradition that was not biblically warranted? Didn’t they advocate clear communication in worship, both verbally (through the use of vernacular languages) and musically (through the emphasis on congregational singing)?

I have responded to these questions in my worship books, but I don’t find anything here (or in the Horton or Dawn books) that addresses my arguments. Certainly one who would fly above the battle should take account of the arguments of all sides. Probably even more than the others, the Hart-Muether book fails to carry out its promise of “stepping back” to look at broader principles. It does look at broad principles, but it draws rather simplistic connections between those principles and specific worship practices. Basically, they fly their plane into the sky in order to descend to the ground and use their plane as a tank.30

So I am not persuaded by these attempts to fly above the worship wars. Both their broader principles and their application of those principles to specifics are debatable at best. I wish I could say that they had at least advanced the debate to a higher level, but I cannot even say that. For the most part, they merely go over well-trodden ground.

I do take some comfort in the fact that the worship wars themselves are becoming somewhat irrelevant today. Many churches have adopted “blended” worship, liturgies that draw upon both the traditional and the contemporary. They seek to communicate the eternal truth of God’s Word to contemporary people, and they have found that in some cases, at least, the best way to do this is by drawing on our most ancient resources. We are told that the latest generations–the post-post-post moderns, the Ys, Zs, the millennials and—I guess—the post-millennials—actually desire worship with deeper roots, so that using ancient forms, ironically, speaks to their felt needs. So God seems to be answering prayers for unity.

Churches with PowerPoint and video systems are using them to reinstate litanies, responsive Scripture readings, dialogue between leader and congregation, men and women, other segments of the congregation. Many of these responsive exchanges are adapted from the Book of Common Prayer and other traditional books of worship. So, ironically, the newest technology enables us to appropriate ancient resources. Back to the future!

So the worship wars are nearing their end, or so I hope; theologians will have to find something else to fight about. Now is not the time for renewed battles over “broad theological principles” which turn out, on inspection, to be battles over taste.

Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

See my review in Contemporary Worship Music (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1997), 155-174.

Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

There is no indication that she read my review, but of course there were others to the same effect. Was I one of the ones who “flabbergasted” her with a “vitriolic response” (4)? I hope not. If so, either my review was completely out of accord with my intention, or Dawn has a thinner skin than I anticipated.


Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002.

11. Horton drops the quotes from the word “Waste” in Dawn’s title.

Horton is thoroughly committed to the critique of popular culture advocated by Ken Myers (All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes; Wheaton: Crossway, 1989) and David Wells (No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) and other books). He gives no consideration to those who have dissented from this approach, such as William Edgar in his review of Blue Suede Shoes (Westminster Theological Journal 53:2 (Fall, 1991), 377-380) and the present writer’sContemporary Worship Music (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1997). Someone who wants to fly above the battle should give attention more evenly to the arguments on both sides.


10 Ibid.

11 See also Horton’s responses to Strobel on 216 and 217, which I also regard as misunderstandings.

12 233.

13 Ibid.

14 167.

15 Ibid.

16 69.

17 Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002.

18 13. Compare 18.

19 16.

20 95ff, 103ff. They say on 106 that in the Reformation the priesthood of believers “did not apply to worship.”

21 105ff.

22 166.

23 35. They go farther than Horton, who believes that the question of seeker sensitivity is a matter of degree.

24 77.

25 Phillipsburg: P&R, 1996.

26 Hart and Muether, 121.

27 122.

28 Muether has told me in email correspondence that he does not object to taking into account the presence of unbelieving visitors. But the sweeping condemnation of “seeker sensitivity” would certainly lead the average reader to think otherwise. Perhaps Muether understands “seeker sensitivity” differently from others of us. But he should then have been more careful in defining the concept before condemning it. As we have seen, even Michael Horton uses the phrase in a positive sense.

29 The “dialogue pattern” is not mentioned in the Westminster Confession or Catechisms. It is found in the OPC Directory of Worship and some other formulations of Reformed Worship. But officers in most Reformed denominations have no obligation to subscribe to it.

30 By the way, their objection to my definition of worship on 91 misunderstands it as a definition of public worship rather than, as I intended it, a definition of worship in general, including that worship of Rom. 12:1-2 which is all of life.


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