‘Worship Wars’: which style is best?

Which worship style is best? Contemporary, or traditional? This divide in worship style only came about 30 years ago, when a wave of new songs for musical worship were written in a style popular in the 1970s. Gradually the word “contemporary” was used as a prescriptive term to promote this new style of worship.

Christian Worship historian, Duke Divinity School professor and lecturer at the Robert E. Webber Institute of Worship Studies Dr Lester Ruth suggested that questions on “what worship style is best” and “which style will get the people in” may actually distract us from focusing on the deeper questions about worship.

Speaking at the Methodist School of Music Worship Symposium held in early June 2013, Dr Ruth noted that it was crucial for every church to draw from Ephesians 4:14 where the apostle Paul warns Christians against being “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching”.

Current style labels will come and go, and it is not about pitting one style against another; instead it is important for us to understand the deeper purposes of worship. Consider these questions:

• What makes Christian worship “worship”?

• What makes Christian worship “Christian”?

• If our God is Triune (three Persons in one Godhead), what impact should that have on Christian worship?

According to John D. Witvliet of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, discussions on worship can be on three levels: Experiential (What did the worshipper experience?), Technical (Did everyone do their task in the right way at the right time in the right place?), and Deep Purposes (What is the essence of Christian worship? What should worship really do and be?).

No style of worship should be exempted from answering the question ‘What Would Paul Plan?’ from a biblical viewpoint.”

The experiential and technical aspects are useful, but these also apply to large-scale secular events and are not exclusive to Christian worship. Dr Ruth prompted discussion on the deeper purposes of worship, and asked: “What Would Paul Plan?”

In other words, what does the apostle Paul model in his manner of speech and behaviour that we can apply to discussions about worship? This method goes beyond finding explicit commands about worship in Scripture to using “scriptural imagination”.

How would Paul answer these questions?

• What should we talk about in worship?

• How much should we pray and what kind of prayers?

• What’s the role of Scripture in worship?

• Who gets to go first? Should the initial stress in the order of worship be placed on divine activity or human activity?

• What should we expect to be happening between us and God?

• What’s the role of the people?

• How should worshipers relate to each other?

NEW PUBLICATION by Trinity Theological College

Stated Dr Ruth: “No style of worship should be exempted from answering the question ‘What Would Paul Plan?’ from a biblical viewpoint.”

Dr Ruth suggested some possible responses. “Worship should have remembrance of God’s story and an opportunity for adequate response.” Or “Worship should contain lots of prayer and many different kinds of prayer” – noting that research shows most churches do not pray very much. Or “We should love one another in worship and beyond worship”, remembering that 1 Corinthians 13 talks about love in the context of churches fighting over worship.

Another possible answer was: “Be Trinitarian and worship the Triune God.” Dr Ruth pointed out that Paul often named two or three Persons of the Trinity and drew attention to their cooperative activity in the story of salvation. Could we do the same in worship?

Dr Ruth then analysed the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” and “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing” to demonstrate this. The first seems to describe a generic God, while the second specifically refers to Jesus Christ. How might a church place these songs in a way that could make it clear they worship a Triune God?

Dr Ruth took pains to emphasise that “no single act of worship, no single song can do everything”. Instead, he encouraged us to be attentive to what each piece is doing and if there are gaps. “What’s in there and what does it contribute to a full picture?”

Thus, in the above example, the two songs could be given a richer Trinitarian backdrop by reading 2 Corinthians 5:19-21 before singing them.

“And then,” added Dr Ruth, “even a thousand tongues would not be enough.”


NEW PUBLICATION by Trinity Theological College
Engaging Society: The Christian in Tomorrow’s Singapore

From the Foreword
The volume intends to nudge Christians to think about their social responsibility in a changing world. . . . If this volume stimulates some thinking, and better yet, positive engagement on the part of the faithful with Singapore society and community, then it would have done its part in making Singapore a better place: a more liveable city and a more humane society.

Lily Kong Professor, National University of Singapore

From the Preface

What will the future be like and how will it impact the Christian is a pressing question that calls for deep reflection. . . . Can our Christian outlook stand up to the threats of modern secular culture? These are some of the deeper questions we must face now so that we can better prepare our future generations . . . I hope this book will spark off a series of serious Christian reflection on more specific issues facing the Church of the future.
Tan Gee Paw Chair, Public Utilities Board, Singapore

The book may be purchased at The Bible Society of Singapore’s Resource Centres, the Welcome Centre of St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Select Books, the Biblical Graduate School of Theology’s Book Corner and the reception counter at Trinity Theological College. You can also place your orders online at

This book is remarkable – it shows vital and meaningful ways in which Christians can serve Christ by helping to build a nation that is not only prepared for tomorrow but outlasts tomorrow because of its sound and nduring values. This book fleshes out the call. I highly commend it!
Rennis Ponniah Bishop, Anglican Diocese of Singapore

Two thumbs up for this book. It is relevant, thoughtprovoking and challenges us to think about our roles and responsibilities to our nation.
Terry Kee Bishop, Lutheran Church in Singapore

This publication is long overdue. Christians in Singapore have long been actively engaging various communities through practical deeds. Moving forward, we need to explore holistically our contribution to the larger society. This book is a pull in the right direction.
Wee Boon Hup Bishop, The Methodist Church in Singapore

Like Jesus, who came that people might have life and have it to the full, the Church needs to connect with people and be a blessing to them. The authors of this book encourage us to do just that. They challenge us to reflect on biblical truths that should shape how we think and act in a fast evolving society.
Leow Khee Fatt Moderator, The Presbyterian Church in Singapore

This is a badly needed book.At a time when Singaporeans are pondering on the direction the nation should take, this book encourages Christians to think through their social responsibility. These articles by leading churchmen, academics and pastors should stir our hearts, inform our minds and motivate us to move forward, together with others, to a better Singapore.
Bobby E. K. Sng former President of The Bible Society of Singapore