Worship Wars 1998

She likes pipe organs, chants, kneeling, candles and incense.

He wants to sway in the aisle with his hands lifted while the praise band plays a rock anthem from the Contemporary Christian Music sales charts.

He likes a preacher who stands in a pulpit and, for 40-plus minutes, dissects a biblical passage to reveal each and every nuance. She likes someone who strolls about, with a wireless lapel microphone, chatting about how God touches people's daily lives and dreams. The children want to visit a new church that has a comedy team and the preacher shows lots of movie clips.

Welcome to what researchers call the "worship wars." Religious groups are struggling to reach people who live in the niches created by satellites, multi-media computers, music superstores, multiplex theaters and the omnipresent mall.

Everyone says they want to "worship." If they belong to same congregation, then the pastor, or bishop, or deacons, or worship committee eventually has to decide who will be happy and who will be mad. If a church makes major changes, many older members will vote with their checkbooks. If a church stands pat, younger members vote with their feet.

"Some people want a more liturgical service, with a sense of awe and a connection to the past," said the Rev. Dan Scott, pastor of the Valley Cathedral, a charismatic megachurch in Phoenix. "Some people want a more contemporary feel, with a sense of celebration and release and joy. Some people want all of that at the same time."

Many seek the traditions of the apostles and saints of early Christendom. Others prefer traditions from recent centuries -- bookish eras in which people regularly spent hours listening to orations on public life, morality and doctrine. Meanwhile, many in today's electronic-media-saturated culture think of a "tradition" as anything older than the World Wide Web.

These groups clash whenever worship is put up to a vote. Meanwhile, others ask if the goal of worship is to please people in pews or God in heaven. And what about the past? Do the saints get to vote? The legendary Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton once stated the issue this way: "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."

It's crucial to study the past with open eyes, argues Scott, in his book "The Emerging American Church." A generation of older American church leaders -- especially in pulpit-driven Protestant churches - has failed to see the big historical picture. It isn't normal for believers to sit quietly in pews, as if in school, he said. For centuries, worshippers actively participated in grand liturgical dramas and offered ecstatic praise.

"People don't want to just sit there," he said. "So what is disappearing is the middle ground between the liturgical and the contemporary. That's the safe, middle-class, lecture-driven worship that so many people think of as 'traditional.' ... You can't just lecture to people, anymore. That's gone."

Scott's church has about 4,000 people who join in its worship services. The key word is plural -- "services." The Valley Cathedral is one of a growing number of congregations that offer several approaches to worship and its ministry team ranges from a pastor who once prepared for the Catholic priesthood to those who grew up in Pentecostalism. One service is rooted in high-church rites and liturgies, while another offers an "old fashioned" gospel style that pleases many older members. A high- energy, "contemporary" service appeals to many Baby Boomers.

What holds this church together, said Scott, is that all new members study the same catechism that teaches what it means to be a believer and how their church is trying to find its niche in Christian tradition. Everyone learns the ancient Apostles Creed.

"What we are seeing is a struggle between three very different generations - each of which rejects the others' approach to worship," he said. "This is distressing, to say the least. At some point, you have to find some source of unity."