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Worship styles not divisive at annual LifeWay conference

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Peace descended on the Spilman Auditorium in the Blue Ridge Mountains as hundreds of worshipers from different church sizes, worship styles and backgrounds lifted their voices in harmony singing a cappella, “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow,” at the LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center.

Steve Blanchard, director of worship with the State Baptist Convention of Indiana, has attended LifeWay’s Worship Conference since the 1970s. It has changed some over the decades, but Blanchard says the conference continues to be a valuable experience for worship leaders.

“I travel all over Indiana visiting churches about worship ministry and I brought with me here worship leaders to learn more about both contemporary and traditional styles,” Blanchard said. “It’s a good mix here.”

Conflict over differing worship styles, sometimes referred to as “worship wars,” was discussed throughout the June 19-23 gathering, yet a unified spirit was fostered, evidenced by the diverse offering of technical classes from “The Role of the Drum Set and Hand Percussion in the Worship Experience” to “Every Organist a Composer.”

Featured speaker Jim Shaddix, pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Denver, challenged conference attendees to not dwell as much on worship styles, but instead to focus on the theology in the songs, whether traditional hymns or praise songs.

Using the analogy of a coffee filter straining out bitter coffee grounds, Shaddix referred to the abundance of worship songs released during the past few years and the critical importance of worship leaders to filter out hymns and praise songs with incorrect theology.

“As Southern Baptists, we tend to be pragmatic, just looking for what works,” Shaddix said. “Bigger is better, whatever draws a crowd. Some think a crowd is an indicator of success. But God didn’t call you to be successful by those standards. He called you to be faithful to His Word.

“We end up setting the same standard for ministry that Wal-Mart and the Dallas Cowboys do — drawing a crowd or [providing] what people want. It’s not that we shouldn’t be fluid or moving, but we have to be intentional and make sure we are being faithful to the Word.”

Shaddix told the worship leaders that it is impossible to separate music from theology.

“It’s not an option for you as worship leaders not to be theologians,” the Denver pastor said. “You cannot lead worship if you don’t know your theology. Theology is just the study of God. We can’t lead worship if we don’t know our God.”

Mike Harland, director of LifeWay Worship Music Group, which sponsored the conference, drew attention to Romans 14 in which the Apostle Paul tells believers not to argue about “disputable matters.”

Many controversies over worship styles are what could be considered disputable matters, Harland noted. He voiced concern over worship leaders and laymen who pass judgment on others because of worship styles.

“A red flag ought to go up in your spirit when you begin to question the motives of people with different worship styles,” Harland said. “Then you are crossing a line. The Lord our God is one God and He has proven His love for diversity.”

Harland told conference participants, “If you aim at style, you’ll hit style, but that’s all you’ll get. Instead, aim at getting people to the feet of Jesus. That’s when you will see life change.”

Shaddix and Harland acknowledged that everyone has their own worship style preference. However, they encouraged an effort on behalf of worship leaders and worshipers to avoid “dividing ministries over things that don’t matter.”

“If your pastor is preaching heresy, that is worth church discipline or leaving the church,” Shaddix said. “If it is a matter of worship style, it isn’t worth dividing the church.”

Harland asked worship leaders and lay church members to lay aside arguments on worship style and volume level and instead pursue spiritual momentum in the light of God’s Word in their churches.

“Spiritual momentum will eradicate criticism,” Harland said. “Just as a pebble is neither felt nor heard when encountered by a speeding freight train, criticism is neither felt nor heard when you have great spiritual momentum.

“Preach and teach God’s Word and it will take care of any criticism,” Harland said.

In addition to daily classes on songwriting, music ministry, instruments and numerous other facets of worship, the conference schedule included evening services led by Don Moen and Friends; the Annie Moses Band; and contemporary worship leader Joel Engle.

“I feel like I am in school attending classes and seeing friends,” said longtime conference attendee Bernice Stephens from Oak Ridge, Tenn., who leads her church’s senior adult choir. “There is a lot more offered this year.”

New music materials debuted at the conference included the 2006 Children’s Music Series, “Here by Design.” Intentionally designed with age-appropriate music, hand motions and lessons with updated art, the series is meant to teach children that God is the master designer of heaven and earth and He created each person with a special purpose.

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  • Jenny Rice