Bieber Fever and the Worship Wars
How brain science might help us major on the majors.

I thought the worship wars were over. The church I grew up in put our traditional Southern gospel-style music out to pasture in favor of a more generic contemporary style in the mid 90s. We weren't exactly in the most progressive region of the country. Surely we were among the last band of skirmishers in a war winding down.

But it seems the war is raging still. I interact with a lot of pastors, and I hear from them time and again that their number one problem is helping the old-timers turn loose of the hymnals and welcome such innovations as overhead projection, electric guitars, and a backbeat. At stake for these pastors is the future of their church. How can they reach younger generations with outdated forms of worship?

I've often marveled at how visceral these discussions can get. Older Christians can imply that if you add one praise song to the bulletin, you might as well just harvest their remaining healthy organs and send them out in the woods to die alone. Younger Christians can give you the impression that when Jesus ascended, he ordained the drum set as the primary vehicle of the Holy Spirit.

A recent article in the The Wall Street Journal shed some interesting light on this subject for me. Reporting on the mass hysteria set afire by celebrities like Elvis and the Beatles and, more recently, Justin Bieber, Melinda Beck suggests victims of "Bieber Fever" suffer from a legitimate malady.

Citing neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music (Dutton Adult 2006), Beck explains, "Hearing familiar, favorite music stimulates the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and addiction, providing the same rush as eating chocolate or that winning does for a compulsive gambler."

The power of "familiar, favorite music" may help explain why musical style is so important to younger worshippers. They may interpret the dopamine release they experience while singing a contemporary worship song—or even a secular song—as a profoundly spiritual experience. Maybe this explains why my classmates and I went berserk when my friend's band played their apocalyptic favorite "When Jesus Comes Around," a Christianized version of Green Day's "When I Come Around." Silly as it sounds, we found it worshipful. I guess we couldn't help it.

But the research suggests that older Christians are also held in music's dread sway. Beck goes on to say, "Dr. Levitin's research also showed that musical tastes formed in the teen years become part of the brain's internal wiring, as that is the time when some neural pathways are solidifying and others are being pruned away. That's why the music adults tend to be nostalgic for is the music from their teenage years."

July 17, 2012

Displaying 1–10 of 19 comments


February 26, 2013  10:38am

Dear Sir Our Founding Senior pastor Died and was searching for a new pastor and finally hired a young minister two Churches merged The young pastor had a small Church and the our church was a mega church has one of the largest Pipe organ in the USA He told the committe he loves Organ music church Hymns .but when he was Offically the Senior Minster He stated firing Paid soloist fired our Praise band brought his own band He is following the Rick Warrin's Purpose driven church Only Prasie band the Organ is Silent for the most Part As a result thier was such a ugly worship war the Music staff left half the choir left so did the organist and choir Direster and started thier own Chuch We had a fantastic Concert Series and Childrens choir No sacris music at all. This trend has got to stop.

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Justin Randolph

November 08, 2012  2:24am

Great article and conversation happening in the comments! This is a great thing to consider when leading worship, realizing that not everyone has the same preferences. People's heart music is so different, especially as churches are becoming more multi-cultural. What if we, as worship leaders, could encourage worship songs from other cultures and languages represented in the congregation? This mixture would allow people to worship in the styles they connect with, while introducing others to the outside world. There is something to be gained in each of these God-given creative styles. Even if your church is divided by age, we have an opportunity to help bridge the gap between the two and show the value in hymns as well as contemporary worship songs, both in style and lyrical content. It would be great if the debates could stop and the conversations of working and worshiping together.

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James Ward

August 18, 2012  5:54pm

The point you made about lobbying for others' tastes is the exact point in cross-cultural worship communities. As our country changes demographically, some of these warring congregations are going to be driving past neighborhoods, housing projects, or even churches where other ethnic groups live and worship. Let's skip to the future and start choosing music from traditions in order to encourage diversity.It's coming sooner than white Christianity thinks; The SBC just elected a symbolic African American president. When a congregation is committed to reaching across cultural lines, there are some remarkable side effects! As a white musician in a cross-cultural church, I get few complaints because our mission is unity between black, white, and latino.

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July 31, 2012  3:45pm

From a historic perspective, theological soundness of words and music style have always both been seen as critically important in the Church's liturgical worship. A few years ago, I read in a book on learning to chant by an Episcopal that after a particular Roman Catholic men's monastery in France was asked (I think in the wake of the Novus Ordo and Vatican II) to give up most of the chanting of the Psalms, etc., in the hours of prayer, and read them instead, there was a lot more physical illness in the community. The author concluded that apparently there are even physical health benefits to the this type of use of music. (I believe this property of certain types of music has since been demonstrated in other medical science studies.) I have found there is a lot of truth in this context to the saying that "He who sings, prays twice." I think to a large degree in modern culture, we have lost this wholistic sense of the nature of Christian faith and worship as a way of life, even involving music style, that may in many ways run counter to prevailing culture. Now, it seems to be mainly the New Agers who will readily embrace and accept this connection, but often in spiritually unsound or undiscerning ways! I grew up during the birth of Christian contemporary music and also playing classical music (violin) in the school orchestra. I love listening to Newboys, Casting Crowns, David Crowder, and many others, but I definitely do not miss the use of this kind of music in my EO liturgical worship setting. The "Eight Tone" system of a cappella chanting of virtually the entire service (in my congregation, congregational singing has been revived, and the congregation is the choir) is a balm and a wonderful aid to meditation on the words of the Scriptures and Scriptural prayers that are sung or chanted. Human nature being what it is, there can still be "worship wars" of sorts among the Orthodox (criticism of the musical setting used or quality of the chanter's or choral performance–more like little squirmishes), but nothing like in modern Evangelical circles. I guess there's something to be said for having largely resolved this issue by the end of the 8th or 9th century!

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July 30, 2012  4:15pm

By what stretch of imagination can the rythym section of a praise band be called a "backbeat?" We've abandoned melody and harmony for "beat front and center" and lyrics for how we feel. Brain chemistry and preferences aside, corporate worship is not about us, or who is leading, or what style we prefer. Just as Eastern meditation calls for emptying the mind and biblical meditation calls for filling the mind with truth, so worship is not about feelings, chemistry, or preferences. It is about humbling ourselves before a holy God and openly and corporately confessing our sin and affirming His worth in our lives. Worship happens when we engage our mind in the contemplation of truth and how God's worth in our lives affects our lifestyle.

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July 26, 2012  9:12am

Thanks, Linnea! I think I read somewhere that there are multiple Hebrew words for "praise", each emphasizing a different emotional or physical posture. Could you elaborate...or did I dream that after eating a spicy burrito?

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July 26, 2012  3:11am

As a Bible translator who has been working on the psalms, I would like to comment on the way many people (including some in these responses) say that they are sick of hearing the word "I" in modern songs. Read the psalms, and check out how many times the word "I" occurs!! Praying and praising are very personal. They need the personal pronoun. One other thing, about the dopamine effect: God made our bodies, and he knows how to help us open up to him. For some of us it comes in silence, for some with a heavy backbeat. Whatever the chemical cause, I welcome the physical responses that smooth the way for my heartfelt spiritual ones. I've even come to find that the heavily repetitious, hot-percussion sound of the African people here can lead me to levels of joy and philadelphia-love that I have not often previously experienced when singing in community. This is a multi-level subject. Thank you for this balanced, thoughtful commentary!

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July 24, 2012  2:07pm

Music in church is secondary to the worship and the study of the word of God. When music becomes primary, then your church has become a place of entertainment. Easy words to say, perhaps, but then I have experience of churches where the pastor cannot go beyond a certain depth in Biblical exegesis because a sermon that long would take precious time away from the praise band - I hope you can see why that scenario is wrong. My conviction is that it is purely God the Spirit who ultimately brings people into true union with Christ, not church externals. Sadly, so many churches have trapped themselves into the church-entertainment = crushingly heavy debt load culture that profound subjects become taboo in so many.

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T Larry

July 24, 2012  12:20pm

I have served as a "Worship Leader" for over 30 years. I can worship while singing or listening to instrumentals from either traditional or contemporary "styles" of music. I prefer a blended style of worship, utilizing the best of both styles. The priority I consider when planning worship is focusing on songs that are scripturally based and sung directly TO God. God loves to hear His children sing His Word back to Him. My second priority is whether or not the music will bless and encourage those around me. Worship should NOT be approached as a concert of religious songs sung to excite the audience. Psalm 150 says "let EVERYTHING that has breath praise the Lord" It also encourages the use of ANY and ALL instruments that are available to you as you worship.

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Oakville church

July 23, 2012  3:31am

I believe we should respect both sides... music is a gift from God and for me there should be no arguments about it. Worship the Lord in spirit and in truth.

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