Traditional Churches, Traditional Worship?

Traditional Churches, Traditional Worship?

I’m a member of Alaska’s largest church. It’s a lot like every other megachurch. We meet in a cavernous, windowless room with stage lighting and two huge projection screens. We’re led by a rock band and a casually dressed pastor. The service lasts exactly 75 minutes. Our church draws a large crowd who attends sporadically. There’s a relatively small, highly committed core of members that keeps the machine going.

I like my church. But it’s in Anchorage, 26 miles from my house. It’s summertime and I’m lazy.

So my wife and I have been worshipping at a small traditional church in our little town of Chugiak. (Let’s call it First Church of Chugiak)

We’ve been enjoying our Sundays at First Church. The richness and rigor of the liturgy is refreshing after years of seeker-sensitive services. It’s an eight-course meal, carefully measured out for us by church fathers – confession, forgiveness, praise, instruction, communion, giving, fellowship and benediction. It’s like a spiritual multivitamin in an easy-to-swallow, hour-long pill.

First Church has a lot going for it. The people are friendly, but not pushy. There is a healthy number of kids and young adults. The facility is well kept. The sermons are insightful. We love the depth of the hymns – and the people sing robustly (as opposed to most megachurches where very few people sing). It takes my wife back to the 100-member churches of her youth.

But last Sunday was different. Once a month, this little church does a contemporary service. Gina and I were surprised – unpleasantly so.

We arrived to find the pastor without his clerical robe. A projection screen had been lowered in front of the organ pipes. We sang praise choruses instead of hymns, led by a solo guitarist who had trouble keeping the beat. The congregation did not seem to know the songs, so they sang tentatively. On a positive note, the sermon was good as usual, and the pastor skillfully used PowerPoint slides to reinforce his message.

But on balance, the overall quality of the service was not up to par. Had this been our first Sunday at First Church, it’s unlikely that we would have returned.

So what went wrong? This little church was trying to be something it’s not.

First Church is a traditional church. And it’s very good at being a traditional church. But it’s a lousy contemporary church.

Here’s the advice I give every congregation – be who you are. Do what you do well – and do it over and over. If you’re going to innovate, do so within the bounds of your culture.

It’s an article of faith these days that contemporary worship is the way to go if you want your church to grow. Thousands of churches will be planted this year – and every one will offer contemporary worship. Hymns are out – love songs to Jesus are in.

Traditional churches have seen young believers flocking to megachurches, so naturally they want to get in on the growth. But this is foolish. Smaller traditional churches lack the musical depth, computer controlled lighting or special effects that are needed to generate the “worship high” that young believers associate with God. Rock music seems out of place in a brightly lit chapel festooned with felt banners and stained glass.

People come to church to encounter God. A good worship service is transcendent; it helps people detach from this present world to connect with the divine. But when traditional churches try to be contemporary it usually comes across as forced, stilted or artificial. This dissonance jerks people back into the mundane world. Worshippers focus on the distraction instead of the Lord.

So once again here’s my advice to every church: be who you are. Do what you do well – and do it over and over. Don’t worry about what some other church is doing.

Radio stations understand this principle. You won’t find the local pop music station playing the occasional Beethoven concerto. Nor will the country music station spin Lil Wayne’s latest rap record. Our local “Mix” radio station plays a variety of songs – but they’re all within the same genre – familiar pop/rock hits of the past 30 years.

If your church is big enough to offer two services, it might make sense to designate one a “traditional service” and the other a “contemporary one.” But if you offer just one service, stick with what you do best.

About a year ago I was filming a documentary at a traditional United Methodist Church that is growing by focusing on men. They sing hymns accompanied by piano and organ. They already attract a fairly young crowd (median age 42) and their nursery is packed with babies. They’re obviously doing a lot of things right.

During filming I interviewed the woman in charge of the worship committee. After the camera stopped rolling, she happened to mention that the church was preparing to recruit a rock band for the occasional contemporary worship service. I strongly encouraged her NOT to do this. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: Why? You’re already the fastest growing Methodist church in your conference.

Woman: We’ve had a couple of people ask for it. We think the young people will like it more.

Me: Have you asked the young people if it matters to them?

Woman: No.

Me: Have you talked to any other traditional churches that have tried to add contemporary worship to see how it went?

Woman: No.

Me: I’d do that first. I think you’ll stick with what you’re doing.

As of now, Grace UMC is sticking with the piano and organ. They sing a mix of hymns and praise songs. They do not have a band. They are doing what they do well. And they’re still growing.

Oh, and one more thing: they have more active men than women. In my estimation, that’s one sign of a healthy church.

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