Thursday, March 10, 2005

Faith Works 03-12-05
By Jeff Gill

Contemporary and Traditional Worship

One of the more vexed questions in today’s congregational life is how to approach the widespread move to what’s called “contemporary worship.”
Actually, there’s no more a contemporary style than there is a single “traditional worship” style. Variations from religious body to religious body, between geographic and cultural regions, and out of ethnic backgrounds as well make any use of standard terminology tricky.
For central Ohio, mostly among Protestant Christian bodies, the distinction is largely one of music, at least on the surface. Traditional worship is marked by hymnals, music mostly 40 years old or older, often a bulletin with an “order of worship” built around regularly recurring songs and prayers or acts that stay pretty much the same from week to week.
Traditional worship is orderly, generally more formal, with mostly professional leadership in front of the congregation, and from the worshipers there is less active involvement in the service, with clapping or applause less welcome.
Contemporary worship is marked by music presented by a “praise team” usually made up of mostly volunteers, playing guitars, drums, and keyboards or synthesizers to offer music written in the last few decades. Hymnals are all but invisible, as words are projected before the congregation, freeing the hands to clap, applaud, or even raise up during prayer and praise. While contemporary worship isn’t necessarily “charismatic” in the Pentecostal sense, a freedom for individual expression and spontaneous flow in the elements of the service are similar to what has been found in charismatic fellowships for many years.
Obviously, these styles resist blending in one service. Some churches, such as Jacksontown United Methodist Church, have been able to do this successfully, but more common is either having two (or more) services clearly presented as “contemporary” at blank o’clock and “traditional” at other o’clock.
One concern raised with this approach is the question “aren’t we going to have two separate congregations under one roof if we do that?” Actually, the results in churches doing this are pretty much what happens anywhere there are multiple services. Even in places which have chosen to stick with traditional as their style across the board, the “early” and “late” services have their own set of regular attenders, and a different feel between the experiences of worship.
To have multiple services for worship means taking on an extra obligation to have a variety of fellowship experiences that can cut across generational boundaries and issues of musical taste. It can be done, and two or three healthy services will always total more worshipers than the most crowded single service over time, anyhow.
My wife loves being part of a praise team ensemble, working out harmonies and accompaniment for new pieces of music (which often are Biblical texts or phrases from ancient music: it ain’t all new!), and seeing the active involvement of an entire sanctuary in the entire experience of worship. My mom can’t stand contemporary worship of any sort, period. My dad is, to quote “baffled by why anyone would enjoy all this noise in church,” but also says “if you can get all these people to church who weren’t coming before, there must be something to it.”
Me? Well, like any good columnist, I have an assortment of feelings about all this. But I keep coming back to a keepsake I have on a shelf in my office, a hymnal from the roots of my own background, whose proceeds built Bethany College, churches across the US in the 19th century, and funded missionary efforts all around the world. My great-great-grandmother, her daughter, and her daughter sang from this hymn book.
It has over 600 hymns in it. There are precisely two – “Amazing Grace” & “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” – that anyone still sings.
Will we still sing much of contemporary praise music a hundred years from now? Probably not. But it’s worth giving it a try today. I’ll bet my great-grandmother thought “Old Rugged Cross” didn’t sound right the first time she heard it, either.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; if you have a favorite hymn you’d like to read more about, e-mail

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