Faith Works 2-14-15
Why a contemporary service?
Some of my recent "Why a…?" columns ask questions that often may not have been asked by much of anyone. They've addressed topics folks may have wondered about, but not been voiced aloud.
Not so with "Why a contemporary service?" Some still use the term "worship wars" for the last few decades, as many congregations, large and small, have struggled with whether or how to offer this new expression of Christian worship.
I'm in either an ideal location or a terrible position to comment on this feature of modern American church life. The congregation where I pastor does not, um, well, we don't, uh…. Well, there's no screen or projector in our sanctuary. If you visit sometime you'll see why. It's just not happening there. Sorry!
And to jump ahead a moment, it's been an interesting shift in what a "contemporary service" means that the key element has changed from drums in the chancel, which in the 60's & 70's was the first "contemporary worship" debate for many of us, to whether or not you project the words to the worship songs (don't say hymns!) up in front of the worshipers. Today, a contemporary service may be bluegrass – no drums! – or even jazz combos, but the central feature is that you don't use hymnbooks, and that imagery is present and changing for the message as well as the music in some form of projection screen.
Anyhow, the church I serve doesn't have one. We're pretty traditional, sort of. But during my "sabbatical years" I preached fairly often in contemporary style services, and I have to admit that occasionally I still fondly recall the added step of developing the message that called on me to hunt up images, pictures to go with the words, even the occasional film clip or video take. It's a different process for sermon development, and it has some real strengths.
And my wife has been worship team leader for a church from their launch through today, over ten years now, which has never been anything but contemporary in her service, leading from the keyboards and selecting pre-service songs, specials, and the closing sing-out – all sung, when the congregation joins in, from words up on the screen. She's directed choirs and church choirs and handbell choirs in very traditional services in many places through the years, but she will tell you with great emphasis: congregational singing is strong when no one has a hymnbook to hide behind.
Think about it: if you have to lift your chin to look at the words, you just increased the singing volume by a factor of two or three right there!
But the question is: why do a contemporary service? Is it just to get people to sing out? No.
The main, the best reason that I am aware of is that there are significant swaths of the population who aren't going to come into a church service where the songs are slower and more "old timey," who are strongly put off by formality and ritual, yet are interested in the ancient claims of scripture and the teachings of Jesus. Are pipe organs and neckties called for in the Bible? Nope. Dressing up is even a topic lacking (to my eyes) a clear teaching. Come, come and worship, come now…I can find all of that in sacred writings, but "only after you've washed behind the ears and put on a clean shirt" not so much.
That's the atmosphere of contemporary, the jeans and t-shirt side of things, and while some churches can pull off a mixed worship space where neckties and dresses are seen right alongside of work boots and worn denim jackets, it's usually something that has to happen at separate times, if not different places. The music, though, that's where the real conflict still happens.
As a leader of traditional worship, even so I get very frustrated with most off-hand criticism of Christian contemporary music (CCM), and with most scholarly critiques. "It's un-Biblical" – you just showed me you've actually looked at the lyrics very little, since I've found CCM to be even more Bible-focused than most old school hymns ("In the Garden," anyone?). "It's repetitive" – go check Psalm 136 and get back to me. "It's too loud.." – okay, we need to talk. Sometimes, that's more than a fair point.
Next week, part two!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about worship music that lifts you up at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.