I have pastored and worshipped in different kinds of churches—small and large, independent and denominational, high and low, American and overseas, traditional and contemporary.
Take what I am about to say lightly, because when it comes to worship style there are so many variables that will affect what God leads us to do. For example, each church has a unique setting. We have different languages, ethnic make ups, socio-economic characteristics, philosophies of worship, resources, callings, etc.. This business of style is not only a potential minefield, but it is affected by the uniqueness and the call of your church.
In my current pastorate we have multiple services and mulitiple styles. Our mission calls us to more than one direction stylistically. Leave aside the occasional quiet contemplative service that we have or the quarterly super contemporary service. For our main services, currently we have what we call a classical service and a convergent service.
We shy away from the words “traditional” and “contemporary” first of all because they are such relative terms. And secondly because we see the younger generation is increasingly dissatisfied (rightly so) with the liteness of what we might call contemporary, boomer evangelical worship. We also see their growing interest in theological depth, liturgy, historical rootedness, but not necessarily for a “traditional” service as their grandparents knew it.
Our classical service has all kinds of choirs, a youth orchestra, a beautiful pipe organ. It includes a formal liturgy. Yet it is not wooden, stale, unmissional or out of touch. It contains somewhat more older people than younger people, but many younger families prefer this service as well. Living in a culture that is graying, we do not have to pass out ear plugs in our first service, but we do occasionally pass out hearing aids! (Hey—let’s face it, at a certain age, your hearing ain’t what it used to be).
Our convergent service is not a blended or “compromise” service. But there is a convergence of old and new. It is deeply influenced by the “new hymns movement” inspired by groups like Indelible Grace. They take great old hymn texts and put them to contemporary tunes and instrumentation. The truth is we sing more hymns in this service than in our classical one, because there is more singing. In this service, we do make ear plugs available on request! There is also liturgy with creeds, confession of sin, and responsive readings. We use the screens more as well. At first sight it might look something like a common contemporary service, but it is not.
As I write, both services are growing and seem to be speaking to the various groups of our community. There is also a unity in diversity that holds it all together.
Why do we do what we do? Besides being led to do this (which I know sounds kind of subjective) we serve a very diverse group of people. Leave aside for the moment the Filipino church that worships in our building on Sunday with their own unique style of worship and language. We have realized that as we win people to Christ in a diverse and pluralistic culture, they come into the church speaking different musical languages. We’ve also found that it is not true that only contemporary worship reaches modern people. Classical music done well can be a powerful part of evangelistic worship. Yet so can contemporary expressions. It’s just that trying to do it all in one service with a very limited time does not work for us. Since we have multiple service hours, and adequate resources, we are able to offer two stylistically different services.
How does this work? I’ll warn you that there are many pitfalls to doing this well. Early on some said that two different services would divide the church. But the truth is that even when you have two services that are stylistically the same, they still come out somewhat differently and can “divide” the church.
Here’s how it works. A pastor directed philosophy of worship as well as the common ministry of Word and sacrament hold these services together. There is an overriding vision with overriding values rooted in the Word and the gospel that drives everything. A desire to be both rooted and relevant give us the ability to connect with people yet stay grounded. Our music leaders are also cross trained team players. They truly appreciate each other and help each other. There is no elitism, but a servant heartedness that keeps them on the same page.
Is this always easy? No. Is it hard to find such people? Yes. But can it be done and used by God in a powerful way? Absolutely. In fact, such teamwork is a demonstration of the gospel itself. Because we all know how easy it is for stylistic preference to divide the church. But think of it. If our music and worship leaders with all their diverse gifting can get along and serve each other, to the end of fulfilling Christ’s mission for the church, then it powerfully commends the reconciling power of Jesus who calls us not to just look out for our own interests, but also the interests of others. When that happens, the gospel goes forward with new credibility and power.
Rooted and relevant is a perfect description of biblically grounded worship that is contextual to cultural expression. And contextual is still key. In some places, classical worship might miss the mark, but in many places, it’s gaining steam.
I am always frustrated when people think that reaching the millenial generation will require guitars, vapid lyrics, and other trappings of modern worship. While I enjoy those things (well, I never enjoy shallow theology), it actually doesn’t fit the sociological data, and I repeat this often to many others. Lifeway did a study a few years back and asked the millenial generation why they stay in church. What makes a young adult commit to a church? Number 23 on this list was worship style. In other words, there were 22 more important things to young adults than worship style in a church, and yet most of our church division- both within a particular church and the larger body- seems to reside here.
It’s quite strange, and it was strange to continue to here this message by a few at the EPC General Assembly last week. Those people aren’t reading newspaper headlines, sociological research, or aren’t being a good student of their immediate community.