Why traditional churches should stick with traditional worship

Traditional churchI’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 that 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. So my wife and I occasionally worship at a small traditional church in our little town of Chugiak. (Let’s call it St. Mark’s)

We’ve been enjoying our Sundays at St. Mark’s. 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.

St. Mark’s has a lot going for it. The people are friendly, but not overly so. 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 St. Mark’s it’s unlikely we would have returned.

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

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

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. Traditional churches lack the musical depth, computer controlled lighting and sound equipment that are needed to generate the “praise-gasm” that young believers associate with God. Rock music seems out of place in a brightly lit chapel with a communion table 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 here’s my advice to every church: be who you are. Do what you do well – and do it over and over. If you want to innovate, do so within the bounds of your culture.

Radio stations understand this princple. 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 service.” But if you offer just one service, stick with what you do best.

What has this got to do with men? Guys appreciate a quality worship service — but they are not very forgiving of anything hokey or half-baked. If guys want contemporary worship, they’ll go to a megachurch. Meanwhile, I firmly believe there’s still a market for traditional worship — even among the young — if it’s done in Spirit and in Truth.

In my next post, I’ll take you inside a 150-year-old mainline church that’s found a way to grow again – without abandoning its traditions. To learn more about this amazing congregation, click here.

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  • pmuller777@msn.com

    I respectfully disagree that traditional churches should stay traditional. To advise such in my opinion a death sentence. You may be able to site one or two examples of traditional churches managing to hang in there or even flourish but that is certainly an exception to statistics. Thousands of traditional churches are closing their doors each and every year. Suggesting that a church go to a second service offering contemporary music is a viable option but even that has its obstacles. Most traditionalist do not want to see drums and keyboards and BOSE towers, modern lobby’s, coffee areas with hip names etc. . And people who prefer contemporary do not want to sit in pews, hear a sermon with the preacher behind a monstrous pulpit and a bunch of dried flowers all over the Sanctuary. Traditional verses Contemporary goes far beyond the music style, it also encompasses décor and ambience, neither of which compromises the gospel of Christ. And as far as the age old argument as to what kind of music is Biblical, God was pleased when there were 140 trumpeters and cymbals praising Him, He was pleased when we brought the pipe organ into the church and He is pleased with bass guitar and drums! I can say with confidence that God is pleased with His people praising Him regardless of the music style. Hymns are great, Contemporary music is great, the point is that the age group of people who prefer hymns are dying off and dying off exponentially. I offer my opinion as one who has traveled the United States helping struggling churches. My advice to churches who are in a downward spiral, DON’T dig your feet in because you like hymns or pews or flowers all over the Sanctuary, point your arrows out and speak to the community in a language that they understand. Change is not of the
    enemy, “see, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
    I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland (Isaiah 43:19
    NIV). Blessings….

    • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

      I think your comment proves my point – very few traditional churches go whole-hog contemporary. They tend to nibble at the edges and create a mashup that satisfies nobody.

  • Ignatz

    In New York City, traditional churches do far better than contemporary ones. And speaking for myself, I liked contemporary when I was a teenager, but now I can’t stand it. Chant, great music, and the sense that something IMPORTANT is happening is far more spiritually nourishing. And churches that do that are the ones that are full.

    If I want a show, I’ll go to show. I go church for worship, prayer and transcendence, not a show. Shows disappear when trends change, and look embarrassing 20 years later.

  • tom lowe

    pmuller777 will return eventually to offer another rebuttal to your position. I think he’s still trying to figure out what “tessitura” is. Well played! Bishop Willimon is a great man and certainly knows what he is talking about. I, myself, am Anglican and have experienced firsthand that our parishes flourish when well done liturgy, often with”high church” awe, is not only practiced, but practiced without apology!

  • http://www.anthonysmith.me.uk/ Anthony Smith

    This is all good advice for churches seeking to market their products to consumers. You need to decide whether your church is a “traditional church” or a “contemporary church”, then “stick with what you do best” and “do what you do well”, making sure that the “quality of the service” is “up to par”. Is there a “market for traditional worship” in your area? Then maybe you can “offer” such a “service” to consumers in your area. A church that follows this advice “draws a large crowd” and can “get in on the growth”.

  • Whit Johnstone

    Fanny Crosbey’s gospel songs are not true hymns; they are in fact precursors to today’s contemporary christian music, in that they focus on a particular Christian’s spiritual experience. This makes them unsuitable for corporate worship, though they may be edifying entertainment. By contrast a proper hymn is either a corporate offering of praise to God or or a didactic expositon of a particular doctrine of the Faith. Note that this standard does not say anything about a particular musical style- “Shine Jesus Shine” is clearly a proper hymn, as are most of the works of Marty Haugen.

  • Brian White

    Is this an archived post from the 90′s?

  • Jan Strutt Hart


  • Ingrid Glenn

    I also must respectfully disagree with the author of this article. I have lived long enough to have witnessed the beginnings of “contemporary” worship, which began in “traditional” churches and looked much the same way as you have described in St Mark’s. However, this contemporary worship was not strained and forced, but joyful and inviting, much more so in my mind than some of the performance-based “worship” that I have witnessed in many of today’s “contemporary” churches.

    Had the traditional churches of 30 or 40 years ago not tried something new, then you would not even have your contemporary worship, so don’t bag out a modern-day church for trying something new. It may not be perfect yet, but everything new has to start somewhere, and who knows what this ministry may look like in a few short years time?

    Flashy screens and sound systems do not make good worship. God delights in open, honest worship from the heart, and it is also this quality that draws new people to a church, regardless of how contemporary or traditional that church may be.