For those of you who are familiar with my work, that title might be a surprise. “Stop doing traditional worship?! Jonathan, for the love, what are you saying?” Please let me explain.
I am for historic worship; that is, following the liturgical tradition rooted in the New Testament church that has continued throughout the ages. I am for the work of the people. I am for I am for singing hymns, new and old, corporate prayer, Word and Sacrament. But I refuse to call this “traditional.” It’s just worship, at least it was before the evangelical church, fueled by the commercialization of American popular music, ushered in the era of preferentially-based worship.
From there, we have settled into a false dichotomy, in which we’re told that we each have a worship style imprinted on our hearts, and that it’s probably either traditional or contemporary. Thus, the stuff we used to do in worship has been labeled “traditional.”
I think that’s not only wrong, but it’s ultimately toxic. Here are a few reasons we must stop with our “traditional” worship.
1. It neglects the forward trajectory of the church.
Worship isn’t about the good old days. It’s about being a church for the world today and tomorrow, and the new world that is yet to be.
2. It becomes a concession to the “old” people.
We take our traditional worship, put it at an hour when we’re reasonably sure nobody under 50 will mistakenly show up, and we sing the favorites of yesterday. It’s not about rooting out worship in the ancient practices, but about going back to 1940 or 50 or 60, and parking our worship at one place in time that the mature saints among us can fondly recall. Thus, we starve the whole church of worship that is deeply-rooted, and we treat our older folks to an hour of sentimental delusion and idolatry.
3. It deprives so-called “traditionalists” of new expressions.
In the words of Marva Dawn, traditionalists “do not learn anything fresh and lack the nourishment of reformation and renewal.” Beyond that, when we do this kind of traditional worship, we deprive them of worshiping in the full fellowship of the congregation, with all different ages. That is a tragedy, the toxic effects of which I’m afraid we’ve yet to grasp.
4. It turns churches into vendors and worshipers into consumers.
Far too many of our churches and denominations have bought into the lie that unless your church offers multiple styles of worship, it will die soon. You can’t just do traditional worship, you have to do contemporary, too. That statement is complete and total nonsense, proven false by 1,975 years of Christian liturgical tradition. Worship is not the church’s product, to be offered in every color and style imaginable so that more people will buy it. It’s not our job to give people what they want, but what God says we need. Worship isn’t about taste, and worship gatherings are ideally not the entry point into God’s church.
5. It can only lead to narcissistic worship.
Worship that is formed by taste; that is, worship that is meant to appeal to a particular group, can only end with narcissism. We (the worshiper) choose ourselves – our likes and dislikes, our feelings, our stories – over the story of the living God (the divine Subject of true worship). Such worship is masturbatory, toxic, suffocating, and ultimately in vain.
Words Mean Stuff
I’ve long wanted the church to rethink using the terms “contemporary” or “modern.” All worship is contemporary because we’re doing it now. “Modern” is a term that for me brings up images of Don Draper’s living room, instead of a gathering of the saints. What we really mean when we say contemporary or modern is “commercial.” We want worship created in a marketable image. We want worship that sells. We want an entertainment factor so high that football and golf and sleep are no match. So no more “contemporary,” no more “modern,” and certainly no “commercial,” as if any church would have the guts to use that one.
But while we’re at it, let’s reassess all of our labels.
Ripping off the Labels
There was a time when we didn’t need those descriptors. It was a time before the church lost its way and started bowing at the altar of self. That’s what church marketing all goes back to, the self. “How can we reach [sucker in] more people [butts] so that we can offer [sell] them the Gospel [gospel]?”
Yes, we must shun the capitalistic language of marketers, and go back to our own language. A church that humbly desires to worship in spirit and truth doesn’t need traditional or contemporary or modern or jazz or emergent or Gen-X or any other adjective.
Before we had traditional worship, we only needed worship.
Or better yet, liturgy.
After all, a church that really wants to be part of God’s Church for the world isn’t worried about attractions, but about the will of God in heaven. If worship is truly the work of the people, hitting the emotional spot with the right shade of jesusy music and an easy-listening sermon won’t suffice.
It’s about coming together as God’s covenant people in the presence of God and those who have come before. It’s traditional, it’s contemporary, and it’s looking to the future. And those centuries that separate us seem to fold together and collapse. And we find ourselves hidden in the One who died, was raised, and will keep us to the end.