Traditional or Contemporary? We Need a Third Worship Style!

My best friend and I had an interesting conversation about which church worship style we prefer…and of the two main types, I’m looking for ‘other.’

I grew up in churches with the traditional worship style — old hymns, pianos and pipe organs, and formal dress. Over the years, some churches slowly brought in an occasional violin or trumpet, but guitars were only allowed if they were not electric. Applause after worship songs was practically considered a sin by itself. The sermons were delivered in a more formal manner, with the primary focus, it seems, on Biblical characters and their life stories with an attempt to relate their issues to modern day issues.

The formal attire is a turn-off to some and potentially a deal-breaker to those who may not own a coat and tie, but may really need to feel God’s presence without wanting to go to what feels to an outside like a “stuffy” environment.

I did not grow up in the highly liturgical services in which every detail, down to the responsive reading, is heavily scripted. Consequently, when I’m in a service in which that level of structure is present, I guess my apparently-undiagnosed ADD kicks in and I become unsettled. It’s hard to focus on any message when you’re suddenly concerned about when to stand, when to kneel or when to speak.

My first taste of the contemporary worship style

About a decade ago, I went to a church in the contemporary category. The old-school hymnals were replaced with lyrics projected on the screen, line by line so you could never lose your place. There were no pipe organs, no piano, and electric guitars. The music tempo is much faster, something the traditionalists might see as somehow “sacrilegious,” but which actually creates a bigger energy and excitement in praise of God.

The worship songs, though, are another issue. Singer Bono famously criticized writers of modern worship songs to be more “honest” with their lyrics:

“I would love if this conversation would inspire people who are writing these beautiful… gospel songs, write a song about their bad marriage. Write a song about how they’re pissed off at the government. Because that’s what God wants from you, the truth. And that truthfulness …. will blow things apart.”

The worship songs are almost bland in their over-reaching joy and unrealistic in their apparent lack of relation to modern life. And as for the structure of the music, well, I’m no musician, but even to someone like me, it’s clear that there’s a distinct shortage of lyrics in modern worship songs that lead to pointless instrumental sections that leave congregants standing there waiting for the next stanza of lyrics to appear on the screen or choruses and phrases that get repeated far too much.

Yes, there’s one song I can think of that relies on a chorus being repeated six times or more in a row in a futile attempt to build this dramatic moment that feels so forced that it’s hard to avoid becoming annoyed in the middle of the song.

The messages, on the other hand, seem to be as good if not better than I’ve heard in a lot of more traditional church services. The contemporary church sermons seem to focus more on modern-day issues with a search for Biblical truths that might answer questions or guide responses to such issues.

The difference between the two may sound subtle, but they’re important: it’s the difference between preaching Biblical stories and trying to find a connection today and preaching today’s problems that already exist and looking for Biblical wisdom to suggest how to handle those problems.

The casual attire is a turn-off to some traditionalists who feel people are being too lazy to dress in their “Sunday best” but they’re generally not judged if they continue to dress up themselves. Some traditionalists may also be uncomfortable with the notion that “unchurched” people may be sitting next to them.

This, at least, was my impression of the two types of worship style when I first started attending a contemporary church service.

Yes, these are general, broad descriptions and things will always vary from denomination to denomination and even from individual church to church. If your church fits into one of the two categories but isn’t as I’ve described, my intent wasn’t to offend you or your church, but merely to set the scene that many people looking for a church that seems a better fit for them are feeling.

But it seems things at the two kinds of churches have shifted a bit.

More traditional services are offering “contemporary” versions, which, based on what I’ve seen, involve electric guitars and drum pads and the main pastor appearing in his same outfit minus the tie. Based on what they said in the past about the notion of contemporary services and the perceived “disrespect” of “Casual Sundays,” it seems almost disingenuous because they have started embracing the very things to which they objected so strenuously.

And as traditional services try to lure younger folk back by shifting contemporary, contemporary worship services have also decided to kick things up a notch.

Unfortunately, some of the contemporary services have done so by trying more and more to be a rock concert that happens to be held during church. There are now motion lights that never stop moving, color shifting LED lights that almost never stop changing colors, fog machines, skinny-jeans-clad musicians and deafening volume with no regard for the hearing health of parishioners. The more energetic worship seems to, in some cases, give way to “the show” even if it means losing sight of the fact it’s supposed to be about people and God, not how “cool” and “hip” technology can make things look.

Computers, these days, in the form of automated lighting shows, are suddenly the norm, which is a bit ironic: if anyone on stage were ever told they were going to be handed a pre-programmed guitar that they had to pretend to play and were prohibited from adjusting or ad-libbing any notes, or that they’d be lip-synching to pre-recorded lyrics recorded by someone who could sing the song in “more creative” ways and were prohibited from changing the performance, they’d surely balk at that.

Sometimes, “the show” is more important than the people who are trying their best to make the most of it for the spiritual benefit of the audience.

There’s something very wrong with that.

Yes, I realize that these, too, are generalizations and that your mileage — or more specifically, your church’s mileage — may vary. But after visiting several churches, I can only report what I’ve noticed.

If your church isn’t like that these days, you’ve already found the kind of church a lot of us would like to see. Consider yourself fortunate.

As the lines have blurred on both sides, some of us want what should be in the middle.

It shouldn’t be difficult to find churches where pastors focus on modern life situations with guidance from scripture on how Christians today should respond, but who are not surrounded by the trappings of a rock concert.

Music and worship is a vital part of any church service. It’s important to celebrate God and your relationship with Him. But when you attend a worship service that seems to focus more on “special effects” than the people attending — and I’ve tried several churches where this feels like what’s going on — how is that celebrating the relationship between the audience and God?

Does God really need special effects? Does God really care how loud the music is or how skinny the skinny jeans are?

And why, exactly, can a church somewhere not invite an ear specialist in to advise them on healthy volume levels? Why’s that so difficult?

Some of us don’t connect with the overly-liturgical, ceremonial services, beautiful and respectful though they certainly may be. But that doesn’t mean we want to feel like we’re in a coliseum listening to a pop star perform.

We want it to be about living life today the way God wants us too. We don’t need a lot of ceremony, but we don’t need a lot of show, either.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.