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You don’t have to be contemporary to grow

From time to time on these pages, and even more often in the popular evangelical church press, we read about the importance of changing to informal, contemporary worship if we want our churches to grow. You simply cannot do outreach in North America today, it’s said, unless your worship includes praise choruses projected on a screen, accompanied by guitars and drums, with lots of physical movement for at least 15 minutes at the beginning of a service, followed by a drama that introduces the sermon topic.

It’s clear to me that such worship meets the needs of many people. And I’m convinced that God is pleased when such worship is offered “in Spirit and in truth.”

But I don’t think that informal, contemporary worship meets the needs of every worshiper, including seekers unfamiliar with church.

The current focus on this kind of worship started with the incredible success of Willow Creek Community Church, a church God has used in a mighty way to reach lost people. Yet even Willow Creek leaders say, “Don’t just imitate us. Find out what your target group needs and aim at them.”

Willow Creek focuses on reaching 20- to 40-year-old unchurched people who live in the suburbs of Chicago. So leaders of Willow Creek shape their worship to attract members of that demographic group.

But not everyone fits Willow Creek’s target audience. For example, the most popular kind of music in the United States today is not Christian contemporary music; it’s country music. So why don’t we see a proliferation of country-oriented worship?

Close to the church I serve in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., lives a large enclave of what you might call “countercultural” folks. Suspecting that their neighbors would not resonate with contemporary-style worship, my friends at First United Methodist Church started a service of “jazz vespers” to reach them.

I’d like to suggest another kind of worship that reaches people in a marvelous way. I’m not writing to criticize any other worship style but to praise a style that much of the evangelical church has passed by because it doesn’t seem to fit the spirit of the age or the task of outreach.

Reaching Back to Move Forward

I write in praise of traditional worship.

When I use that phrase, I’m thinking of something that’s even more traditional than the worship of the mid-20th century, something that incorporates some of the rich traditions of the broader church and is, thus, more formal and liturgical than any worship my grandparents knew.

The example I know best is the worship I experience every Sunday. It begins with God’s people coming into the presence of God, symbolized by a processional led by a cross and Bible, followed by the robed choir and ministers, as the mighty organ accompanies the full-voiced singing of one of the great hymns of faith. The liturgy that follows is an extended dialogue between God and the worshipers, carefully thought out, united around the theme of the sermon, and printed in the bulletin so everyone can participate.

The service progresses unannounced, so that our focus can be on God, not the worship leader. Music leans toward the classical, certainly in preludes, offertories, postludes, and choral anthems, although we sing the music of the ages (including the modern age). The organ serves as our main accompaniment, though we use other instruments such as piano, flute, cello, trumpet, and timpani from time to time.

We try hard to make the worship intergenerational within an atmosphere that is joyfully reverent. We almost always use the classic Reformed creeds in some liturgical way. Our goal in preaching is confessionally faithful, biblical sermons that address the cultural situation and personal needs of the congregation. We conclude the service with a recession of choir and ministers, a symbol of God’s people now leaving to serve in God’s world.

We didn’t invent this style of worship, of course. In some ways, it’s simply a continuation of what we (and the larger Christian Reformed Church) have always done. However, beginning in the late ’80s we began to enrich it with elements from other traditions. And in the mid-’90s we formalized our commitment to traditional worship.

When the congregation first read our formal vision statement and plan, some said, “This isn’t very new and revolutionary.” Our response was, “When the winds of change are blowing large portions of the church in a different direction and we decide to stay where we are, that’s pretty revolutionary.” So we’re committed to traditional worship, not to be reactionary but to be revolutionary.

Does Traditional Work Today?

You might be surprised how God has used traditional worship in growing our church. Over the past decade or so, we’ve added hundreds of new members, ranging from 50 to 100 each year.

Yes, of course, a lot of that is transfer growth (we transfer some out too). Many wonderful members faithfully nurtured in other fine churches have come to us looking specifically for this kind of worship. But we’ve also been joined by dozens of college students and young married couples looking for their first adult church home. And we’ve welcomed Christians who, for a number of reasons, found themselves disconnected from church for several years. Finally, we’ve been joined by those who are nominally Christian or not Christian at all.

We’ve found that all kinds of people are quite comfortable with and even attracted by traditional worship.

Three short stories demonstrate the point.

Steve was a lifelong agnostic. A downtown attorney, he worked with an attorney from our church who regularly and pointedly shared his faith with Steve without result. Then one day, as Steve was watching a Bill Moyers’s special on Genesis, he became curious. He began to read Genesis, and somewhere around chapter 6, he said, “This is all true. It’s life as I know it.” Steve began attending our church, where the classical music and formal worship fit his own tastes exactly. He and his wife became members a year later.

Dick was a lapsed Episcopalian who met one of our members at an AA meeting. (She herself was a former Christian Reformed girl from California who’d landed on the mean streets of downtown Grand Rapids after a tough life.) As their friendship grew, they began to attend our church together. The formal liturgy resonated with the church of Dick’s youth. After marrying, Dick joined our church and continued to attend even after moving 45 miles away.

Finally, our worshipers include two women who live in the nearby Heartside neighborhood with its two rescue missions and single-room-occupancy hotels that house some of the poorest of the poor in our city. A number of these neighbors wander in and out of our services, but occasionally someone stays. These two women dropped in one Sunday and now worship with us faithfully. Not only do they love the worship and feel very welcome, but they’ve enrolled in our Alpha program and want to become members.

More Than Worship

Of course, there’s more to church than worship. Unless its members have passionate concern for the lost, show genuine hospitality to the stranger and deep compassion to the hurting, provide quality educational programming for all ages, and the like, no church will be healthy and growing.

But worship is a key part of a church’s life. So I write in praise of traditional worship, not because I think it’s better than other forms or that God likes it more, but because I’m convinced it deserves another look. If it’s done creatively and wholeheartedly, with God in Christ at the center of every service, traditional worship can be mightily used by God to reach and enfold the lost, as well as to strengthen and equip the found.


For Discussion
  • What kinds of needs might be left unmet by informal, contemporary worship? How might more traditional worship meet those needs?
  • Mast observes that country is the dominant genre of music in much of North America. So why don’t we see much country-music oriented worship? Are there certain genres that are not appropriate for worship? Why (not)?
  • From La Grave Avenue CRC’s experience does it appear that traditional worship can be creative and timely? What do you find appealing about it? What are your concerns?
  • What elements should be present in every Christian worship service, whether it is contemporary, traditional, or blended?
  • What should happen if a congregation is more or less equally divided on what style of worship it desires? Is style of worship merely a matter of preference, or does it go deeper than that?
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