April 01, 2016

By Ryan McLouth

In an age where awareness and conversation about worship style appears to be a growing movement among many congregations, it seems only logical to discuss the trends, demand, and application of not only contemporary, but also traditional worship.
Here in Missouri, it seems that over the last 20 years many new churches have been erected in the name of contemporary worship. Some of them within the United Methodist denomination, some not. In addition to new churches that are designed exclusively around the contemporary format, it also seems that some traditional congregations have attempted to embrace the style as well. This may have been a nod at trying to “align with the times.” In my talks with music ministers, worship leaders, congregation members, and pastors, it seems that the big question is: do we need to do that?
One camp argues that embracing modern styles is a must. This group believes that adding contemporary elements will promote a growth of new members in the congregation, welcome a younger population, and meet a demand of current/regular attendees.         
Another camp would argue that embracing these new formats alienates long-time members, abandons traditions that define their congregation, and puts music leaders who are trained in traditional formats in an awkward place.
The most logical choice to me would be, “do what you are good at.” If your congregation excels at the traditional style, and it seems to resonate with your attendees, stick to that. When we try to mix contemporary worship into an already vibrant traditional service, it seems awkward and forced. Why not do what you do well?
I think contemporary worship services could learn a thing or two from the traditional counterpart. For instance, reading scripture in unison. Why don’t we do more of this in contemporary services? Perhaps we can choose scripture that aligns with our next worship song and read it together. Or even a call and response style reading during the musical vamp before the first song. These are the sorts of corporate and participatory elements that traditional services are really good at, where the modern style falls behind sometimes.
Another item that I hear traditionalists talk about a lot is rituals. For instance: communion, time for quiet reflection/prayer, or a moment to greet those sitting nearby. In seeker-sensitive situations, these concepts may not be a good fit. However, in a standard contemporary worship service, perhaps we can try employing one or two of these occasionally. It may be a nice addition, and could support an attitude and feeling of corporate worship or ownership to the faith—which we always want to instill in ourselves as Christians.
A dear friend of mine and United Methodist pastor once shared with me the “hourglass” concept of worship design, which supposedly stems from traditional and liturgical worship study. Worship should start at the beginning of a service at the top/widest part of the hourglass focused on the breadth of God and his praise. Toward the middle of the service we focus inward on the message and ourselves, this being the narrow center of the hourglass. Finally we arrive gracefully at the base of the hourglass once again, focused on God and thanks for the message and our response to his word. Perhaps we can borrow this idea for our contemporary design as well.