Why traditional churches should stick with traditional worship

  • Traditional church chancelI’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. It’s summertime and I’m lazy.

    So my wife and I have been worshipping at a small traditional church in our little town of Chugiak. (Let’s call it First Church of Chugiak)

    We’ve been enjoying our Sundays at First Church. 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.

    First Church 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 First Church, it’s unlikely that we would have returned.

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

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

    Here’s the advice I give every congregation – be who you are. Do what you do well – and do it over and over. If you’re going to innovate, do so within the bounds of your culture.

    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 or special effects that are needed to generate the “worship high” that young believers associate with God. Rock music seems out of place in a brightly lit chapel festooned with felt banners 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 once again here’s my advice to every church: be who you are. Do what you do well – and do it over and over. Don’t worry about what some other church is doing.

    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 one.” But if you offer just one service, stick with what you do best.

    About a year ago I was filming a documentary at a traditional United Methodist Church that is growing by focusing on men. They sing hymns accompanied by piano and organ. They already attract a fairly young crowd (median age 42) and their nursery is packed with babies. They’re obviously doing a lot of things right.

    During filming I interviewed the woman in charge of the worship committee. After the camera stopped rolling, she happened to mention that the church was preparing to recruit a rock band for the occasional contemporary worship service. I strongly encouraged her NOT to do this. Our conversation went something like this:

    Me: Why? You’re already the fastest growing Methodist church in your conference.

    Woman: We’ve had a couple of people ask for it. We think the young people will like it more.

    Me: Have you asked the young people if it matters to them?

    Woman: No.

    Me: Have you talked to any other traditional churches that have tried to add contemporary worship to see how it went?

    Woman: No.

    Me: I’d do that first. I think you’ll stick with what you’re doing.

    As of now, Grace UMC is sticking with the piano and organ. They sing a mix of hymns and praise songs. They do not have a band. They are doing what they do well. And they’re still growing.

    Oh, and one more thing: they have more active men than women.


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    August 8th, 2012 | David Murrow | 21 Comments |

About The Author

David Murrow

David Murrow is the director of Church for Men, an organization that helps congregations reach more men and boys. In his day job, David works as a television producer and writer. He's the author of four books. He lives in Alaska with his wife, three children, three grandchildren and a dachshund named Pepper.

  • http://www.facebook.com/prophetshrek Douglas R Burrell

    Hi Dave, smaller towns have a difficult time getting membership up so I understand their desire to try something new. Small churches can go stale and stagnant. At least they are trying and not afraid of change. That’s a good thing. I have seen smaller churches stay small because they are run by a few older tithe paying “frozen chosen” who have their foot on the neck of the pastor and everyone else. So I would think that this small church is at least healthy in body. However, to be able to pull off different styles of worship you do need more talent that a larger body provides. Your friend Doug Burrell http://www.hurtbylove.com

  • Jim

    I agree that churches should do what they do well. I am part of a church that is struggling between contemporary and traditional music. We only have one pianist who only plays hymns and plays everything the same speed. We use recorded contemporary music to supplement her. Our over 60 crowd wants all hymns, our younger crowd wants more contemporary music–which would include hymns done in a way other than a funeral dirge. My point (okay probably only one of many) is that asking leads to more division, which is the enemy of the church. The problem is deeper than preference, it is a matter of loving others as we love ourselves. Oh, and dachshunds rock!

  • Paddy

    There are all sorts of things which make churches attractive, and preparation is one thing which is often omitted, regardless of the style of service. A few years ago, I was talking to a pupil at my school who had been taken one Sunday to a church which used the OHP, rock band, etc.. He hated it, and much preferred his usual church with choral music. You are quite right – we make assumptions about what people like (and it is not really meant to be an ‘attraction’), and are frequently wrong.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1403272471 Daniel Plotkin

    Excellent article.  I read it based on a facebook share from a minister friend of mine.  I am a Rabbi and for about 7 years I served a small synagogue in the middle of the St. Louis Jewish Community.  At first I was gung ho on bringing in new instrumentation, more singers and creating the type of service that drew lots of people to a nearby congregation (that was about 8x our size).  Ultimately I learned the lessons of what we can and cannot do as a small community.  When I pared it down to just me on acoustic guitar and our pianist we got more people singing along, and more of the regulars ready to attend.  It didn’t draw young people, as there were reasons external to worship as to why we didn’t draw young people, but it helped the community once we came to terms with who we are and what we could offer at a high level of quality.

  • http://twitter.com/timfalk Tim Falk

    I understand what you’re trying to say, although I’m not sure I agree completely. Anytime you try to change things, it’s going to take awhile for you to get it right…there has to be a period of messiness, and you shouldn’t let that discourage you from making changes. I think it’s a good thing to stretch yourself into an area that’s not comfortable for you.

    But I do agree that churches shouldn’t change their style of music simply to appeal to what people want. There may be other more important reasons, however, for changing from a traditional format to a more contemporary format.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=566366763 Rich Gerberding

    Hard to believe the documentary shoot was almost a year ago!  I can remember some of those interviews like it was yesterday.

    The loss of focus on “who we are” is something that gets a lot of churches bogged down as they try to be something they are not.  First know who you are, then go out and let people know. The churches who try to be who they are not – or worse take the next step and market themselves as something they are not – do a disservice to both themselves and their visitors.

    “Branding” may be seen as a negative, worldly thing, but really it is just about being honest and consistent with who you are.  Yes, change will come over time and will have some conflict involved, but if it is a blatant, abrubt change to meet the perceived thoughts of a few it may be unlikely to ‘stick’ and could lead to a larger identity crisis.

  • Mark Beale

    Hi David heard you speak at PK Auckland NZ a couple of years back. I chair PK NZ and am an Anglican Vicar of a very multicultural church of about 300 in a low socio economic community in South Auckland. I think your comment about being true to who you are as a church is important. Our music is modern with a band that is mainly pacific Island men. But at the same time we follow the Anglican Prayer Book Liturgy. This works well and most of the congregation participate. During the years we have had people join the church and try persuade us to change and become what we are not. The key I believe is the expectation people have in that God will be present and active during worship, that Scripture is read and expounded upon, that people are encouraged to live out the faith in their daily lives. When God is at work the church flourishes in its imact in the community and lives are changed towards God. Another key is to encourage men.

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

    Hoping to come back to NZ in 2013. Stay tuned!

  • JamielCotman

    Totally agree. I love a well branded church. If you are contemporary, be contemporary, build contemporary, dress contemporary, and if you’re not…don’t. Its just that simple. Its nothing more off-setting than to go into one of those quiet, peaceful, seemingly vintage churches only to witness older people trying to be hip. 
    I hate that!

     I’m 29 and I HATE THAT. 

    I like for older people to be their age, and impart, not try to be younger. It’s the same with contemporary churches. I would hate to go to a contemporary church, and have to sing old hymnals at a mens conference. If you’re so contemporary, hire someone to write new-simple-masculine music. In either case, churches must isolate what they do well, and innovate upon that core. When they try to be something else, it just comes off as phony. 

  • Paddy

    Is there not a danger that by associating different styles of music with different age groups that you’ll end up with different churches for different age groups. I really don’t think that’s a good idea.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/DIDBXHL5CLBWUUZEMPJDLB2LZE Jon

    I read this post and it got me thinking, so much that I ended up writing a blog post about it!

    From a pastor’s and music leader’s perspective, maybe the problem isn’t the music, but that the service is poorly conceived and poorly prepared.


  • TerryReed

    I appreciate your thoughts.  Too many try to be something they are not and it comes across fake.  However, I do believe there is room for churches to update their services.  I have heard many people complain that the music in their small church is the same old same old.  Perhaps it would be well to consider blending some of the new in with the old instead of an either or approach.
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

  • Victor

    Great article, Dave. 

  • ake

    Well said thoughtful and real….Thank you for thinking this through. My experience in small churches that want to take on the contemporary challenge is exactly what you’ve suggested – unless you can do a second service WELL, stick with what you know.

  • Juliewhite

    I forward this to my minister at church along with the music minister and the board chairman – I wish they would realize we have a great church the way it is and not try to change something that’s not broken,

  • http://twitter.com/Nathan_Warson Nathan Warson

    All of this really comes down to 2 things.  1. Follow God and 2. Be Authentic.  These “worship wars” get old to me as a worship leader and when it comes down to it, on a weekly basis I choose what God leads me to choose for worship.  I am very close to our pastor and I know the inner workings of where his heart is being lead, from there our worship experience is crafted.  Prayer, prayer… prayer.  We have a blended service at LifePoint (www.lifepointlebanon.com).  On any given Sunday morning service we will go from “Joy Unspeakable” played Southern Gospel to “You Hold Me Now” which is a new song by Hillsong.  We have made it a goal to be leading through our personal relationship with God, and also by playing music in a way that connects.  Older connecting and respecting the young, and the young connecting and respecting the old…  

    We can become so focused on what WE want for worship that often times we forget that worship is everything we do for Christ.  We have to turn our focus on the lost outside the walls of the church.  If we don’t focus on winning the lost, we can easily become satisfied with our personal preferences and make church about them.  We will fight tooth and nail to keep the things that make us feel good and feel comfortable and create idols within our walls.

    I’ll close with this.  (Sorry to be so wordy.)  There was a church in our area that recently closed it’s doors.  They were a small church who had been in the area since the late 1800’s.  They did have a website that had information about the church and a really great mission statement.  But after reviewing the weekly prayer requests you see lots of requests for the sick, but what was missing was the request for salvation of the lost.  No names specifically called out for salvation or even just a blanket “the lost” on the list.  I understand that worship style is a hot button for many around the church, and I’ve had my share of conversations about it.  I agree that when we worship, we need to do it with the best of our abilities, offering up our best to the Lord not matter what the style is.  We need to be focused on God and his direction, then be focused on the lost that are outside our walls.  Getting to know those around you who don’t have a relationship with Christ, bringing them into the church as new believers, walking with them through this new life, and watching as they repeat the cycle.

    If my worship leading gets in the way of this, I pray our pastor asks me to stop singing so we can focus on lives changed!

  • Jamiel Cotman

    I’m just viewing your reply sir.
    You’re saying that by associating different music with different age groups we’d end up with different churches for different ages.
    Especially if your’e looking at people who come to church solely for the music.
    However this is a minor issue in light of my point. My point was that churches should brand, or gel everything they do, to supplement what they are…not what they are not.

  • Paddy

    I take your point about your own comment. I am thinking more of churches which do deliberately target particular services for particular age groups, perhaps with a weekly Youth Service, or Family Service. I also understand what you are saying about people coming to church just for the music – thinking about, I don’t think that’s different in degree from coming because you like listening to sermons, or prayers, or like whatever aspect it is that you do like. To me, it is not so much where you are coming from, and what you come for, as where you are going. I think that the Orthodox talk about the purification of motives – and as long as people don’t get stuck on one particular aspect of divine service, that to me is not a problem – but when they, yes that can be a problem, not just to them, but to those around them as well. About 30 years ago, I was at an Anglo-Catholic church in the west country, England, and on Maundy Thursday, the setting of the mass which we sang how a Kyrie in English. An old lady in the congregation had a free rant at me after the service, and told me that I had ruined her Holy Week by having it in English rather than Greek. Poor old girl, she had a problem, and made it a problem for me and others. That’s the sort of thing which one wants to avoid in a church – I’ll only come if . . . .. .

  • rukiddingme2

    We attend a Christian Church and after one of oldest members passed away, we went to service one Sunday to find we now had a praise band and sung contemparary songs, no hymns. It has been awful for my family. No one will speak,up because the preachers daughter is band leader and several decons kids are in the band. I feel it pulls name further from where I need to be every week.

  • suzyforjesus

    David, I have been shunned in two PCA churches that I have attended because I completely disagree with bringing the world’s view of multiculturalism into the church. They hire and ONLY pay black musicians, as the regular faithful white attendees receive nothing, not that we should anyway. They hired a black pastor and are asking a local racially black church to borrow some members in order to build the vision of multiculturalism, which is more important than salvation, according to the pastor. I know it’s wrong. I am not a racist, but have become wounded in their process of favoring blacks over whites in order to promote multiculturalism. Anyone who rejects their ideas of how to do it, are snubbed and rejected by the pastors, deacons and elders. HELP!

  • zizi Newton

    I went to the church as a child but have not been to one for a long time. Last Sunday I went and was shocked. The service was nothing like what I remembered from before. The preacher was in flipflops and torn shorts and T-shirts. He sang some out of tune songs with a guitar. The attendees were all in their “Sunday worst.” The church building was magnificent. But we sat in a room with folding chairs. The music jarred my ears and the preaching had nothing to offer. I had the worst and the most boring time and I vowed never to go to a church again.