Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Worship: Chocolate or Vanilla?

I was involved in what people today call "Contemporary Worship" long before it was known by that name. In high school (1970s) our youth group asked the pastor if we could have a "Folk Service." He asked us what would be involved in such a service. All we could think of was playing songs on guitars. (Obviously we had no business planning a worship service.) He then asked, "Do you think it might be good to have a few Scripture readings?" "Oh yeah," we said. "How about the Apostles' Creed, a sermon, and prayers?" "That would be great." Little by little he had us back to the basic worship service!

As a campus pastor in the 1980s I came into a ministry that had been using contemporary worship. As a guitarist and singer, I looked forward to the freedom this gave me to explore different worship styles. However I found it increasingly difficult to find music that wasn't repetitive or would fit well with the themes of the Church Year. I also found myself spending a lot of time trying to develop these services, valuable time that could have been used going out to meet students.

For the last twenty years I've been serving in a church that uses very traditional worship.

I used to accept the idea that worship styles didn't really matter, but I've definitely had a change of heart about that. This isn't a chocolate or vanilla question. There are some major differences between the two styles of worship as they have developed to this point. Here are five that I find quite important:

1. Both contemporary and traditional worship can be emotional. But I believe that emotions take a primary role in contemporary worship. The music tends to focus on the mood of the worshiper more than the mind. Sounds are primary; texts are secondary.

2. Traditional worship tends to be more theological than therapeutic. Contemporary worship reverses those. Traditional worship focuses primarily on the person and work of Christ and then the new life. Contemporary worship tends to focus on the new life.

3. I will grant that contemporary worship may be more relevant to the unbeliever. After all I wouldn't expect an unchurched person to have any clue what "Here I lay my Ebenezer" means as it is sung in "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." But if our central worship service reaches low to be relevant, how does the church lift its members to relate more deeply to Christ?

4. Contemporary worship tends to be a much more passive experience for the worshiper. We tend to sit back and watch the show. This is certainly something our culture encourages. Traditional worship engages the worshiper in responsive readings, prayers and songs, creedal affirmations, standing, sitting, and kneeling. In this way traditional worship is counter-cultural.

5. Traditional worship is aimed to serve people of all ages. Yes, even little children often enjoy traditional worship, whereas the more contemporary the more likely the children will be dismissed. Contemporary worship loves to divide up into groups (Boomers, Busters, Mosaics, etc.) Traditional worship loves to unify the octogenarians as well as the eight day olds.

For these reasons (and more that I don't have time to go into) I am convinced that traditional worship should have and will always have a central role in the life of the church.

This doesn't mean that we can't have "lighter" or "age-oriented" worship experiences. As long as we fix some of the issues involved in #s 1 & 2 above, I think there can be a place for these in the life of the church. But their place must always be secondary and supportive of the main worship of the church. They should be designed to lead the worshiper toward the central worship experience of the church and not away from it.

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