Monday, June 22, 2009


Christian worship is a hard thing to understand, and an even harder thing to lead. It's amazing, really. Think about another time in your life when you regularly gather with people you rarely see, listen to stories, sing songs, snack on a wheat cracker and grape juice, and attempt to communicate with a deity that you can't see or hear. It's a construct that is unlike any other aspect of our life...and over 1 billion people do this every week all around the world.


This past weekend our old-ALC, German Lutheran congregation tried something new – contemporary worship. The term “contemporary” is a bit pejorative in the sense that every time people gather for worship it is, in essence, contemporary. Worship is a unique expression that relies on God's Spirit to move through those who have gathered at a specific time and place. Even if a few friends and I sing some plainchant Kyrie from the 9th century, it’s still contemporary. Henceforth, if I refer to contemporary worship I am using it merely as a brand name…like “praise service” or “seeker worship” are similar (but distinctly different) brand names of worship.

But I digress.

After a few intense months of a mini “worship war”, our church agreed to try our hand at contemporary worship at all three weekend worship services once a month this summer. Basically, this was the way our worship committee could balance the polarities of “we need to offer a more contemporary service to reach the unchurched in our community” and those on the other side proclaiming “if you change the way we do worship, I'm leaving and taking my checkbook with me.”

It was quite a risk.

* * *

I’m not a big contemporary worship guy. Unlike most of my colleagues, when I want to listen to Christian music, I rely on Mozart or Bach…not Third Day or David Crowder. Some people hum tunes from Christian radio…I tap my toes to the liturgy or chorales from the 16th century. The short wispy hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention whenever a church does communion before the creed or a pastor preaches on something other than the gospel text from the Revised Common Lectionary. So when I was asked to sing and play guitar at our church’s first contemporary worship service, I panicked. I literally broke out in a sweat and paced around the room for a few minutes.

I’ve never been more conflicted.

In the past five years, our congregation has doubled it’s programming for youth and families, and subsequently seen over 50% of our young families leave the church. The reasons for this trend are the subject of another blog post (or maybe not). The emergence of a contemporary worship movement at our stoic congregation might be the thing we need to make an impact on the community and bring young families to the church. It could also lead to our own version of the Great Schism. Furthermore, from a church politics standpoint, I felt I was in a no-win situation. I would be a fool to reject a passionate group of people who were using worship as a vehicle to bring young families to our congregation. At the same time, worship leadership is not in my job description. I don’t personally tend to connect with churches that offer that particular style of worship.

So I took the plunge.

And lived to tell about it.

I overheard a wide spectrum of opinions shared by people after the services. None were surprising. I tended to resonate with folks who said, "I don't know that I'd attend a service like that again, but I think we need to offer it every week." If a change in worship format is linked to outreach, I'm all in. I am the anomaly in the sense that most people my age see traditional, liturgical worship and are reminded of the forced boredom they endured as a child...and they want no part of it. This is more than a fad; it's a trend. I don't think that offering contemporary worship at our church will make most of our current members happier, but it might be an entry point for people in the community who are unaffiliated with a church. As one of my friends said, "If I want that kind of worship, I'll go to a different church."

Duly noted.

*** Epilogue ***

Nearly 36 hours after our contemporary worship weekend, I am haunted by an image that just might change my perspective on this whole topic. For the first time, I saw my six-year old daughter fully participating in a worship service. She didn't have to know how to read music, juggle a bulletin and a hymnal, or understand the convoluted numbering system in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book. The only thing young Anna had to do was look up toward the cross and see the words to the songs, prayers, scripture, and statements of faith. She was engaged. She made connections. She was participating in corporate worship. She was a part of the body of Christ in a new and special way. It wasn't because her parents were telling her what to wasn't because her dad works for a was because, for the first time, she was in a worship service that stripped away the barriers to her participation. What more could a parent want for their child?

Knowing what this weekend's worship did for Anna doesn't eliminate some of my misgivings about contemporary worship...but it does give me a different lens through which I view the conversation.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. We'll link to it in our worship blog round up.
    I do think it is wonderful when there are multiple expressions of worship styles in churches. So important that we don't just settle for a one size fits all mentality. But good to hear of your experiences and struggles in trying something new.

  2. Now I think you are starting to understand why I keep mentioning the names Sam, Grace (and even Eli) when I talk about contemporary worship. Although, as you know, contemporary is also my favorite.

  3. Marie - thanks for reading, commenting, and reposting. I've enjoyed poking around your website for a few months now. Lots of good resources for worship & music folks. Thanks!

    Dave - yes, I think it's good for our children to have exposure to a lot of worship styles as they grow in faith. Providing for our children's worship experiences is, indeed, part of the covenant we made in their baptism.

  4. I'm right where you are. I don't feel overly connected to the contemporary scene anymore. This comes from someone who got back into church via playing and fronting worship bands.
    However, I did get back in the church through the contemporary scene.

    It bothers me that Emma and Gabe are disconnected in contemporary or classical worship. Emma can read. Gabe is the best theologian I know.

    I would dearly love engaging in a conversation that focuses on children in worship, and how to help them participate in whatever style their community of faith uses.

  5. It was also refreshing to see the two teens come forward singing and dancing after the Satruday evening service. Fun to see young people engaged and participating. I, too, am fond of traditional worship. However, I find myself engaged differently during "contemporary" worship and thankful for the fresh perspective and opportunity to connect in a new way.

    Thanks for your reflections. As always, they keep me thinking.

  6. Mackenzie et al - I think a future post about involving children in worship is going to be forthcoming. I feel like there has to be a way to help young ones connect to corporate worship without the songs / prayers / message being painfully simplistic for youth & adults.

    Sonja - I was encouraged by the youthful enthusiasm that came as a result of the closing song. For those two gals, the song allowed them to make a connection between two faith-formative locales: church and camp. I don't take that lightly!

  7. I have the same “conflicted” sense re: worship styles. My personal preference is the same as yours. But, I watched the church my husband led, Prince of Peace LC in Phoenix, grow with new young families in the 3 years that he was the Sr. Pastor there largely because of the addition of a “contemporary” worship service and intentional outreach/invitations to them. And, I watch our granddaughters, ages 7 & 3, who are more engaged in the same way as your daughter because of the screen and band and sitting in the front row in the ELCA mission church to which they belong in Surprise, AZ. So, variety is probably in order.

    The free social network site might have some good insights for you & the team at your congregation in thinking about this “both/and” world of worship.

  8. I’m with Anna. I’m much more engaged during a contemporary service. However, there are times I want the rich traditions of our regular service. We should be able to offer both types of services. But, if we dig a little bit deeper, I really wonder how many people really have thought about the worship service they routinely attend. Key word, routinely. A contemporary service challenges our routine and our thinking about worship. I couple of years ago I was talking to a choir member who told me in astonishment, “Did you realize that the worship songs connect to the readings and the sermon?” She had just been to a worship planning meeting and discovered that the music wasn’t randomly selected, but selected with a purpose. I wonder how many folks like the traditional service simply so they can zone out for an hour, but feel right that they went to church?


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