I will never go back to a contemporary church. But Sarah-never say never. In general, that’s wise advice; but in this case I feel pretty confident with my never. I’ve attended a large variety of churches from United Methodist to Assembly of God to Baptist to Presbyterian. I’ve been to big churches and small churches and everything in between. At one point over quarantine I was streaming 4 services per Sunday (that was a little excessive…even for me). So with all that church experience, I feel confident in saying I will never go back to a contemporary church and it’s because you get so much more out of a traditional church.
Quick vocab lesson since different faith communities use these terms differently. I am using the term contemporary to define any church that uses predominantly modern worship music, they probably have a praise team, these churches tend to be on the larger side (300 and up-like into the thousands), and they tend not to follow the lectionary-instead they move through sermon series on different topics. I am using the term traditional to describe a church that sings predominantly hymns, they usually have a choir, they tend to be on the smaller side (under 500), they follow a standard order of worship(more on that later), and their pastors tend to preach following the lectionary (a three year cycle of suggested scripture passages).
Time for a disclaimer. Obviously the summaries above are generalizations but I do think they gives a fair representation of the differences. This post will also be focused on the Sunday morning, main worship experience. There are also significant differences in what happens the rest of the week but that is a topic for a different post. You are, of course, free to attend whichever type of church you choose or attend no church at all. But I do have strong feelings on this and I it’s my blog so I’m gonna write about them. If you feel differently I welcome respectful dialogue in the comments-just remember I’m an enneagram 8 so I’m definitely going to reply to your comment.
I pulled two bulletins from churches I have attended, one contemporary and one traditional. Thanks to Covid, most churches are posting their bulletins online so it’s easy to compare. First up is the contemporary service. Now what they have posted online under ‘mobile bulletin’ are opportunities to sign up for life groups, next steps if you committed your life to Jesus, a place to give an offering, kids programming, ways to serve, and a form to submit prayer requests. The only thing that was specifically tied to that Sunday’s worship service was a link to the sermon notes. These give you the, in this case, 5 key takeaways from the sermon and there is space provided for you to write your own notes.
Now I actually think this is something traditional churches can learn from. The teacher in me is a big fan of taking notes-it’s a great way to increase memory and comprehension. All my church experience also tells me, it doesn’t matter how great the preacher is, it is often difficult to give your full attention to the *entire* sermon (unless of course you are one of my current pastors who I know reads this blog…in that case it’s totally easy to focus…). Normalizing note taking would be a great thing for traditional churches. I have found that when you give people a specific place in the bulletin to take notes they end up taking more notes.
Since the order of service isn’t posted online I will have to go by memory to describe the general flow of a Sunday service. Service begins with a worship set, 3-4 contemporary praise and worship songs led by the worship band/praise team. Then there will be a prayer, that the person praying makes up on the spot, followed by the sermon, the offering and closes out with one more song. There is nothing inherently bad with this layout, it just leaves me wondering, “where is the rest?”
Look at all you get in a traditional service. The service begins with the prayer of preparation, a communal prayer-printed in the bulletin and recited together, that allows you to shift your focus from whatever you brought with you that morning to what is about to happen in this service. To help with that transition there is a prelude comprised of, hopefully good, music. After that the entire congregation says together the call to worship-corporately setting the intentions for the service. Then we will sing our first hymn. I love hymns because they have rich theological text like this, “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart; O take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.”
But even in the midst of this worship service we pause to acknowledge where we have fallen short. Together and in silence the congregation confesses their sins. Here we use printed words as a guide so you’re not scrambling to come up with sins, as well as take time in silence to reflect on our own individual lives. It sounds like a downer but we always end with the unwavering assurance of God’s pardon. Here is an example from just a few weeks ago I think you will find that it is both convicting and bolstering (emphasis added by me).
L: When our actions are not consistent with the truth of your gospel,
P: Forgive us, Holy One. Correct us and make us brave.
L: When our lives do not proclaim the saving, transforming power of your love,
P: Forgive us, Loving One. Compel us and make us illustrations of Love’s power.
L: When our minds are full of self-condemnation, with no room for your grace
P: Forgive us, Gracious One. Cleanse us and help us to live free.
L: Root our lives in Christ Jesus,
P: so that we might be reconciled to you, to one another, and to ourselves. Amen.
There is time set aside for the pastor to speak to the children because they are not just the future of the church they are important members of the faith community here and now. Like at the contemporary church scripture is read and a sermon is preached, though with a bit less note taking. After the sermon, it is time for the congregation to confess their faith together. This is taken directly from scripture or a statement of faith like a creed or confession written at some point in church history. This week it was a confession from 1967. This reminds us, or at least it reminds me, that we are part of a rich history and people have been exploring and learning more about this faith even after Jesus ascended to heaven.
At that point you may be getting a little antsy but that’s ok we’re almost done. There is time set aside to pray for things that are on the mind of this specific congregation, a hymn, a blessing and you are done. As you leave you will be serenaded by, hopefully, beautiful music. So that’s the rest-the more that you get in a traditional church.
When I was in deep grief I needed all the rest. I needed to read statements of faith from throughout the centuries, I needed the rich texts of the hymns, I needed the congregation to stand together and confess their faith with me because I could not do it on my own. Who am I kidding, I didn’t just need it in deep grief-I need it now. There has also been much talk of those pesky millennials leaving the church in droves. I think that, more than anything, millennials are searching for something real. More than drums and guitar what millennials want is a deep connection to an ancient faith-one that is inclusive and expansive. I would argue they are much more likely to find that in a traditional church (this TikTok gives a more humorous explanation).
I love ordering my life around the patterns of the liturgical year. I love the thought and care that is put into the words we pray and read together. I love (like really love) hymns-especially when we sing all of the verses. I have found my home in traditional churches and I’m never going back.