It's a recurring scenario in America's Christian congregations. As members grapple with their church's future—eager to increase attendance or renew spiritual energy—one suggestion inevitably emerges.
It's time to start a contemporary worship service.
The assumption that guitar- and drum-driven worship songs and a casually dressed preacher are essential to vibrant churches largely is unchallenged in American Protestantism. And so is its corollary: Churches that retain traditional worship will decline and die.
About half of Protestant churches in America use electric guitars and drums in worship, up from 35 percent 12 years ago, according to a 2011 study of more than 10,000 churches by Faith Communities Today. That figure approaches 60 percent among evangelical churches generally and among all churches in the South, reported the multifaith research group associated with the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford (Conn.) Seminary.
But is the assumption—contemporary worship as essential to success—invariably true? Some American churches are saying no and are proving it with vibrant, creative traditional worship. No form of worship inherently is superior, they stress. The key to a healthy church is finding a mode of worship for which each congregation is uniquely equipped and carrying it off with excellence. Done well, traditional worship remains effective, they add.
"Style is not the end-all issue," said Mark Wingfield, who tackled the topic earlier this year in his book, Staying Alive: Why the Conventional Wisdom about Traditional Churches is Wrong. "The issue is, can you be competent and relevant where you are? And changing your worship style may or may not help that."
The terms "traditional" and "contemporary" are slippery, admits Wingfield, associate pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. In his book, Wingfield defines traditional churches as those that adhere to the generally accepted liturgy of their denominational identity. For Baptists, a simple indicator would be primarily singing hymns rather than praise choruses.
George Mason, pastor at Wilshire Baptist, draws this distinction: Contemporary churches identify the needs of the culture and craft a religious experience to address those needs, while traditional churches begin with historic creeds, hymns and liturgies, and invite people to join the ongoing stream of faith.
"Every church has a tradition," Mason said. "And every tradition can become stale and routine. The point is not to serve the tradition but for the tradition to serve the church."
Other observers—including author and musician Marva Dawn—think the choice largely is a false one.
"A lot of the tension between contemporary and traditional arises because we didn't have enough theological muscle to hold them together," she said in a recent video interview. "We need to realize that every service is contemporary because we're doing it now, and every service is traditional because we're based on the faith of our forebears. … I believe that we can use the music of the whole church for the sake of the whole world."
But while definitions of contemporary or traditional worship may be elusive, most American churchgoers probably believe that, like the infamous Supreme Court justice who attempted to identify pornography, they know it when they see it. And at first glance, what they see seems to suggest success.
Every city and town has at least one contemporary church whose size and energy is attractive. In fact, the study by Faith Communities Today found a nearly 60 percent increase in attendance in churches that adopt a contemporarystyle of worship.
The problem, leaders of strong traditional churches insist, is some congregations simply don't have the human resources necessary to conduct quality contemporary worship but often do have highly skilled members capable of creative traditional worship. More importantly, not all the needs of churches' surrounding communities can be met by contemporary worship.
"I think churches need to be real about the staff they have in place to do a contemporary service," said choral composer David Schwoebel, minister of music at Derbyshire Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. "Unless you have the professionals leading it with the very best equipment, lights and sound, it will never appeal to the unbelievers, as they know what quality sounds like thanks to iPods and YouTube."
Clark Sorrells, minister of music at First Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C., agreed. "We strive for excellence in music" in his traditional church, he said. "Our culture and society require it. If a trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who'll prepare for the task? If worship isn't well done, it speaks of a half-hearted faith."
South Main Baptist Church in Houston discovered that when a consultant told its leaders, "Unless you start a contemporary worship service, your church is going to die." Eager to grow, the church launched a second service only to discover it lacked a corps of members trained to lead contemporary worship. To compensate, the congregation spent thousands of dollars to hire a worship band, but the service never attracted more than about 50 people, and eventually it was discontinued.
In the aftermath, South Main realized it had many members with classical music skills and came to the conclusion traditional worship was a natural fit for it and its community.
"The default standard in worship style in Baptist life is contemporary," said Steve Wells, South Main's pastor. "Because of our church's architecture and the size of Houston and our location, we can do it differently. The caliber and kind of music we have in worship is drawing people to our sanctuary."
Doing traditional worship well demands creativity, noted Phil Mitchell, minister of music at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. While the organ at the 232-year-old church is the primary accompaniment for hymn singing, and the congregation recently purchased the new Celebrate Grace hymnal, worship there is characterized by varied music.
"One of the reasons we succeed is that we push the edges on both sides," Mitchell said. "I have the freedom to bring in many elements that bring vitality and freshness. We can do a variety of styles and not be locked into one."
Creativity and variety is important at First Baptist in Asheville as well, Sorrells said.
"Music is varied here, which is theologically important and may be the key to our vibrancy," he said. Over the span of a few weeks, the worship service included a bluegrass consort, a Catholic chant on a psalm tune, a jazz setting for the choir and men's ensemble that sang both Jamaican arrangements and a Latin motet.
"The experience of worship should be different from anything else we do in our lives," said Sorrells. "A reliance on technology and digital visual imagery is so much a part of our culture that a respite from it immediately feels different."
A clear identity—knowing who they are—also is key to vibrant worshipping communities, said several leaders. It may be one reason contemporary worship fails in some places where traditional worship thrives.
"Churches succeed when they understand their unique histories, resources and contexts," consultant Will Mancini said.
Failure to grasp that can be fatal, but it's tough for churches to resist being something they're not, Wingfield acknowledged.
"The pressure (to adopt contemporary forms of worship) is so pervasive that pastors and ministers of music feel they are under assault," he said. "And they feel they have to emulate the contemporary church model, even though they know they aren't equipped to do so. But the push is so hard."
"There needs to be a real commitment to a core identity," Mitchell said. "That's not to say complacent acceptance of who you are won't lull you to sleep if you're not careful."
But without a clear identity, there's no foundation, he added. And inevitably, some people in the community will find it a compelling way to relate to God.
"Unbelievers appreciate and are intrigued by the depth of worship and the genuineness of people who offer as well as experience it," Schwoebel said. "It's our uniqueness as a worshipping body which hopefully makes the visitor wonder what it's all about and inquire deeper."
Mason insisted every church's challenge is "to give reign to the Spirit of the Living Christ. When we sing the hymns of the church from ages past, when we recite the psalms and recount the witness of saints of old, we expand our praise to include theirs. We are not just the church of the here and now; we are the church of time and eternity bearing witness together. This gives depth to our worship and joins memory with hope.
"Some people are finding that churches that pay attention to tradition, without being enslaved by it, give them an identity with deep roots," he added. "They are drawn to what lasts, what has endured the tests of time. Some forms of worship today quickly become irrelevant in their attempted relevance.
"Traditional worship is both intergenerational and transgenerational. It gives a voice to every generation, including those that have gone before."