Over the last few decades, one of the major issues in American church life has been the issue of “contemporary” vs “traditional” styles of church ministry. In trying to appeal to a younger generation, and as a result of having some apparent success in so doing, a shift has happened to more modern aesthetics in the corporate gathering of the church.
Organs are being removed and neglected. Pastors are removing ties from their necks like they are some kind of noose. Hymnals are being put into storage in favor of digitalized, projected lyrics. Goodbye pews, hello chairs. On and on it goes.
Churches no longer simply post times for their Sunday worship services, but often annotate them with descriptors such as “contemporary” or “traditional” – often having both in the same morning, or even simultaneously. Others have tried to straddle the fault line by having “blended worship.”
There has been an outcry over this, largely by those who favor more “traditional” forms of church. Much of it is surely nothing more than neophobia. To many, though, this trend has the perceived effect of radically changing what the church is all about. There is often a sense that their church is being ripped away from them; that all they know of the church is changing and that the church’s soul is being lost. Those who prefer a “contemporary” style are changing the church and making it something it never was, nor was supposed to be.
Those on the contemporary side speak of the need to adapt to changing culture; to appeal to a new generation; to not miss an opportunity for the gospel by being stuck in the mud.
It is my contention that both sides are wrong – and not for the reasons many think.
The problem with both of these approaches is not so much that style doesn’t matter. Rather it is that they misunderstand the fundamental nature of how the church is commanded to draw people to Christ.
Common thought is that people are won by a certain style of worship, or a certain atmosphere of church. If they like what you are doing, they will come, and they will believe.
In days gone by, when America was a more church-oriented nation, and when entertainment was not as easy to come by, this worked well. The church was the place people went to meet their needs: encouraging thoughts, social belonging, getting to sing and hear music, and being a respectable member of society. All the church had to do was provide a style of ministry that appealed to common societal desires, and people would show up.
But this is not the case any longer, and the shift toward contemporary styles has only had limited effect in plugging the massive leak in church attendance and membership.
But the church isn’t declining in influence simply because people have changed from desiring traditional styles to desiring something more contemporary. In fact, it’s not declining in true influence at all. It’s just that the apparent influence of the past has now been exposed for what it was: a cultural trend that only would work so long as church was the best way people had of getting their felt needs met. Once they could meet these needs somewhere better (i.e., digital entertainment) and at a better price (i.e., less commitment), they understandably bailed. And no amount of going “contemporary” is going to reverse this trend.
The problem is not traditional versus contemporary. The problem is that focusing on either of these things commits the error of appealing to man’s wisdom. Instead of trusting what God has given to build the church, men try every other thing – in violation of God’s design, and in a refusal to trust him to work according to it.
In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul tells of the desires of two different groups: 1) Jews and 2) Greeks (representative of all non-Jews):
“For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22)
The modern church practitioner would have to make a choice: do we have a “sign” service or a “wisdom” service? Or maybe we have both at the same time?
But what did Paul say? Not to give them either!
“…but we preach Christ crucified…” (1 Corinthians 1:23a)
Rather than appeal to the desires of the day, whatever competing parties there may have been, Paul had a better idea: Let’s preach the word of God, and a message that is highly irrelevant and even offensive to both groups’ perceived needs and desires.
And the response is just what church experts would think. No one believes the message:
“…to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness…” (1 Corinthians 1:23b)
“…but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:24)
By a singular emphasis upon the word of God and the uncompromised gospel of Jesus Christ, and by refusing to appeal to the natural desires of either party, something amazing has happened: people from BOTH groups have believed. Why? Because they are “the called” – God has worked in their hearts to draw them through the gospel.
God calls people only by the preaching of his word apart from the dressings of societal desires. To appeal to people based on “traditional” or “contemporary” only gives them what they want – it doesn’t confront them with the need to die to themselves and turn to Christ.
So when it comes to traditional versus contemporary practice, a move to contemporary services are not moving away from what is true to what is false. Instead, when they are done for the purpose of giving non-Christians what they want in order to get them into church, they are typically nothing more than a move to a different type of human desire to appeal to people apart from the power of the gospel – whatever men may claim.
The problem isn’t that the church was once faithful and “new” practices are making it unfaithful. It’s that the whole philosophy of ministry was rotten to the core to begin with. This is not true of everyone who does traditional or contemporary style, but it is true of those who think that either style is significant in bringing people to Christ.
Nothing has changed in essence, just in form. Traditional wasn’t more faithful; it just looked more like it externally, and had a longer shelf life. Biblical ministry, on the other hand, has no expiration date, and doesn’t depend on being traditional or contemporary. It has an appeal that transcends cultural fads because it has a power that comes from God.
What is the substitute for this all-too-common dependence on forms of “worship”? A resolute determination to build a ministry that is founded and built on nothing at all but the scriptures – with a full trust in their sufficiency. The moment you build church on what people want, you immediately stamp an expiration date on the product. Every kind of human wisdom will expire and turn sour in the world’s sight, and the life spans are getting shorter and shorter with each fad and each generation. But every person won to the truth of God’s word is done so with eternal effect.
If you attend a church where this is the kind of ministry that is done, it doesn’t matter how traditional or contemporary it may seem to you now. It’s only a matter of time until it turns into something that you don’t like. If you have been won to a certain style of church, be prepared for that style to change. What is now appealing as “contemporary” will one day be mocked by the next generation of gurus as “traditional” – and what will happen to the faith of those whose faith was dependent upon this style?
It’s time that churches go back, not to traditional forms of worship, but to the unchanging and universally-effective truth of the fullness of the word of God. Only then will they have an impact that transcends every generation.