Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Where Angels Fear to Tread

The Insights into Religion web site recently shared an article entitled “Contemporary Worship A Boon to Churches.”   The writer of the article reported that “64 percent of churches with contemporary worship reported a 2 percent or more increase in attendance [between 2005 and 2008]. By contrast, only 44 percent of churches that kept traditional worship styles reported a 2 percent or more increase in attendance.

Mark Chaves, a sociologist of religion at Duke University, attributes the rise of contemporary worship to a culture that has grown more informal. “People don’t dress for work in suits and ties anymore, and they no longer address one another with formal titles.” In addition, he pointed out, society has lost faith in institutions. “The more formal kinds of religion needed denominations to keep them going,” Chaves says. “As institutions weaken, you’ll get more informality.”

Whatever the reason for the rise of so-called contemporary worship, the article states a clear trend not only among evangelicals, but also mainline Protestant churches. In the FACT2008 survey, 15 percent of mainline Protestant churches switched worship styles between 2005 and 2008.

I won’t address Chaves’ comment on the decline of institutions, but I will now walk on ground where angels fear to tread.  Few churches, whether low church or high church, have failed to engage in the discussion about new styles of worship.  Even as clergy leaders attempt to discern the best approach to pursue, they struggle to find the proper terms to use.  What is “liturgical” to you may be “traditional” to me.  What you may consider “contemporary” I might consider warmed-over Jesus movement.  A lot of it depends on where you stand.  I am not sure even applying the terminology cognitive versus expressive (as this article does) helps here.  Some see “expressive” worship as more attuned to the Spirit of God but God can be experienced through the mind as well.

For me, this discussion continues to be rather imprecise.  Projected words, a praise band, and worship leaders in jeans do not make a contemporary service.  “Creative” worship does not define the situation either; all true worship is creative in nature. 

Worship is constantly evolving.  People were shocked when Martin Luther put words to drinking songs and when Fanny Crosby’s gospel songs were introduced into churches.  Guitars are nothing new.  I seem to remember a story about “Silent Night” being sung the first time to guitar accompaniment.  Much of the “ancient-future worship” espoused by the late Robert Webber encompassed a variety of elements in developing a worship experience.  Is “emerging church” worship contemporary or traditional?  We cannot really talk about “contemporary” worship without addressing these questions.

Certainly we all have worship preferences based on our cultural experiences but let us not restrict the work of the Spirit to one particular style or culture.   The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8, NIV)

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