A Greater Purpose?
by Mary E. Biedron

“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”
1 Corinthians 9:22

In the last several years, whenever groups of clergy and church leaders gather, the question of contemporary vs. traditional worship always emerges. I have been a part of many of these discussions, and I am aware of many excellent contemporary worship programs, such as the long-standing contemporary service at Mayfair-Plymouth Church in Toledo, Ohio. I read Rev. Dave Claassen’s article in the October 2002 issue of The Congregationalist with interest, and since then I have had many conversations about worship with lay people and clergy. This is an emotional topic with strong feelings about change. At times, it seems as though people are genuinely “taking sides” on the issue of contemporary vs. traditional worship, with the opinion that it’s “impossible” to make a blended form of worship. In spite of all the conversation, the whole issue remains unclear. When I went over the closing worship materials for Vacation Bible School this year, there were “traditional” and “contemporary” options, neither of which used a drum kit or an organ. What makes a certain form of worship “contemporary” or “traditional?” What is the value of each? What can we share with one another that will help us all?

Whether traditional or contemporary, contemplative time should be included in the service.

I believe that the intensity of this debate comes from the deep desire each congregation feels to reach out to people with the good news. Throughout the ages, worship has evolved to respond to the culture in which the church finds itself. For our Puritan faith ancestors, the question of worship was an essential one, and that is true in Congregational churches today. We are all seeking our own version of Paul’s affirmation in 1 Corinthians. As Congregational Churches, we have freedom and latitude to consider our options and our needs individually—one solution will not fit all. So, out of the many things I have seen and heard, I offer some questions and thoughts for churches as they try to decide how to modernize, what that means, and how “modern” they really want to be.

1) Are we creating separate congregations? This is a question to ask whenever additional worship services of any kind are added. Ministers and church members I have asked have indicated that people choose one service or the other. How does a church, particularly a Congregational church, respond to this potential division? If we are to serve together on boards and committees, if we are to truly care for one another, how will people who go to separate services know one another? Are we ready to welcome “non-traditional” participants in a contemporary service into the full life of the church? Is there a way for older and younger people to get to know one another and share with one another, whichever form of worship is used?

Contemporary worship can open ways for young people to participate.

2) Are we discarding the past? I felt deep concern at a presentation about contemporary worship and new directions for the church when the presenter advocated “throwing out the old” and doing “everything in a new way.” I understand what he meant—but as a Christian Educator, I believe that everything we do teaches something. How do we throw out all the “old” things, and then claim that the “old” things contained in the entirety of the Bible are exempt? If they are included, if in modern ways, how can we also include the experiences of those in our tradition and in our congregation who have gone before? This issue is very divisive in churches, where older, long-time members feel pushed out of the process. If we are really being “all things to all people,” we must not reject the needs of our older members for whom church life may be the last connection they have with their own past.

3) Are we helping people to participate and take leadership in worship? Contemporary worship can open ways for young people to participate in worship leadership, but sometimes both forms of worship end up using a limited group of people, or being “performance” driven.

4) Is there theological depth? One of the values of some old hymns is their extensive use of scripture in creative ways. Many wonderful new hymns and songs accomplish the same thing. Using only “praise choruses” or a small number of old hymns and anthems can rob either form of worship of important meaning. Eliminating some of the prayers and forms of traditional liturgies may leave a theological gap.

5) Are we allowing time for contemplation and stillness? For many modern people, time to be quiet and experience their internal lives is limited to time in church. It is something unique that we offer the world. In some contemporary worship services, there is not much of that kind of time. In some traditional services, prayer/contemplative time is so directed by readings or lectern praying that participants do not have room to listen for the voice of God. In both cases, contemplative time needs to be structured into the service.

6) Are we worshiping as God has called and led us? Is the issue of contemporary vs. traditional worship being raised because the congregation is moved by God to discussion and prayerful consideration—or is it because everyone else in town is doing this?

When a church gathers for worship, Jesus is there with us. When we call on God, the Holy Spirit guides us. The forms we use are to help us to gather the people, tell the story, and break the bread. Worship matters, and so does conversation about what worship is and what it should be in the life of the congregation. Our desire to reach as many people as possible in a meaningful way is at the heart of what it is to be a church. Whatever the decision about worship forms, liturgy, music, etc. a congregation that engages itself in genuine and inclusive consideration of the meaning and value of worship will discover anew what it is to live as the Body of Christ.