As a child, I remember church being a place that looked very different from any other. Pews, pulpits, choir robes, and music that sounded unlike anything on the radio. The tones of an organ humming and sound of people singing embedded a distinct set of memories. From the moralistic Sunday school lessons to the rancorous church business meetings, my church was perhaps not unlike yours. The endless casserole spread at church potlucks meant “church growth” happened on a weekly basis–just not always the kind some hoped for. Your Evangelical tradition may have been far different from mine. If you grew up Catholic, you might have sung liturgy and recall the first taste of communion wine when you were confirmed. Every tradition has clergy fashion statements, with collars or, in my case, those funny wide ties that never reached the belt. Flipping through a hymnbook on a Sunday night service was accompanied by childish games of renaming the titles of hymns or reworking the lyrics to the point of sacrilege. If you grew up with traditional church, you might be too familiar with it to savor the richness of it. At least, I can relate to that experience. We make fun of it, even if we still appreciate our upbringing, but many of us abandoned church as soon as we left for college. Worship has changed over the years–much in reaction to this exodus. There was a need for a revolution in the last decades of the 20th Century. The way church was done did not work for so many. Today, we may be in the same boat.
How Tradition Can Save Your Modern Worship Services!
Thirty years ago, young ministry pioneers took us from denominationalism to contemporary and modern worship expressions, shedding not just traditional music, but ancient symbols and typical church buildings. Instead of prayers of the saints, we saw movie clips or quotes from CEOs and secular heroes. The 1980s and 1990s were indeed full of changing forms about the way churches worshiped. Movie theaters, school gymnasiums, and tilt-up industrial space transformed into centers of worship. There was a huge uptick in church growth in non-denominational churches, but after the 2000s we see more and more decline in church attendance. Ministries worked over the last decades to attract unchurched people, reaching the “seeker” with new forms and expressions. While this was going on, houses of worship exchanged choir robes for guitars and drums. Have we lost some foundational anchors at the expense of being relevant? In a post-baby boomer America, our culture is shifting once again. Our primary issue can be summed up with this statement: What you use to attract people is what you are stuck with to keep them coming. In 2017, it seems the “nones”—the growing majority of religiously unaffiliated—have voted. Modern worship, however popular–can’t solve this issue on its own. How do we fight this trend of our younger people leaving the church? It may seem counterintuitive, but strategically bringing back tradition just might be the answer. Here is why.
Pendulum swing: Vatican II and the Jesus People changed worship!
There are two ways to look at modern worship and the music that comes with it. Our first lens is to admit that tradition is counterproductive if it opposes mission. Like Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Council in the 1960s that modernized some practices for the Catholics, Evangelical and mainline churches have dramatically modernized worship in the last decades as well. Remember, the guitar and Jesus People were once a new thing in church. How can you lead worship if people do not understand what you are asking them to do? When you take a liturgy in Latin and translate it to the native language, you bring worship to the voice of the people. When the priest faces the people when the communion meal is blessed, we see a symbol of Christ facing us as he invites us to partake. This is akin to using slides to project words instead of a hymnbook for singing together, or the use of modern instruments–like the acoustic guitar–that speak the musical language of the people to help our prayers emerge from our context. Instead of an organ and choir robes, music is sung with drums, electric guitars, and radio-like chanted hooks. Faith then is not entirely about transcendent other-worldly living. Worship expresses itself from the elements that make up our humanity in the 21st Century. When I get up in the morning and plant my feet on the floor, I wake up to the context of my worship. We must evolve or remove tradition when it loses its meaning.
We have a second lens to view the pendulum swing away from tradition. Tradition, when it is rote, becomes taught automation rather than experienced transformation. We lead people rather than protect forms. In other words, tweak the form to serve people, not the other way around. The humanness of culture–language and symbols–matter. When we simply follow a grid, schedule, or form, we dehumanize our worship, but it is one thing to allow people to be people as they come to worship and another thing to elevate felt needs, crafted experiences, and attractive programs to drive worship. To plan worship services that allow us to come from where we live and breathe is a way of updating a recipe, not changing the meal altogether. Our culture lives in feeling and experience. Tradition is in the way if it makes us less human.
We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to tradition in worship. To keep worship “authentic” is equally about who we are subjectively, as well as collectively. It has to be bigger than us. What is real or even true must, of course, relate to me in the subjective. What is dangerous is if I skew my approach to worship only on my terms and experiences. We live in an individualistic, iPhone-playlist-induced reality. We choose the space, the time, and in fact can be in several places at once with social media. So worship services that keep my attention have subwoofers to keep me in rhythm and moving lights to focus my vision. In a way, this powerful concert-like experience may help us very much! Think of how inspired a cathedral’s stained glass, and acoustics move us when a huge booking pipe organ plays. We are brought almost into a rapturous human experience for those moments. Are we building a new version of the cathedral with our lighting systems and modern church designs? Or are we running from the foundational purpose of why we gather each weekend. A cathedral can attract a crowd, but if it were only built to do so, then that would be missing the point. The same is true with our adaptation to new forms. Reaching back to tradition can remind us of our foundation and keep us accountable to it.
Here are three questions to ask before reforming your worship.
Do our people know why we gather each weekend? It is important that purpose is defined. Tradition can help clarify. We change forms when they no longer fit the function. If pews are not practical, do we force having pews? But, if we only change out of reaction and not out of our purpose, we are sending unclear messages.
What is our “tradition” and can any of it speak to us today? Most churches in our age have people from different denominations attending. This shapes us, as we can’t have an “insider” lingo and include everyone. What about your unique traditional roots must you celebrate and share to the uninitiated? What forms are you embarrassed about?
What is the traditional experience of our church people? To know where your people are at may help. You may worship in a gym and be from Pentecostal roots, but your people may have had Catholic backgrounds. Can a tap into the shared traditions of others bring your church more together?
The power of Jesus’ words: Ancient liturgy enriches modern worship, rather than constrains it.
You cannot think out of the box if you don’t know where the box begins and ends. Movements in worship should lead people to celebrate and contemplate Christ, not shape an emotional experience. I have been in worship planning meetings where the order of service was more about programming to the individual’s expectation, rather than leading the family of believers on a spiritual journey. I am all for sermon series, but liturgy with the focus on reading and teaching the Bible passages from the Lectionary can keep us honest. Yes, it may be hard to “market” the season of Pentecost, or even Lent. Does our sermon planning revolve around the Gospel or around what draws people to the pew? Yes, it is possible to do both, but which is primary? When we look into the design and evolution of liturgies of our faith, we see the goal to impart and invite worshippers rather than entertain. There is an arc designed over a three-year period, not a six-week buzz about popular psychology’s answers to typical problems we face in life. Constraints sometimes lead us to be free to focus on more difficult themes in passages of Scripture, rather than our bent as teachers.
Making the words of Jesus the pinnacle of teaching is probably the best thing about liturgy in my opinion. For instance, while it may be addressing a felt-need to do a sermon series on strengthening your marriage, if we don’t have a working knowledge of Jesus’ teaching, how helpful can we be in the first place? Topical speaking works perfectly well in context, but Jesus, while he had topics, often left us with more questions than pat answers. The hard sayings of Jesus call us to gouge eyeballs out and hate our immediate families. These words of Jesus are not sound bites that reinforce well a slogan-driven faith. Context is everything. It is far easier to give our people a glossy talk on steps to keep their family together. In our modern church, we need to recapture the wonder of the words of Christ. This takes more than a sermon series branding and workshops on how-tos. All of that activity is great, but is it enriching our worship or cheapening it?
Here are some thoughts and ideas about the words of Jesus and liturgy in your services.
Try observing Lent, even in a repackaged way. The Rick Warren “40 Days of Purpose” really borrows the church calendar item of Lent. How could a season of Lent deepen your church’s devotion?
Advent is subversive to consumerism. Many churches have already adopted Advent, rediscovering the focus on the promise of God through the Incarnation of Christ. How can you employ Advent and teach a “counter-cultural” Christian lifestyle?
Scripture readings bring prominence to God’s word. We can bring this back with a lot of creativity as reading Scripture makes it come to life. Imagine doing a short film with a voice over of the passage for the day. Simply reading a passage and hearing it is powerful. Do we still believe that today?
The hymnbook captured the faith expressions of the past, but also launches us forward.
What comes before us gives us the courage to carry on. When my mother shares stories of how God brought her through the tough seasons of her youthful experiences as a single mom, I am inspired. The narrative of our lives and those that have come before can only enrich us–especially in the setting of worship. The great cloud of witnesses that the writer of Hebrews mentions sings their prayers to us from old songbooks. Hearing and singing their prayers ties us to not only the people that came before us, but to those we leave behind. The Church Triumphant–those that have passed from this life already–tempers our selfish drives and inspires us to cheer on our children and beyond.
What legacy of faith does our worship expression teach to future worshippers? If we live in the moment, massage our felt-needs, and spend all our energy at worship for ourselves, we will not inspire those who come after us. In fact, we bow down to the idol of boredom and usurp what should be a family experience as my personal, whimsical expression and experience. When Fanny J. Crosby penned the hymn “Blessed Assurance” she bridged her experience and the church of the day with our hectic, entitled, and wealthy lives here in America. “Jesus is mine” is the expression we all connect to, not our emotions about a particular form or style. With Crosby, we are reminded that a small blind woman can bring us together by the great and powerful God she worshiped. What will our songs do to cheer on the future generations of worshippers? Even if the tunes don’t translate, hopefully, our words and lives preach well!
Here are some musical ideas to bridge your modern worship to tradition.
The obvious one is to do a re-imagined version of a traditional hymn. This means that it sounds modern, but the words or text are faithful to the original. Musical arrangers and songwriters may have already done this for you, but it is hard to find fresh ones. Should you write your own?
Do a hymn as written, but share the story behind it. The “law of empathy” is where you allow everyone to connect to the story. For instance, the hymn “We Thank We All Our God” comes from a German pastor who lost his family and had to bury 30 people a day during the plague. His story makes the song work.
Share your story behind a traditional song. When appropriate, if people know you were moved by something they then can be invited to share in that with you. Often, this is simply sharing how a hymn or practice brought you closer to God.
Regain symbolic and iconic expressions of faith and speak better to a modern, visual world.
Tremendous opportunity exists today to tell express narratives, so there should be no problem with the use of lights, sound, and visuals. Christianity has a rich tradition of being a leading-edge creative center. What the pendulum swing brought is that we employ the most amazing tools of high-tech communication available and yet seem to ban ancient symbols and stumble at telling stories. Even the symbol of the cross has been limited as to “not offend” those who may have bad tastes in their mouths from past religious affiliations. What we often do today is like an old cathedral that has plain glass windows, void of colorful stained glass and biblical stories. Part of this is the move into the “box church” in recent decades. But, we can do much with have in technology and creativity. What story about who Jesus is, do we tell with the visual equipment we employ? I recall from my childhood the felt board Sunday school figures used to teach Bible lessons. What is our modern equivalent of the felt board? We use tech to explain a point in a sermon when we can perhaps use traditional themes and imagery to anchor people.
A change in lighting can get a reaction, but what is the story to tell? We have two choices. We can steal from our 2,000-year history and work to create culture-equivalents, or we copy imagery from secular sources. The biggest problem is that we create symbols without starting with what is already there. The Christian t-shirt design that steals Pepsi’s design and says “Jesus is the real thing” copies where we should be creating. It is not like our faith can be expressed on a t-shirt which is why worship each week matters so much! In our Twitter and slogan-addicted culture, visuals can help us tell a narrative rather than simply program a reaction. Here is the bad news. It takes time to tell a really good story! Do we view our services as a t-shirt or a chapter in the story? We over promise the powerful life change that comes from the story of Jesus in worship when we only offer a tweet-sized glimpse.
What do you do when you have church in a box?
Use tech to share your symbols. If you miss having a cross, why not show them behind the worship songs on your slides? Also, it is important to share the meaning behind symbols. For instance, why do we use a dove so often in our imagery?
Lighting can tell a liturgical story. The liturgical colors can reinforce the movement of the year so use your lights and screens to express them. Green is often a color in churches for a reason. It is called the “ordinary” time or Sundays after Pentecost when green is used. How can color itself enrich your worship?
Tell stories while shunning propaganda. The changed lives of your people deserve to be recorded. However, we often use our testimonies to sell a capital campaign for a building wing rather than as a regular part of leading worship. We need to raise funds, but what else is worthy of a sales pitch in your church?
An invitation: The Lord’s Table challenges a private faith and exchanges it for Kingdom longing.
The table is an invitation. The communion table, Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper all remind us of a scene in the story of the life of Jesus. The scene opens with a chilling phrase: “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…” If in our worship we never remind people of the cross and Jesus’ invitation, we might as well not show up, in my opinion. But the table is more than simply an invitation to grace; It’s an invitation to live in a Kingdom mindset—one beyond the world we plant our feet in every day. Jesus reminds us that he is our very bread. We do not live without Christ, in other words. If our worship services forget to embrace this ancient tradition, we lose ourselves to a do-it-yourself private faith. The act of partaking of Jesus takes us out of worship inside my mind to worship that my entire body lives.
The invitation is to live an authentic life. With this honesty, we need to pray words of celebration, as well as laments. Loss and suffering are part of our existence. To deny the painful part and sell faith as a perpetual youth-camp-mountain-top moment is to reject our humanity. Our lives as pilgrims are lived mostly in the valley. If our songs, sermons, and prayers do not address this fact, then we may not invite people into authentic worship. Feelings of happiness or ecstasy are not the goal of a worship experience. If we sell this, we mislead them. We should have sweet moments–these are expected. However, being present with Jesus is the goal! Only in the presence of Christ can real life-change happen. The table invites us into Christ’s authentic presence with our authentic selves. Our desires in worship are quite mixed upon reflection. The truth is, most of us would rather just get through worship without minimal damage incurred. If we truly meet Jesus, then it is likely there will be tears of pain shed, but we get to meet with Jesus!
How do we keep worship authentic? It all has to do with our invitation. What we offer that attracts people is what we keep them coming back. Jesus invites us. He did not color it with a chaser of dazzling entertainment, but he did eat with his disciples and sinners alike. Tradition, when filtered through the idea of invitation, holds us to the fire about living for the Kingdom rather than ourselves. Don’t be bound by tradition, but don’t let the latest-and-greatest blind you from the anchors, both doctrinal and practical, that keep us unified in song and service.
Rich is a writer, blogger, speaker, musician, father and husband to his best friend. You can check out his latest book, The Six Hats of the Worship Leader, on his website RKblog.com