Re: Contemporary Worship–The Vision
A few days ago the Board of Calvary Memorial Church met to consider the possibility of changing our present worship format by adding a contemporary worship service on Sunday morning. The following paper is a slightly-revised version of the vision statement I gave to the Board in advance of that meeting.
As your pastor, I think you need to know clearly what I think on this question. Let me state my conclusion briefly and then give you my reasons: I believe we should add a contemporary worship service on Sunday morning as soon as possible.
I. Worship is a Matter of the Heart
I begin by saying how much I have enjoyed participating in the worship services at Calvary since 1989. One of the things I have learned from my time at Calvary is that God may be worshiped in ways that are quite foreign to me personally. I have discovered that some people are deeply moved by classical music preludes while others respond to simple worship choruses. Some like heavy anthems, some prefer gospel songs, still others like music with a beat, and others feel like the mark of a good worship service is a time of family announcements.
The tastes and preferences of our congregation are so vast as to boggle the mind. Coming to Calvary has been good for me personally because it has forced me to wrestle with the issue of congregational diversity in light of my own personal preferences. I don’t know how many conversations about music and worship I’ve had in the last three years, but if I had a dollar for each one I’m sure I could make my September mortgage payment and have change left over.
One of the things I’ve learned from these conversations is that different people worship in different “heart languages.” A large part of successful church leadership is recognizing and appreciating the different “heart languages” in a given congregation.
I long ago concluded that style of worship is not a moral or ethical or theological issue. No one style of worship is inherently “better” than another style. True worship is first and foremost a matter of the heart. Where the heart is right, true worship may be expressed in an infinite variety of styles.
That leads me to the point at hand. While I have greatly enjoyed–and personally benefited from–the worship services at Calvary, it has become clear to me that despite our best efforts we are still missing the “heart language” of many of our own people.
That to me is a fundamental reason why we need to begin a contemporary worship service on Sunday morning. I think we can no longer ignore the “heart language” of a large segment of our own congregation.
II. A Slow Evolution in My Own Thinking
I have not always felt this way. When I came to Calvary in 1989, I was urged to push for such a service but the time did not seem right. Two years ago I was not in favor of such a move. Nor was I in favor of it one year ago or even nine months ago.
But people change, churches change, and times change. Along the way, my thinking has changed. From the beginning I have been aware that many people in our congregation desired something “more” on Sunday mornings than we seemed able to give them. No matter how eclectic we became, no matter how many choruses we added, we couldn’t seem to meet the worship needs of many of our own people. To be precise, I’m not talking about malcontents, closet charismatics, occasional attenders, or even misplaced “Jesus People” from the 70s. I’m talking about responsible leaders of our church–Awana leaders, Sunday School teachers, former Board chairmen, former and current Board members, Allied Force leaders–men and women from across the generational spectrum who came faithfully and loyally week after week wishing for “something more” at Calvary.
From time to time they talked to me, always quietly, never demanding anything, never complaining, but sharing with me a burden and a vision for a different kind of evangelical worship experience. “We could have it here, “ they said.
In part I agreed with them but I was not ready to recommend a radical change in our approach. So every time the subject came up, I refused to commit myself one way or the other.
But then two things happened to change my mind.
III. A Personal Revelation
The first happened while we were vacationing in Florida. Toward the end of our time there, we spent two days at the brand-new Word of Life Florida Conference Center–about an hour north of Tampa. We arrived on Saturday afternoon in time to attend the youth rally that night and a concert after the youth rally.
When we got to the youth rally the kids were standing on the wooden benches, clapping and cheering and singing along while one of the staff members played choruses–some I knew, some I didn’t. It was pure Word of Life–high energy, high excitement, high enthusiasm. And something stirred within me, a reminder of days past when I had seen hundreds of young people coming to Christ at services just like this one. It reminded me of my days with Dawson McAllister when I stood in the auditorium at Church on the Rock and watched nearly 5000 teenagers follow Al Denson as he led them in praise worship. Nothing shallow there. A clear focus on God, songs directed to the Lord, choruses mixed with Scripture mixed with testimony, laughter and tears followed by deep repentance.
But the night was not over. After the song service, we left to go to the adult conference center for a concert by the Sounds of Liberty–a group of 12 men and women from Liberty University. They traveled with a synthesizer, a piano player, a drum set, and a guitar. They also used quite a bit of taped accompaniment.
So what kind of music did they do during their 90-minute concert? Lots of upbeat music, things that would be a cross between Sandi Patti and Amy Grant–nothing too “rocky,” but nothing too heavy. Some hymns put in contemporary forms–basically like the mix you hear on WMBI.
The music was warm, uplifting, open, informal, understandable, and designed to touch the heart. As they sang, something unusual happened to me. I think it occurred when they were doing a medley that included the old invitation hymn “Jesus Paid It All.” As I listened, my heart was so touched that I began to cry.
Then it hit me–one of those profound moments of insight that come along so rarely, a moment when suddenly everything you’ve been thinking and feeling for months comes together and you say, “Yes! That’s it.” As I fought with my tears, it came to me: “This is the religion I believe in.”
For months, even for years I had buried deep within myself a great truth: There is a religion that I truly and deeply believe in.
–It is the religion of the heart and of the soul.
–It is the religion of the gospel song, of the familiar hymn and of the chorus.
–It is the religion that is warm and informal.
–It is the religion that is personally expressive.
–It is the religion that wants to rejoice on Sunday morning, not to sit silently.
–It is the religion that believes Sunday morning ought to be a happy family gathering.
–It is the religion that touches the heart first of all, that believes in audience participation, spontaneous prayer and an informal atmosphere.
–It is the religion that stresses a “heart-to-heart” approach.
Why was I weeping? Because when you stumble unknowingly upon the thing you’ve been looking for, you realize what you’ve been missing all these years.
I said to myself that night in Florida, “Lord, why can’t we have this at Calvary?” The Lord said to me, “You can if you want it with all your heart.”
That very night I made a solemn commitment to God that when I got home, I would dedicate myself to leading Calvary toward the religion I believe in–the warm and informal evangelical religion of the heart.
Such a commitment never comes without a cost. I knew that night that some people would not understand what had happened to me. On the other hand, those who know me best would not be surprised at all. That night simply brought together things I had been thinking for nearly three years.
IV. Three Weeks in August
Then we came home just in time for the three weeks of contemporary services. Although this may surprise you, my expectations were very low. It was August, the weather was hot, people were gone on vacation, this was just an experiment, Would anyone really come? What if the attendance wasn’t very good? What kind of service would we have?, and so on. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest, I thought we might have services that would be in the 5-6 range–good but not outstanding or unusual.
God had another surprise for me!
Let me give you my personal response. It was the best three weeks of worship I have personally experienced since coming to Calvary–and the final service–the one where we all stood and sang, “I’d Rather Have Jesus” at the end–was so powerful, so moving, so overwhelming that I would rank it among the greatest services I have ever attended anywhere at any time.
And it happened right here at Calvary.
As I looked out from the platform, I saw and heard things I never expected to see and hear in our church. The best sustained congregational singing I have heard at Calvary came during those three weeks. And the joy! The expectation! The excitement as we listened to the prayers coming from people all around us! The simplicity and beauty of singing the very words of Scripture!
Are you surprised to know that I found it incredibly easy to preach all three Sundays? I felt my own heart deeply moved and I sensed that the people were truly ready to listen to the Word of God.
Someone commented to me–”Did you see the people after the service?” They didn’t rush out like they normally do. They stood in groups– talking, sharing, laughing. It was a wholly different atmosphere than we usually have on Sunday morning.
I do not think there is any way to argue with the numbers. After you factor in the people who “double-dipped” both services, after you factor in the Sunday School classes that came to the services, after you consider the “newness” factor, and after the other mitigating circumstances are considered, the simple fact remains that something wonderful and unusual happened on those three hot Sundays in August–Something we weren’t expecting and haven’t seen at Calvary in many years.
If anything else needs to be said, I refer you to the survey results. I believe there is a hard-core, rock-solid absolute minimum number of 250 adults who would prefer a contemporary service right now.
I further believe those 250 adults form a mandate we simply cannot ignore.
V. Is There Not a Middle Road?
In the days since the contemporary services, most people I have talked with agree in general with the conclusion I have drawn. The most interesting comment–which I have heard more than once–goes like this: “Is there not a way to blend the contemporary and the traditional so that we don’t have to provide two different services? After all, I don’t want my children growing up without knowing and loving the great hymns of the faith. But I loved the warmth and informality of the contemporary service. Can we not meld the two approaches somehow?”
The answer is–in part, at least–is yes. In reading the various letters that the Board has received on this issue, one dominant note has sounded out loud and clear: “We think the great hymns of the Christian faith should be included in any worship service at Calvary.”
–I absolutely, wholeheartedly, 100% agree!
–We need the great hymns of the faith.
–We are enriched by “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “Like a River Glorious,” and many, many others.
–If I could run the clock back to the middle of August and make only one change in the contemporary services, I would mandate that each Sunday we would sing a great hymn–in a contemporary style! That means putting the words on a slide and singing them to the accompaniment of a guitar, a synthesizer and the piano.
–Can that be done? Yes! And churches with contemporary services all over America sing great hymns in a contemporary style along with praise songs and Scripture choruses.
–I am fully committed to the proposition that when we start a contemporary service at Calvary, we will include great hymns and gospel songs as part of every contemporary service.
But that doesn’t touch the main issue, does it? Is it possible–at this point in the life of our church–to fully and adequately blend the traditional and contemporary elements on Sunday morning? Is it possible to do without radically altering the nature of our traditional service? In my judgment, the answer is no. Is it not possible that in our zeal to blend elements that are not easily blended, we will end up with a “grape nuts” service–i.e., neither grape nor nuts–neither contemporary or traditional–but an undefinable mix that ends up pleasing everyone a little bit but pleasing no one a lot? That question needs to be honestly faced.
The problem lies in the basic difference in the presuppositions underlying each approach. The traditional and contemporary services are not simply two different ways of reaching the same goal. They are quite different in terms of purpose, goal, expectation, intended audience and intended result.
What’s the difference between the contemporary and the traditional service? From my perspective the services are designed to move in two different directions. Our traditional service lends itself to dignity, quietness, rich reflection, awe and reverence–qualities that are good and right and needful. The contemporary service lends itself to celebration, rejoicing, personal participation, informality, warmth, openness. There is spontaneity and freedom in worship.
One service lends itself to formality, quietness before the service, a robed choir, a formal invocation, readings, times of silence, a pipe organ and classical music. The other lends itself to informality, greeting one another before the service, an ensemble, handclapping, choruses, spontaneous participation, guitars, a synthesizer, laughter, tears and personal testimonies.
Are all those things mutually exclusive? No, but … . .
The two services are meant to move in different directions, along different lines, appealing to different tastes, calling forth different responses, leading, however, to the same ultimate goal–that God is truly worshiped by his people.
I frankly believe it is naive to say, “Yes, we can have it all in one service.” Formality and informality, handclapping and silence, spontaneous prayers and classical preludes, traditional and contemporary, all mixed together in one service. No, I don’t think so.
It is far better in my opinion–at this point in the life of our church –to take a giant step of faith and offer a second service that is distinctly and deliberately contemporary along the lines of the three services in August.
–I believe it will enable us to reach hundreds of new people.
–I believe it will enable us to better minister to many of our own people.
–I believe it will enable us to focus both services – contemporary and traditional – more effectively so that we can minister accurately to the diverse groups in our congregation.
Let me say it more directly. This is the best opportunity this church has had to reach more people for Jesus Christ since I have come as pastor. I believe if we fail to go through this open door we will regret it for years to come.
To me, it is not a difficult decision. I believe that God has clearly shown us the direction we should go. I therefore believe that we should make this decision, communicate it to the congregation and implement our new Sunday morning format as soon as possible.
VI. How Do We Get There From Here?
In the last two weeks the staff has done an excellent job in helping me formulate the plans for our proposed new format. Here are the things that seem important to us:
1. We are fully committed to maintaining the integrity of our traditional service. We want a strong contemporary service and a strong traditional service
2. We also believe that a change in our Sunday morning schedule is in order. We propose the following schedule:
8:30-9:40 Contemporary Service
9:50-10:50 Sunday School
11:00-12:10 Traditional Service
Note that the services drop from 75 to 70 minutes and that Sunday School becomes the great unifying point on Sunday morning. There is a 10-minute break between events.
Here is a slight revision of that schedule:
8:30-9:40 Contemporary Service
9:50-10:40 Sunday School
10:50-12:00 Traditional Service
Same as above except that Sunday School is now 50 minutes, thus allowing the traditional service to end at noon.
3. We believe the change should be made as soon as the various logistical details can be worked out. My own best guess is that we would be ready to launch a contemporary service sometime after the first of the year.
VII. Key Issues
Several key issues must, however, be addressed before the change can be announced:
1. We must have the committed leadership in place to plan and lead a contemporary service each week. I personally believe that will eventually mean hiring a part-time worship leader. We already have several possibilities we are investigating.
2. We must have people ready to handle child care for both services. Rose tells me that the response from the children’s workers has been positive and when we recruit other volunteers from the congregation, child care will not be a problem.
3. We will need additional volunteers to serve as ushers, sound crew, greeters, welcome center leaders and the tape ministry helpers for both services. Since there will probably be some shuffling around, we’ll also need to recruit more members for the choir and for the contemporary ensemble.
I propose to meet these needs by taking a detailed survey sometime in October. At that time we would explain the new schedule, announce the various opportunities, and ask people to sign up to help out in various areas. I believe we will end up with more volunteers than we need in every area.
A Final Word
I have read with great interest the various letters that have been written. Each one brings out useful and legitimate points–the most meaningful one to me being that in a contemporary service you can and should sing the great hymns of the church. We will certainly include hymn singing in our contemporary service format. The rest of the issues raised are largely logistical concerns or fears of dividing the church. But styles of worship need not divide a congregation unless the people themselves want to be divided. We can have a united church with two contrasting worship services if we truly want one. It will require patience, forbearance, mutual understanding, kindness instead of criticism, and the fruit of the Spirit instead of the fruit of the flesh.
–It is impossible for a church to split over worship styles!
–No church ever has; no church ever will.
–Church splits happen because of the hardness of the human heart.
–Churches don’t split over pipe organs or praise choruses. They split because people demand their own way, because they are selfish and refuse to consider the needs of others, because they refuse to “accept one another, as Christ has accepted you,” (Romans 15:7).
–But God has shown us a better way: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
–If we will follow that passage of Scripture, this church can have seven different worship services in five different languages in four different styles–and still be united and filled with love!
–Will we choose to love each other and to make room in our hearts for each other?
If we choose to “love one another fervently” (I Peter 4:8) then all things are possible. If we choose instead to criticize and belittle those whose tastes are not our own, then no worship style will save us–liturgical, formal, informal, contemporary, or anything else.
As your pastor, I have great confidence that God is leading us to take this step of faith. Because I believe so strongly in God, I believe he will undertake to work out all the details and make us successful. I even believe that he will use this decision to unite us as never before in the greatest task of all–the task of reaching new people for the Lord Jesus Christ.
What is faith? Belief plus unbelief and acting on the belief part. I think it’s time for us to “act on the belief part” so that our church can go forward for the glory of God.