My (Brief) Return to Traditional Worship

I had been looking forward to going back to that traditional church. Now, after worshiping with them on Sunday, I feel slightly sad for them, for the Church in general, and for my hopes. Their traditional worship service was sleepy, quaint, and slightly discombobulated, and it made me realize I don’t really want to go back to them, or to that.

When we moved into the area a little over a year ago, we immediately sought out that traditional local church because it was in our denomination. After attending a couple of times, we decided to seek out something different and started attending the local United Methodist church’s contemporary service.

The contemporary service has been “okay.” I say that in quotes because it has also been lacking, but I am at least happy that my millennial daughter, who attends with us, has been enjoying it. I too enjoy the lights down low and contemporary music (if not the volume), but I often leave feeling like I’ve just attended “worship lite.” 

Which brings me to why I was disappointed with my return to a traditional service last Sunday.

  • The liturgical familiarity I had been looking forward to now sounded old and felt stale.
  • The restrained enthusiasm that had once seemed appropriate now felt a bit cold and sleepy.
  • The traditional Christmas music and choir now sounded like shopping mall muzak.
  • I was looking forward to a good sermon too. I was looking forward to a sermon that didn’t sound like a first draft, -long on intro, short on story, and lacking in focus. I wanted something more than a “seeker” sermon, …something that “afflicted the comfortable” as they say.

The only thing the traditional folks did “better” was welcome me. I had more welcomes in my return to that traditional church than I’ve had the entire year at the contemporary “herd” church.

I’ve now spent three years attending several different churches (and a lifetime of serving and worshipping in many different kinds and places). And like most wilderness wanderings, it has brought some things into focus, such as, why traditional churches are in decline, and will continue to wink out of existence. It has also helped me understand what’s not exactly right about drum-driven contemporary worship.

  • Where one lacks energy, the other teeters on drowning in it. (“Come on, put your hands together for Jesus.”)
  • Where one feel slightly cold and sterile, the other feels a bit staged.
  • Where one seems liturgically moribund, the other has only the bare bones of ritual that makes you feel connected to something larger and older.
  • Where one speaks of God in mysterious language, the other speaks of Jesus as my BFF.
  • Where one literally keeps the glaring overhead lights on in worship, the other literally turns them comfortably down, but figuratively allows you to remain relatively anonymous.

Where both get it right, is “praise,” albeit, with different strategies and language. But where so many of these churches falter is in the lack of consistently good preaching and the leading of prayer. (I cringe when I hear KJV prayers as much as when I hear “Lord, I just wanna….”)

It’s easy to be critical, and hard to please everyone. Leading worship and preaching is not easy, but participating in it also isn’t easy. Both points of view require humility and forbearance.  And so I offer the following in that spirit.

5 Observations for Traditional Worship:

  1. Lose the robe and get out of the pulpit. Talk to us, not at us. Check your preacher-voice and platitudes at the door.
  2. Train those who are given the privilege of speaking, and for gosh sakes, be a time-keeper on them (and yourself). Worship energy and focus is easy to lose when you’re in the pew.
  3. Reduce the role of the 1950’s-style choir and bring in a variety of song-types and singing-groups. Mix traditional and contemporary. Music is too powerful to let one approach prevail.
  4. Impose a 15 minute time limit on sermons as an exercise in humility and focus. If it’s good in 20, it will be better in 15. If it’s bad in 15, it won’t get any better in 20.
  5. Have someone proofread your worship slides (and bulletin), and don’t just project cold text on the screen, we live in a technicolor world. (Quality control is not an option.)

5 Observations for Contemporary Worship:

  1. Not all of us are “newbie Christians” but you often talk like we are.
  2. Some of your music lacks theological breadth and depth. Some of the (good) old hymns are awesome with new instruments.
  3. Love the drums. Control the drum volume and restrain “performance” inclinations.
  4. The Confession of Sin is not an optional part of worship.
  5. And as mentioned for the traditional folks… impose a 15 minute time limit on sermons as an exercise in humility and focus. If it’s good in 20, it will be better in 15. If it’s bad in 15, it won’t get any better in 20.

That’s enough for now.

Okay…an update.

I’m now attending a “traditional” church service because my wife likes them more than the contemporary ones. “Feels comfortable like an old shoe,” she says. Which is a good reminder that “where” we go isn’t as important as “who we go with.” In the meantime, I’m trying to rediscover what I thought I didn’t want anymore. We’ll see.

I actually created a computer game for older kids and young teens about the “right attitude” to bring to worship. It’s called “Attack of the Sunday School Zombies.” Ask me about it and I’ll let you download a free copy. Warning: the game features a donut-flinging super hero who takes on the church zombies and challenges their thinking. If you don’t have a sense of humor or play, forget you read this.

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