“Contemporary” Isn’t A Cuss Word

Is it an either/or proposition?
Is it an either/or proposition?

I am so sick of people laying part of the blame for the church’s decline at the feet of “the contemporary worship experience”. I’m talking about people like Steve McSwain, who said in his article Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore that “It’s been the trend in the last couple of decades for traditional, mainline churches to pretend to be something they’re not. Many of them have experimented with praise bands, the installation of screens, praise music, leisure dress on the platform, and… well… you know how well that’s been received.” To Mr. McSwain I would say that “trying to make a stained-glass atmosphere pass as the contemporary worship place”((which may be the dumbest description of the issues surrounding contemporary worship I’ve ever heard)) is less a problem than a shallow worship experience. And, that can happen anywhere.

When I was a kid, my family were faithful Methodists, attending Rehobeth UMC almost every Sunday. This was in the late  60’s to early 70’s when contemporary worship was something that only happened in youth and young adult groups. Sunday morning, though, was decidedly traditional. Service started at 11 AM, right after Sunday school, and consisted of hymns, creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, a sermon and a benediction. Frankly, it bored the living shit out of me. Why might that be? Because, no one bothered to explain why we did it. I’m not sure that even the adults understood the “why” of it all, thinking it was just what you did in church.

Unfortunately, learning why we did it and where it all came from didn’t help. In my opinion, there is no amount of explanation and understanding can make “Onward, Christian Soldiers” suitable for a Christian worship service. The creeds are no better. The Nicene Creed came out of the Council of Nicaea, which was the beginning of the Empire’s attempts to tame, co-opt and, ultimately, usurp the Christian faith. The Apostle’s Creed, adopted in 390 CE, followed in the Nicene Creed’s footsteps. Both shifted the focus of following Christ from a very real practice of love and community based in the here and now to a supernatural belief system that was all about the afterlife. I understand keeping in touch with tradition, but is that really a tradition worth keeping in touch with?

In the first paragraph, I said that a shallow worship experience could happen anywhere and it can. By the same token, a deep and fulfilling worship experience can also occur anywhere; and, that includes a contemporary service. I know this because it happens for me almost every Sunday. If it was left up to me, I’d probably sleep in a bit and go to the later traditional service, but my son, Parker, prefers the earlier contemporary gathering, mostly because he finds the hymns difficult to sing and thinks the liturgy makes little to no sense. But, we both agree that we have yet to attend a service of either kind at College Park that is shallow.

My point is that the depth of a worship service is more about content than format. The opinion of liturgy snobs notwithstanding, you can be involved in a fulfilling worship service that doesn’t isn’t traditional. In fact, some of the deepest, most spiritual worship experiences I’ve ever had occurred at the Wild Goose Festival and that’s about as non-traditional as it gets. Instead of pushing whatever we might think is the proper way to worship, why don’t we concentrate on improving what is offered, no matter what form that worship might take. Who knows, this approach could help to stop the church’s ever-increasing slide toward irrelevance. It certainly couldn’t make matters worse.