What changes are congregations making in worship? Why and how are those changes being made? And what processes and resources are available for congregations? Alban senior consultants Gil Rendle, Susan Nienaber, and Dan Hotchkiss joined together to discuss these questions and compare their personal experiences from various types of congregations in different geographical locations. Here are some of their findings:

Are contemporary services the answer?

Well-established congregations that are not early adapters feel pressured to consider moving to a “contemporary” service. In planning cycles it seems that the “answer” of a contemporary service often is the first response to plateaued or declining attendance. This is especially true among the laity, who are reading about or watching success stories from other congregations.

The consultants agreed that:

  • People are not clear about what is meant by contemporary worship.
  • It often is too much of a stretch for these well-established congregations to change their form of worship to the degree about which they talk so easily.

It is important to make a distinction between “contemporary” worship and “informal” worship—especially since congregations often can make the stretch to informal worship with more integrity than they can the larger jump to contemporary worship. It also seems that at times planners want to jump to contemporary worship without any evidence that there are people in their congregation who actually want this style. In some cases, younger adults simply wish that worship services were not so stiff and constrained.

Worship versus Music

Often times when people say worship, they mean music. “Contemporary music” often seems to refer to a style akin to the soft rock of the 1970s. “The music that older folks think of as contemporary would seem old fashioned to younger people,” Hotchkiss noted. A number of congregations try to appeal to young adults with contemporary music. One such congregation described this music as “Beatles songs.” Hotchkiss, however, said that he sees this younger age group more as the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” generation who are looking for stated historical depth and a deeper sense of tradition, but not in a pious fashion.

It should not be overlooked, however, that some denominational stories, such as that of the Lutherans, involve the use of “maverick” music in worship—beginning with Italian opera. Luther and others were in favor of telling stories in the vernacular. The Wesleys used dance-hall music and the innovation of writing hymns that were free adaptation of psalms.

The consultants felt that the use of rock-and-roll music is less of an innovation now than when it was first introduced. While it was a big plus at first, now everyone knows about it. Since the market is saturated, the impact is much less dramatic.

Nienaber noted that a number of Lutheran congregations in Minnesota have incorporated contemporary worship in ways that are work theologically and musically. She credits this to the congregations’ being intentional about staying true to their tradition. She added that a number of those congregations went through two- to three-year study plans. They also rewrote the lyrics to the songs. “They seem to be having nice results.”

Multiple Styles of Worship in One Church

A number of congregations have found success in having multiple types of services. For example, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation in St. Paul received a grant to hold both Celtic and Nordic alternative services. The response has been so great that the church has grown an entire congregational size. (Note on their Web site the connection that is made to Martin Luther in the explanation about each service.)

Other examples include a conservative synagogue in New York that uses world Jewish music and has two rabbis who sing just as well as the cantor; the synagogue attracts 3,000 for Shabbat services. An Episcopal parish in New Haven, Connecticut, attracts 1,000 people to its Sunday-night Taize services; another Episcopal parish in Memphis has a growing Celtic service.

Final Thoughts

There is a need for a playful connection to the past that is rooted in tradition but not in a literal fashion. Much of the tension over worship has to do with the contrast between irony/playfulness and what congregations actually are doing. There is a heaviness and insistence that things must be done “properly.” What often is lacking is creativity.

See below for four suggestions from our Alban consultants about processes that will help a congregational worship study team think through the worship needs for the next chapter of their church’s history.


Starting a Discussion on Your Congregation’s Worship Needs

Here are four suggestions from our Alban consultants about processes that will help a congregational worship study team think through the worship needs for the next chapter of their church’s history.

  • Large-group exercise: Have your group mill about the room and find four to five other people with whom they have something in common—easy topics like snack food, television shows, and music styles. Then move to worship preferences. Have them cluster according to how they respond to different phases, such as “hymns that touch the heart” and “hymns that inspire action.”
  • Use an appreciative inquiry approach. Focus on your congregation’s future vision for worship by asking questions such as: If we were doing worship extremely well, what would it look like?
  • Take field trips to congregations that are doing alternative worship forms. The field trips should be to congregations that are somewhat similar (denomination, size, location, etc.) rather than to one of the congregations famous for contemporary worship.
  • Lengthen the menu of options so that people don’t think only in terms of “ahead” and “behind.” Try to help congregations see that they can move in directions on different dimensions.


Featured Resources

AL231_SMBeyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship by Thomas G. Long

Almost every congregation is experiencing tension over worship. Many congregations have been participating in a renaissance of worship known as the “liturgical movement” and have reclaimed worship forms that have served the church for centuries. Yet because the church today is operating in a radically changed cultural environment, many people in our society do not understand liturgical worship and thus we must find language, music, themes, and images that speak to the unchurched, spiritually seeking person. Click here to read a chapter.

AL286_SM Designing Worship Together: Models and Strategies for Worship Planning by Norma de Waal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell

This book draws on more than two decades of collaborative worship planning by pastor Howard Vanderwell and musician Norma deWaal Malefyt of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship,
offering thoughtful, field-tested processes and tools for planning, implementing, and evaluating life-enriching weekly worship. Click here to read a chapter.