One of the churches at which I’ve served added a contemporary service several years before I got there. They desrve a lot of credit as a United Methodist congregation in a small town that was forward-thinking enough to start such an alternative service in the mid 90’s.
On the other hand, I came to realize while I was there, that several assumptions in the development of such a service were problematic. I’d like to brnig up just one of them here, under the larger heading of “contemporary” or “alternative,” or “praise and worship” services that United Methodists and many other mainliners have begun in recent years.
The new service intended to attract younger adults and their families who were not currently part of a church. Originally the service was organized to last 50 minutes, and be followed by a fellowship time before the “always-been-this-way” Sunday School and traditional worship.
The “traditional” service always lasts an hour. They planned the “contemporary” one for 50 minutes.
In many discussions of such new and non-traditional services, I’ve heard talk of, in effect, dumbing-down the message and expectations for the unchurched young folk we expect to come in by the droves.
I think in doing so we run the risk of reading our own honest expectations and desires onto them. We think the reasons they aren’t already in church are:
- It lasts too long – so we make a shorter service
- It is boring – so we tone down the message
- The bible is outdated – so we read exclusively out of The Message, and refuse ever to exgete anything.
- the impression that we only want their money – so we think of alternate ways for them to give, or avoid an offering altogether
- Give the same, stale invitation to church membership that our pastor’s pastor’s pastor gave back when Eisenhower was in the White House and all was well with American Christianity.
By contrast, I’d like to offer some alternate perspectives on “those unchurched folks.”
- The length of the service doesn’t matter. If felt-needs are ebign met and community is being built, many unchurched people would gladly give up their whole day.
- The problem was that the message was already toned down! (Did our seminaries, once upon a time, actually teach preachers to use abstract illustrations that wouldn’t connect with anyone’s life?) Most unchurched folks (since they haven’t learned otherwise in church) would GLADLY listen for an hour to someone who passionately shares something that could bring them closer to God.
- Connecting the actual message of the Bible, exegeted faithfully and carefully, with the lives of people will grow a service (and church) more than watering it down will.
- Unchurched people, I have learned, are glad to give their money, beyond the tithe if we dare to so teach, toward supporting the spreading of the same message that has attracted and awakened them
- We have to invite people to action; to a difference in life from this point forward. “Opening the doors of the church” should be what we do when they arrive. Ask something, expect something. Invite them to join in a follow up visit to their home.
A pastor colleague of mine was brought on staff at a large church to lead that church’s contemporary service. They called it “Worship Lite.”
If we have the expectation that it really isn’t worship, but only a “lite” version thereof, I’m afraid the best product we can expect from it is lite Christians. Don’t we already have enough of those?