I started holding separate worship services in 1995 at my previous church in North Carolina. The church was a traditional, downtown First Baptist church, and its worship style wasn’t connecting with the surrounding community—composed mainly of young, military families from all over the country. So our leadership did what many churches did in that era and started a contemporary worship service. I use the term “contemporary” loosely. What the service consisted of was a platform in our downstairs fellowship hall made of a piece of plywood on four concrete blocks. We put a keyboard on it along with a wonderful young couple from our congregation, and they led us in modern choruses. Many people connected with the service and it grew from humble beginnings to the point where we had to move it upstairs to the sanctuary in order to seat the growing crowds. We soon had the Sunday morning worship schedule that is familiar to many churches today: traditional services along with contemporary services held in the same area. We managed to make it work, even when we located the drum set directly over our oldest men’s Sunday School class—we found another place for the drums in a hurry.
That pattern of worship was integral to our church’s growth over the next few years, including relocating to a new facility, where the worship schedule adjusted again to reflect more growth. The multiple services and worship styles continued after I left and the church today has expanded its schedule even more and has grown to be one of the major congregations in the state. I’m very happy for them. My years there were blessed in every way and I’m thankful for the lifelong friends my wife and I made there.
Multiple services and multiple styles of worship has become the norm over the last twenty years. Whatever the denomination or location, many churches have responded to the growing diversity of their communities by designing worship services tailored to specific groups. The strategy has been successful. It has connected many churches with people who need Jesus, and proved effective in allowing congregations to reach new people with the gospel. The result has been that a buffet line of worship styles has emerged, often in the same church: traditional, classical, bluegrass, contemporary, Southern gospel, modern, post-modern, jazz, acoustic…. the list goes on and on. Some churches may have as many as four or five different styles of worship.
Of course, many people haven’t agreed with this approach. There’s a view—and I respect this view even though I don’t agree with it—that worship should only consist of a certain kind of music or hymn, and the more modern sounds of worship music that many people use today are somehow wrong. The reason I don’t find that argument convincing is that church worship has always been in flux. There’s always been tension between the musical preferences of one era compared to the preferences of the next. I learned recently of an American newspaper attacking the new directions of church music:
There are several reasons for opposing it.
One, it’s too new.
Two, it’s often worldly, even blasphemous.
The new Christian music is not as pleasant as the more established style.
Because there are so many songs, you can’t learn them all.
It puts too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than Godly lyrics.
This new music creates disturbances making people act indecently and disorderly.
The preceding generation got along without it.
It’s a money making scene and some of these new music upstarts are lewd and loose.
Sound familiar? These criticisms were published in 1723 by a pastor incensed with the new church worship music written by Isaac Watts. Watts went on to write many of the greatest hymns of all time, like When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Joy to the World and O God, Our Help in Ages Past. (Kenny Lamm with the North Carolina Baptist Convention tells this story and writes a great blog about worship at http://blog.ncbaptist.org/renewingworship)
When I came to my present church, I brought with me the conviction that multiple worship styles and services was the strategy we should use in order to reach our community. So we started a new contemporary service. Later, we expanded the schedule to include a second contemporary service via simulcast to another part of our facility. Our Sunday morning schedule for the last two years has included two traditional services and two contemporary services. I was excited to see how many people continued to respond to the variety of worship opportunities.
Over the last year, though, I became uneasy in my spirit with our congregation’s Sunday morning schedule as well as our separate styles of worship. While I’ve loved the diversity of worship expressions that multiple services offer, I began wondering and praying about how all this was affecting our overall congregational life. To be sure, every church is different, and I’m not making any generalizations about what other churches and pastors should do. Every church must chart its own course in ministry and worship as the Holy Spirit leads them. But for us, I began to see that the old era of multiple services and styles was coming to an end. There was a new wind blowing, and we needed to let it blow in us. Several particular concerns came to my mind:
- Our separate services were creating separate congregations. I saw separation between the generations, with some ages attending one service and other ages attending another. I saw divisions between people of different backgrounds. Those with little or no church background gravitated to one style while those with more formal religious training went to another. People were settled into familiar comfort zones that kept us from truly connecting with one another.
- Sunday mornings had become too rushed and frantic. Families tried to run from one place to another to get their children where they were supposed to be. Friends didn’t have the time to visit with one another in the hallways. The services themselves became restricted due to time constraints.
- Our church’s mission was being affected. In a divided world, where people’s spiritual longing is to connect with God and with one another, we had become separated from each other. It’s a powerful witness to be able to demonstrate to the world that the church is a place where people of all backgrounds and experience can worship together.
- We were robbing our people of the full riches of worship expressions. Many of our contemporary people were missing out on the depth and power of traditional hymns. At the same time, many of our traditional people were longing for the intimacy and passion of contemporary choruses.
It became obvious to me that our season of divided worship was coming to an end. The obvious question was, “Why did we start multiple services in the first place?” The answer is simple: five years ago it was a different season and the right direction. But now a new season has come. As people of faith, congregations must always be flexible and willing to step into a new direction. Yesterday’s anointing won’t work for today’s challenges.
As I always do when considering new directions in ministry, I took my concerns to our staff. Godly men and women, they prayerfully considered the situation with me, and together we came to the place of conviction that our church family needed to move in a new direction. I sat down with my personal prayer team, a group of older, respected lay leaders in our congregation, and opened my heart to them. We talked and prayed through the situation. I consulted other key lay leaders within our church. All of us came to the same conclusion: it was time our congregation came together in worship, with one heart and voice. So our leadership worked through all the details of how to effect the change and lead our people into the new schedule. On Sunday, March 2 we’ll step into the fresh, new season of unified worship.
A friend in ministry in another city came to see me the other day and talk about his church’s need to unify their worship services. Their worship schedule is having the same negative impacts on their congregation that ours was. He asked me what he should do as a pastor in order to lead his church into unified worship. I told him to start taking Xanax early and get a head start on handling the stress.
I was kidding—most of us pastors who come to the conviction of unifying our congregations feel no option except to step out in faith and move our people into unity. For many, the era of multiple services and styles of worship is coming to an end. It’s time to come together.