Traditional or Contemporary Worship: Is That Really the Question?

For the past 20 years, mainline churches have debated the most effective form of worship: traditional or contemporary. Traditional worship advocates argue that traditional worship is the only true means of worshiping God. The liturgy, the order, the formality, the colors, and the symbols all direct our faith toward a God of order and history. Contemporary worship advocates argue that contemporary worship focuses on the personal relationship that is vital to real faith and that traditional practices are barriers to a modern culture seeking authenticity related to their personal experience of faith. This is not a new debate. It goes back to the days of the early church. Different Christians in different cultures all sought to live out their faith by worshiping in styles that were heavily shaped by the culture more than the scripture.

Here is an example of how culture can shape our understandings of sincerity: In North American culture, one is seen as more sincere in their thanks if they say thank you with more emotion. If someone gives me a card for my birthday, I say, “Thanks.” If someone gives me a new Lexus for my birthday, I say, “You’ve got to be kidding me!! Thank you, so much!!” – as I fall to my knees with tears in my eyes! On the other hand, in some Middle Eastern cultures a thank you has more meaning if there is less emotion.

When you couple our cultural definitions of what is a meaningful expression of thanksgiving and add in a healthy dose of cold, uninspiring mainline traditional worship (because the truth is many mainline, traditional worship experiences have been lifeless), you find a culture longing for something with more meaning. Since contemporary worship seems to lead us to a more personal and emotional way of worshiping God, many feel that contemporary worship may just be the answer to our need for authentic faith.

Now for the curve ball: What if traditional worship could be life-giving, personal, authentic, emotional, and heart-centered? What if traditional worship could touch us in the same ways contemporary worship has? Contemporary worship is not going away. I believe it will continue to grow and adapt into new forms that we cannot even imagine now. But I am also afraid that Christians are losing the living tradition and history of the Christian faith that helps keep us accountable to the Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience of our faith. Traditional worship should never equal dead, meaningless worship. As Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, one of the world’s leading scholars in the history of Christianity, once wrote; “Tradition is the living faith of those now dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of those now living.” May we always flee from traditionalism!

However any church chooses to live out its life of worship, one thing must be central. It must be alive, vibrant, meaningful, and sincere while keeping a connection to the living tradition of the Church universal. Anything else is not true worship.

1 thought on “Traditional or Contemporary Worship: Is That Really the Question?

  1. Interesting post! I have found that the “contemporary or traditional” debate uses some of the most unhelpful terms in theology. I think a better question is this: does our worship draw from both the breadth and depth of the Christian faith and tradition? In light of this question, much or most contemporary worship falls just as short as traditional; it's still Anglo-American and incredibly middle-class. Where are the African American spirituals? Where are the ancient chants? As I try to tell folks, there were hymns written before the Great Awakening! (For Methodists, that also includes Charles Wesley!)

    Oh well; enough of my ranting. 🙂


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