How contemporary or traditional is your church?


There are two points that are driving what I’m about to write and I think it best to get them out as soon as possible. So here they are: (1) no church is as traditional as they think, and (2) no church is as modern as they think.

Years ago I was wrapped up in the traditional vs. modern (or contemporary) debate. It will be no surprise, since I’m a young leader in the church, that I found myself arguing in favor of and moving in the contemporary direction. I viewed traditional and contemporary on two opposite ends of an ‘old and new’ spectrum. It seemed so clear at the time. Most of the arguments revolved around ‘established tradition’ vs. ‘new innovations.’ My thinking and most conversations I had on the subject followed suit until a pesky poke from church history. Yes, history again.

Traditional Church

The first thing I came to realize is that I had never been to a truly traditional church. You see, when we compare traditional and contemporary churches we do so in a very narrow historical window–somewhere in the fifty to eighty year range. And if you do that, what we call the traditional church looks very traditional. But why do we only consider recent history. The church, after all, has existed for nearly two thousand years. What if, instead of comparing this decade’s church with the last decade’s church, we compared this century’s church with the nearly nineteen centuries that preceded it. If we did that we would quickly see that what we call the traditional church is overwhelmingly modern. Let me give you some examples. Take three of the staples of traditional churches: hymn books, the choir, and the public invitation. All three were ‘innovations’ established in the 1800’s, mainly through the work of Charles Finney. Did you know that churches split over the introduction of hymn books and choirs? Why? Because they weren’t traditional at the time. What Finney writes in Lectures on Revivals of Religion is eye opening:

Afterwards another innovation was carried. It was thought best to have a select choir of singers sit by themselves and sing, so as to give an opportunity to improve the music. But this was bitterly opposed. Oh how many congregations were torn and rent in sunder, by the desire of ministers and some leading individuals to bring about an improvement in the cultivation of music, by forming choirs of singers. People talked about innovations and new measures, and thought great evils were coming to the churches, because the singers were seated by themselves, and cultivated music, and learned new tunes that the old people could not sing. (Lectures on Revivals of Religion, vol. 1, p. 241)

And the public, walk down the isle invitation? Well, for hundreds of years (including the first great awakening) the church obeyed the great commission without it. What’s my point? Simply that all of the things I used to associate with traditional are in fact overwhelmingly modern, contemporary (even the organ, who’s introduction also split churches!).

Contemporary/modern church

The exact opposite holds true for so called modern churches. Many of the changes they make are retro. Getting rid of choirs, changing the invitation, no organ? Those are throwbacks, something old (or shall we say older) than the ‘traditional’ church. When you look at the contemporary church the first thing that should come to mind are the words of Solomon. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Eventually I came to realize that I had never been to a contemporary church either. Every practice, ritual, and doctrine (for better or worse) has some counterpart in history.

And yet, we talk as if our way of worship, our liturgy, is blazingly new or as old as the church itself. It is neither. What we do and how we do it is more often than not a reflection of the people who make up the church. How we sing music, dress, and conduct ourselves in worship flows from a mix of doctrine, culture and preference. The truth is, your church isn’t as traditional as you think, or as modern as you think. Your church is a reflection of the redeemed community that comprises it–as it should be! And that, by the way, is why churches change. As more and more new converts, new family members, are added, the family begins to look different.