Since the dawn of time, religious communities have faced an inescapable question: How do we balance tradition and innovation when we gather to worship? I can’t prove it, but I suspect it goes back to the very beginning. One of my favorite church cartoons shows a group of people sitting around a conference table. The heading reads, “Week 2 of the new church start.” One member says to the others, “That’s not the way we did it LAST Sunday!” It just doesn’t take long before an innovation becomes a tradition, and a tradition becomes an institution which can never be changed.
I grew up in churches where beautiful organ music was always present. I truly love the sound of an organ in church. Its warmth and power help carry a congregation’s singing. On its own organ music can stir the heart and inspire the mind. For some church people, organ music IS church music. Anything else is simply unacceptable. For special occasions we might welcome a string quartet, and brass for Easter of course. But other instruments are immediately suspect.
But the organ only really became available for music across the church during the 16th century. So the Christian movement existed for its first 1,500 years without anyone knowing anything about beautiful organ music in church. For three-quarters of our entire history, there were no church organs.
About seven or eight years ago, our congregation launched a new worship service on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. It’s a somewhat less formal service. It has fewer moving parts. No organ, no robes. The music is led by an ensemble that includes piano, percussion, guitar, bass, sometimes fiddle, mandolin, steel guitar, and fantastic singing voices. They are amazing. I honestly don’t know why anyone would be anywhere else on Sunday evenings than at what we call “third service.” For someone who doesn’t like traditional church, third service is pretty well perfect. And if you love traditional church, it’s still really really great.
Every once in a while I’ll get a question from someone who hears about it and asks, “Is that your contemporary service?” And that question makes me a little bit crazy. That’s because our Sunday morning worship is every bit as contemporary as what we do on Sunday evenings. For healthy congregations, worship isn’t a time to gather and look back at how great things used to be; it’s a chance to engage with the story of our faith as it is being lived out in the present! It’s about the meaning of everyday ordinary life, and holding it up to the light of God’s grace. It’s about caring for each other, loving our neighbors, working to build a better, healthier, more hopeful world so that all of God’s children might experience joy and peace in our lives.
I know that we can worship with an organ and a choir that wears robes. I’ve seen it, and even love it. You can worship with a minister who wears flip flops and Hawaiian shirts. I’ve heard that, but I probably won’t try it. To me, what matters isn’t the style of the music or the use of a projector and screen. What counts for most of us is the power and movement, the spirit and grace of the service. Does it help people with our lives? Does it deepen our faith? Does it grow our compassion for others? If the service helps us live out our faith today, isn’t that what “contemporary” worship really means?
Jonathan Chute is Senior Pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church. The congregation worships each Sunday at 8:30 and 10 a.m., and 5:30 p.m. He was educated at Harvard University and Pacific School of Religion. He lives with his wife, Dr. Thyra Endicott, in Palos Verdes Estates. He can be reached by email at: email@example.com.