When I first arrived as the new associate pastor at a congregation I once served, I found the church trying to recover from a conflict involving my predecessor. He had been advocating more "praise-oriented" worship at the two Sunday morning traditional services. And he had lost the dispute. Upon his resignation, a significant number of the younger families left the congregation. Many of those remaining were still asking for an alternative to our traditional Lutheran service.
We of the newly organized pastoral staff hoped to prevent any further exodus of the younger families. The median age of the congregation was increasing, while the median age of the surrounding community (due to younger residents moving in) was dropping.
Our first attempt to cater to the remaining younger families was the not-uncommon (and well- worn) strategy of offering a contemporary service once a month during a regular Sunday worship hour. This way we assumed, the younger families would get just enough contemporary worship to remain committed to the congregation, and the traditionalists could tolerate the change on one Sunday out of four. We were mistaken.
Some of the traditionalists objected strongly to even a monthly "experiment" with contemporary worship, while younger families remained unimpressed by this token gesture. So we pastors decided to try something much more daring: an additional weekly service designed specifically for these disenchanted younger families.
We added the new service to our Sunday morning schedule without changing the times of our two traditional services. Moreover, we put our traditional worship hours off-hmits to further experimentation. In other words, the pressure was now off. All experimentation and major changes in worship were restricted to the new "Informal Worship and Study" hour.
The new hour's structure was minimal: Bible study sermons, more open prayer, and contemporary praise music accompanied by piano and guitar. What was amazing about this new venture was not that it worked—it did—but that it became our congregation's most effective outreach effort in the remaining five years of my pastorate.
Our original motive had been primarily to satisfy and retain the younger members who were already attending services. As Lutherans, we weren't used to attracting the unchurched and were not expecting new people to become involved. Yet that's exactly what happened. We had stumbled into this strategy not so much out of a sense of mission as out of a desire to "keep everyone happy." Fortunately God does not always require pure motives as a prerequisite for blessings.
I've gained some insights into contemporary worship from that and subsequent adventures:
Visitors are far more likely to attend a new service than a preexisting service.
This principle is perhaps the most important growth strategy to keep in mind. The simple truth is that the attraction of our new services had more to do with their newness than with their contemporary style.
Joining a new worship group has numerous advantages for the newcomer. First of all, since everyone is "new" to the service, visitors are less likely to encounter preexisting cliques. Second, since no one has experienced the service often enough to memorize it, no one is expected to know the "cues," and newcomers are more likely to feel a sense of ownership for the new service and its related ministries.
One note of caution: a new service will be new only for a limited period of time and will eventually lose its novelty. Like the traditional service, the new one will eventually seem somewhat closed to outsiders (in terms of established relationships among worshipers), and over time it will develop its own predictable form (thereby becoming more awkward for first-time visitors). Consequently, the first few years of a new service offer the optimum potential for growth. As time passes, growth will present an increasing challenge.
The new service should have a biblical focus.
Many unchurched Americans who have a negative attitude regarding the institution of the church are nevertheless fascinated by the Bible—ignorant, but fascinated. Given their ignorance (the most popular verse of unchurched Americans is "God helps those who help themselves"), preachers cannot presume familiarity with Scripture. However, they should still emphasize the Bible and its relevance to the important issues of life.
If you are targeting people with little or no church background, avoid verse-by-verse studies of long books of the Bible (e.g., a fifty-week study of Genesis). Instead, focus on the person of Jesus and the books of the New Testament. Pass Bibles out each Sunday to help worshipers get used to holding and reading Scripture.
The single biggest factor in the success of a new service will be the music.
Music is important in a contemporary service—more important than the sermon, the approach to prayer, and the hospitality (important as these are).
To make the music effective:
- Use an energetic song leader and a small instrumental combo.
The song leader should be familiar and comfortable with contemporary Christian music. He or she should stand in front of the worshipers whenever they are singing, acting as much as a prompter and encourager as a director.
The instruments should include piano or electric keyboard, acoustic gui-tar(s), and bass guitar. Drums are not necessary.
The number of team vocalists in addition to the song leader depends on the size of the worship community. I suggest a total music team of not more than six when leading a group of fewer than seventy-five. As the congregation grows beyond that number, you can add additional members to the team.
- Select songs that newcomers can begin to feel comfortable with the first time they visit
- Avoid too many verses per song.
Singing too many verses discourages worshipers from emorizing the lyrics. When singing songs of three or fewer verses, it is often helpful to begin and end with the first verse.
- Practice new songs prior to the opening prayer.
- Sing a few songs in a row.
Plan song sets with segues in between. This allows for more enthusiasm and energy in congregational singing. Long pauses between songs tend to inhibit a positive singing dynamic and rob the service of any flow.
- When possible, display the song lyrics on an overhead projector.
This allows for smooth transitions between songs, encourages people to lift their heads while singing (thereby helping them be more attentive to the song leader and more aware of the other worshipers), and frees their hands for clapping or choreographed motions.
- Obtain a copyright license that will provide access to larger number of contemporary songs.
Most contemporary praise music leaves much to be desired. However, at least 25 percent of it is very good. A copyright license frees one to sift through larger numbers of compositions and select only the best (and most theologically appropriate) music. Without such a license one must purchase songbooks (containing many songs that the church will never use) or pay separate copyright fees for each song used. [See p. 45 for CCLI information.]
- In addition to congregational singing, plan for a special music anthem every Sunday, without exception.
Prepare for prayer
The worship leader should try to receive spoken petitions immediately before prayer time and incorporate these into the communal prayer. Worship calls for more than generic petitions. People often have specific, personal needs for which they want prayer.
Try to get many church members involved.
The more members who join into the planning and leading of a contemporary worship service, the more likely the new service will succeed. For example, mobilize volunteers for hospitality This service will be an exciting opportunity to welcome visitors. Enlist not only ushers, but greeters for before and after the service, refreshment providers, refreshment servers, and follow-up phone callers.
Before launching your new service, know who you want to reach.
A service targeting youth requires a style different from that of a service designed for young parents. Investigate the kinds of music that appeal to your target audience. In preparing the sermon, know whether your audience has any familiarity with Scripture. Learn this groups needs, and teach on portions of Scripture relevant to those needs.
If you're not sure whom to target, consider nesting-stage baby boomers and their children. The largest generation in American history (the baby boomers) is presently raising the second- largest generation (the baby boom echo). Since many are considering church involvement "for the sake of the children," new services should involve youngsters. In addition to presenting a weekly children's message, select some songs specifically with children in mind. Include songs with cross-generational appeal: easy enough for children to learn, but with enough quality and depth to appeal to Mom and Dad.
In the case of my former congregation, the contemporary service brought much more than numerical growth. The new people brought an excitement and optimism that the church sorely needed. Suddenly unchurched people were becoming involved in our church. Our members began to see the church as having an effective mission to the surrounding community—reaching out to people with the gospel. Growth does not always follow renewal. Renewal, however, does often follow growth.
Remember, worship can be contemporary while remaining liturgical. The issue need not be whether or not your service has liturgical structure; the issue is the music. Include all the elements of liturgical worship—invocation, confession, litany, creeds, Bible readings, sermon, prayers, offering, Eucharist, and benediction—but carefully select quality contemporary music that will motivate and inspire new, younger worshipers. You can also teach the group some traditional hymns. But the majority of the songs should reflect the worshipers' musical preferences. Let the songs set the musical tone and style of your service.
Adding a contemporary service to the weekly schedule may be the single most effective way to increase worship attendance within two or three years. More significant, it is a good way to attract the younger unchurched residents of your surrounding community. It could become a turning point in the life of your congregation—the beginning of a new sense of the mission we have all been called to in Jesus Christ.