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Look Before You Leap! Second thoughts on adding a contemporary service

George Barna says you have to. Lyle Schaller says you ought to. Evangelists say you need to. The idea of creating a new worship expression, "contemporary" in character, alongside your present worshiping community is racing like wildfire through congregations all across North America.

Mixed Motives

The reasoning is simple and direct: (1) The church must carry out the Great Commission to bring the lost to Christ. (2) Church "culture" and nonchurch "culture" are entirely different. (3) The church's "traditional" worship expressions are a foreign country to the nonchurched. (4) Since few people are "evangelists," most are not able to lead others to Christ directly. (5) So the best alternative is to provide a new kind of service that will attract nonchurched people: seeker-sensitive, contemporary worship services that are more in tune with the nonchurched culture.

Of course, many times congregations have an ulterior motive for developing a second service. The homogeneous character of our congregations has eroded, and with the significant shift in identity and cultural view marked out by the baby-boomer generation, we don't all look at life in the same way. In fact, some people's expressions of identity and Christianity make others of us downright restless.

So we start "contemporary" worship expressions as a way of principially doing the right thing (becoming more outreach conscious and oriented), while probably more honestly we're emotionally doing the "me" thing—changing styles to suit our personal likes and desires.

The New Reformation

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that "traditional" is right and "contemporary" is bad. Nor am I saying that the shifting winds of consciousness breathing life into new mission initiatives close to home is wrong. I'm a baby boomer with an evangelist's heart. I've worked to move two congregations toward greater contemporary expressions of worship and broader mission focus. I started a seeker service in one congregation, and I'm working now in a congregation that has two distinct worship services (self-identified as "traditional" and "contemporary") actually meeting in different places on Sunday mornings.

There's a shift taking place in North American Christianity that very likely will prove to be as traumatic as the time of the Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe. We need to acknowledge that fact and work with the givens of our day.

But let me return to my thesis. Don't add a new worship service of a totally different style to your present congregational offerings unless (a) you fully understand the consequences, and (b) you are willing to pay the price for what you are likely setting in motion. Allow me to explain.

A Sociological Analysis

There are four regions of social activity that we all need:

  • Celebration—a large gathering of like-minded folk, which gives us a sense of power and crowd energy.
  • Congregation—a group of somewhere between 70 and 200 people with whom we share familiarity and pleasantries.
  • Cell—our small circle of close friends who are always there for us, who know us, on whom we lean, and with whom we laugh and cry.
  • Core—my best friend or two, who, as Anne Shirley says in Anne of Green Gables, are "kindred spirits."

These four social circles map out the relationships we will seek in the church as well as the rest of society. Core and cell we understand, for we all look to our small circle of friends and to the Bible study groups and service teams we belong to as the mainstay of our social needs and life. But congregation and celebration confuse us. In the past the two terms have meant the same thing to us, at least in the church. A congregation is a gathering of God's people in a local area with a particular identity most clearly articulated and expressed in Sunday worship activities. And worship services are our "celebration" of God and our relationship with him.

Interestingly, what people innately experience as "congregation" is typically a group numbering somewhere between 70 and 200. And that just happens to be the size of most Christian churches in North America!

Splitting "Congregation" and "Celebration"

But now we are finding that churches can grow much bigger than that. In fact, since the 1960s, Donald McGavrin and the Church Growth Institute of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, have changed the playing field for evangelism, "home missions," and congregational identity. We've been taught to see new structures for developing congregational programs, staff, and ministry, so that "growth" can be limitless. And we've been encouraged to view "mission" as something we do out of the local congregation, rather than through a "chapel" ministry at a distance or a "church plant" in another state or province.

With the shift to larger churches, a separation occurs between "congregation" and "celebration." The identity of a church is still formed and expressed through the large gathering (or multiple gatherings) of virtually the whole membership body. But since the numbers in these "mega- churches" exceed the 200-250 limit for "congregational" size, new "congregations" actually develop within the larger church.

Sometimes these new "congregations" are service groups (like large choirs). Sometimes they exist as a study fellowship (for example, a dynamic Bible study taught by a gregarious and effective teacher). But most often these new "congregations" begin to find their nuclear gathering in a new expression of worship—a second morning worship service repeating the content and contours of the original in churches that outgrow their auditorium space; or, more recently, an "alternative" worship expression, usually "contemporary" in character.

Call for Clarity

While the development of new congregations may be necessary and admirable, people rarely consider how they will locate their expanding church identities in a sociological strata that will keep the two or more congregations of a church together. Our past experiences with congregations of moderate size, where the entire membership worshiped together, didn't challenge us to differentiate between "congregation" (a meaningful social circle between 70 and 200 people in size) and "celebration" (an identity forming and expressing the whole). But many churches now actively seem to be pursuing a course of subdividing into multiple congregations without first having a clear sense of how to retain a "celebration"-sized identity for the whole church.

And the problem is serious. I can name dozens of churches that thought they would just add a "contemporary" worship service in order to placate the requests of those who were pleading for such a thing. They never envisioned that five to seven years down the road they would experience (1) staff burnout, (2) internal polarization, (3) financial instability, and, in too many instances, (4) a rift in congregational life leading to a church split.

Why? What is going on?

Dangerous Moves

Let's get back to the four structures of our social interaction: core, cell, congregation, and celebration. What we've been doing is separating the last two, the congregation and the celebration, without clearly defining how we will institutionalize the latter in order to keep us together with a common sense of church identity. We create new "congregations" within a church, but we don't plan ahead how to hold these congregations to a unified identity of purpose and mission in some larger celebration.

And without that planning ahead, we cannot hold the multiple congregations in a church together. We cannot!

What happens when you create a "contemporary" worship service in a church that already has a "traditional" worship service? Several things:

  • First, you begin the process of polarization related to style ("They do that; we do this!").
  • Then you allow the creation of different approaches to Christianity (theology and ecclesi-ology are sung before they are preached).
  • Further, you set up a generational rift (after all, what is "contemporary" but that which the previous generation didn't know or experience, and what is "traditional" but that which the younger members And stuffy and irrelevant?).
  • And that intensifies financial consternation. (Remember that patterns of giving for institutional causes function at different levels as a person ages, and relate that to the way discretionary funds are more available in later middle age and beyond than they are in the stages of early career and family development. Suddenly you have a younger crowd doing its own thing over against an aging group that is, in effect, funding the way for the split to occur!).

Add the contemporary service's emphasis on outreach, which results in the creation of a network of otherwise unconnected people attaching themselves to newer expressions of worship, and you have a perfect recipe for blowing the stew out of the pan. You've just (a) alienated the older backbone of the church by calling it outdated and irrelevant, (b) created a new congregation that isn't fiscally responsible and is therefore living a fantasy of delightful experience without footing the bill, and (c) established a tug-of-war between two emerging and tenacious congregational identities who both claim to be the true spiritual heirs of the church.

Of course I'm painting a dark scenario, because no one seems to be talking about the price of establishing a "contemporary" service in an established congregation. Would I suggest any alternatives, other than slipping back into a non-mission, self-serving, isolationist way of doing church? Yes! Allow me to list three other choices.

Give These a Try!

Grow to divide.

One possibility is for an established church to use this kind of "worship service" split in order to produce organically a daughter congregation with a slightly different identity and ecclesiastical goal. Be intentional about the split, about how it will proceed, and about how the "mother" church will give leadership and financial support, while also spelling out how the "daughter" church will be encouraged to create its own identity and establish itself with integrity.

Develop a broader worship style.

A second alternative is to forego the polarization between "traditional" and "contemporary," opting instead to broaden the church's appreciation of a variety of musical and artistic styles. Robert Webber strongly champions this cause (see "Don't Get Hung Up on Style," pp. 3-5), with a lot of insight to back him. Why polarize a church into two smaller groups that are each more limited in identity and scope than they have to be, when some masterful leadership could broaden the expressions of identity and worship in creative and horizon-expanding ways? Begin slowly, adding new music through solo, ensemble, and choral offerings. Add a short dramatic sketch at a Thanksgiving or New Year's service. Fashion a monthly Praise & Worship service. And all the while, broaden the congregation's expressions of devotion through preaching that widens the horizon of Christian experience, rather than diminishing it.

By the way, it is certainly legitimate to add a second Sunday morning worship service that's identical to the first. Just because worship space is crowded and another worship service needs to be added does not mean that the newly formed worship service ought to be different from the first! Repeated expressions of a single worship format permit the congregation to avoid the division often inherent in multiple worship offerings of differing styles.

Create a "celebration" identity that will hold multiple "congregations" together.

This is the toughest choice and the hardest possibility. But I also believe that it offers a congregation the greatest potential for becoming a growing mission-driven center of kingdom renewal that has nearly limitless possibilities (at least from a human perspective).

It means having a tough-minded leadership team who will clearly articulate the primary identity of the collection of congregations, who will mold and shape the staff and membership of each congregation to live out the goals and vision of the larger celebration. Begin by clarifying the mission of the congregation and making sure that all worship leaders adhere to it. Then distinguish the different purposes for the various worship expressions within the larger whole. Now plan each worship expression to be in tune with its purpose. At the same time, create periodic (at least yearly, but possibly monthly) occasions on which the mission of the entire organization is celebrated in a public gathering where the whole membership is expected to participate. In this way, both the integrity of each growing congregation of worship and the character of the entire mission as a whole will be fostered and encouraged.

But don't try this last option unless you have the wherewithal to make it a reality. And don't start that contemporary service until you have counted the cost. It may seem like the best and easiest things to do right now. Yet for too many congregations the outcome has been painful and disastrous. It's for good reason that Jesus told his disciples to sit down and count the cost. Do it now!