While it’s become more and more rare, there are still some churches out there who have both a traditional and contemporary service on Sunday morning – the result of what we’ve called “worship wars.” The idea of a church having “multiple worship options” began in the late 60’s and early 70’s when the Jesus Movement was bringing in younger people who wanted to experience God in a different way. They preferred guitars over organs, casual clothes over our “Sunday best,” and a more relaxed atmosphere.
Then, as the worship music phenomenon grew in popularity, older members preferred to keep a traditional service, so in an effort to please everyone, many churches started to offer multiple experiences – mostly based on different generations. And the two services are often very different. In the traditional service the pastor often wears a coat and tie, and sometimes a robe. There’s a choir, and the congregation mostly sings hymns. But in the contemporary service, the robe comes off, the choir gives way to a worship band, and things get much more relaxed and casual.
During the pandemic many churches with multiple services combined them into one livestream, but now as we emerge, they’re going back to both physical experiences. But if you haven’t made that decision yet, I’d encourage you to wait. And if you’re still doing multiple services, while it’s not the worst thing ever, here’s a handful of reasons I don’t think it’s a good idea:
1) Particularly with smaller churches, splitting into traditional and contemporary services cuts down your attendance for each. While everything isn’t about attendance, a half-empty sanctuary is a depressing place. Looking around, you don’t get the feeling that something exciting is happening, and few people leave a half-empty church inspired to share that experience with friends. It may sound shallow, but the size of a crowd in a room does have an emotional impact on the participants.
2) With multiple style services, different generations don’t worship together. If you’re really interested in “community,” one of the worst things you can do is to split your church by age groups. Granted, multiple services aren’t always split by generation – some older members like contemporary worship and some younger members like a traditional service. However, a significant number of those exceptions are about the time of service, not the style. Some people choose a service they don’t care for as much because they like the scheduled time.
As a result, with separate style services, young people never come in contact with older members and visa-versa. I remember growing up around older church members and I’ll never forget how much I learned from their wisdom. But with multiple services, different generations rarely cross paths.
3) We’ve wasted too much time, effort, and money on “worship wars.” Trying to please everyone, takes a lot of effort. Plus, it tends to make church leadership look weak when they’re re-acting rather than acting.
4) Who are you? A big negative about multiple style services is that it tells the community that your church has no identity. Stop trying to be everything to everyone, and start being who you are. What has God called you to do? Who are you called to reach? Focus on that as one, united church.
While it’s great to have specific youth events or separate programs for older members, I’m a huge advocate of being one church that doesn’t divide up the main services by styles of worship. In fact, I work with churches for a living, and it’s getting harder and harder to find effective, growing churches with multiple services catering to different styles of worship. Church growth expert Tom Rainer confirms the decline of these services as well.
But it takes strong leadership. After all, you’ll get some folks who hate contemporary music, or others who think hymns aren’t relevant – and some of those people are big financial givers. You’ll find some who want the pastor in a robe, and others who prefer him in a t-shirt and jeans.
That’s why it takes a pastor who has the calling and confidence to convince the older members that current music can be a bridge to the next generation. It takes a pastor with the desire to teach the younger members of the congregation why tradition and history matters. Most of all, it takes a pastor who will teach that church attendance isn’t about what’s in it for us, but how we can serve God and others.
Before he retired from ministry, my pastor, Jack Hayford at Church on the Way here in Los Angeles did it brilliantly. While we had a full worship team and contemporary band, he also featured the choir on a regular basis. Along with contemporary worship songs, every Sunday we also sang a classic hymn and Jack explained it’s history and impact. As a result, as our family sat in church, we were surrounded by all age groups, and were better for it.
Obviously my blog isn’t scripture, and you should do what you feel God calls you to do. But I would strongly encourage you to reflect on your mission and your perception in the community. Be one church with a unique and compelling expression of the gospel, and worry less about trying to please everyone.
Phil Cooke, Ph.D. is a producer and media consultant to churches and ministries across the country. His latest book is “The Way Back: How Christians Blew Their Credibility and How We Get It Back.” Find out more at www.philcooke.com.