I can’t help but chuckle a bit every time I see a church sign announcing a “Contemporary Worship Service.” It would seem to me that any service would be contemporary because it’s happening “right now.” Yes, I know, in a contemporary service, the music is usually a bit more modern than traditional, instruments are played beside piano and/or organ, dress may be more casual, and the whole focus is more on the present moment with all of its cultural trappings. Something other than contemporary would be “traditional”, a service of worship that is structured much as it has been for generations, with orders of worship, the wearing of robes by worship leaders, standing and sitting at pre-arranged times, and a more subdued response in the worship setting.
I know of a church that has a really stimulating lecture series each year under the general heading of “Jesus in the 21st Century.” If you are interested, ask me and I will give you the details. I think such an emphasis is important, because in this still relatively new century, some folk are doing some of the finest 19th century thinking to be found anywhere. Tradition can have value, but it may be so hardened that it depresses life and the spirit. I believe we are called forward by the One we know as God. And to be in such an encounter is to somehow figure out how to live in the present moment.
What might a “contemporary” church look like? I sense that there is a need to have changes, additions, and deletions from the present expression. Following are some of my thoughts on how to bring the church into the 21st century.
First, adopt a whole new attitude toward church buildings and budgets. I’ve written on this previously (See June 5). I know there is a vital need for the body to gather and the efforts of the body will require expense on some occasions, so the bills and obligations have to be met. But somehow, let us find more ways to be present in the market place and the neighborhood. Biblical metaphors like salt, light, and leaven ought to speak to us at this point. And we may need to take a cue on using our monies in ways other than building more church buildings. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the largest part of funds shared by the church would be in the areas of missions and Christian re-education and not in salaries and building up-keep?
Secondly, let’s delete some of our hymns. There are some good ones that we need to hold on to and sing with abandon. But have you really read the theology in some of the older hymns? Be gone especially with the “blood” hymns and those who speak of our escape from this world and removal from any presence of struggle. Perhaps keep familiar melodies or easy- to- sing tunes, but the texts need to change. And it’s happening in different ways. There are some great hymn-writers on the scene. We ought to pay attention to them.
Thirdly, do whatever we must to remove the divide between clergy and laity. Let church be seen as a circle of companions and not as a ladder of power with the strongest at the top. Let the voices heard in gathered sessions be of the novice as well as the ordained.
Fourth, eat more meals together. That’s all I’m going to say about that, except to encourage others, who would not normally be at our table, to join with us.
More on the contemporary church next week. I welcome your thoughts on how to do church in the 21st century.