Sunday, November 1, 2009

"Traditional" and "Contemporary"

I worshiped at a church last Sunday at the first of two services. It was the one they called “traditional”; the later one was branded “contemporary.”

At the in-between refreshment and coffee hour, the pastor told me that serving food and drink was the way they created the possibility that the two congregations could interact, at least a little bit. Otherwise folks went to one or the other, and never the twain shall meet.

Which is one of the problems with such dual arrangements. Having separate and different “traditional” and “contemporary” services tends to bring forth two distinct breeds of worship, and separate congregations for each. So much for unity.

Yet that’s not the biggest problem, at least to my way of thinking. There are more difficulties with the terms “traditional” and “contemporary” when applied to Christian worship.

First, they are both inaccurate if meant to be exclusive.

All Christian worship is, in a real sense, traditional; we’ve been at it for nigh on to two thousand years now, so how could we forget the tradition behind us? When we deny tradition or reject it outright, we demonstrate an arrogant chauvinism suggesting that only newly fashioned worship can be good. It also pretends that history has nothing to offer and we are all liturgical orphans left to fend for ourselves, and thus we are doomed to reinventing what was already our inheritance.

What is more, all Christian worship is contemporary. It’s what’s happening now. Whatever it is, good bad or indifferent, it is current.

Second, the terms “traditional” and “contemporary” applied to Christian worship are often stereotypical. “Traditional” worship is old-fashioned for old fogeys; to imagine a twenty-something could be spiritually inspired by Bach’s organ preludes would boggle the mind. “Contemporary” worship is for twenty-somethings; certainly no old fogey like me could ever worship with rock or Gospel music (but I have, and do).

“Traditional” worship is often centered around the music supplied by the versatile organ, while “contemporary” invites participation of a keyboard, drums, strings and other instruments. And the instruments find their limitations within the stereotypes.

As labels, then, the two words just cause more problems than they solve. They should be abolished, never to be mentioned in the context of worship for at least one generation.

Yet there is another even more insidious way that “traditional” and “contemporary” promote mischief. If indeed it is true that each is designed to appeal to particular populations marked by generation or interests, then that “appeal” begins to dominate the worship itself. Satisfying likes and dislikes of potential worshippers creeps into the reason for worship’s being. From that step worship takes a slide down the slippery slope of performance for the audience, rather than the expression of the people’s praise to God in response to God’s Word spoken in Jesus Christ.

In human conversation, an answer needs to be consistent with the question asked or statement made. In the dialogue of worship, our expressions of faith must also be consistent with the Good News we hear.

What makes your worship traditional and contemporary at the same time? What possibilities does so-called “blended worship” have?

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