393 Magazine's look at How We Worship, Today

Monday, April 11, 2011

Church services may have changed, but the focus remains the same

Photo by Paula Merritt and property of 393 Magazine
       While most of today's houses of worship hold the same beliefs, many are expressing them in a different way – upbeat music and praise teams – and at different service times – early morning and "early" early morning. Even worship attire has evolved, from dressy to casual in the pews, as well as the pulpit.

       And though some congregants – and pastors – may resist change, most are welcoming it.

       "Getting people to be open to new things doesn't mean you take the things that are old and theologically sound, or great and important to people and just throw them away," said  Rev. Wayne Smith, pastor of Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church.

       Rev. Odell Hopkins, pastor of West Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church said the church is a living organism, not an organization – thus, change is unavoidable. 
       "The church is ever-evolving, it has always moved from one level to another – some maybe faster than others, and some have been constant in their worship," Hopkins said. "Change is inevitable in the church because of the environment we live in, and the people we minister to."

        Rev. Craig Tucker, pastor of Freedom Rock Christian Fellowship Church, also attributes changes in the dynamics of worship to trend following.
       "On one hand, that's good because trends can help promote change. But then on the other hand, it can be bad because it also causes, to some degree, a loss of effectiveness," Tucker said. "You have a lot of churches that just because worship has changed, in efforts to follow the trend, they just do things they see other congregations do, and it's really not them. And it doesn't go over as effective as it does in other settings because it's not really what they're called to do."

       Whether change is a gradual evolvement or a followed trend, Hopkins said the basic tenets on which the church was built will remain the same: love and gaining lost men.


       Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power.
       Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness.
       Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp.
       Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
       Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
       Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD. Praise ye the LORD. 
                                          Psalm 150: 1-6

       Like the Psalmist who spoke of many ways to praise God – with songs, instruments and dance – many of today's churches are incorporating various praise techniques into their services.

       In the past, the piano was the only musical instrument in most churches; more advanced congregations had a piano and organ. But today's churches also have bands which incorporate various instruments – synthesizers, guitars, bass and even drums. In some congregations, choirs are slowly being replaced by praise teams and worship teams. And in many traditional Baptist churches, pre-worship devotion is being replaced by praise and worship.

       Music styles are also changing in the church. 
       "The '70s brought 'The Jesus Revolution,' and that changed everything, with the beginning of contemporary and Christian music," said Rev. Rhett Payne, pastor of First Presbyterian Church. 

       "It was a time of expression in which young people were encouraged to be involved with the worship service at their church, and that is when youth groups started. Students tend to lead revolutions and there's been a revolution in worship. I think there's been an acceptance that there's a lot of different ways to honor the Lord and to share the Gospel – the Good News – in worship and in song, rather than just one way," Payne said.

       Contemporary or inspirational music is often lyrically focused on matters concerned with the Christian faith and has pop and rock influences. 

       Gospel often expresses personal, spiritual or a communal belief regarding Christian life, providing a Christian alternative to mainstream secular music. Gospel music usually has a rhythm and blues, soul, even rap and hip hop (also known as urban contemporary gospel) influence – those with bands and more contemporary music – and traditional worship – hymns and older songs – have been used to distinguish services. 

       Traditional music or hymns usually reflect praise, adoration or prayer and are often addressed to a religion.

       Music styles are often used to designate types of worship in churches with more than one service. Tucker, who is also a musician, said while he understands the concept, it tends to divide congregants.

       "I believe 'new school' should be familiar with 'old school,' and vise versa," he said.      
       But Smith, who is also a former minister of music, attributes some of the division – also known as "The Worship Wars" – to the confusion of worship with style of music.
       "One of the things we've tried to accomplish as ministers throughout these last years is to get people to understand that worship is more than just the singing portion of the service on a Sunday morning or a Sunday night," Smith said. "Worship is actually supposed to be the way in which we live."

       Smith referred to the scripture Romans 12: 1-2: "Present your bodies as living sacrifices unto God. This is your reasonable service of worship." Or, this is your spiritual act of worship, he said. Hopkins agrees with Tucker and Smith that churches must find a way to meet the spiritual needs of all congregants.

       "You still have your somewhat traditional churches because they may be serving more established or aged congregations," he said. "Then you have your churches that have moved more to the extreme, that are more charismatic. Most of those churches involve a much younger congregation.

       "Within some of our churches, we have to be able to address the traditional, the middle-age to young adults and also the teenagers. It's cause for us to have to find flexibility ministry. For a well-rounded church, there has to be some traditional methods of praise, worship and music styles, but also there must be section in our churches to serve the more advancing ages. We've got to find a balance without offending anybody."
Service times

       While 11 a.m. continues to be the standard Sunday worship service time, many congregations begin at 10:45 a.m or even 10 a.m. In addition, many churches now have early worship – also known as Early Bird Service – which is usually at 9:15 a.m. 

       "The 11 o'clock service time goes back to farmers and how they worked in the fields early in the morning – the dairy farmers as well as the field farmers," Payne said. "They took a break and went to worship in the middle of the day when it was hottest."

       Earlier services are sometimes held to accommodate a church's growing congregation, they are more often a convenience to members.

       "I have some friends who attend Central United Methodist Church, which has an 8:30 worship service, then Sunday School, then another worship service. They (his friends) love going to the 8:30 worship service; they go to worship and Sunday School and they are through by 10 o'clock."

       Pre-Early Bird Services (7 or 8 a.m.) on Sunday, or Friday or Saturday night services are also a growing trend. And in some congregations, such as First Presbyterian, Sunday night service is being replaced with small group sessions in homes on Sunday night or during the week.

       "I think it's so important to build relationships in the church," Payne said. "What we do is take the sermon I've studied on Sunday morning with them, and I always have an outline so that they can follow where I'm going and the passages of Scripture I'm reading from. I give them questions at the home-base study from what I preached on and ask questions about it and have conversations about it as a way of applying the message that we've heard that morning to our lives that week.


       Several scriptures in the Bible which begin with the words "Come as you are ... " are often interpreted by others to mean not having to dress up to attend church (rather than the spiritual connotation that one can come to God "just as you are" for salvation).

       In the past, church wear usually consisted of your Sunday best – a suit, shirt and tie for men (hat optional) and a dress (or skirt and blouse) with or without a hat for women. Dressing up displayed one's respect for God.

       Today, many churches accept casual clothing relaxed attire during Sunday worship services. Women wear casual dresses and skirts and blouses, dress slacks and blouse or pant suits. Men can be seen wearing dress slacks and a shirt with or without a tie or casual pants with a golf or tennis shirt. Some congregations accept jeans and tennis shoes, or schedule "Casual Sundays" for such attire.

       "Here at Freedom Rock, we believe in dressing comfortably. Our congregation is a very active congregation in worship; not everybody is suited up or dressed up," Tucker said. "But we do believe that there is a certain respect for the House of the God and how you dress when you come there."

       Members who hold positions – such as deacons and deaconess, trustees – or serve offices are usually expected to dress less casual, he said.

       Smith said because of the region's hot temperatures from June to August, the men of his church don't coats and ties.

       "We still want to look our best; I'm not too thrilled about seeing somebody come down the aisle in a pair of cut-off shorts and a pair of flip flops," he said, adding, "But I'm not going to kick them out the door, either. But I think there is reasonable way and a responsive way to come to the Lord."

       Payne said that although First Presbyterian's style of worship is more traditional, he has tried to relax the dress code.

       "I don't want people to stay away because they feel that they can't afford to come to our church because they can't afford to wear the clothes that 'fit in' at our church; I don't want anybody to ever struggle with having to 'fit in,'" Payne said. 

       "And I think it's been a good change in that respect because people should not have to 'dress up' to impress other people. It should be where we come as we are before the Lord. I think you should be respectful in your dress, but I don't think you should let that be the dominating thought on Sunday – rather, where's your heart on that day?"

       Even pastors have relaxed their attire, opting for suits instead of robes. 
       "At my last pastorate, I preached in a golf shirt and slacks," Payne said. "Here, I wear a robe many times or a suit; I can really adjust myself to any style and be comfortable."

Not about man

       Like it or not, the church is changing.
       "The church has changed, is changing and is ever changing, and is growing to a new enlightenment every day," Hopkins said. "Change is going to come, because we live in a changing world and a changing society."

       However, Tucker said that while change is inevitable, it is important that congregations know what worship is for it to be effective, and not just try to "keep up with the times."
       "A lot of people don't know Biblically what it means to worship," he said. "Worship is not a forced thing; it's not something that you make happen. For people who are worshipers, it has to be natural, it has to be in a way where they can express themselves to God and then be able to receive from them."

       Whether your prefer attending early morning Sunday worship or meeting during the week, contemporary or traditional music or dressing casual for church services, Smith said there is one major focus, regardless of denominations.

       "Worship is not about us, and worship is not for us. Worship is for Him. That's what we come to give to Him," he said. "I think our American culture has come to view church as more of another way to be entertained. We come and sit down and say, 'Okay, now, entertain me,' when we're here to give to God our thanks, we're here to give to God our praise. We're here to sacrifice ourselves to him, just as He sacrificed himself for us."

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