Missiological or personal preference: Why do contemporary church?

Is Contemporary really more Missional when it comes to church, or at least is the primary motivator in changing to a contemporary style of church missiological? That is the question raised by Michael Jensen at The Blogging Parson, who has another provocative suggestion :

The reason we eschewed formality in church services was because that was what WE on the inside wanted (or some of us, anyway) – the missiological reason was in fact only a justification for it.

As someone who has spent the last 6 years working at a church revitalisation, I am convinced that our shift to a contemporary less formal style, is not just a matter of my personal preference but is one of the things that has helped make our church more attractive to outsiders. It’s not the only thing. But it is essential, and here are 5 reasons :

1. A contemporary style indicates to people that you are on about something different from what they expect. It gives people a surprise when the service isn’t the formal jargon they remember from their childhood and opens a door for the real gospel message. I had just such a positive expression from a newcomer at church yesterday who said he had grown up in our area and had thought our church was very traditional and full of old people, and that he was very pleasantly surprised that we had something for his young family.

2. It’s easier to express relational warmth in a less formal service – and MOST newcomers are attracted by relational warmth. I know people might want to argue about this – but name me one other setting where relational warmth is expressed through formal interaction in our culture. It’s the difference between a family gathering and a sitting of Parlaiment. And I know which one most people will find attractive.

3. Contemporary services are easier to understand. The traditional presbyterian liturgy is so full of long technical theological words and sentences with more than 5 clauses it’s completely indicipherable. I know anglican liturgy is slightly better. But it’s still tough to understand. Most concepts can be put into normal language that makes it much easier for people to engage with the truth, especially those who are unfamiliar with the Gospel. Hymns also fall into this category – plenty of great content, but they are hard work. There are some helpful phrases and concepts in traditional liturgy, but they need to be reworked into simpler more contemporary prayers. You can check out one of my efforts in this earlier post.

4. Most unchurched people like contemporary style music. We have boarders from a local denominational school visit our church a couple of times a year. And consistenly the feedback is that all the girls want to come to our church (as opposed to the other local church they visit) because they like the contemporary music. We consistently have positive comments from visitors about the music. I admit that I do also get positive comments from visitors about our organ (which is an extremely prominent feature of our church building), but I think these are because of the novelty factor, not because they want to come and sing hymns every week.

5. Strange clothes for clergy are not understood. When we were younger my sister invited a friend to our (traditional) church. And this friend left some notes of the service in our car. I will always remember her comment about the minister – ‘then the man in the batman suit got up to speak’. You want people to think you’re batman. Go for the robes. You want people to think you’ve got something relevant to say for the 21st century. Wear something normal. My understanding is that traditional presbyterian robes were originally the ordinary clothes of any university graduate anyway. So wearing them today seems completely at odds with the reason they were adopted.

To finish this post I just need to make a couple of concluding comments. First, these arguments are based on a well prepared, well lead contemporary service. Lack of preparation and skill have an especially negative impact on less formal services because more depends on the leader/participants. The second important thing to say is that while missiological concerns are important for church, they are not the central concern. Perhaps I need another post on why contemporary less formal church is better for the building up of believers as they meet to praise Christ and encourage one another.

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