Sunday, January 07, 2007

Traditional vs Contemporary Worship (1)

I attended Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church for Sunday Service. I was keen to know how their traditional service looks like. I met somebody there who visits different Lutheran churches on behalf of ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) as a kind of inspector. He told me this church has the most traditional worship (among Lutheran churches) in Toledo. I enjoyed their service indeed.

This traditional vs contemporary thing has become quite a topic of debate among worshipers (or even non-worshipers) in the US. Actually, this is another example of how social and cultural change have impacted religion over recent decades.

Once, Sunday worship meant (more or less) what you'd see on old movies; some choir singing (usually accompanied by organ), sermon by the pastor (or priest or minister or whatever the title, depending on the Church), prayers and (again, depending on the Church) Communion in the end. And all that without much fanfare, entertainment or modern blending.

Nowadays, you can attend prayers accompanied by electric guitars, drums and stuff. And this is called contemporary worship. Even if they don't side with Rock music (and they increasingly do so), a music ensemble performance is a must with most contemporary services as a minimum (and sometimes even with traditional worships at some churches). In the past, music ensemble was for special occasions, not part of the regular Sunday Service. And the trend is on the rise.

One of the churches I attended on Christmas Eve was a small church called Hampton Park Christian Church (a Disciples of Christ Church). After finishing his sermon (which was very lively), the pastor joined the ensemble to play French horn. After the service, I had a short talk with him and mentioned this (with some surprise) and he simply answered: "I'm just a member of this congregation".

After coming back home late at night, I was watching a Christian TV channel. It showed a Megachurch (very very big church with a capacity for thousands of people). If you couldn't understand the lyrics, you'd had assumed it was a typical Hard Rock band performing while fans cheering in ecstasy.

Very large churches have existed for long, but the increasing inclination to build Megachurches (with not-so-spiritual music as part of the performance) is a symptom of modernization or (as critics coin it) commodification of religion. Churches compete to attract more and more worshippers (read customers). And as folks are changing their taste, attitude and everything, Churches feel compelled to adapt themselves to the change. Sometimes, when you watch such services, you feel like watching a big entertainment event instead of a spiritual one. Megachurch-building has its critics among conservative worshippers as well as anti-religious folks alike (needless to say for very different reasons on each side of the spectrum).

And adding flavors of modernity is not the case just with Lutheran or other mainstream Protestant churches. Even Roman Catholic churches who are historically known for conservatism have resorted to such attractions, although they're more moderate in modernization compared to other churches.

Still, this Grace Lutheran Church boasting traditional service has not stayed away from modernization theologically speaking: there was a female assistant-pastor (who was very dedicated and passionate in doing her job BTW). And this assistant-pastor was not merely an assistant: she did give the sermon indeed (this was a big taboo a few decades ago). That seems to be the case with some other ELCA churches also. And here, they have a contemporary service (although on Wednesday evening).

At Hope Lutheran Church, just after the traditional service on Sunday, they have their contemporary worship followed by another traditional service. And even in their traditional service, the pastor incorporates modern features like multimedia, showing movie clips and even singing (yes, he once sang part of a song to make his point). And during their contemporary service, the guitarist plays and sings with such ultimate devotion to Jesus Christ.

This traditional vs contemporary thing is a very interesting issue. I have to do more research on it. There are many churches in Toledo. Toledoans brag about having highest concentration of churches per capita nationwide. Maybe, maybe not. Nevertheless, I have a vast variety of churches to visit.

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