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The Growing Gap in Worship

Welcomed or not, the contemporary music-centered approach to worship that has been both dominant and effective most large and mega church worship service is being challenged.  This challenge, however, does not come from traditionalists who are still demanding a return to the Hammond B3 and southern gospel.  This challenge, which has been slowly growing over the past decade, is coming from the same age-group that once pioneered praise bands and raising hands:  Teens and young adults.


Fortunately, the shift does not seem to be as sudden or as dramatic as when the college graduates who grew up in the 1970s and 80s entered into church leadership roles in the 1990s.  That era was one in which two dramatically different approaches to worship, especially the style and role of music, came into direct conflict in the so-called worship wars.

As I have noted in several earlier posts,* there is strong anecdotal evidence points to an increasing number of young adults who have grown up in evangelical churches are drawn toward worship experiences that are more intimate, less polished, and often more liturgical than the worship of their home churches.

In a recent survey taken in our required (for all students) worship class, the results seem to demonstrate the shift is already at the point those leading worship need to at least make note of it.  Admittedly, a sample of 30 students is too small to provide proof.  But, since the class is made up of the general student population (as opposed to only those involved in worship leading), it does provide an opportunity to take the general pulse of where (at least our) college students are in regard to approaches to corporate worship. The average age in the class is about 20.

Matthew Pinson, in Perspectives on Christian Worship, gives five general approaches.  This was the basis of the survey.  Here are the percentages for each of the views students marked as their preferred worship approach:

     48% Blended Worship
     26% Liturgical Worship
     15% Contemporary Worship
     11% Emerging Worship
       0% Traditional Evangelical Worship

What is worth noting is the steady decline of all contemporary worship as a preferred style for Christian young adults.  Liturgical, garnering 1 out of 4, will not be a surprise to most of us who work in Christian colleges.  Emerging Worship is probably best understood as worship that emphasizes creativity, symbolism, and would use music that would tend to use modest (acoustic guitar, for example) accompaniment or be sung a Capella.

Not surprisingly, it seems that if the group being asked is made up entirely of those who have some involvement in worship leading, Contemporary Worship inevitably dominates when I ask for a show of hands.  Since we tend to perceive the church filtered through our immediate circle of relationships within the church, this may explain what appears to be a gap in assumptions and perceptions between the musicians on stage and many of their peers in the audience.

I would be interested to get feedback from others who work with young adults, particularly in a college or university setting.

6 comments:

Jim Amstutz said...

Tom, I think the survey is valid. I have heard this from a number of students who have grown up in the church or are at least affiliated with it. While there is an appreciation of the contemporary, there is also a desire to hold on to the hymns.

Jon White said...

Give a few more examples of what you mean by "liturgical worship"

I work for a pastor who insists that liturgy means responsive readings where a person on stage reads a line and the congregation responds with another line. He thinks this is the coolest new church trend and insists on bringing a "liturgy" to each service which ends up being way too long and awkward.

I have the feeling you are writing about something more diverse than just responsive readings.

Tom Lawson said...

Jon, you ask a good question. The labels in the post are actually drawn from Matthew Pinson's Perspectives on Christian Worship: Five Views (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009). The students taking the survey were using that book as their framework.

Liturgical refers to worship that incorporate many elements in structure and in words used by the worship leader or said together by the congregation that are drawn from the ancient worship traditions preserved in Anglican, Roman Catholic, and/or Greek Orthodox worship. In my experience this does not mean the entire worship service, but might only refer to some segments of it (like a church might have an extended praise time in music but then follow that with reading of scripture that incorporates the classic "This is the word of the Lord." "Thanks be unto God." dialogue). It is probably safe to also say that liturgical worship is always Eucharist-focused with the "Service of the Table" following the "Service of the Word."

Of course, there's a pretty continual spectrum possible between entirely contemporary and entirely liturgical. One or two brief elements in an otherwise contemporary service would not fit the label "liturgical." But, add enough, and at some point the label works. No real clear line, though.

Getting a hold of the book would still give you a better understanding of how those terms were being used.

TomL

Jeff Fessler said...

...what the survey does not show us is the percentage of those participating in the survey that actually know what "liturgical worship" really is. These surveys always leave out that critical piece of information.

Last I read, the west coast college age surge toward liturgy was bizarrely disconnected with an understanding of what they were truly interested in...not to mention that it was "fad-like" in its sustainability.

Perhaps time would be better spent teaching the next generation what liturgy is, and what sustainable, relevant worship can be, if we avoid "trending" in our congregations?

Tom Lawson said...

Jeff - you are entirely correct. Liturgical is a pretty broad term. In this case, it was done within the context of an undergrad class on worship. Also, the students had completed Pinson's book on five views of Christian worship before the survey. Still, most labels about worship styles/traditions are helpful only as generalities.

Elise Kingston said...

Hi Tom,
I curious when a worship class became required for all students. I think that would have been great when I was there.

I am not a "young" person anymore (I'm over 40 now), but the heavy push towards "contemporary" worship in early 90s always rubbed me the wrong way. At the time, my main complaint was that the songs were unsingable for me. They were written in keys appropriate for performance, where as most hymns were written in keys I, an untrained singer with limited range like (frankly) most members of a congregation, could actually sing. The result was contemporary worship, rather than helping me feel a part of the Body of Christ, made me feel isolated and often drove me to tears. This was further compounded by the sheer volume at which contemporary worship tends to be conducted. Even if I could sing along, I couldn't actually hear myself sing. This made me wonder what the point was even trying to sing.

When I went to live with my Lutheran cousins in Virginia when I started grad school in the mid-90s, discovering liturgical worship as practiced by the ELCA was refreshing. Here was a use of hymns that was not "dead" or "boring" (charges I heard leveled against hymns by advocates of contemporary worship). The use of the "Brief Order for Confession" (from the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship) hit me right between the eyes. The use of the Kyrie and the regular use of a Hymn of Praise called "This is the Feast of Victory for our God" spoke to my heart. I both loved and intellectually appreciated the way the entire order of service funneled and focused attention toward the Lord's Supper. I also like the feeling of connection with a larger and older Christian tradition.

The question by the commenter above as to whether young people from our fellowship really know what "liturgical" worship is is a fair one. I wasn't terribly familiar before I went to Ozark, but I had attended a few services (a Catholic funeral; a Christmas Eve service with my Episcopalian cousins). Also Rich Mullins' "A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band" was released my final year at Ozark and I found that adaptation of the concept of a liturgy appealing.

I know you were looking for feedback from others who work with young adults, but I hope my personal experience is not too far outside the realm of useful for you. I still struggle with being able to worship meaningfully with a congregation that uses the contemporary format. I hate the judgmental feelings the format and the music arouse in me, and fear there is something wrong with me because of it.