What is traditional? What is contemporary?

Just what makes a church “traditional” these days?

As someone who has written extensively and spoken to religious gatherings on the subject of “traditional” churches, I’m increasingly finding it hard to draw an exacting definition. But by the same token, it’s not so easy to define a “contemporary” church either.

Yet these are the two labels we have been given in 30 or so years of the worship wars.

One problem is that what feels “traditional” in one place may not appear so traditional in another. Classical music defines traditional in many places, but Gospel music may define traditional in another.

And “contemporary” worship runs the gamut from Sandy Patty and Gaither music on one end to David Crowder and Chris Tomlin and others yet unknown on the other end.

Christian author and thinker Robert Webber has been credited with adapting a famous quote from former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill to express these dilemmas of defintion. Tip O’Neill once quipped that, “All politics is local.” Webber’s revision is, “All worship is local.” What he means by that is that local tastes and customs play a strong role in determining what will fly and what won’t, even in traditional churches.

We could draw a line between two worship styles based on the use of projection screens versus hymnals, on the use of praise team versus choirs, on the use of praise bands versus organ and piano, on the “feel” of the worship or even on the attire of the pastor.

And that’s before we even start talking about what “blended” worship means. The most frequent definition of “blended” I hear is worship that has just enough variety to be offensive somehow to everyone and fully please no one.

While speaking recently to a group of ministers of music and pastors in North Carolina, I heard some new ideas put forth for distinctions between worship styles. Percussion-driven worship versus choral-driven worship was one. Hymn-based versus chorus-based was another. Congregationally engaged versus congregationally passive was yet another.

In writing a book about best practices of traditional churches, I defined traditional worship as describing churches that still adhere to the generally accepted liturgy of their stated identity. So among Baptists, that represents a wide swath of practices, but generally includes the singing of hymns as a simple indicator. Among Methodists and Presbyterians, it generally includes a more formal liturgy encompassing the creeds and defined Scripture readings.

Stated in the negative, I defined “traditional” churches are those that were not begun or re-engineered to conform to the seeker church model popularized by Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and Saddleback Church in California.

My colleague George Mason has offered this helpful distinction: Non-traditional or contemporary churches, he says, are those that begin by asking what are the felt needs of the culture and then craft a religious experience to address those needs. Traditional congregations, on the other hand, begin with the traditions of the church—the creeds, the hymns, the liturgies, the preaching—and invite people to join the ongoing stream of faith.

Beyond worship styles, traditional congregations also may be characterized as program-driven churches rather than worship-driven churches. Contemporary models elevate the corporate worship experience above all else, and may or may not offer an array of supportive programming. More traditional churches are built around a comprehensive set of age-graded ministries and intentional missions programs.

What I’m learning from traditional churches is that they’re not all surviving in the same ways. What works in one place may not be the recipe for success in another place. Context matters quite a bit. Again, all worship is local.

In the struggle for survival, Protestant churches may have forgotten the root meaning of the word “liturgy.” Its origins describe the common work of the people in worship.

How “liturgy” happens may vary from place to place, but it needs to be the work of the people. The worst forms of both traditional and contemporary worship share this in common: They are driven by performance more than participation, which leads to worship of an altogether different sort.

Mark Wingfield

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Mark Wingfield is associate pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and author of the book, “Staying Alive: Why the Conventional Wisdom about Traditional Churches is Wrong.”

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  • ministerkathy

    In an effort to rediscover “church” we must start asking the question, contextually, “what is church and how can we be church more fully?” Congregations struggling to define what kind or type of worship is needed, my guess is for most – to “attract” more people, need to spend spiritual time listening, discerning, exploring what it means to be church in the first place. Once we find our way back to a sacred core sacred practice will follow – liturgical patterns and rhythms will become a way of worship, a way of life.

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