June 4, 2020

iMonk Classic: How “Traditional” is the Traditional Service?

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
from July, 2007

Note from CM: This piece from Michael Spencer is five years old. During that time, I have been worshiping mostly in a Lutheran church where these observations don’t apply. I’ve been a bit out of the loop on what has been happening on Sunday mornings in the non-liturgical evangelical world. So, I’ll need you, our readers, to help us all get up to speed. How do iMonk’s observations still apply, and what’s been happening since he wrote these words?

* * *

Here in Kentucky, where the worship wars/generational church division is everywhere and spreading, many churches are attempting to navigate the rocks of a potential church split by using multiple services.

I’ve been associated with multiple services since 1984, when I joined the staff of a large church that had both an 8:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. service. Most of my ministry friends are involved in multiple service options and an increasing number of them are doing a “traditional” service early, and a “contemporary” or “blended” service mid-morning. I’m aware of churches doing contemporary first, or even on another day (or evening,) but the contemporary service is increasingly the “lead” service in the Baptist churches I am aware of that are trying to navigate the various divisions that are tearing many churches apart.

This Sunday I found myself at one of the larger churches in our state, a leading traditional SBC church in a downtown setting. This is a church that did well in the heyday of the SBC up into the 1980′s, but has found the waters more challenging since. A large group of younger members split from the congregation several years ago to start a Purpose Driven church plant. This only delayed the inevitable generational and stylistic stress that a church with large numbers of senior adults and an interest in reaching younger families will feel.

The most recent approach- and one that appears to be working- has been to put the “traditional” service early and to make the 11:00 a.m. service a contemporary service later.

So what do we have here? I attended the “traditional” service (an excellent time of worship where I was warmly welcomed) and here’s the scorecard, with “T” for traditional and “C” for contemporary.

Worship Space- T
(The church sanctuary is typical for a downtown SBC church built in the mid-twentieth century. It has been renovated, but it’s very traditional.)

Instruments-T Piano and Piper Organ, both played very well.

Liturgy- C (Very informal. No call to worship, no scripture readings, no Doxology, lots of walking around, ministers chatting informally. A reading of the Prayer of St. Francis was the benediction.)

Music- Interestingly, the tunes were traditional, but the lyrics were all new, so this comes off as T/C, I suppose. A solo was in the “T” category, though just barely, while a robed choir did a very contemporary chorus.

Video-C (A dramatic video clip preceded the sermon, but the screen was retracted during the sermon. No projection used at all during the sermon, which appeared to me to be a concession to the concern of some people not to replace the Bible with projection.)

Printed Material- C (A Bible between two tennis shoes was shown on the cover art of the order of service. A “Fill in the blank” sermon guide was given to everyone. Both appeared to be pre-packaged.)

Sermon- C (A prepackaged series. Verse by verse teaching, but anything requiring exposition or theological explanation beyond the basics wasn’t there. Good, practical, well-illustrated, but extremely conversational, considerably more than Rick Warren, who probably was the author of the outline.)

Invitation- C (Speaking in terms of traditional SBC invitations, it was almost a non-existent event. Good for them.)

* * *

What’s my point? First, it appears to me that the “traditional” service was pretty contemporary. In fact, if the traditionalism I was seeing is typical, then aside from the instruments and the actual music, there was little that could be called traditional other than the fact that the music and instruments weren’t offensive to those in the older generations. I believe the contrast with the contemporary service would have been more the absence of certain elements rather than the presence of anything.

Second, “traditional” apparently doesn’t mean much in the way of modest liturgical order, scripture lessons, sung responses, less conversational tone, traditional choral music or other components of traditional worship as this type of SBC church would have done it in the past. This was a service that would have seemed very informal 30 years ago.

Third, it appears to me that “contemporary” and “traditional” are not real choices, but options on a line where we’ve already capitulated to much that is contemporary, and now we’re deciding how much the band can encourage dancing in the contemporary service.

As a post-evangelical hoping for real reformation in the SBC, I lament the loss of real choices I can see in these developments. My hosts told me that the traditional service is growing, and I can see why. But I have to wonder if it occurs to anyone that we might not just be wanting something “less contemporary.” Perhaps someone is longing for real tradition, more tradition and the actual reverence for God and reality of God that comes with the best fruits of tradition.

The “traditional” service is still waiting to reappear in most churches. It’s been obscured by the church growth focus, revivalism and wrong ideas about worship and evangelism as much as by the Purpose Driven movement, the Seeker Sensitive movement and the emerging church. I believe there are many people who are seeing a side to the “contemporary” direction of their worship that reveals its inherent tenuous, shallow, trendy nature. They will show up at the “traditional” option.

Perhaps the real innovation for most churches would be to re-embrace the best of their own tradition and the Christian tradition together.


  1. It is my experience the difference between traditional and contemporary is most churches is largely a question of music. I would welcome a genuine attempt to integrate the best of various approaches to worship including a revival of the genuinely traditional elements. But I do not expect to see this anytime in the near future.

    • This was certainly my experience when I first arrived at the non-denominational church I currently now serve. Traditional in music only, with absolutely no liturgical elements. Yet even the music wasn’t that traditional. Can the Gaithers be considered traditional if the music is less than 100 years old? Can old gospel music be considered traditional?

      However these people were cautiously receptive when I stared introducing liturgy. But it’s taken 3 years to make an almost liturgical service.

  2. Spot on. Traditional music does not a traditional service make.

  3. Now ministering at a very traditional UK Baptist church I have come to realise that the reason why many older folk object to the more contemporary style of music is that it difficult for them to follow when they are suffering significant hearing loss often coupled with failing eye sight. The modern instruments can also play havoc with their hearing and music that is not easy to pick up leaves them confused and exasperated. They really love learning new hymns and songs but need to learn the ones that are straightforward.
    Likewise, liturgy and order makes it easier for them to follow a service and they can truly be participants rather than observers.
    Realising that they aren’t just being grumpy and refusing to move with the times has been a revelation. They desperately want to be part of what is going on and interact with other people – we have to make sure that in our pursuit to be ‘relevant and accessible’ to the younger generations that we don’t ignore this completely reasonable expectation of older folk.

    • Best comment of the month. Thank you for helping us understand our older brothers and sisters better.

      • I totally agree. Ali, thank you for your great and original observations from “over the pond”

        I am a nurse (a Sister to you) and never thought about what you stated, and it makes such SENSE!

        (And you will get used to our crazy spelling. I spent the first three years of primary school in an international school run by British nuns. I returned to the US and had to re-learn “Colour”, “Centre” and “Honour”…and the like!)

      • It makes sense to me. My father gradually became very hard of hearing [he recently passed away] and the amount of ambient noise at events was always very frustrating to him [and by proxy, me]. Watching a very literate, curious, and intellectually vigorous man [which he was] be frustrated just trying to figure out what was going on….

        I also have some [~52%] hearing loss but I’m a pretty good lip-reader, so I get around it to a large degree. I’ve always had this impairment so the I’m used to the backgound dull-roar.

        Those of us not infatuated by contemporary noise can probably just be patient. The younger generation – with their iPod ear-buds – will be joining those of us with hearing impairment en-masse.

      • Good points, indeed. For me, I enjoy the tactile portion of worship…holding the song book or prayer book in my hands; receiving the bread and wine; even holding out my hands to receive the benediction, as a gift.

        For those who struggle with vision and hearing, the familiarity of holding the song book could be as important as being familiar with the song being sung. Again, good points all the way around.

    • Oddly enough, my experience in more traditional settings is kind of similar but on the opposite side. I’m simply not accustomed to singing with a huge pipe organ, and in the churches I’ve been that have them, I find it very distracting almost to the point of being annoying. The organ is such a full-frequency instrument, I feel it takes over the whole audio experience. It’s analogous to me to sitting beside a 400 lb person on a plane. They can’t help but take over the whole row!

      Recently, my wife and I have been going to a Vineyard church, and while its worship is definitely contemporary, they don’t actually do a lot of the newest worship songs. They seem to be intentional about using worship songs that have remained a bedrock for the last 15 years or so. They also throw some older hymns in (we sang “Praise to the Lord the Almighty” yesterday, for example).

      But anyway, the thing I like about that church so far, is that there seems to be a lot of interaction between generations. The traditional/contemporary divide in Pentecostal circles has always been a bit different. In some ways, the older folks in some churches are the ones who are the “wild bunch” in these churches.

    • Great point!

    • This also applies to “meditatively” playing an instrument while praying. If you’re praying privately, that’s fine, but why do it while we all sit and watch you in a service? Presumably your prayer was supposed to be followed by the congregation, and us hearing impaired folks, both young and old, don’t know a word of what you just said. Was it something I’d want to “amen”?

  4. For me, growing up Catholic, a traditional service would have had been a Mass with incense, full vestments, traditional music, etc. while my local parish was very modern, which moved from hippy hymns of the 70’s with saxaphone, drums, and bass, to Praise & Worship.

    I never go to church anymore, but when I do, I generally go to the Anglo-Catholic church in my locality, which is more traditional than most churches; save for the female priest, it has full on vestments, chanting, Eucharist, confessionals, incense, plainchant of the Gospel, etc. Having experienced a plenitude of denominations and church services from Baptist to Unity, I think I like the old school liturgy best for me. XD

  5. The early-“traditional”, later “contemporary”, seems to be the new “customary” around here. But the number’s I’ve seen indicate “fail”. Total attendance is still on an overall slow slide [downward].

    > but the contemporary service is increasingly the “lead” service in the Baptist churches I
    > am aware of that are trying to navigate the various divisions that are tearing many churches apart.

    Years of these arguments have changed my position such that I no longer believe “divisions that are tearing many churches apart” accurately represent what is happening [or happened]. It seemed/seems like a clash of cultures; but it isn’t/wasn’t really. It isn’t so much about churches being torn apart by these culture issues, it is more churches *falling apart* because their own culture had simply faded out and no muscle or tendon remained to hold a body together [as that is what ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ are, but many many silly clergy either believed you could separate “the gospel” into a purified distillate or that church had no business having a ‘culture’]. So you are left with the confusing disjoint of the “contemporary” service and the moribund “traditional” service.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      …but many many silly clergy either believed you could separate “the gospel” into a purified distillate or that church had no business having a ‘culture’.

      Purified Spiritual Distillate — just like centuries of Gnostics.

    • The form of Christianity that is vital and spreading like wildfire in the Two Thirds World uses music of the local ethnic cultures adapted into hymns and praise music of the local people, not European hymn tradition or CCM. In fact, the new Christians in Africa, China and Latin America are blazing the trail of the future for the spread of the gospel, and they couldn’t be less interested in our church music wars or “traditional” versus “contemporary.” We need to learn from them.

      • Actually, Lutherans in Africa are still singing “A Mighty Fortress,” albeit with hand drums instead of an organ. Our church is fairly involved with mission work in Africa, and many Lutheran churches there worship remarkably similar to us. And Roman Catholic worship worldwide is still bound by the traditional liturgy. They adapt to local cultures and customs through the way the set the liturgy to music and the hymnody with which they supplement it, but the worship still maintains the traditions of the church.

        Yes, they do not enjoy the narcissistic infighting over musical style that we do, but they aren’t starting from scratch either. Remember, the musical heritage of 2000 years is shared by all Christians, and everywhere Christians gather to worship there is a strong possibility they are using words and songs from vastly removed cultures, countries, and centuries, along with their own creative contributions. We import melodies from Jamaica and Tanzania, and I’m sure they steal a few ideas from us as well.

  6. Michael’s last 2 paragraphs summarizing his experience in the Baptist church describes what’s happened in my Lutheran church. It seems that any mainline or nondenominational church that has embraced the Church Growth Movement of the past 20 years or so looks & acts the same. Churches fall apart when the members no longer listen to “the cry of the poor”. In this case, the poor are those whose views/needs are marginalized. And today, the marginalized are those asking for more liturgy & musical variety.

    • David Cornwell says

      ” It seems that any mainline or nondenominational church that has embraced the Church Growth Movement of the past 20 years or so looks & acts the same. ”

      Exactly my observation also. Worship isn’t the place to do “seeker” evangelism. Somewhere along the line we’ve confused the two. Actually the old way of doing revivals in a tent outside the church wasn’t a bad idea. It didn’t pretend to be worship, it was out on the street in the marketplace and made no pretense about it’s purpose. Preaching could be dramatic, music could be emotional, loud, or whatever you want. It could all be very entertaining. And sometimes people found Jesus and it changed their lives.

      The “tent” outside in the marketplace doesn’t need to be a literal tent (although not a bad idea). It’s the “outside” that’s important.

      The problem is that now we want entertainment all the time, even in the house of worship.

      • Well think about it. What you sell people on is what you sell people to. If the tent revivals were good at attracting new people and converting with the tent method, of course they’re going to expect their church experience to be the same.

        • > If the tent revivals were good at attracting new people and converting with the tent

          But where they? I do not believe so. They were sound and fury that mostly amounted to nothing.

          How else can there be revival after revival and the numbers don’t really change? The tent revivals were [and are] a straight-up sham. I’m completely convinced, after taking youth groups to events like Acquire the Fire and others… that these types of events are a solid *negative*. They just serve to insulate the person, so when they are really open to hear the message they’ve ‘done that before’ or ‘been through that phase’.

          • Modern church growth and megachurches are often just a modern day revival. They claim 80% conversion growth, but if it were true, the world would be saved already.

            You are spot on about AtF. I took groups there as well, and I regret it (except for the Gungor part). In the end, they destroy faith rather then create it, because it points you back to yourself and the act of will that made your righteous.

      • Wow David!! Spot on my friend!! Best comment I’ve read here in quite some time. Thanks!!

    • Richard Hershberger says

      ” It seems that any mainline or nondenominational church that has embraced the Church Growth Movement of the past 20 years or so looks & acts the same. ”

      Me, too! I have attended a lot of Lutheran churches over the years. The influence of the church grown movement is instantly recognizable, and quite insidious. As a practical matter, few churches that do a contemporary service also know how to do a genuinely traditional service. In my experience, they will sometimes achieve mediocrity, but then they will get distracted by some bright shiny object. The big church in my town is like this. I attended its purportedly traditional service a few times when I first moved into town, and quickly realized that they only do an actual liturgy on Sundays they can’t think of anything else to do. (A few years later they opened a new wing, which they very prominently pronounced was dual-usage: it is used for the contemporary service, but is easily convertible into a basketball court.) At this point, the mere fact of a church having a contemporary service strongly suggests to me that the traditional service will be badly done. I nowadays sometimes find myself in the local Methodist church. It feels very similar, sometimes with a recognizable vestigial liturgy, but often with that abandoned in favor of whatever random stray idea comes by.

      • Richard, I appreciate your comments. I thought I would ask you, since you stated that you’ve attended a lot of Lutheran churches over the years. I’ve always attended non-denominational, evangelical churches, but I find that as I’m getting older, I’m looking for something far more traditional and liturgical, than what I’ve ever experienced on a regular basis. The Lutheran Church appeals to me on many levels. However, as I look at Lutheran church websites, there’s one thing I see over and over that I don’t get. “Communion served on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of each month.” I’ve seen that on so many different L church websites that I have to ask, is that simply a Lutheran thing? I don’t mean this as a criticism, but simply as a question, why don’t more Lutheran churches celebrate the Eucharist/communion on a weekly basis?

  7. “…it appears to me that ‘contemporary’ and ‘traditional’ are not real choices, but options on a line where we’ve already capitulated to much that is contemporary…”

    The above statement is exactly true. Having been raised Anabaptist/Mennonite (and having left in my late 20’s) I always found the discussions about traditional versus contemporary a little illogical. Everything that is now traditional was at one time contemporary and everything that is now contemporary (if it lasts) will one day become traditional. It is only natural that our traditions should evolve and change with the times. New things should be tried and if they are good they should be adopted and supplant the current “tradition.” Of course traditions should still be valued and not lightly changed since they became traditions via the test of time. But everything must grow or die. Nothing can remain static forever, even traditions.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Everything that is now traditional was at one time contemporary and everything that is now contemporary (if it lasts) will one day become traditional.

      Like that traditional “Memento Mori” epitaph on a gravestone:
      “As you are, so once was I;
      As I am, so shall you be.”

  8. Final Anonymous says

    Our church added an 11:30 contemporary to an 8:30 traditional and 10:00 “blended.” The differences between T and C were strict, and everyone was respectful of them and happy because they got to worship in a way that felt comfortable for them.

    Then, for space, money, donor, power, and all kinds of other business and institutional reasons, things changed. “Blended” and “contemporary” became essentially the same thing, and the T service was slowly contemporized until no one came anymore and they could shut it down (which was the goal).

    Now I understand they’ve added a hip, edgy, state-of-the-art evening service different from all the other churches… A traditional liturgy. Because the 20 and 30 something’s miss it. Got to please those with the most income generating potential…

    • Matt Purdum says

      “Got to please those with the most income generating potential.” Absolutely. The problem is not theological, it’s structural.

  9. 90% of church services are traditional and very anti-biblical – Mark 7:13

    When are we finally going to cast off religion and denominations and truly make Jesus the head of the church – meaning He leads the services, dictates what people do, say, and think, and what time and where they meet.

    I know this sounds radical, but isn’t this what we read in the new testament?

    We have turned the bride of Christ into a fractured religious organization – the exact thing Jesus was furious at the Pharisees for doing – WE MUST REPENT

    • I don’t know. Acts 2 indicates the early church continued to keep the set hours of prayer in the temple, in 1Cor we read that the church met on the first day of the week and suggests it was for taking the Lord’s Supper together, and the presence of liturgical prayers and hymns and so on throughout the NT may indicate more ordered patterns of worship than your comment suggests.

    • How do you propose to make Jesus the head of the church while excluding all tradition? We know Jesus through his Word, Scripture alone. A Christ-headed church is the church where Christ’s Word is preached and the sacraments administered according to his Word. So how can traditions that coincide with Christ’s Word be wrong? They can’t. Every church has traditions, even extreme charismatics, so some Christian traditions are good; those traditions that follow his Word are good traditions.

      So, the answer is, we’ll finally cast of denominations and make Jesus the head of the church when everybody subscribes to the Book of Concord and joins the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.

    • Hmmmm
      Let me guess – and your fellowship has manged to get it right?

      Maybe you can share with us what that looks like…

    • No, my fellowship has not gotten it right, we are still very structured (although, in my opinion, more biblical than most, thus why I choose to go)

      Also, I strongly agree with what religion has turned the “sacriment” of communion into, in the scriptures, it seems to indicate that “breaking of bread” always referred to a body of believers sharing an entire meal together in remembrance of Christ’s sacrificial death. Today we have turned this biblical mandate of remembrance in fellowship into an often dead tradition of structured movements. (this is especially evident in Acts 2:42,46)

      Read 1 Cor. 3:1-4 which is one of the passages which speaks against denominations.

      How do we unite? We must make every effort to pray with, eat with, fellowship with, and preach with different denominations which are in our same neighborhood. We have intentionally separated ourselves under man’s banner, now we must intentionally unite with each other under the banner of Christ.

      • Love this: “How do we unite? We must make every effort to pray with, eat with, fellowship with, and preach with different denominations which are in our same neighborhood. We have intentionally separated ourselves under man’s banner, now we must intentionally unite with each other under the banner of Christ.”

        The rub in this sort of unification is that it requires church leaders to give up some of their power by admitting that their beliefs are not necessarily “absolute truth” and requires them to not fear losing congregants who might decide to join a different flock. This takes bold, confident, Christ-centered leaders to come together without fear.

        It also takes congregants willing to sit side-by-side with people who might have different beliefs than theirs, and who are also willing to say that their beliefs might not be “absolute truth,” either.

        Is this possible? Probably very rarely, given human nature.

        • What’s hilarious is the people who say this are usually the one’s who reject 2000 years of Christian tradition.

          • Try to explain that to those who worship the bible and mistake the words inside for The Word.

      • 1 Cor. 3:1-4 speaks against tribalism, not denominations. Those weren’t invented for another 1000 years.

  10. “But I have to wonder if it occurs to anyone that we might not just be wanting something “less contemporary.” Perhaps someone is longing for real tradition, more tradition and the actual reverence for God and reality of God that comes with the best fruits of tradition.”

    we have a Traditional” and “contemporary” split as described in tis essay. the above quote describes our situation and my own feelings precisely. i am longing for real tradition, a real sense of awe in worship, and yet i fear we continue to go the path of pleasing the masses.

    i’ve often wondered when the label “contemporary” will finally die or someone will come up with something better? Taize music is technically contemporary, yet it seems so traditional. it’s sort of all hilariously mad when you think about it. a song from 1995 is still contemporary? as someone mentioned above, the 1970s are traditional, same as Luther and Wesley? hilariously mad.

  11. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    At our Anglican parish, we’ve got an early “traditional” service and a later contemporary one also. But the early “traditional” service really isn’t. Rather than being from the traditional Book of Common Prayer, the traditional service’s liturgy is an adaptation of the most traditional-sounding option (sans Tudor English) from the Church of England’s “Common Worship” series, which wasn’t in use before Advent of 2000. And even then, it’s more similar to the Roman Catholic Novo Ordo in terms of its form than to the Book of Common Prayer. Musically, it’s a stripped-down version of what is played at the contemporary service (stripped-down in terms of a smaller group of musicians/singers and fewer songs, usually the older songs from the set).

    I’d really like to see at least an occasional service that’s actually a traditional Anglican service. To our leaders’ credit, I was told by our rector that he’d like to work up to offering choral evensong from time-to-time, and it don’t get more traditional than that. Plus, I’ve noticed that they’ve stopped using the terms “traditional” and “contemporary” for the services on bulletins, and instead just have just been calling them the 8:00 and 10:30 services.

    • An Anglican parish around the corner from me has a “traditional” and contemporary service. The T is done from the 1929 BCP, but C might classify in some respects as more traditional. The C isn’t a high liturgy but it is based on the 1662 BCP where the rector (who is the Bishop) updates the language to modern American English. So if a service uses older liturgy but newer music, is it really the contemporary service?

  12. Some liturgical services use no hymns at all, even though they are sung more or less straight through. That means the service is the same every Sunday, except special occasions. Oddly enough, this works rather well. (I’m thinking primarily of certain Orthodox and Oriental churches here.)

    More churches (even some Orthodox ones) insert a few hymns into a liturgy. It almost doesn’t matter which ones, but the choir leader (if there is a choir) will probably be picking the ones they can sing, given the voices they expect to have, with the priest exercising some sort of general oversight.

    From what I understand, although hymns are ancient (and the NT apparently contains fragments of early hymn lyrics) the modern practice of having a church service full of hymns can be traced to Luther, who apparently saw this as a way of promoting his new theology. Cue the rise of hymnbooks, and hymn-writers struggling to win acceptance for their pieces, although musical innovation (e.g. the organ) and competition among composers arose much earlier. This hymn-centered style was best adapted to the Protestant de-emphasis on liturgical elements, but somehow spread in the 20th century to Catholicism, some Orthodoxy churches, and even some Jewish and Buddhist groups. Oddly, many hymns were drafted to fill certain liturgical functions, such as the collect or the dismissal (just as earlier periods used eucharistic hymns). And then came the youth culture of the 1960’s, whose effects others can describe better than I.