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Introducing Contemporary Worship Into a Traditional Church

by Josh Hunt

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Note: to further explore this topic, see Let It Grow! (Baker, 1993) by Josh Hunt. To purchase on line:

Introducing contemporary worship into a traditional church can be a little like getting two cats into unity by tying their tails together and throwing them over a clothes line. They are together.

It seems there are certain things that just don't go together: oil and water, Baptists and dancing, and traditional churches and contemporary music.

Yet, I had this feeling in my gut that contemporary music would make a big difference in reaching the post World War II crowd. Part of this was taste. I like contemporary music better than traditional music. I assumed my taste were not so different from the generation I was a part of. When I listened to the radio, I did not hear anything that sounded remotely like what I heard in church. I grew up on the mission field and knew that to reach people, you have to eat their food, dress their dress, and play their music. I knew if I went to Africa to reach Africans I would use bongo drums, not pipe organs. Why were we using organs and choirs to reach a generation that listened to drums, guitar and synthesizer? Why did our music sound so different from the culture? I observed several fast growing churches that were employing contemporary music. I noticed the 101 different contemporary praise and worship tapes available even at small, mom & pop Christian book stores. Presumable, somebody is buying this stuff because somebody likes contemporary worship. And this is not just "listening to music" this is live worship services. (Although not as "live" in their production as they would have you to believe.

We searched for a way to make these two odd bedfellows coexist. Was there a way we could harness the power of contemporary music for the use of the kingdom and do it in the traditional church God had called us to? And really, we wanted more than coexistence. We wanted both groups to appreciate the other out of a spirit of Christian unity. Were these pipe dreams? Had all our learning driven us mad?

Five years later, we tentatively suggest that this wedding is possible. This is the true story of the successes and failures of trying to introduce contemporary worship into a forty year old, traditional Baptist church.


What is contemporary?

Contemporary means different things to different people. Most of the music we listen to was contemporary at one time. It is inherently difficult to write an old song, or a traditional song, for that matter. Everything was contemporary once. But, to understand the definition I am using here, contemporary has to do with three things. It has to do with selection of songs, instrumentation, and "feel".

Contemporary music naturally uses contemporary music. That is, most of the music sung in a contemporary church would have been written after the youth in our church were born. These are mostly choruses, though I could not offer a clear distinction between a chorus and a hymn. To us a hymn is anything in the hymnbook. That is how we know it is a hymn. It has to be, it is in the hymnbook.

We had a seminary professor visit our church recently. He is a self-described lover of high church music and admitted that he had only heard one of the songs done in our contemporary services.

Selection of songs has to do with more than an arbitrary selection based on copyright date. The most contemporary of service will occasionally have songs that are surprisingly old. They are the exception, however. New songs have a new feel to them. Every generation has their own things they do musically with songs.

When I studied music history the final exam was to listen to a piece of music and guess from the sound alone what century it was written in. Trained musicians can do this fairly accurately. And ordinary, untrained musicians can tell the difference between a song that fits and a song that doesn't.

Selection of songs, however, is not as big a factor as most people think. A bigger factor than the selection of songs is instrumentation. You could take a very traditional selection of songs, add the right instruments and the right feel and it would sound reasonable contemporary. Drums are the biggest factor here. More than perhaps any other single factor, drums separate contemporary from traditional.

Try this experiment some time. Push the seek button on your radio until you find a song that does not have drums. My guess is you won't be able to find one. Music with out drums is absolutely foreign to the modern ear. Even easy listening songs use drums. If it is contemporary, it uses drums.

This brings a unique problem to the traditional church. Drums seem to be just about the last instrument to be accepted. Guitars (especially acoustic guitars) and any orchestral instruments can make their way into a traditional service without too many problems. But drums. . . after all drums are used in bars. We have people in our church who do not even like to see drums in the auditorium, much less hear them. That was a mini-battle all of its own--some wanted us to take down the drums so they would not be visible in the traditional services. (This is really not practical because of the amount of trouble it is to use drums. Electronic drum kits could be moved if this were necessary.) I say this to illustrate the depth of people's distaste for drums.

Other contemporary instruments include guitar, bass guitar, and synthesizer. The most prominent absence from a contemporary service is the choir and organ (although the synthesizer may duplicate the sound of an organ at times). A piano can be used in both services. A small vocal band of eight or ten people, each holding microphones replaces the choir.

The third component of contemporary music is what I am calling "feel". It is hard to define, but, like being in love, you know when you have it. This is why all musicians will not be able to make the transition to contemporary worship. Although they can get the instrumentation right, and they can select the right songs, unless they feel it the music will never sound right. I am not sure if this can be learned. We used one of our best piano players in the early days and she never made the transition. It just never sounded right. One day I asked her, "Do you like this music?" "No, I really don't, I prefer what we do on Sunday morning." I started looking for another piano player. She was happy to return to the traditional service.

I received my first exposure to contemporary worship at Church on the Rock, Rockwall, Texas (the original). I attended a few times while I was in seminary. My theology differed from Larry Lea, but I was drawn to the music. I remembered a Chris Christian song I had heard earlier, "Why does the devil have all the good music?" I wanted to ask, "Why do the Charismatics have all the good music?"

I bring up this experience because I think contemporary music nearly has to be experienced to be understood. If I had not had the experience of attending this service, not article or book could have substituted. There is no language I can put down in black and white that will communicate the feel of the music. If there are some churches in your area that employ contemporary music, it may be worth your while to take a weekend off and experience it for yourself.


Who are we?

If I were reading this article, I would want to know if the writer really was coming from a traditional church, or if his church was more open to change and innovation than most. Let me say up front that we may be more open than some, but I have a story that I think will establish our legitimacy as a traditional church.

We started our first contemporary service on Saturday night. In order to provide more room for the vocal team, we decided to move our pulpit out of the way. About three months of moving the pulpit back and forth convinced us to try a little experiment. "I wonder if any one would notice if we just left this down one week?" "I don't know, let's try it." Bad decision. They did notice and they were mad. World War III broke out. You would think we had decided to leave the denomination, or start studying the Book of Mormon instead of the Bible. We acquiesced on this one; we have not vision for a pulpit-less stage. We were just lazy. It is moments like these remember who we are. You are reading the blood stained account of what was not an easy transition. Tradition runs deep.

One of my favorite Bible stores on the power of tradition is the account of Peter and the vision where he was told to eat unclean food. "Surely not, Lord." Consider the irony of those three words.



There are some elements of contemporary worship that can be blended into a traditional service without too much hassle or incompatibility. Newer choruses can be blended in that give the service a fresh feel. This is how our traditional services are. They have a blending of old hymns and contemporary choruses.

Two kinds of choruses do not blend well, however: choruses with a hard, driving beat and choruses that sound too "charismatic." Once again, that is a feel issue and is hard to define, but is very real.

Another element of contemporary worship that we have blended into traditional worship services is the feel of going from one song to another to another. We print every word to every song every week. Copyright permission is a no hassle deal with a CCLI license. This enables us to import an important part of the contemporary feel into a traditional service--the flow of going from song to song without interruption. Churches I grew up in stopped after every song to introduce the next one, or to tell the congregation to turn to the next page. This breaks up the mood of worship horribly. Far better to just keep singing. Some things, like expressing love, are better not interrupted.


New services for new people

There is a limit to how far you can stretch this service and still appeal to traditional people. I noticed that about the time I was really enjoying our spruced up traditional service we started getting more and more complaints. At one point I thought this was an issue of spirituality. "Why don't these people love to worship God like I do?" I pondered. Several years of pondering have brought me to the conclusion that these people do like to worship God, as I like to worship God, but not like I like to worship God. Contemporary worship is an issue of taste. Whether a person likes contemporary worship or traditional worship has more to do with what radio station they like than it does their spiritual maturity.

As I stated earlier, we started our first contemporary worship service on Saturday night. A year later we started another one at 9:45 Sunday morning. We have learned a couple of lessons along the way.

Lesson #1: Contemporary attracts contemporary. We started with a very simple approach to contemporary music. We bought a cheap synthesizer that really sounded more like a cat that had its tale pinched in the door than a musical instrument. We used a vocal band of eight of our best vocalists. (Vocalists have to be reasonably good if they have a microphone eight inches from their vocal chords.) You can get away with things in a choir that you cannot get away with in an ensemble. The exception to this is that you can turn the microphone down. I enlisted one singer voice unheard. I told the sound engineer, "Listen to this new girl sing, if she doesn't sing well, turn her way down." Of course, if she ever found out about this, she might get angry. Fortunately, she sang great.

Six weeks into the service a guy asked me, "Ever thought about having drums in this service?" "Drums, I thought. . . Oh, oh, no, we couldn't do that. . .(what would the deacons think?) Then a little voices said, "Go for it!" "Yeah, I guess, let's try it. But play real quietly. Maybe just light brushes about half the time." I thought we were really pushing the edge now.

The addition of drums absolutely transformed the sound of the worship. Occasionally both our drummers are out and I cannot believe the difference. But, here is the point: I would have never known we had a drummer until we got started with what we had. This is the "Ready, Fire, Aim." principle. We had to start a contemporary service with what we had and let it attract contemporary musicians. My observation is that if you can get some semblance of a contemporary service of the ground it will attract the musicians within eighteen months that will really help it to fly. We later added a bass guitar, upgraded our keyboard, and have used guitar, trumpet, flute and a few other instruments at various times.

We never could find a keyboard player. Many people who grew up on piano don't like electronic keyboards. Part of that has to do with the right-brained nature of musicians and the left-brained nature of keyboards, which are really computers. Part of it has to do with the feel of a keyboard, as opposed to the feel of a piano. The transition is not as easy as you might think

I got so frustrated with this I threatened our worship leader: "If you don't get someone to play that thing, I am going to play it myself." I don't think he thought I was serious and probably wishes now that he had found someone. But I figured with five weekend services, plus rehearsals I would get a lot of practice time just playing in church every weekend. And the nice thing about a keyboard is, it has a volume control.

Lesson #2: new music takes some getting used to. At first, I thought everyone under forty would love contemporary music. This was not the case. Like getting into a hot tub, they had to get used to it. Some of my best friends and avid supporters told me they love me and loved coming on Saturday night, but they just did not like this music. They love it now. Tastes are acquired and take time to change.

This is not to say that everyone will love it with enough exposure. They will not. Some only deepen their dislike for contemporary music with more exposure. But some patience in allowing people to get used to a completely new style seems to pay off.

Over time, we reached a whole new breed of people who love contemporary worship. It is what attracted them to the church and it is all they have known. Taking contemporary worship from them would be as explosive as changing a traditional services.

Lesson # 3: don't try to mix formats. If you prefer one style over the other, there is always a tendency to want to keep the some movement of one toward the other. We have learned the hard way to avoid this tendency. Once two formats are established, people know what they want, the come to the service they want, and they don't like surprises.

This is the beauty of the multi-congregational approach. We don't have to get people to change their worship in order to reach people who want more contemporary worship. All we have to do is get them to grant permission for another type of worship to exist. Our people will do this as long as we don't gradually introduce more and more contemporary elements into traditional services.

We can do this because we do not believe that one format is inherently better than the other. God does not prefer contemporary worship over traditional. They both have strategic value. Many of my neighbors, who are mostly retired couples, will not be reached through contemporary music. They want their church to sound like church. We want to have a high quality traditional worship because we believe it is pleasing to God and strategically valuable in ministering to our community. With this conviction firmly in place, it frees us from the temptation of allowing a service's format to drift. Of course, not to worry. If it drifts much, people will let you know.

Lesson #4: Contemporary services require contemporary instruments. Drums and keyboards cost money. We wish we could do more with lighting, but again, these cost money. They contemporary ear has very discerning taste in terms or quality. We will not reach this generation with shoddy equipment. Eventually, we had to trade up from the drums someone got out of their garage left over from the wonder years. When I attend concerts, especially secular concerts I see they hold back no expense to entertain the sight and sound generation. We must realize this is the generation we are trying to reach. We begged, borrowed and stole in the early days to get what we needed. We were never able to win the wars in the budget process. It was one thing to grant permission for another service to exist, it was quite another to pay for it. We took up special offerings for drums and a bass guitar and keyboards. I even designated some tithe money here and there to get what I felt like we needed. We have not been able to purchase every high-tech gadget some would like us to have, but we have been able to collect up enough equipment over the years to produce a pretty good sound.


How to keep a diverse church unified

We have kept two formats together for five years. I am not absolutely sure if this will turn out to be a permanent model, or a very effective church planting model. Either way the Kingdom wins. But we have learned a few things about keeping everyone happy.

Relate the diversity to your common purpose. The common purpose that both groups share is that of reaching people for Christ. Both groups need to be reminded that it is strategically valuable to this mission to have both types of worship.

Develop some convictions about the value and importance of both services. Often, we concentrate on image. The more important thing is reality. I need to really really believe deep in my soul that both formats are good and God wants both of them. If I really believe this, it will be communicated. If I don't, people have a way of picking up on the truth. If anyone ever gets the feeling they are second string in the leadership's mind it will be impossible to coexist peacefully.

Be careful about what you do with special, all-church events. If you say with your lips that choirs are just as good as vocal bands but you invite the vocal band to sing for Easter and Christmas every year, you are sending two messages. We have had to be very careful that these major inter-congregational events are handled in an even-handed way. People are watching to see what kind of invitations their group gets, and what kinds the other guys get. Actions speak louder than words.


Lingering problems.

I have a nagging feeling that the difference between a contemporary mind set and a traditional mind set goes deeper than music. As stated earlier, part of me wonders if this won't end up being a ten year birthing process of a new church. People who like contemporary music tend to have different opinions on a wide variety of things, such as denominational loyalty, church government, how money is spent, and ethical issues such as drinking in moderation.

People who like contemporary music tend to want a highly managed, hands off expression of church government. They manage businesses and they want someone to manage the church. They have a strong disdain for ninety minute business meetings with agendas dealing with broom closets and pencil sharpening. They don't understand fourteen committees for this and that. They don't feel a need to be involved in the bureaucracy of the church, though they do want to be involved in significant ministry. They just think differently than their traditional counterparts.

Another lingering problem is our Sunday evening service. By definition it is a repeat service and must be a blending of the two styles. This has two problems. Traditionalist don't see a need to blend. From their view point, they were here first. If we want to start another service, that is fine, but messing with one of their services, even the Sunday evening service is another matter. In a way, I don't blame them. I least I understand this concern. The other issue is there is no really good way to blend these two formats. The best you can do is make everyone equally unhappy, which is what we do most of the time. Only thing is, no one gets excited about a service that they were equally unhappy about.


Still a happy customer

On the positive side, let me be clear I am positively enthusiastic about our journey into contemporary worship. It has allowed us to use our resources more efficiently. Contemporary worship is not the only way we could have five weekend services, but it is one way.

It has allowed us to reach people faster than ever before. We filled a 250 seat auditorium in 18 months using contemporary worship. And, we have reached into a different segment of the population. Contemporary worship not only reaches people, it reaches people we probably could not reach with a traditional worship service alone. Much of this has to do with music. We hope in time to have additional worship formats--country music perhaps.

I think the contemporary worship helps the people it reaches to worship better than they would in a traditional worship. It is true of me. I worship better with contemporary music than I do with traditional music because I am not fighting against my own tastes.

I just like contemporary worship. I think church leaders need better reasons than personal taste to do something. However, I think it would be very difficult to start a contemporary service unless the leadership did enjoy it. It would be impossible for me to help with a country service. Philosophically, I would have no problem, as long as they didn't ask me to come or pay for the steel guitars.