Why contemporary worship is not the answer

I’m at the annual meeting of the Fellowship of Presbyterians in Orlando, Florida. It’s a great event–excellent preaching, vibrant worship, and lots of really great people. It’s also in central Florida, which is a welcome change from January in North Carolina. During last evening’s program one of the speakers said something that caught my attention. Since I was hearing this with four hours of sleep and after a day of travel, which included speed walking through the Atlanta airport and missing my connection, I’m going to have to paraphrase.

Here’s what he said “We, like other smart churches, have started a non-traditional worship service.” The sentence was set in the context of a story of congregational revitalization which has seen the church grow from an average attendance of less than one hundred to almost double that.

It’s so encouraging to hear stories of God’s goodness to congregations like the one mentioned here. We’re assaulted by stories of pastoral failure, congregational dysfunction, and general ministry ineffectiveness. Because of this, any news to the contrary is good news. However, I want to sound a note of warning. Contemporary worship is not a panacea. Moving away from traditional worship is not a silver bullet. In reality, it’s much more complex than that.


Based on my experience of working with young adults (22-32) over almost ten years, I’ve become convinced that young adults aren’t thinking in these terms. Asserting that young adults want contemporary worship is really not an accurate or helpful picture of reality. It may be the picture we want to be reality as leaders in the church. After all, after almost twenty years of doing it we have a pretty good idea of what “contemporary worship” is. We think we can pull it off. Don’t confuse what is comfortable for us with what young adults really want. There’s a word for that: projection. We want contemporary worship and so we conclude that that is really what “young people” want.

My experience tells me that young adults are uncomfortable with traditional worship services. It’s not, however, because they absolutely and unequivocally reject both the content and form of the worship. More than anything else, they reject the seeming inauthenticity of it.

For worship to be compelling to younger adults it needs to be:

  • Authentic. There’s little room for pretense with young adults. They know when they’re being “sold to” and that experience and feeling is not something they relish. For that reason your attempts to be “contemporary” can actually be detrimental to the goal you have in mind.
  • Historically-anchored.

This isn’t to say that young adults want a history lecture. It is to say that at no other time has there been such an interest in the early church by younger evangelicals. In the swirl of competing ministry philosophies and worship wars, many younger Christians wish to get beyond this by returning to a form of Christian worship that is simpler. For many, liturgy is seen as simpler.

  • Experiential

. This can be as simple as taking Holy Communion weekly rather than the typical presbyterian practice of monthly or, God forbid, quarterly. The sacraments were instituted by Christ as a sign and a seal of the covenant of grace. As a result, they are visible and they are experiential. They occur in community rather than in the isolation of one’s own heart or mind.

  • Connected to the world.

Young adults want to change the world. That’s why ministries like International Justice Mission (IJM) are so wildly popular with young adults. Many are not interested in a privatized, tame religious experience that does nothing to materially alter the world. Thank God! I’m not either.

There’s more to say on this issue, but let’s stop here for the moment.

7 Replies to “Why contemporary worship is not the answer”

  1. I think you nailed it with this post, and articulated a few things I hadn’t quite put words to, but indeed felt. “Don’t confuse what is comfortable for us with what young adults really want. There’s a word for that: projection.” Great line!! And I whole-heartedly agree w/ the “historically anchored” and “connected to the world” pieces. Nice reflection, man.


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