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Beyond the worship wars; creative ideas for renewing church services

In moving traditional churches to embrace new forms of worship, experts say start small and be sure to communicate.

Like many churches, Orange United Methodist in Chapel Hill, N.C., has two types of services: traditional and contemporary. So when the church devoted a year to studying the Christian rite of baptism, the congregation had to find ways of involving both communities.

It did so with a song competition.

Music is an essential component of worship, though often it is a source of contention. Here, both traditional and contemporary worship groups were able to come up with a song they liked — “Blessed Sign of Cleansing Water” by Stanley K. Engle, a church musician from Indiana. The song worked especially well in the contemporary service when the band added a Celtic percussion.

New forms of worship can be incorporated when everyone is willing to start small. That’s one of the conclusions drawn by experts at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

In giving churches, such as Orange United Methodist, grants to spur more creative worship, the institute’s consultants encourage church leaders to get beyond the worship wars and recognize that people respond in different ways to visual, auditory and cognitive stimuli.

“We need to stop putting people down and celebrate the diversity,” said Joyce Borger, staff associate at the institute, which promotes the study and renewal of worship.

To succeed, churches should make incremental changes rather than foist a new service on people all at once.

They might add simple visual cues such as banners celebrating the colors of the liturgical seasons. Or, they might get a group of young dancers to process into the sanctuary waving streamers of the season — white for Easter, red for Pentecost.

Instead of acquiescing to blanket statements about worship elements — “This church will never use a projection screen” — consultants encourage churches to incorporate images in creative ways, by projecting photos of homebound members or missionaries during prayer, for example, or by projecting reproductions of classical artwork with a Christian theme.

But before getting started, congregations should cultivate a conversation. When Orange United Methodist won a $15,500 grant from the Calvin Institute to study the significance of baptism, it first created small study teams. When church leaders were ready to involve the whole congregation, they picked a Sunday with no competing interests — this being Chapel Hill, no ACC basketball games — and dedicated Sunday school and worship to the subject.

“Part of the challenge is speaking to a wide variety of people without making it so bland you’re not speaking to anyone,” said Orange United Methodist deacon Andy Keck, (tailoring special programming for kids and for choir members helped.)

The Rev. Patricia Farris, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica, Calif., said she also found it useful to have guest speakers introduce new worship forms rather than clergy. That way, congregants don’t feel they are being forced to accept new worship styles.

“Having a range of experiences opened everything up and allowed us to settle on the pieces that fit us,” she said.

Increasingly, Calvin Institute consultants say they’re seeing an end to the bifurcated, take-no-prisoners approach to worship that split churches into traditional and contemporary in the wake of the 1960s Jesus movement.

“It used to be two different roads,” said Borger. “Now I see a lot more crossover.”

Contemporary services are incorporating some traditional hymns, such as “Great is thy Faithfulness” or “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Traditional services are adding simple percussion, bongos or congas.

Paul Ryan, a resource development specialist at Calvin Institute, recently got a group of college students to design a service that allowed a seamless transition from boisterous praise music to solemn confession, by having the words of the confession prayer sung instead of spoken.

Ultimately, said Ryan, the point of worship renewal is not simply to acquire a new projection system or start a band with electric guitars and drums.

“It’s first and foremost about being renewed and transformed in the likeness of Christ,” he said.

Calvin’s Worship Renewal Grants Program allowed Orange United Methodist to study baptism at a time when the 175-year-old congregation was planning on building a new baptismal font.

“These are the kinds of things we should be doing anyway,” said Keck, who directed the grant. “If you have a grant and accountability then you have a higher chance of being successful in completing a study.”



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