Worship Wars2: Traditional Worship

Posted on December 27, 2007. Filed under: Bi-vocational Ministry, Worship Wars |

Thursday, December 27, 2007– In this series of posts I will be examining worship in the small, elderly, bi-vocational church, based upon my 15 tumultuous years of pastoring a church like this. In the first posting I gave a definition of worship and a brief examination/summary of changes in worship through the centuries. Jesus confronted the legalistic, formal, established religion of his day and proclaimed that God wanted people to worship him in spirit and in truth. Since the Reformation of the 16th century, Christendom has splintered into hundreds of denominations with a multitude of worship styles. In this post I will be focused on what I call the traditional, small Baptist church style of worship from the 1950’s. This is what I grew up with in the churches I attended as a child all the way through my twenties. This is the style that my church practiced when I arrived as pastor in 1992. I will not dissect every aspect of the traditional worship service, but I will present what a typical worship service was like.

Basic Traditional Worship- The normal order of service in our church followed what I had grown up with: piano or organ prelude, welcome and announcements, scripture reading and an invocation followed by 2-3 hymns, a responsive reading followed by one more hymn. Next comes the prayer for the offering, the offering itself with a piano or organ offertory, then the “special music” which would usually be a choir anthem or sometimes a solo or duet. The 25-30 minute sermon would follow and be concluded with the congregational singing of an invitation hymn. The service would close with a prayer, frequently followed by a piano postlude.

Within this order of service there was some room for minor variations. Instead of opening with a scripture reading and invocation we would frequently open with a rousing hymn, and once in a while the choir would open with a hymn, then we would do the announcements and follow with the scripture and prayer. In selecting a scripture to read I almost always chose a passage that dealt with the sermon in some way. I would do the reading 90% of the time but included some associate pastors, music ministers or laymen at times. The announcements were always somewhat intrusive if not done at the very first, but then again how spiritual is it to begin worship with announcements? Giving the announcements is important because that is a time of speaking about the life of the local body of Christ.

Many congregations would stick with a “3 hymns and a sermon” model, but we almost always used 4-5 hymns plus the invitation. The congregation really enjoyed the hymns and 3 just did not seem like enough. Many congregations never included the responsive readings and our church used them sparingly prior to my arrival. I included the readings in almost every service. The offertory prayers by laymen were important but certainly varied in quality and, as we will see later, could be a source of problems. The offertories by the musicians were almost always a highlight of worship, loved by all, as were the “specials”. There was a lot of room for variation here, we could hae a choir anthem, hymn, a solo to a music sound track, a solo with the piano, duets or a trio. For a small church we had very good musicians and our choir was a joy.

Sermons are the high point of worship in the traditional style and take up the single largest block of the time, ranging from 25 to 35 minutes. But sermons could most certainly be a source of controversy as we shall see. Variation with the sermons was generally disapproved of. Sermons were expected to be from the New Testament, especially the gospels, they were to be evangelistic and revivalistic, with plenty of jokes and heart wrenching/warming stories. The invitation was there for anyone to make a decision for Christ, to rededicate their life, or to join the church. But even in a stable congregation with few visitors and everyone is saved and knows it, and no one is about to suddenly be called to the mission field or repent and rededicate their life, the invitation was a fitting psychological end to the service. The closing prayer and piano postlude were the icing on the Sunday cake.

Sunday night worship was more informal and relaxed. We would still open with the announcements, a scripture reading and prayer, sing 3-5 hymns with some kind of a break in the middle that could be a scripture reading, congregational testimony time or prayer time. Sermons on Sunday night could be as long as 45 minutes . There were occasional solos or duets prior to the sermon, but no choir. A lot of churches would still have an invitation on Sunday night, but we rarely did, ending with a prayer.

The Sunday Worship Bulletin was an essential part of worship. This folded, letter sized piece of paper had the church logo printed on the front, had the staff names and phone numbers listed, and on the inside included the order of service. It would list everything in its proper order and give the hymn numbers and scripture references for the readings. It must have the sermon title and text and the all important church calendar of events, announcements, and, most important of all, the church record. The church record gave the attendance of last week in Sunday School and Worship (both am and pm) as well as a listing for the attendance of one year ago. The most important entry on the church record was the amount that was given in the offering last week. I have even seen some churches list their budget goal for the year and track their path toward the goal week by week. We did not practice this particular form of self mutilation. All of this information kept the congregation informed of how their church was doing.

Special events that were a normal part of worship included the Lord’s Supper once a quarter, which must be done only on Sunday mornings (more about that later). The missions offerings programs for foreign missions in December, home missions in March and Texas missions in September. During a mission emphasis week we would include a missions education program on a Sunday night or, for the Lottie Moon Foreign Missions program, a Friday night banquet in December. June was Vacation Bible School and this included two worship services, the Sunday morning prior to VBS might include a much needed prayer for the workers and the VBS decorations may be in place by then too. The following worship service would usually include graduation ceremonies for the children and workers. There would be the occasional baptism that would be incorporated into a Sunday morning service (I only did one baptism at night, more of that sad story later). For a baptismal or Lord’s Supper service we usually incorporated a hymn that was specifically about baptism or the Lord’s Supper.

Two other ingredients to our traditional worship were the hymnal and Bible, in that order. The Baptist Hymnal is the most beloved book in Baptistdom. Variation is not welcome here (again, more of this later). When I began pastoring we used the 1975 edition but these particular volumes had been through a lot. The church had burned to the ground in 1982 and the hymnals had some smoke damage, water damage, and were a little bit worn, but still quite serviceable. In 1992 the Southern Baptists published a new hymnal which my music minister and I wanted the congregation to purchase. This hymnal had a better organization than the older hymnal, more songs to choose from including many newer songs and choruses, and better readings. We formed a plan to present the new hymnal to the church that included discussions about the theology behind the new hymnal its better organization, a fresh approach to music, etc. However, the ladies of the church choir said they wanted the new hymnals because the old ones looked worn out. That was that; it was a done deal and the church raised the money and we purchased the newer, nicer looking hymnals.

We did not have pew Bibles, everyone brought whatever Bible they wanted to Sunday School and church. Many used the King James, a few had the New American Standard several had the New International Version. Many also used the Living Bible, a paraphrase from the 1970’s I remembered from my teen years. I preached from the NIV because that had been my favorite for about 15 years and about half the congregation had a copy. I did experiment with some other versions on Sunday nights, not a good idea. I switched to the English Standard Version during my final two years of pastoring. That was not a popular move. (More about Bible translations later!)

The final ingredient to our worship is the people (some might ask about the Holy Spirit but for now I am going to assume His presence, and since He never caused a problem in our worship, and I am writing primarily about problems…) When I arrived in 1992 we were running about 65-70 and the average age was probably around 65. We fluctuated through the years with a general downward trend keeping with the trend in the church since the late 1960’s (the church peaked in about 1968 with an average of about 300). By the time I left in Feb. 2007, we were averaging about 25 a week with the average age 75. The largest demographic group was the octogenarians. The church was a blue collar church with only 2-3 having college degrees amongst the older crowd, but the younger crowd was a bit more educated. Virtually all of the older men had military experience from WW2 to Viet Nam and we had one young man who served in the 2nd war for Iraq. Because the church was located adjacent to a military base, we had a high percentage of military retirees. The church was also dominated by members of the Masonic Lodge and Eastern Star (more about this later). The church was overwhelmingly white, with one black family (our church nursery worker) and one former music minister who was black (more about racial matters later). There were a couple of hispanic families and a couple of folks that were half or one quarter Native American. Economically the church was lower middle class, with a few middle middle and some that were close to poverty. Several widows and widowers, very few families with children at home and coming to church, though many of the older members had adult children in the area who either did not attend church at all or attended a different church other than the church they had grown up in. That was an alarming clue to me early on that all was not well.

Because of our proximity to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, the church tended to have ministers, associate pastors, youth ministers and music ministers from the seminary. This was the largest source of our younger families and of the educated members. This proximity to the seminary was both a blessing and a problem that will be discussed later.

This chapter has been a summary of the conditions for worship in my church. The key points, the important elements are these: 1)The average age of the congregation-65-75; 2)the size of the congregation, 75-25; 3) the demographics of education and work background; 4)the type of worship expected. In my next installment I will begin looking at the problems I encountered in each of these elements of worship.


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