Should the Church Have Contemporary Services and Traditional Services?

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In my business school days my Strategic Marketing course covered a concept called market segmentation. Market segmentation can be illustrated in a simplified form by the concepts of brand consciousness and price consciousness. Consumers that are brand conscious will purchase products based upon brand name, either due to perceived quality or cultural cache, regardless of price. Price conscious consumers make their purchasing decision on price alone. In order to maximize profits companies will market both name brand products at a premium price and lower priced generic products. Most of the time the products are identical in quality and nature.  Tire manufacturers like Goodyear and Firestone, for example, produce and sell premium and lower priced tires under different names. These tire are made in the same factories, with the same materials, by the same company.

Why would manufacturers forego the premium pricing that could be demanded by selling the same products for less? Because there are many consumers who simply will not pay the premium for those items, and the seller would miss out on revenue. In other words, they are not foregoing additional profits because they never had them to begin with. Each additional dollar of revenue from the lower priced product line is incremental to total revenue. Markets can be further segmented as granularly as the data available for analysis. Some consumers are interested in high performance, other reliability, some like extra features while others prefer simplicity.  Rather than abandoning whole segments, manufacturers capture more Market Share by offering products that appeal to multiple Market Segments.

Market Segmentation and the Church

What does this have to do with the church?  Well, for quite a while now it has become standard operating procedure in many churches, especially those considered to be most “effective,” to hold multiple worship services targeted at disparate affinity groups. We hold small chapel services that feel more intimate, rock concert style contemporary worship for the younger people in meeting halls painted black with stage lighting, traditional sanctuary services with robed choirs and organ music for the older crowd, and action filled children’s worship services.

The point is that the most successful churches have recognized what manufactures have seen for decades; the market for their services is highly segmented and in order to maximize market share, we must provide a product offering for as many market segments as possible.

Some of you may be thinking that this approach to worship sounds consumeristic and antithetical to what the church should represent in the world.  In defense of this approach, one should point out that the mission is to spread the Gospel of Christ to all the world, and that is exactly what they are doing. Ignoring the reality that there are diverse groups within our society who are not all going to be drawn into the same styles and patterns of worship will not result in a deeper penetration of the church’s message into our culture and communities.

There are three aspects of worship: Primary is content – the Gospel of Jesus Christ; Secondary is Structure – this is the most oft overlooked in worship design and planning, yet the place where liturgy actually resides; Tertiary is Style – confused by most for liturgy, but actually even more surface level.  Style is the aspect we hear all the argument over, and while in some respects the least important, it becomes extremely important when we consider that it can be an obstacle to the Gospel being received.  Style is where the Gospel becomes translatable across cultures, and cultures can be specific to age, ethnicity, place of origin, and a host of other factors.  In many respects, so long as we maintain a uniform Content, and a solid and sound Structure, our worship can take on many styles to help overcome cultural obstacles.  But there is a danger.

Overlaying a principle like market segmentation onto the church, the Body of Christ, implicitly communicates that it is okay for us to be divided, while it is the prayer of Christ and the nature of God to bring unity in the Body. You may object that people don’t think that deeply on such things or even realize things like this. But that is exactly the point. Regardless of the message being preached from the pulpit, sung in the songs, or taught in small groups, the unspoken, implied messages our actions and structures communicate are often more powerful precisely because they pass unfiltered into our subconscious.

Worship is the conversation of the Most Holy God with his people. It is not merely a private, personal affair, it is the way in which we are drawn together and built up into the body of Christ and propelled into his service. It is the place where we meet one another and our Lord, where he purifies us, where we are filled with his presence, where we are fused one to another. The reality of the world around us may in fact be that our communities are highly segmented, and that every group wants something different. I believe this is true. But the message of the Gospel—the prophetic message—and the mission of the church has never been about adapting to the reality of the world or giving people what they want. (If that were true Jesus would have overthrown the Roman Empire and set up his palace in Jerusalem.) Rather it is about confronting the realities of the world with the one true reality of the Kingdom of God, of saying we know what you want, but there is a more excellent way.

As we who are charged with the sacred duty of leading the church discern how God is calling us to be incarnational in our communities, I hope we will consider the implied messages we are sending. Please understand, this is not an indictment against multiple worship services or even styles. I do believe, however, that there are some very powerful theological considerations regarding how we structure our worship that should be factored in as we wrestle with this calling to lead the people of God to worship.

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Jonathan Lawson is the Global Missions Pastor at Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church in Johns Creek, Georgia. He previously served as Coordinator of Worship in the Chapel Office at Asbury Theological Seminary. Jonathan holds an Undergraduate degree in Finance and a MBA from Kennesaw State University, and spent 15 years in the banking industry.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for your balanced approach. You are absolutely right that there is something binding about worshiping together.
    I would add that if an established church is thinking about adding a different type of service, be extremely cautious how it is handled. I was a long time and fairly active member of a United Methodist Church with two traditional services that had a combined attendance of over 400; a significant majority attended the late morning service. A new senior pastor arrived on the scene convinced of the need for a late Sunday morning contemporary worship service. The possibility of a permanent contemporary service was already on the radar of the church but there was absolutely no across the board acceptance of the idea or a consensus of how the addition of such a service should play out. By the time this particular pastor was done he had alienated people on both sides of the discussion and the best way I can describe what happened was the earth moving machines had come in, excavated a giant hole and a full grown tree had been dropped in our midst; two separate churches were now sharing the same facility. Two entirely different late morning services with overlapping time slots had revolving doors as pastors went from one service to the other and back again. I can’t even begin to describe the negative impact that had on the late morning traditional service.
    One of the promises was all these new people would come and our numbers would swell. I watched the numbers–new people did come, but the overall numbers never changed significantly; in fact, there was a slight drop.
    It has been over 10 years since the addition of the service and 6 years and three pastors since that pastor left: there is no longer a revolving door between the two late morning services; worship attendance is down by over 100 people across the three services; the contemporary service took the hardest hit when he left.
    I recently visited with a friend from the church who still feels like there are three churches that exist under the same roof. I was surprised when someone else said they felt we were already a fractured church with just the two different traditional services; the early service had been a later add on.
    But in contrast, I know of a larger church in a metropolitan area who, when it was brand new, incorporated the concept of different styles of worship in its collective DNA and it is doing very well.

  2. Great article, Jonathan. As you alluded to, the possibility of a divided church is not even related to style, it can happen with two identical worship services. I know there are some churches with multiple services that find ways to bridge the gap. Maybe it’s an Easter service at a larger venue where everyone can come together. Maybe it’s an all-church mission or social activity that draws people across the lines of which service they attend. In the church I attend, the large men’s and women’s ministry events allow building relationships among people from the different services. But it is something to be attentive to.

    • You’re right on it Tom! That’s the kind of thoughtful effort we have to undertake to nurture a sense of community among various groups.

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