Like many churches, our church has gone to a summer schedule of only one service. This has brought some challenges, as we seek to combine elements of both a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service. To my mind, the combined format has not worked very well. While both services have their own flow and logic, as combined, the resulting service has a Frankenstein feel to it, with bits and pieces stuck together without much regard to how they function.
So, we start with two hymns, each sung singly, with a pause to move from one to the other, followed by a prayer, and then the worship set. The flow goes start-stop, start-stop, start, stop, then start, and continue on for the next fifteen to twenty minutes. The rubric of the traditional service involves a series of discreet parts intentionally chosen (when done well), that are designed to focus and direct one’s mind. The contemporary model seems to require broad bands of time, giving the Spirit room to work, chiefly on our spirit and emotions.
As we’ve worked with trying to combine the two styles, it has become clear to me that it is not the music necessarily, that separates the two. Music is music, and one can perform it in virtually any manner imaginable, and I’ve seen hymns performed as worship songs, and worship songs sung as hymns. Instead, the two styles have different flows and different foci that make it difficult to combine them, unless you wish to create something entirely different.
The traditional service has many individual components, which works to fulfill a checklist of sorts. We come into God’s presence, express praise, worship, and awe. We confess our sins, and offer up our prayers and petitions. We then let God speak through His Word. We may also partake of Him directly through His Supper. We close in a statement of praise and purpose thence depart. Each part is distinct, not unlike the singing, and few last long, except the sermon.
The contemporary service has far fewer parts, and most of them are of far longer duration. It is unhurried, seeking, I think, to free the mind, and welcome the Spirit’s embrace. It is intentionally unintentional from the standpoint of human thought and activity. The discrete and rapid shifts of nearly every aspect of the traditional service jars with the contemporary worship experience. Thus we are dropping the traditional hymn singing from the combined service, and we may not get to prayer.
The strength of the contemporary format is an openness to the workings of the Spirit (thought one is left in the lurch if the Spirit decides not to act). The strength of the traditional format is a completeness in the range of worshipful activities offered, and the more conscious effort to ties the congregation together. But the traditional approach can also be rote and stale. How would a service that combines that openness to the Spirit with the fuller dialogue with God flow?
First, we are called to worship. We hear God’s invitation to us, to turn out eyes and minds toward Him. This is a communal act, and need not take much time. Having drawn near, we engaged in praise and worship, and luxuriate in His presence. Here, we can sing, dance, or remain in silence. The challenge here is to draw everyone together. The best way I can think of to accomplish this is to begin and end the set with strong congregational singing.
Following this, I know the hope is that people will spontaneously burst into prayer. However, in my experience that tends to yield the same voices, often uttering the same prayers. I think the prayer should be led and guided, making a point to address concerns of the congregation, hopefully submitted in advance, and other affairs of the moment, but also leaving space for people to pray as the Spirit leads. Prayer is a time to speak to God in hope and faith, but also presenting our questions, fears, and doubts. It comes from the time that we have spent in His presence. Ideally, close with a few moments of silence, inviting God to speak to us individually. This should then prepare us to hear God speak to us collectively through His Word preached. Alternatively, one could place the corporate prayer after the message, placing it as a final response to God.
Close with one quick hymn or song, invite people up for further prayer if desired, and formally dismiss the congregation. I did leave out a specific time for confession, something that has been a part of some traditional liturgies. This can be incorporated into the time of prayer or the call to worship.
The time breakdown should probably run thirty minutes for worship, ten for prayer, thirty again for the message, and ten to close. If one assumes a ninety minute block for the service, this breakdown leaves ten minutes as a cushion. Obviously, if you have something like Communion or a baptism, everything needs to be shortened.
Part of the key to making this work and flow is to think about what each part is doing and how it relates to the whole of the service. The Sunday worship should be a time for the people to come together before God, engage Him, and depart from thence into the world, renewed and reconnected. Each part does its bit in that process, by drawing us in, uniting us, speaking to God, listening to God, finally going forth to do His will in the world. There should be movements and pauses as we make this journey.
That isn’t what my church doing, alas, but then I’m not sure they know what the various parts of a worship service are for, or that its significance is as a collective experience. Something for you to add to your prayers for us.