Reclaiming Church

The 5 Most Important Rules For Contemporary Worship In Your Traditional Church

Okay, so the news isn’t very cheery. By this time, I’m sure we’re all adequately depressed by the mountains of data we’ve seen about the state of the Church in America. It seems that every few weeks we get a new study that “discovers” the fact that 4,000 churches close per year, 2.7 million members fall into inactivity,[1] the Nones are on the rise, and no one can possibly reach Millennials unless you have artisan-fair trade-organic-coffee-bar (which is both awesome and probably true)—blah, blah, blah.

At some point, we need to get over it. We need to stop whining and do something to bring change. Change—at the least intentional, forward-moving kind—does not just happen by accident. It takes work. For those of you in mainline denominational churches (like me), I have a question for you: Do you think God is really done with your church and wants to usher it into the sweet by and by? Me neither. As I heard a pastor once say about following Christ: “If you’re not dead, you’re not done.”

I think our more traditional, denominational churches can still thrive! We have more resources than the typical church plant: we have people, buildings, systems, and probably a little money. But we are out of touch. We have made ourselves irrelevant. We are like an antique table. Some of us have been neglected and stored in the attic with all our history and tradition caked in dust. Others of us are polished and beautiful but everyone’s afraid to put their coffee cup on it so it doesn’t get used—it just looks pretty. Either way—many of our churches have become like unusable antique tables to younger generations.

[Matt Elias Woodworking:]

[Matt Elias Woodworking:]

We need to be like reclaimed wood tables. We can preserve our history while re-purposing it to be both usable and beautiful for younger generations. But, it’s going to take some work. There will be some scraping… some sanding… some staining… let’s say it, some pain. But, let me tell you, it will absolutely be worth it.

The most obvious, glaring need to do some re-purposing is in our worship services. But you know this already. Most of you have tried, with varying degrees of success, to start different styles of worship—or you’re thinking about it but aren’t sure how to get started. Remember, there is nothing wrong with traditional worship services—in fact, I think you MUST KEEP THEM. I’m talking about adding opportunities that reach more people.

I’ve had the privilege of helping 3 very different congregations successfully launch contemporary services (and bring revitalization). All 3 are historic Presbyterian churches (1 small—150 members, 1 medium—600 members, 1 large—1,000 members). But, as a speaker/ worship leader/ consultant, I have traveled to dozens of churches (and led worship for thousands of teenagers) all over the country and have been asked by pastors, youth workers, and church musicians for that magic formula to engage and attract younger generations into worship.

 I may not have any magic, but I know what works. Here’s a list that can get you started.

 The 5 rules you need to follow when launching/improving contemporary worship in your traditional church:

  1. Do not blend

Seriously, don’t do it. Church growth research agrees with me. When you try and mix contemporary music into traditional services, about 20% of your congregation will think it’s the greatest thing ever. They will be very vocal about this. They are probably already begging you to go this route. Don’t take the bait. 80% of the people hate it. Why? Because it’s not traditional enough AND it’s not contemporary enough. Trust me—it is not the answer. Unless, you are not trying to reach new people.

 In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, blended worship was all the rage. In fact the church where I was serving tried it. The thinking was: perhaps some new contemporary music mixed in with traditional would “scratch the itch” for people who wanted a different style. The result? Contemporary worship never got off the ground—and it further increased the divide between traditional and contemporary. One of my battle cries was to address the fact that contemporary worshipers were looking for a different experience of worship—not just different music. Once we separated the two, we were able to successfully launch a new service in 2005. That service is now the largest service at that church (long after I left).

  1. Don’t just swap the music

Contemporary worship is not just about music. It’s about flow and feel. It’s really about a whole different way of experiencing church. You can’t just change out the music and keep the service the same. Remember, if they wanted what you already have, they would be there already. This service is for the people who aren’t in your building… yet.

You must creatively explore the use of video-based, experiential, artistic elements in worship design. Rethink the way you talk about prayer and giving. Make sure your preaching is conversational. Spend a lot more time on application—make it useful. Have the pastors set the tone for a casual dress code. And have great coffee…

Here are 2 great websites to help you find videos/illustrations for worship: and 

  1. Hire a worship leader (probably not your current music director)

Don’t get mad at this. Your current music director (maybe it’s you) is probably incredible. But it is very, very, rare that a traditional director can lead contemporary worship—and it has nothing to do with whether or not they can play the music. Of course they can play it! Are you kidding? They are so over-qualified to play a 3-chord power ballad. But that’s not the point. Contemporary worship is all about feel. It’s about leading the singing both musically and emotionally. You need a leader that lives and breathes contemporary worship or it’s never going to get off the ground. You need to pay for it and get that position nailed down.

This is the key hire you must make. If you have to use volunteers, you have to use volunteers. But it will most likely never reach the level that a hired position will reach. In all 3 of my churches, worship leader was always the first step in the planning—in fact, if you don’t have the worship leader set, you are better off not launching until you have one.

  1. Upgrade your a/v systems as much as you can afford

You can have a great worship leader/ band/ preacher/ artisan coffee/ and still not do contemporary worship well. In church world, our vision always outpaces our funding—most of us launch contemporary worship services on shoestring budgets. We end up using fellowship halls with antiquated sound systems, 3-candlewatt projectors from 1990, and absolutely no ambiance or professionalism. The people can barely hear the preacher over the 60-cycle hum, and the band sounds like Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer on Saturday Night Live—“We’ve got a hot mike here…”

You really need to get the best gear you can afford. And if at all possible, hire a company to come in and help you formulate a plan. Many companies work with churches all the time and are used to shoestring budgets.

In the small church I served, I had a budget of $5,000 given as a memorial gift to the church. We had nothing. No sound system, no screen, no projector, no band… just me. I ordered from the Sweetwater catalog! Even though I myself am a worship leader, I knew that someone else had to do it because the model of preacher/worship leader was not going to be sustainable. We actually partnered with a seminary to turn the position into an internship (we paid $1600 for the year) and launched. Within 4 months our church went from 75 worshipers to 150 worshipers because of the new service.

  1. If at all possible do it on Sunday morning w/ Sunday school

Contemporary worship’s core demographic is usually the young family. Newsflash: young families do not want Saturday night services. Despite what they say about sports on Sunday morning, they really don’t. It’s a terrible time for them. If you have contemporary worship on Saturday nights, young families will come less often. They don’t want to give up every Saturday night—and it’s prime meltdown time for kids.

Interestingly, even unchurched families say that if they were to go to church, it would be Sunday morning. I’ve only seen Saturday night services work for mega-churches, churches in college towns, and Catholic churches. Sunday morning is best—and offering Sunday school is key.

 At the medium and large churches they both tried contemporary on Saturday nights (and Sunday nights). The result? They both started strong and fizzled out.   This is because they became additional services and never became people’s regular services. At the large church, once we figured out the Sunday morning formula, contemporary grew 30-50% each year.

Be bold. You may be stunned to see just how many people now find your table both beautiful and usable.


[1] Schultz, Thom & Joani, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore (Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 2013), p. 13.