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Traditional worship is the kind of worship many Americans think about when they think of church. The sanctuary has a main aisle with pews on either side, an altar, an organ, a robed choir, and the pastor often wears a robe. In the backs of the pews, there are Bibles and hymnals. Traditional worship has been replaced in many cases by more contemporary worship, but it is still a major part of the American worship scene.
Traditional worship shares some of its music with liturgical churches, because liturgical churches also mostly use hymns. However, traditional worship services generally do not have a fixed liturgy. They do, however, have some basic similarities. In a traditional worship service, the congregation will generally be led in singing hymns by a robed choir, often accompanied by an organist. The singing drives much of the service. Generally, the service will start in song, the pastor will offer an initial greeting and possibly some announcements regarding the church. Next the service will continue with more singing, the church will take an offering, and the pastor will read the day’s Scripture reading, before launching into a sermon. After the sermon, the pastor will offer a benediction, the church will likely sing on final song, and the service will be over. Obviously, various things can be added to the service, depending on theological beliefs and denominational background. For instance, some traditional services will end with an altar call, where church members can approach the altar at the front to either pray to receive salvation, or to reaffirm their commitment to their faith in some way.
The heart of the traditional church service is the sermon, whereas in liturgical services, the heart is the Eucharist. In traditional services, the preached Word of God, and the written Word of God (the Bible) are central. Traditional churches believe that reading and hearing the Bible and messages about faith and the Bible are the best way, along with participating in communal singing, to grow as a Christian. Traditional churches also participate in the Sacrament of Communion, but they generally do so much less frequently than liturgical churches (as little as two to four times a year). Additionally, Communion in traditional churches is seen as a symbol, representing the body and blood of Jesus, whereas in liturgical churches, the bread and wine truly are the body and blood. In traditional churches, Communion is generally not seen as doing anything in itself for those who receive it, but simply remind them of Jesus’ death on the Cross.
Traditional churches have a variety of reasons for sticking to traditional hymns rather than switching to contemporary worship. Some churches are simply in an area that is conducive to traditional worship, for instance an area with a large number of elderly people. In the same way that youth groups often use contemporary music because youth tend to like it better, older congregations may simply use traditional worship out of preference. This is especially true of churches that are connected somehow with a nursing home. Some churches are divided over whether or not to change to contemporary music, which can lead to nothing happening, switching, splitting the church into two congregations, or creating a hybrid, blended style of worship that seeks to take the best from both contemporary and traditional services and fuse them. Some churches, though they agree that contemporary music is a valid, even healthy form of worship, choose to stick to traditional worship to allow people who prefer traditional services a place to worship. Finally, some churches stick to traditional worship because they simply believe it is a more faithful or beneficial way of organizing church. Some of the more conservative churches in this latter group feel that contemporary church music is in some ways a contradiction in terms, and that using contemporary music for church is actually wrong, something against God’s wishes. The more moderate churches and thinkers who believe traditional worship is more beneficial for Christians often point to the rich theology found within hymns, and suggest that contemporary worship music is significantly lacking in theology. This is very important, because in contemporary and traditional worship styles, the music drives much of the service, so if the songs are watered down in their theology when compared to hymns, contemporary music is necessarily less effective at forming mature Christian disciples. Additionally, proponents of traditional worship question whether conforming to the surrounding culture’s style is an appropriate method for conducting church services, suggesting that the Church is to be different and distinct from the surrounding culture.
The history of traditional worship is rather complicated, so it is probably best to provide a link to additional information for those who are interested, rather than skip the details. Traditional worship formed as a direct result of the Protestant Reformation, seeking to get rid of many elements within Catholicism, and getting “back to the basics” of Christian worship as portrayed in the Bible. Click here for additional information on the Reformation Protestants moved the Bible to the center of doctrine, rather than the Church, so if they couldn’t find an obvious Biblical justification for something, it was often cut. Because of this tendency to cut things not found in the Bible, the liturgy was cut, and in some churches, all songs were cut except for the Psalms. However, the style of music still followed the then contemporary style, sometimes involving an organ, sometimes not. This is the style of worship which arrived in America with the Puritans, who were Reformed in their beliefs. This style of worship was also able to spread more easily than the liturgical style, which needs consecrated buildings and many material components to the service. For the traditional style of service, a Bible and perhaps a hymnal were sufficient. This is one of the many factors that led to this kind of hymn based service becoming the "traditional" American service.
Traditional worship has its share of strengths and weaknesses. One of the great strengths of traditional worship is its rich theological heritage found within the hymns. If the congregation is very intentional about the hymns it selects, it can cover all kinds of theological topics over the course of a year, and it may be true that it can cover a broader range of topics than contemporary music currently allows. Additionally, having the choir lead the singing generally allows for more people to be involved in leading worship than the praise band setup allows. Singing with the rest of the choir is much less strenuous than singing into a microphone with just a few other singers on stage. This limits the amount of “performing” that goes on, because the choir is a much more communal group. Sitting in a traditional service, people certainly don’t feel as if they’re at a small-venue concert. They are very obviously in church, and know, for instance, that they are to sing along with the choir, rather than letting the band do the majority of the singing. Additionally, this can limit the amount of superficial elements in worship. Rather than worrying about the lighting, the speakers, the monitors, the projectors, etc., as long as the choir can sing and the pastor’s microphone is working, the service is generally ready to go. Traditional worship, like liturgical worship, also helps Christians to stay connected with their past. Because the music isn’t exceptionally modern, they are aware that they have inherited the songs they are singing from Christians who have gone before them, and handed them on to a new generation. Having a sense of connectedness isn’t something to take for granted in our increasingly detached world.
However, traditional worship also has its share of flaws. Traditional worship can feel stale, old, and outdated, as its critics charge. Remember, the traditional service is the stereotypical church service often depicted in sitcoms and movies that a character falls asleep in. There can be some truth to this stereotype, as there is some truth in many stereotypes. Additionally, traditional worship services can seriously lack visual stimuli. While in contemporary services images are often projected onto the projector screens behind the song music lyrics, this generally isn’t possible in traditional services, or at least in traditional services that exclusively use hymnals. While some traditional churches have stained glass windows to help with visual stimuli, others do not even have the stained glass, which can lead to a very plain looking sanctuary. Finally, hymns can fail to connect with worshippers, especially those who have limited theological knowledge. Sometimes, the outdated language can obscure a hymn’s meaning, or at least make it much more difficult to understand. Again, in a time when people like having things designed specifically to be as simple as possible, presenting them with a challenge can make it hard to find new members.
Like contemporary worship, traditional worship is found in denominations across the board. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Anabaptists, some independent churches, and even some low church Anglicans can fall into this category.
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