Contemporary worship in a traditional sanctuary

We visit a lot of churches; frankly, it’s a lot of fun. I find hearing different pastors, enjoying the music of some talented people, and even looking over the décor of the sanctuary to be interesting and sometimes inspiring. It’s the sanctuary set-up that I’m thinking about today.

Most churches (thinking of buildings here) that we visit have been around for a while. When they were built people had a rather specific idea of how a church ought to look so it comes as no surprise that buildings that were constructed at similar times for churches of the same denomination have the same look and feel.

Interesting to me is that, while church sanctuaries have remained the same, the worship services themselves have undergone some major upgrades the last 20 years or so. Most churches we visit have gone to a blended type of worship service. The music has changed and now it’s guitars and drums with the piano relegated to a less central role. Organs have fared even worse; often little used or even removed from service all together.

Probably the only sanctuary change in all this that is common is the addition of a video screen. In some churches the screen sticks out like a sore thumb, maybe even covering the top part of a cross during at least part of the service (not a very good visual in my opinion).

Often, aside from the video addition, everything looks pretty much the same as it did 40-50 years ago.

Frankly, I don’t think that works very well. Dark paneling, oak pews, and heavy furniture on the platform…these speak of another day. They make me want to sing “Oh God our Help in Ages Past” with pipe organ rather than “Good, Good Father” with praise band.

I know that, really, what I expect or “feel” about this doesn’t matter much. After all, I’m going to attend and worship either way.

But what does it say to the people we want to reach? If everything they see around them says, “Grandma’s church” all that contemporary music is going to do is create a disjointed feeling, like, say, mixing perfectly good mashed potatoes with perfectly good ice cream. Either one is okay without the other, but together…they don’t mesh very well.

Also, I know that dealing with this kind of stuff is, for a church leader, a stroll through a mine field. Many of our most faithful folk have only grudgingly gone along with the change in music style. If someone starts messing with their pew things could get rather dicey in a hurry.

I’m no architect or designer so I’m not sure how to best accomplish it, but I’m thinking that an updated, contemporary worship service will work best in an updated, modernized setting. Otherwise, we’re just, to borrow (in a rather out-of-context way) from Jesus, trying to put new wine into old wineskins.

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