Hair Bands + Pipe Organs = A Way Forward?

2000 years ago, I took an undergrad course on critical thinking.  It has caused me far more harm than good over the years; in truth I would be better off for not having taken it at all.  I am no fun at parties (“So why does a gecko know anything about car insurance?”  “Exactly WHO voted baseball America’s game?” “Why should a toilet smell like a pine forest anyway?”).  And my husband and I never feel guilty about not paying for the address labels we receive in the mail that are decorated with small animals.

Though we don’t use them, either.

How does this related to [D]mergent?  Beats me.  No, wait – I do have a point.  I am of an age (55) and position (ordained clergy) and geography (parish minister in a small college town in eastern Kentucky) at which I stand at a crossroad of worship style and function.  And though I have friends who speak both liturgy and contemporary, I would like to say a few words about the underlying theological pitfalls that can occur without using the above mentioned critical thinking.

It occurs to me that, with few exceptions, folks label churches based on the style of worship, the genre of music used, and the dress of those on the chancel (or the stage).  Hymnals, diaconate, robe: traditional.   Big screens, ushers, golf shirts: contemporary.  However, and this is a LARGE however, when one looks critically at what is being preached and implemented, where social change and justice issues are pushed and prodded – that’s another story.

More often than not, the dude up front dressed like Charlie Sheen in “Two and a Half Men” is preaching a sermon that is – minus the cool graphics flashing behind him – straight out of Charles Spurgeon.  The audience (never the “congregation”) is made up of a lot of folks who were teens in the ‘80s.  (Which may be why so much contemporary Christian music sounds like stuff from Hair Bands in the ‘80s, but I digress). The outreach is geared toward making the world Americanized, Protestant, and full of soft ice cream and pay toilets.  The music teaches a form of triumphalistic, uber-personal, salvationiness ; “MY God reigns!  Woot!”.

And conversely, the small dusty church with the pipe organ that is played on the one week of the month that the organist is not playing rehearsals for a show choir, with a minister wearing a stole that signifies a calendar that is alien to most, is preaching to a mix of 80 year olds in boiled wool St John suits and teenagers who have wandered in off the streets because the organ music sounded somehow safe and different to them.  The church has most likely started a Moveable Feast for the AIDs victims in town, and their VBS is not packaged nor marketed, and is attended by children whose parents are nowhere to be found.  Their music is often familiar to the point of nausea; but it does speak of theology.  Some of it is quite faulty theology, but there nonetheless.

My point?  I think this is indicative of the odd and shifting sand that is the church.  Right now, contemporary is IN, which means the movers and the shakers are there.  The disenfranchised are moving into the traditional churches, in part because the movers and the shakers ARE heading to other pastures.  Traditional churches no longer have the luxury of turning folks away – they’re in survival mode.

Which is just where sneaky old Jesus wants ‘em. Over and over again, Jesus has told us: “If you want to seek me, I’m not hard to find.  I’m with the folks you don’t want to spend time with over cocktails.”

Before we start judging or categorizing (and whatever happened to ‘unity, diversity, charity’?) we should look beyond the surface to examine the deeper message. Sure, sure, sure – traditional churches have to move into the 21st century, and get websites, play a mixture of music, and at least EXPLAIN why a robe can still matter. But there is one GREAT opportunity for them out there!  There is an opportunity to practice resurrection, and be born again, IF the remnant still attending can be critical thinkers and figure out what Jesus REALLY wants them to do.

But, please, just a request when it comes to marketing:  don’t use a gecko, a coffee cup, or folks looking moody in the rain.  Been done.

By Molly Smothers

Molly Smothers is an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ denomination. She has pastored congregations in Harrison and Montgomery counties in Kentucky. She lives with her husband Leon on a farm in Rowan County, where she has been the minister of First Christian (DOC) for the last five years.  She enjoys klezmer music, and collecting yak hair.


7 thoughts on “Hair Bands + Pipe Organs = A Way Forward?

  1. Is contemporary really “in”?

    And if it has been “in” since the 80’s, will churches continue to live in which we are literally trained to be change-addicts? In a world where we are always waiting for Steve Jobs to revolutionize the world (or wait, is it “just a phone”?) all over again, will people truly be content to keep living in a movement such as “contemporary worship” that has been around for such an annoyingly long time?

    So, is the alternative hope (and the driving force of things like [D]mergent) to sit on the other side of the fence in our dry and dying mainline lots waiting for the other side, whose grass is obviously much greener, to get some sort of divine (or perhaps cultural) comeuppance? Is the best option for the future of the Church (if such a thing can be described or is indeed a “thing) to commit even more radically to what makes us different from Other “Christians”? In other words, is it even helpful for us to notice a distinction between liberal Protestants and the Religious Right? I mean, obviously we may have ideological differences, and some ideas may, in truth, be “better” than others–though none can claim the “Truth.” But I think the hope of [D]mergent is not for us to latch more solidly unto the DoC’s heritage as opposed to the Other, but to be a place of hospitality where we can realize that there is no fence. There is no dying grass, and there is no green grass. There is no “traditional,” and there is no “contemporary.”

    I’ll agree with you. Church marketing gimmicks suck. But that isn’t because they’ve been done before, or because they are what separates evangelicals and mainliners. I’d say it’s because they commodify spirituality and theology. I think the question for the whole Church is one of how to be more faithful to who we are in the present as people who hope to be transformed. In other words, the question of what “Jesus REALLY wants us to do” (which seems like the same condescending rhetoric that fundamentalists use) is to live in the question of questions, the endless search of what it means to ask, as Augustine originally said and John Caputo loves to reiterate, “What do I love when I love my God?” The question of the future of the Church is the question of the unexpected, the impossible. Will we continue to believe that one or the other offers the Answer? Or will we begin to see that all of our Answers are actually attempts to avoid faith/fulness in and to the question of questions?

    What would that mean for the Church, in my (apparently not-so) humble opinion? Making space for new attempts at living in the wake of the questioning event. Doing seemingly ridiculous things in order to remind ourselves to not be overly earnest. Talking about it. Living Justice. Being hospitable to every Other (or Neighbor, in a more Kierkegaardian terminology), even the one’s who look moody in the rain.

  2. Molly,

    Thanks for the reflections — as pastor of an organ playing congregation (with a guitar in the beginning), I can resonate with your reflections. My congregation was once the church of the movers and shakers of Detroit, now we’re a much smaller suburban congregation that is trying to discern a path forward. We have the organ, the guitar, a mixture of styles — and I’m seeing refugees from churches that switched to contemporary to attract the young folk (who by and large could care less). The way forward looks interesting!


  3. I am a PC(USA) minister in a “large” (600-members is apparently “large”) 125 year-old church in a small-ish town north of Orlando, FL. Until this past year we were solely a “traditional” or “liturgical” church. While our music program (organ, chancel choir, bell choir, et. al) has always been outstanding, the worship had become dry and joyless. Twenty years ago the church had nearly 1,000 members. It lost 500 or more since that time–the by-product of a refusal to transform, bad pastors/preachers, poor leadership decisions, etc.

    Now we are growing and are vibrant and “relevant.”

    We recently launched an informal worship service that utilizes multiple forms of media, “contemporary” music, cafe-style seating and “no dress code.” BOTH of our worship services have grown this past year. We have 150 more people attending worship now than two years ago. We’ve added over 100 members in the past year and a half. Despite our growing pains we are seeing that you can reach out and be a “both/and” kind of church. Our informal worship service attracts homeless people, people who were burned by the church, folks who like drinking coffee and sitting around a table with friends in church, people who like music that isn’t organ led, and lots of people who just wouldn’t get being in a traditional setting.

    Our traditional worship service is still liturgical but hardly devoid of energy. We’ve also seen a growth spurt in that service among families with children, adults returning to church who prefer to worship as they did when they were young, and of course (being in Florida) retirees who move to FL, looking for a church like the one they left “up North.”
    We also work very hard to make our “insider” focused traditional worship service as “outsider” friendly as possible.

    We also are the most active church in our community when it comes to outreach to the hurting and hopeless.

    I don’t agree at all with the idea that most oldline churches “with organs” have a handle on social justice and mercy issues. I would also argue that their inability to acknowledge how “insider” based they are is evidence to suggest they are in denial about their own impending death. I also don’t see anything wrong with trying to reach people where they are in terms of their worship “comfort level”–be it traditional, informal, liturgical or contemporary.

    As long as your worship is authentic and Spirit-filled people will respond.

    • Leon,

      I agree with some of your points. I think that a church which does not adapt its medium of delivering the message of the kingdom is doomed to die with it’s dwindling membership. I think the church is called to go into the world and meet the children of God where they are and speak to them in a language they can comprehend and to which they will respond.

      I also think that large megachurches are doing God’s work, even though They are not for me – too performance oriented, too slick, and not enough spiritual content. Nevertheless, the faithful and the seekers who happily attend such churches do meet God there, in a fashion and in a way in which they can comprehend. Moreover, it is likely that they will not be as happy in a church in my spiritual comfort zone. In fact, it is highly likely that most of those who attend such churches will not give even a passing thought to attending my church. But they ARE attending a church, and they ARE meeting God. For that I give thanks and praise God. I am delighted that God has found a way to reach these people.

      One can find triumphalism and nationalistic jingoism in a church of any size, denomination, or worship style. Though it is bad theology, and often seems to be found in megachurches, bad theology has nothing to do with the worship style. And mission works, whether done by a groups from a megachurch or by members of a more traditional church, are still part of the ministry of compassion, to which we rare all called.

      That being said, I think liturgy, organs, and guitars, and choirs, and a mix of traditional and contemporary music are wonderful, and I reject your suggestion that such churches are too inwardly focused. I like knowing most of the people in my church as much as I like meeting new people. And while every church could be more missionally oriented, not every non-contemporary church is turned wholly inward. Delivering services to the poor and needful is a good and worthy missional objective, but I think that the missional emphasis in a congregation shouldn’t be so much on the size and the success of the effort, as on equipping each congregant to do what they can to participate in Kingdom living. People can volunteer for social outreach work through a variety of different secular programs. What the church offers is not better social justice programs, but an opportunity to be intentional agents and ambassadors of the Kingdom.


  4. We must constantly remind our congregations that growth is the only alternative to death. You need dynamic preaching, dynamic missions or dynamic worship. To keep growing, you need all three. God help us If we say preaching, worship or mission doesn’t matter if in fact our motive for saying so is that we fall short. Nothing kills a church like dull preaching, bad music or a failure to love beyond the church walls.

    That being said, love covers over a multitude of sins. If I had to build church on one without the other two, I’d go for missions.

  5. I seriously laughed out loud at many points in your post! I was laughing at myself when I did so. Thank you for challenging our assumptions and doing so with wit and wisdom.

    I agree with you and with Matt, Bob, Leon and Joel. One of the largest DOC churches has 3 services on Sunday – small chapel, large rocking contemporary and big traditional high church. Each service gets the same minister and the same sermon. However, each service has its own personality or trimmings.

    I see more and more churches offer a variety of styles, but the message is the same from service to service – or is it? Do you think that the context in which the message is delivered makes a difference in how it is recieved, or what is gleaned from it by the audience/congregation? Certainly different people get different messages from the sermon, but do you think the addition of a particularly pointed video helps to focus the intended message? I believe it is possible, but would like to hear your thoughts (all of you).

    All in all – I’m thinking I’d like to move to Kentucky and become a member of your church. I like your style 🙂



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