How to move a church from traditional to contemporary worship styles

We were sent the following “Ask The Expert” question – and its one which comes up often in different shapes or forms so read on if you are interested in ideas for moving a congregation from traditional to contemporary worship music.


“Forgive the long story but it seems necessary to explain our context since it is so different to yours!

We have been called into ministry from a large evangelical church with wonderful modern worship. Three years ago, we joined a small church with a tradition of church organ and singing nothing newer than 1960. God answered our prayers and we were able to buy a keyboard (I taught myself to play and sing but need chord charts) and, starting with CDs, I taught some modern worship songs with the keyboard and despite resistance, many people really started to enter into a deeper experience of Spirit filled worship and we achieved a mix of older and newer songs which worked well.

We have now moved again (husband = vicar) into a larger church with choir, organ, Sung Eucharist, strong influence from the RSCM and lots of Victorian hymnsand sung Psalms. We do have quite a lot of older people but also have lots of younger families coming. There is aggressive resistance to change from some but we would like to introduce a mix of older and newer worship. The standard of current choral music is very high and we can’t just do modern worship badly or many will be confirmed in their opinion! Nobody knows anything more recent than Amazing Grace. We find it very difficult to know how to move forward and there seem to be few (any?!) resouces aimed at helping churches like this (of which there are many!!)”

Tim Martin replies:

The situation you describe here is not an uncommon one. Many a church leader has struggled with the same (or similar) circumstances. When it comes to the use of music in worship and the way in which we express ourselves to God and to one another people are very sensitive and feelings run deep. This can be the case in all traditions. Until recently (and still to some extent) many charismatic churches have been extremely reluctant to include the great heritage of old hymnology in their worship. Branching out of our accepted styles and norms requires a change as much as a change in repertoire. I think it should also be noted at this point that God does not reserve his blessing and the bestowing of his Holy Spirit for any one musical style or cultural approach to worship. Having said this, you seem to be longing for a very healthy balance of both traditional and more modern styles which would be an asset to any church.

There is no ‘how to…’ manual for this and, in many ways this can be a help rather than a hindrance. There are, however, a few steps you can take to make the journey from traditional to more fused styles of worship a little smoother. The road will always be rocky because there is no sense of logic about these debates – they’re always about feelings and emotions. The most important thing I have learnt about these situations is that your priority should be to stay in relationship will all ‘sides’ and to constantly keep channels of dialogue open. Without this, all the techniques in the world will fall into a pastoral black hole and you could very easily end up fighting worship wars rather than glorifying God.

I think that you’re approach here should be two-pronged. Firstly, there is a cultural issue of openness to the working of God’s Spirit within worship services. Secondly, there is the question of how music impacts upon this. In many ways, the first of these is most important. If people are able to experience the refreshing and restoring work of the Holy Spirit during worship they are likely to want more of this rather than less. One way to encourage this is to bring a more contemplative and meditative dimension to established choral repertoire. The sound of a good choir singing a beautiful ‘Sanctus’ can be a profoundly moving and spirit-filled experience. I would suggest using some of these points in the service in the context of prayer or response to God, explaining words and suggesting that the congregation pray and wait on God whilst the choir sing. On the right occasion you may even be able to suggest that they close their eyes, or even hold out their hands, and ask God to speak in the stillness. If you have the technology, you could also use PowerPoint presentations with striking images (photographs or works of art) along with an anthem as an aid to people connecting with their creator and with the message of the songs. You could also encourage people into personal confession or intercession as a ‘Kyrie’ is sung repeatedly by the choir. These approaches take the intentions of the Charismatic movement and transfer them onto ancient (and beautiful) music. Another important part of this approach is to work with the choir. Try to encourage the choir to pray openly with each other and discuss the spirituality of the music. Encourage the choir to see their singing as their personal act of worship and to see themselves as ‘lead worshippers’ within the church service.

The second prong to this approach is to introduce more modern repertoire where it is acceptable. One place this may be appropriate is in small groups or at prayer meetings where a choir would not be available. This kind of small beginning can breed a hunger for more exposure and open the door into regular services. Also, if there are people within the congregation who enjoy a more charismatic style of worship, encourage them. You could suggest that they visit other churches or conferences where they will be exposed to different ways of engaging with God. You could also encourage them to meet together for worship during the week, or even have the occasional worship and prayer event at a time other than Sunday mornings and evening where you use a breadth of repertoire. You should also gently work with a music director, organist or pianist and introduce them to some of the more hymnic songs (e.g. In Christ alone and other Townend/Getty pieces) which may be appropriate on certain occasions. You may also be able to encourage musically gifted members of the congregation to rehearse and perform appropriate pieces in response to sermons. It is important to do this ‘well’ but a solo with good piano accompaniment can do this for you. As a follow up you could print words for the congregation and encourage them to join in with a last verse or chorus.

Be prepared to meet resistance, but treat this as a pastoral issue on all sides. There are bound to be others who would like to move in this direction as well. Try not to become too aligned with them and encourage them to view those who are very set in their ways with compassion rather than suspicion. Also work with those who find change very difficult and try to encourage them into relationship with those who would like to develop the style. It’s much harder to become polarised when there is an atmosphere of love between people. Church outings and social events like meals and quizzes are very good for this. Invite the most unlikely of people for lunch together and see if they can find common ground on a human and social level – these things just keep conflict slightly further away.

Above all, pray for God’s wisdom and patience as you move forward. Try not to become discouraged when the openings are not obvious, but rather, to rejoice in what God is doing among the congregation and in the community. If God is at work and people are filled with the Spirit, the end result is loving community and life-worship which is bound to spill over into church services, whatever the tradition.