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Contemporary Worship a Boon to Churches

With its emphasis on an expressive spirituality, contemporary worship may be one of the most promising avenues for congregational growth.

Amid all the grim statistics about the future of the church, there’s one shining ray of hope: Contemporary worship services have the power to recharge a congregation, even to serve as a catalyst for growth.

A new survey of U.S. congregations shows that more churches are turning to contemporary worship services, with good results. The Faith Communities Today 2008 survey shows that 64 percent of congregations with contemporary worship have a strong sense of God’s presence in worship, and 94 percent felt that the words “reverent, joyful and thought-provoking” described their relaxed worship style “very well.”

Though it’s not always clear why a praise band, overhead projector and casual dress codes have struck such a chord, David Roozen, the survey’s principal investigator and the director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, has a few hunches.

“Religion has become more expressive than cognitive,” Roozen says. If the 20th century was defined by a Reformed tradition, with its heavy emphasis on right belief and rigorously formed intellectual propositions, the 21st century may be more about the spirit.

“The Holy Spirit is the contemporary experience of the revelation of God,” says Roozen.

Roozen says the origins of today’s contemporary worship trace back to the California’s Jesus Movement, which brought together evangelical Christianity and the 1960s hippie culture — especially in its fusion of folk melodies and Christian lyrics into what today is known as praise music.

The Jesus Movement also embraced charismatic Pentecostal practices such as the power to heal and work miracles. But its biggest contribution may be its music and its relaxed worship style, with people waving their hands, closing their eyes and swaying gently back and forth.

Megachurches in particular, Roozen says, have melded this charismatic openness to the Holy Spirit with an older, more cognitive theological strain.

Mark Chaves, a sociologist of religion at Duke University, attributes the rise of contemporary worship to a culture that has grown more informal. People don’t dress for work in suits and ties anymore, and they no longer address one another with formal titles.

In addition, he says, society has lost faith in institutions.

“The more formal kinds of religion needed denominations to keep them going,” Chaves says. “As institutions weaken, you’ll get more informality.”

Whatever the reason for the rise of contemporary worship, there’s no denying its hold, not only on evangelicals, but also on mainline Protestant churches. In the FACT2008 survey, 15 percent of mainline Protestant churches switched worship styles between 2005 and 2008.

Most telling of all, 64 percent of churches with contemporary worship reported a 2 percent or more increase in attendance. By contrast, only 44 percent of churches that kept traditional worship styles reported a 2 percent or more increase in attendance.

The FACT2008 survey analyzed questionnaires from 2,527 randomly sampled U.S. congregations. The congregation’s senior clergy leader completed the questionnaires.

Pastors and seminary students, Roozen says, might do well to pay attention to this march toward contemporary worship.

“How to appreciate and tap into and connect and nurture this expressive spirituality is something pastors have to figure out.”

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