David F. Watson

By David F. Watson –

Many have noted that what we call “contemporary” worship isn’t so contemporary anymore. It’s a feature of the “attractional” model of church growth, embodied so well in Willow Creek and like-minded megachurches that popped up in the 80’s and 90’s.

The basic philosophy of the attractional model is that if we can create a church experience that reflects popular elements of the wider culture, people will like our churches enough to give up an hour of their time on Sunday morning. Once we have them in the building, we can begin to evangelize them. This model has been most effective with baby boomers. As the culture has continued to change, however, the question arises of whether or not we can become enough like the culture to attract the “unchurched,” or even to retain the “churched.”

At the outset, I’d like to clarify that my point isn’t to hammer on contemporary worship. I’ve worshiped in contemporary services many, many times. I’ve had some amazing experiences of God in contemporary services. I’ll worship in contemporary services many more times, and I anticipate that I will meet God in those services as well.

Perhaps, though, we who worship in such settings might consider incorporating some more traditional elements of Christian worship into our services.

I’m no expert on worship or liturgy, but I do care deeply about Christian formation, and worship forms us. How many Christians have grown up in services where the congregation never says the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father)? How many have grown up in church and yet don’t know the Apostles’ Creed, and perhaps have never said the Nicene Creed? Worship forms us in the faith. The way we speak about God, the way we pray, the way we use Scripture, and the way we sing. Week after week, these practices shape our beliefs. As the old saying goes, lex orandi lex credenda — loosely translated, “as we pray, so we believe.”

Those of us who are concerned to preserve doctrinal orthodoxy in our traditions should take special note. We tend to use the word “orthodoxy” to mean “right doctrine,” but more literally it means “right praise.” The ways in which we praise God will shape what we believe about God. There are liturgical elements from the tradition that can help to shape our praise in service to the faith once and for all entrusted to the saints.

Recently I read a book by Winfied Bevins called Ever Ancient Ever New: The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation (Zondervan, 2019). This is one of the supplementary readings for the DMin group that Justus Hunter and I lead at United Theological Seminary, called “Living the Historic Faith.” It’s a group about finding ways to reclaim some of the treasures of the Christian tradition for the church today. Bevins’s book was a natural fit.

I commend it to your reading. It’s both accessible and informative. It offers numerous real-life examples of young people who have been attracted to liturgical worship experiences, and it explains why they find such worship experiences so fulfilling. For example, Bevins writes:

“Moral and religious relativism has infiltrated the church and profoundly influenced the religious thinking of many young people. Thankfully, in some cases they are responding to this relativism in positive ways. Instead of embracing these nebulous and rootless beliefs, they are looking for firm ground on which to stand. Because they have not been introduced to creeds, confessions, and catechisms in the youth programs or discipleship ministries of their church, they are turning to other Christian traditions that embrace liturgy and creedal affirmations” (67).

Some of these young worshipers have joined the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church. Some have joined with the Anglican/Episcopal denominations. Others, however, have remained within evangelical or mainline churches but reincorporated time-honored practices of Christian worship into their services. Chapter 6, “Something Ancient, Something New,” focuses specifically on churches that have moved in this direction.

In many churches, if a service began with acolytes, a robed processional, and organ music, people would fall out of their chairs. But the reincorporation of liturgy doesn’t have to look like that. There are myriad ways in which historic practices around prayer, song, Scripture, creed, communion, and baptism can find their way into the lives of churches that have long been beholden to the attractional model.

Think, for example, about the sacrament of Holy Communion. What are we doing when we celebrate communion? I realize that different traditions understand communion differently from one another. In my tradition however, communion is supposed to be more than a remembrance. Rather, we believe in the real presence of Christ in the communion elements. We are receiving Christ’s body and blood, and we believe that we are thereby transformed. Communion is a means of grace –– or, put differently, a reliable way in which we receive the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

The basic idea is this: we were once dead in our sins, but because of Christ’s sacrifice we are alive. We get to celebrate what Christ has done for us, and thus we call our liturgy the “Great Thanksgiving.” We begin with a confession of sin, we pronounce forgiveness over one another, we recite God’s mighty acts of salvation, we remember Christ’s instructions to his disciples during his final meal with them, and then we call upon the Holy Spirit to move us from remembrance to sacrament.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.  

By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet. 

Through your Son Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in your holy church, all honor and glory is yours, almighty Father, now and forever. 

I don’t know how many times I’ve recited that part of the liturgy, but without exception when I do I’m confronted by the sacredness of the moment. In the liturgy we are marking off sacred space, setting ourselves apart. We are entering into communion with a holy God, and God in turn blesses us with the real presence of Christ as we eat and drink.

Church today doesn’t have to look like mid-twentieth century “traditional” mainline Protestant worship, but neither does it have to look like 1980’s evangelicalism. We can bring together the ancient and the new in ways that will enliven the faith of our worshipers each Sunday.

David Watson is the academic dean and professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. This article first appeared on his blog HERE. Dr. Watson is the author of Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed) and co-author of Key United Methodist Beliefs with William J. Abraham (Abingdon).


  1. I strongly recommend reading Marva J. Dawn’s book “Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time”. Following is a brief quote from the book:
    ““One contemporary tendency that is subtly destructive of genuine community is the growing practice of applauding when choirs or individuals sing. Affirming these participants’ use of gifts SHOULD BE DONE AFTER THE CORPORATE SERVICE(emphasis mine). First, the ones applauded become the center of attention instead of God, to whom they offer their gifts. Second, applause heightens the attitude in other members that they are not as important in the Body as those with special gifts. We want our practices instead to create the sense that ALL we do is worship. Some people worship by singing, others by listening. All of us worship in our daily jobs, our family life, the offering of our gifts for God’s service.”

  2. I worship in a very alive and exciting traditional service each Sunday morning. The church is very evangelical in doctrine, and many of the church members exhibit a very deep walk with Christ. Except for a special month, the singing is from the UM Hymnal. A pipe organ is used alone for congregational singing. (Singing is sometimes thunderous!) Contemporay services are also held. When United Methodism is settled and evangelicalism is the norm, I fear that many more “experts” will be trying to convince churches to ditch hymnals and organs in order to have meaningful worship services, and many more churches will do just that without thinking it through. If UMC worship becomes little more than emotional manipulation from the pastor or praise team, I will be lost in UM’ism. (The same thing in the event we should revert to the spiritually dead services of previous generations.)

  3. While we’re sharing — we worship in both a rather large suburban “high church” traditional service (as presently questioning members there near our home) as well as we visit an out of town small rural church with a pure traditional service, even with the old time hymns and some gospel singing. We can tell you that the Holy Spirit is much more often present with these “country folks” service than with us “city slickers” at our “high church” service. Our suburban church service is highly structured accompanied with a theology lesson/lecture style sermon. The Cross and Holy Spirit are rarely emphasized or even mentioned, and an alter invitation might result some gasps instead of amens.

    The country church follows a structure (they do have a bulletin) that allows for situational flexibility, especially during prayer time. Prayer time is high priority there, very personal, never read, impromptu, very moving. The sermon is ALWAYS a Gospel message delivered by the local, licensed pastor followed by an alter invitation. People are joining this church, and the growing number of children are warmly welcomed each Sunday with a really loving, child level children’s message — always about Jesus.

    Our suburban church continues to report fewer worship numbers each year while beginning to talk about financial stress due to a rather large debt and declining contributions.

  4. As we look at Paul’s writings we find that some of our communion ritual may need to be reviewed:
    Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.
    In 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 4, Christ has already redeemed us. In Colossians 2: 13, Christ has already forgiven all our trespasses and quickened us together with him.
    By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet.
    Believing 1 Cor. 15: 1 – 4, scripture of 1 Cor. 12: the Holy Spirit has baptized us into one body, the Body of Christ.
    Believers in Grace have already obtain what the ritual words is saying, except we don’t have the presence of the Lord with us on earth. Ephesians 1: 13 – 14, says we have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and that this is a downpayment (earnest) on our inheritance.

  5. Well done. Growing up, our rural umc church had a very developed liturgy with acts of contrition, the creeds, psalm, scripture readings, and a bible lesson. If you visited, you would have some idea of our beliefs and Christianity.

    In the last 2 decades our annual conference has encouraged us to use a non-liturgy where if someone visited they would have no idea what methodists or christians believe. And it certainly does nothing to teach its own members. There is no creed, no communal acknowledgement of sin, and little mention of the father, son, and holy spirit. Communion.serms a free for all where everyone is welcome but no one knows what they are welcome to receive.

    It breaks my heart that our clergy appear to be embarassed about the faith that they are supposed to proclaim.

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