Once on a sunny spring Monday morning I was driving to a church service. Their tradition was very different from mine. I was curious what their Monday morning worship would be like, but I was even more curious how many people they could get to come to a church service that starts 9 am Monday. The service was about half an hour long, but it was the attendance that really made me think. There were over seventy people worshipping that morning, an impressive number by my Protestant lights. What made it even more impressive was that the church has a 9 am service every weekday. That’s right: they have it Monday AND Tuesday AND Wednesday AND Thursday AND Friday. Later I decided to check out their weekday 9 am service again to make sure what I saw was not a fluke. It was Thursday morning and the head count was close: a little under seventy. This time I tried to breakdown the numbers by age group, even though determining people’s ages from their looks is not my strength. On my count, approximately half of the people were older than fifty five, there were about ten children age ten and younger, the rest were mostly middle-aged, and a few looked younger than thirty. But there is more. The church has a weekday 6:30 am service, Monday AND Tuesday AND Wednesday AND Thursday AND Friday. It was just too early for me to go there and see how many people attend those services. The church is St. John the Beloved Roman Catholic in McLean. The worship style is the same as it is in the vast majority of Roman Catholic churches: traditional. It is not seeker-friendly at all: there is no order of worship in the church bulletin, and I have not been able to figure it out on my own.
The notion that contemporary worship is a must if a church wants to increase attendance substantially tends to go virtually unchallenged. But research on this issue may be more mixed than appears on the surface. For instance, in 2010 Hartford Institute for Religion Research published a study indicating that 44 – 60% of churches with contemporary worship saw robust growth in the first decade of the twenty first century. By contrast, only 26 – 38% of churches with traditional worship saw robust growth. The same study says that the decade saw a significant growth in the number of Protestant churches that adopted contemporary worship: now this number stands at 35% among mainline Protestants and 50% among Evangelicals. From these data one would expect to see attendance growth in Protestant churches over this period of time. Yet the decline in mainline Protestant denominations continued, and Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical body, reverted from growth to decline. The study concluded that at the end of the decade churches were worse off than they were in its beginning, both in terms of attendance and spiritual vitality. How to reconcile these findings? New churches are more likely to have contemporary worship, so they had a low base for their growth. Perhaps churches who have experienced rapid growth could not sustain it. Or maybe there was a combination of these factors. The study concludes that American churches declined both in attendance and vitality during that decade. In 2008 the same institute published a study, according to which 64 percent of churches that switched to contemporary worship saw at least 2% increase in attendance. But 2% increase in attendance is statistically insignificant unless sustained for a period of time.
In addition, it does not appear that denominations with a greater percentage of contemporary worship grow the fastest or decline the slowest. For example, the explosive growth in contemporary worship happened in Protestant churches. By contrast, only a tiny sliver of Roman Catholic churches has adopted contemporary worship. Yet, outside of Pentecostal denominations, attendance in Protestant churches is declining, while attendance in Roman Catholic churches is growing, albeit slowly. It is true that the growth in US Roman Catholic attendance happens mostly because of the influx of Latino immigrants, and the percentage of Anglo Roman Catholics who attend the mass regularly has declined. For the purposes of my argument, it is noteworthy that Latino immigrants do not seem to exhibit significant craving for contemporary worship. The vast majority of them prefers to attend Roman Catholic parishes with traditional worship and do not appear to be enticed by contemporary services, Catholic or Protestant. Of course, the argument could be made that their children will be more responsive to contemporary worship. Perhaps that is true, but predictions regarding tastes and preferences of the next generation are notoriously unreliable. It may happen that to them what we call contemporary worship will seem just as outdated as mullet haircuts seem to us now.
Contemporary services are premised on the idea that the form of worship needs to reflect the current popular culture substantially in order to be effective. To a segment of North Americans this idea appears common sense but to most non-Westerners it would seem quite strange. Outside of the West, spiritual leaders of different religions mostly do not strive for their worship to reflect popular culture to a significant degree. All over the world people go to houses of worship. They do so for a variety of reasons, but significant conformity of worship to popular culture does not appear to be one of them. On the contrary, most believers seem to be reaching for spiritual resources that are in some important ways transcendent to their circumstances, and they have set up their worships to include significant dissimilarities between worship and the rest of their cultures: ministers wearing clothes different from those worn by people in “secular” vocations, worship buildings looking differently from surrounding buildings, etc. This probably reflects what seems to be the yearning to deal with contemporary issues by reaching for spiritual resources transmitted to us by tradition from past revelations. This yearning has endured through the ages, and it seems likely that it will remain with us in the future. Because in some ways traditional worship is better equipped to meet this desire than contemporary services, it is likely to remain with us.
My argument should not be taken to mean that I am against contemporary worship. Quite the contrary, I do not doubt that contemporary worship has reached and continues to reach people, particularly of younger generations, who could not be reached by traditional worship. There is certainly a segment of the population, in North America and elsewhere, that is more likely to respond to contemporary worship than to traditional service. But, as with most good things, the law of diminishing returns is inevitable, and perhaps it has arrived. That more than half of evangelical churches in the US practice contemporary worship means that at this point the latter is probably readily accessible in most of the US. From where I live, I could find a contemporary service a few miles North, South, East or West. I doubt that a lot of people in Northern Virginia, or in most of the US, would have a problem finding a contemporary service within a reasonable distance. The claim that people are tired of traditional worship and leaving churches because they have trouble satisfying their cravings for something more contemporary does not appear credible. After a decade of significant growth among churches offering contemporary service it may be safe to suppose that many of those who had wanted to switch to a contemporary service have already done so. The ready availability of contemporary services seem to indicate that the overall decline in attendance in North American Protestant churches is not happening because people find it hard to move out of churches with traditional worship into a contemporary worship setting.
There are reasons for declining numbers in mainline and evangelical Protestant churches. Shortage of contemporary services is not one of those reasons, and neither is excess of traditional worship. Contemporary worship has become a vital part of the North American spiritual landscape, and I hope it continues to reach those who are more amenable to it. At the same time, it has not been able to reverse, or even arrest, the decline of those non-Pentecostal denominations that practice it most. Perhaps we should just give it more time, and contemporary worship will propel churches to higher levels of attendance and vitality. However, the above cited dynamics suggest that, in order to break these unwelcome trends, other changes are needed, and these changes should involve something other than, or perhaps in addition to, tinkering with contemporary worship in order to make it a better fit for a given target group.
One morning the curiosity about that 6:30 am weekday service got the better of me, and I decided to go see how many people would be there at that time. It was an ordinary Monday morning, and my head count was 65. The crowd seemed a bit younger than the one I saw at 9:30 am, it appeared many went to the church on their way to work. Of course, the worship style was traditional. Would these people and others who attend multiple traditional midweek and Sunday services be inspired to come had these services been contemporary? To the extent that the answer is no, traditional worship keeps Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches from slower growth and steeper declines.