Starting a Contemporary Service in an Existing Church

by Tom LeFevre

Many lessons can be learned from the experiences of others. That is our hope as we describe the goals, process and outcomes of having begun a contemporary service in a mainstream United Methodist church in Elkhart, Indiana during 1997. Actually, this case shares insights only through most of 1998, because the experience is ongoing. It has happily been the source of some of the original inspiration for this magazine.

Like a long journey, the hardest step is the first. The first step this church took was to ask some honest and hard questions about the future and growth. It’s a common challenge to Christ’s Kingdom - and most churches - that we have not been growing as we should. Sadly, too many churches are dealing, not with how to grow, but how to stop shrinking. It’s been said that the greater church, like many institutions, is only one generation away from disappearing - if the younger generation is lost to the message of Christ. This is an extreme and chilling consideration, and it accounts for the critical importance of what we are doing to communicate the Gospel in new, sincere, and vital ways to youth and to unchurched adults. All major initiatives need a prime moving event. Trinity United Methodist Church, in Elkhart, Indiana, with a visionary new senior pastor in Dr. Mark Fenstermacher, and several visionary lay leaders, recognized that their approach to the future needed some attention. The church already had a very strong traditional worship and sacred music program. But would this pattern assure that they would grow and become a church home to uninvolved adults and youth? They thought not, and an initiative began to commission an updated worship form - not to replace, but to enrich their service offerings with a new and vital style. This pattern has been common to many churches, but not all attempt to add a new approach as a supplement to an existing traditional form.

Task Force and Formal Mission

The next step was to form a team of multi-talented and interested persons. We invited eight individuals of various ages and interests. It’s a fact that teams of more than eight to ten people get pretty unwieldy. But all were of conspicuous faith and commitment to Christian discipleship. It’s important to have a team of "doers who can also talk." They also must be able to ask for help when they need it. In an effort like this, burnout is a real risk, and is a tragedy that can be avoided by good communication and relief. Initial weekly meetings allowed rapid progress, and a formal mission statement was developed. Just as no church can be all things to all people, no service can be equally appropriate for all worshipers. We quickly discovered, as do most who develop mission statements, that the word "contemporary" was pretty fuzzy. The only real meaning it has is "that of today." The word alone only serves to confuse. In spite of that, we used the word in the following context: "... to provide a contemporary, informal style worship experience that will suit some present members of the church, as well as foster attendance of unchurched persons to come to Christ." While not specific as to style and elements, a formal statement of what we were trying to do was invaluable. Without a stake in the ground, discussions and activities can go in too many different directions. Time is always precious, and an efficient chairperson who religiously (the pun is appropriate) shared minutes and kept to agenda was very helpful. We prayed a lot - and still do at every rehearsal and service.

Identification of a "Target Congregation"

Some churches are very pointed in their approach to "marketing". Other churches are put off and see the concept of commercial marketing to be in conflict with the universal inclusiveness of Jesus Christ. Both have a good point. The saving grace of Jesus is equally available. In getting that Gospel message into the world, we have limited resources of money, time, talent and energy. We need to steward these precious resources, and an understanding of the principles of marketing can help us to be more informed stewards. Without attaching numbers formally, Trinity chose to orient their service style roughly one-third to the worship tastes of some existing church members, and two-thirds to those of the perceived unchurched. We did not "target" specific age ranges as some churches do, and happily, our growing service has a wide mix of ages. It is wise to have some basis for knowing your congregation’s age distribution. This is most easily done by recording members’ birth dates in a computer database. A wise church planner will at least know the distribution of the local and regional population by age. It is revealing to compare the church’s age distribution to that of the church’s primary geographic region (See following figure.) Doing so shows age-wise where people are coming from, as well as where they’re not.

Choice of

Form and Style

With mission and "target" at least roughly in mind, the task force next fleshed out and concurred on a service style. Extremely helpful in this process was to visit some local contemporary services "en masse". Debriefing after these visits was very revealing. Some people also went out alone or in teams of two to visit other services and brought back written reports for the group. This is difficult to do when the task force is made up of those active in your church every Sunday. But a bit of sacrifice pays big dividends. We obtained a basis for choosing those ingredients we felt were right for us, and excluding those we felt were not. We opted for a service flow that began with upbeat music, had a welcome and offertory, announcements, Scripture reading and prayer - The Lord’s Prayer, some quieter worship songs, a sermon/message, and a final musical ministry. We took the event flow pretty much from our traditional service form, but we updated and changed the musical styles. Musical emphasis was greater than in our traditional services, with a praise ensemble (singers and players) doing more songs, accounting for about 40% of the total service time. We decided to use video projection for song lyrics, and to make use of poignant VHS video clips and short dramas to reinforce message themes. As of this writing, our overall service length is an hour, except for monthly Holy Communion, which adds about ten minutes to the service length. Over time, we expect the service form and elements to change, but we had a starting point, and when we change, we’ll have had a reason to do so.

One of the primary challenges in introducing a new worship form is political resistance from traditional worship and especially, musical, viewpoints. A drum set and praise music presented in a manner resembling "entertainment" has been known to be called "unholy" or even worse. The same critic wouldn’t likely complain if Van Cliburn played a piece by Bach or Beethoven. I saw Cliburn play Edward Grieg’s music live with the Moscow Philharmonic at Lincoln Center in 1969, and found it to be very entertaining. ‘Nuf said, but keeping the basic elements of worship - even in the same sequence - minimizes reasons to complain about the newer form.

We considered comments like those of Lyle Schaller in The Parish Paper: "A critical implication [of communicating with the generation born after 1968] is to place less emphasis on the spoken and printed word in communicating the Gospel, and give greater weight to visual communication, music, drama, participation and symbols." Bill Easam said in Dancing with Dinosaurs: "Music is the major vehicle for celebration and communication." ... "Every survey will show that ‘soft rock’ is the music of the majority of unchurched people." Note that I said "we considered." We didn’t take any opinion merely at face value - nor should the reader. Country music is very popular around Elkhart, Indiana - not just because Garth Brooks sneaks into town occasionally to tweak his custom Crown sound equipment. So I recently penned a cookin’ country-style praise chorus that works very well in our opening high-energy worship segment. Each church needs to adapt to its surroundings, according to its own mission.

Target Date

for Startup

As with many initiatives, there’s a fine balance between the wisdom of preparation and the faithful abandon of "jumping in". The "conventional" wisdom we encountered suggested a year’s careful planning, preparation, rehearsing, promotion, etc. We gathered our task force in January 1997, having caught our breath after a busy Christmas season. Since our process was moving so quickly, on all fronts, we were impatient to wait until the following fall season (a convenient church milestone, after summer vacations), let alone for an entire year. We eventually went live on Palm Sunday (early April) 1997 - a scant three months after our planning process began in earnest. Mind you, we weren’t ready for Nashville (the praise music version of Broadway), but we were ready to make a quality joyful noise to the Lord. And it worked! It worked because we were abundantly blessed with hard-working team members - including our senior pastor, and his wife - all of whom simultaneously tackled development and procurement of the various pieces.

A Pot of Resources

Such an endeavor can’t succeed without the Holy Spirit. It also needs some cash. Dealing with this need can be a "chicken and egg" problem. You can’t ask for money until you have a clue how much you need. You can’t plan what you want the service to be until you have a feel for how much funding you might get. Once again, the "stake in the ground" is a modest feasible complement of equipment and a vision of what the service elements are. With that in hand, you can go in prayer before some of your church’s "angels". From the list of stylistic elements comes the prospective equipment list. With the equipment list, cost estimates are obtained. Some aggressive shopping and price comparison pays off big at this stage. Don’t be in such a great hurry that you fail to negotiate or even shop for the best prices. Most equipment vendors can do better than merely not charge you the sales tax because you’re a church. The best prices can usually be obtained when you buy equipment as a "package". But be sure you get what you want - not just what the vendor happens to carry!

It’s easy to see that it wasn’t cheap, and that the biggest chunks were in the main sound amplification system, mixer, and the video projection tools. At least these were one-time costs, and sufficient angels were found to support this unbudgeted expenditure. Not all churches are so blessed, and that underscores the importance of first developing a feasible vision of what the service elements and style are desired and intended to be. It also stresses the importance of shopping and negotiating for the best possible prices. As realtors, lawyers and car salespeople know (the modern equivalent of horse traders), there’s no such thing as a "non-negotiable" position.

Many smaller churches will find that such amounts are out of the question, while other large churches are prepared to spend even more. In future articles, we will present less expensive alternatives that may be helpful to smaller churches.

Music and

Song Choices

Since the service mission was both to promote a worship environment for present member believers, and to attract new unchurched, the resulting choices of music were a blending of forms. We felt established praise songs had to be a large - perhaps even our largest - single component. We also decided that some of the best traditional hymns, representing both theological and melodic treasure, needed to be done with an updated feel and energy. Sometimes, but not always, that meant a different tempo. Often, in a "rush to contemporize," churches will simply speed up hymns, when what they really need to feel revitalized is a playing and ensemble style change that has nothing to do with tempo. We also wanted to offer some newer Christian songs from the popular commercial domain - at least as songs presented for ministry by the praise team or a soloist. In some cases, we also chose to use crossover songs from the largely secular domain, when the message and feel were appropriate. As any worship leader or music planner knows, sometimes it’s hard to find a song that’s "just right," let alone best for a particular Sunday’s message. Happily, our praise team was blessed with good contemporary Christian songwriting talent. In modest (and only when appropriate) doses, we deemed it fitting to offer original songs as both praise choruses and special offertories and presentational numbers. Nowhere is it written that churches and praise teams must restrict their song choices to any particular recommended list. But the writer of Psalm 33 said "... Sing to [the Lord] a new song…" - preferably a new song that’s good, catchy melody, theologically sound, easily learned and memorized, and helpful to the service mission. There’s a definite place for original music in worship, and this will be the subject of other articles. When Charles Wesley was cranking them out like a Christian Tin Pan Alley, every one (at least lyrics) was a new song. His words remain a watershed of Christian musical theology to this day.

After a few months in operation, the proportions of songs looked like the following (Specific song titles are listed to be suggestive of style - not to constitute evidence of use. Our church subscribes to CCLI and principles of copyright permission, and we recommend this policy to those contemplating a contemporary service approach.)

There is nothing perfect or permanent about this weighting, but the mere act of documenting our approach provided a starting point for further discussions of musical choices and future directions.

Ensemble Makeup

Any musical offering or program has to build using available raw materials. Trinity’s approach was to use a miked grand piano, and initially work with a guitarist and 4 to 6 praise vocalists. This core of musicians was able to present music and lead worship in the very beginning and also in a pinch. Very soon, we found some players willing to give it a try, and added drums (live, not electronic), electric and acoustic guitar, bass and keyboard/synthesizer. We were blessed with a core group of experienced ensemble players (fancy words to describe middle-aged former rock & rollers). Such folks aren’t as abundant in Elkhart, Indiana as in Nashville, Detroit, or LA, but we did okay. Those younger players who needed to grow quickly got help from the veterans. In future issues, we’ll talk in more depth about how to make such an ensemble work. We learned some hard lessons, and look forward to sharing some of those with our readers.

Particular Challenges

Especially important is to have supportive ancillary teams to help run projection and to manage sound technology. We learned early on that the musicians can’t also do sound management. Finding the sound mixer who has the right sense of ensemble sound is not easily accomplished. Then there must be a pool of persons - equally trained in sound reinforcement principles - who can rotate. We used a monthly rotation plan. The musicians need to have complete faith in the sound manager’s judgment. Few things are more stressful than having a sound person be late or not show - or to be there and not know what the dials do.

The pace and smooth flow of the contemporary service is especially important. People in our culture have very high (in many cases quite unrealistic) expectations of pace of sensory stimuli - both musical, visual and spoken messages. If we want to get through to them, we must attempt to do so on their culture’s terms - not on ours. The Apostle Paul donned the clothes of his hosts. We must do likewise.

When beginning the new service, great care must be taken to embrace new forms (e.g., drums and synthesized strings), while being respectful of traditional forms. One should try to find middle ground and develop a feel for how far is far enough musically - knowing that this will change over time. Contemporary musicians may have to turn the other cheek (dare we say it?) somewhat more often than the skeptical traditionalist who wants to hear only time-tested choral and organ music. Once committed to the new service form, though, one must be unflagging in commitment to it. Like Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt, there ain’t no goin’ back! It also will be a challenge to maintain interest, joy and commitment among the ensemble and worship planning team once the newness wears off and the reality of a weekly ministerial responsibility sets in.

The world outside the body of believers (the unchurched) can sometimes seem pretty unfriendly toward traditional Christian groups. These souls avoid intolerance, and are quick (sadly, too often they observe accurately) to be mirrors of our imperfection and, at worst, our hypocrisy. Walking the talk of Christian faith is an ongoing challenge. They are looking for the "real deal" - they see enough that’s bogus in the world in general - as do Christian believers. They need to experience sincere, enthusiastic, genuine praise and faith in worship. Then they need to see and feel it after (and before) the service in the church halls, parking lots, grocery stores, at business lunches, etc. In short, these people today aren’t going to come to worship because they’re shamed into it. They’ll come because they see Jesus’ love and message of grace showing in our eyes, our words and our actions. This clarity and Gospel substance in action is a challenge to all believers in all forms of Christian worship. Those churches preparing to offer a new worship form have a special opportunity to bring fresh focus and clarity to their discipleship commitment - not just for their new service - but for their entire church mission.


Maranatha! Music Praise Chorus Book, Expanded 3rd Edition, Word, Inc., Nashville.

United Methodist Hymnal, United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville.

Bill Easam, Dancing With Dinosaurs, Abingdon Press, Nashville.

Lyle Schaller, The Parish Paper.