Prince Raney Rivers: What comes after "contemporary" worship? The return of "traditional"

The usual story is of a pastor who staunches a church’s decline by introducing “contemporary” worship. But Macedonia Baptist in Pittsburgh capped its growth with a return to “traditional.”

Several years ago I visited the Rev. Jason Barr, senior pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I saw firsthand what transition looks like after change has run its course.

When Barr arrived at Macedonia 15 years ago, the church used a pipe organ and primarily sang anthems. When he introduced drums to worship, a church officer removed them from the sanctuary. Barr brought the drums back in and chained them to the floor.

Under his leadership one traditional service at Macedonia became three contemporary services. A few hundred members mushroomed into 2,500. I always assumed the contemporary worship at Macedonia was simply an expression of Barr’s theology or perhaps a sign of pragmatic pastoral savvy. But recently, I heard Macedonia was planning to reintroduce traditional worship to the congregation.

I had to find out why.

Much to my surprise, Macedonia’s services became contemporary in the first place partly because Barr couldn’t recruit musicians who read music. He could only hire those who play by ear. That changed when Macedonia hired a new worship pastor who plays by ear and is trained academically in music, worship and theology (such a combination is the Holy Grail in African American church musicianship).

What intrigued me even more was Barr’s theological rationale for reintroducing traditional worship. He said that he hopes to eliminate the “hip hop chatter” in worship, referring to the continual prodding of people to be demonstrative during singing and between songs. He finds this approach to worship emphasizes the immanence of God and excludes the transcendence of God.

This switchback highlights the perennial challenge leaders face in navigating the waters between tradition and innovation. As our churches think deeply about shaping future generations of Christians, Barr’s story shows why somebody needs to stop and ask the question, ‘to what end are we innovating?’

Andy Crouch’s “Culture Making” is a must read for anyone serious about leading change. Crouch claims that culture comes from “particular human acts of cultivation and creativity.” We make the specific “artifacts” or “goods” that become a part of a larger framework. In the example above, the drums and the particular style of music in worship would be considered cultural artifacts.

According to Crouch, it is essential to ask “what does a cultural artifact make possible or impossible (or at least very difficult)?” We might add a further question: “What do we stand to gain or lose here?”

Leaders are catalysts for change. Change is what leaders do. But before we sign off on the next new thing, perhaps Christian leaders might be able to chart a better course if we stopped to consider why we’re headed where we’re going in the first place, and how this change helps us get there.

Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.