The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


September 22, 2009

Is contemporary music key to church growth?

When a congregation moves from a traditional to a contemporary style of worship, the change can often lead to painful conflict in the pews but also, according to a new study, higher attendance.

Almost two-thirds-64 percent-of congregations that switched to contemporary worship in the last five years saw an increase in worship attendance of 2 percent or more, the latest Faith Communities Today (link opens a .pdf) survey shows.

David A. Roozen, author of "Faith Communities Today 2008: A First Look," said the findings on contemporary worship held true regardless of the congregation's denominational affiliation.

"What it seems to suggest is that if you make the change, you're going to get an immediate impact, positive impact," said Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and professor of religion and society at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, in an interview. "And if you ... just had been doing the contemporary for a while, you're still going to be more likely to be growing than more traditional [congregations]."

Roozen's findings, known as "FACT 2008," may be reflected in the results of a new list of the nation's fastest-growing churches. Outreach magazine, in conjunction with Southern Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research, announced Sept. 15 that the fastest-growing congregation is New Life Church in Conway, Ark. The church, which features a contemporary worship team and has grown 61 percent to 10,000 members in just one year, is where 2009 American Idol winner Kris Allen served as an assistant worship leader.

The FACT 2008 study found that more than half — 53 percent — of houses of worship that had already featured contemporary worship more than five years ago and have kept it saw at least 2 percent growth in worship attendance.

That's compared with just 44 percent of congregations that maintained their traditional worship over five years that were able to report a comparable growth in attendance figures.

Congregations that changed their traditional worship style without adopting contemporary music were the least likely — 41 percent — to see a 2 percent or more growth in worship attendance.

The Faith Communities Today survey is based on an analysis of 2,527 questionnaires from a random sample of congregations that were answered by clergy contacted by mail, phone or e-mail.

The Outreach magazine/LifeWay Research Special Report is based on contacts with more than 8,000 churches that self-reported their information. Researchers confirmed the statistics by reaching the churches through phone, e-mail, fax and certified letter.

 Robert G. Schaefer, executive for worship in the ELCA Office of the Presiding Bishop, was asked by The Lutheran to review the material cited above and offered these comments:

I, too, have read studies about how congregations grow, and as David A. Roozen points out in the Faith Communities story, definitive factors in vitality and growth include things such as "openness to change, clarity of purpose, attentiveness to new members, and appreciation of volunteers." I don't think many Lutherans, even those who favor "contemporary" worship, would claim that contemporary worship alone without a commonly held vision and purpose, a strong common sense of mission and other factors, produces significant growth.
Here is the bottom line: Most importantly, as Lutherans, we hold certain understandings of the gospel that impact how we understand what happens at worship. Foremost, in this regard, is the belief that worship is primarily about what God does. We don't just sing or talk about God in worship-we encounter God who comes to give the entire gospel in word and sacrament. God's mission happens in worship. God is the actor and we are the recipients of this gracious action.

If that is true, worship is different from other public assemblies. It's not about us and our personal tastes or whims; it's not about pointing to ourselves as entertainers might. It is about pointing to God who transcends all styles and trends. So then, music in worship isn't there to call attention to itself but to point toward God and God's work in our midst. Music isn't the message; it is in service of the message. This isn't to say that music can't be contemporary-all worship needs to be contemporary because worship always happens in a certain time and culture and context. Style is simply not the first question in Lutheran worship.

When thinking about worship, first I would propose Lutherans need to start with the center — namely it is the Triune God who acts in the means of grace, the word and sacraments. Second, we have a simple pattern for our worshiping assemblies that shows up in the New Testament church and has been used by generations of Christians ever since: gathering, word, meal and sending. Only third does style capture our attention. Here there is great freedom and flexibility in the song and style a given assembly uses to express what God is doing through this common pattern of gathering around word and sacrament. In this context we would encourage an ever expanding repertoire of contemporary, global, as well as classic music and texts to make the proclamation of the gospel accessible in this time and place, while linking it to every time and place.

Guidance for ELCA congregations who desire worship in a contemporary setting using the pattern of Evangelical Lutheran Worship can be found at the Worship area of the ELCA Web site.



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