The worship service: then and now — in one lifetime! (1)

During the Heritage Month of September we remembered our roots, as a nation. We traced our national evolution from what was to what now is, and we have been imagining our future. The one dominant word has been “change”.

So it’s a good time to remind ourselves of our journey as the Church in South Africa, with special reference to the style and content of our Sunday worship services. We realise how much has changed in the last 60 years — within one generation.

In the course of a single generation, most churches have witnessed a cataclysmic change in the style of their worship services. With few exceptions, those churches that have refused to adapt have tended to shrink in numbers and influence.

Let’s tabulate the changes that have taken place, and then evaluate them by the objective biblical standard, especially of Colossians 3:16, with its parallel in Ephesians 4:18-20. But we won’t be confined to these Scriptures.

First, let’s look at those changes which I regard as biblically and theologically neutral. They are simply a matter of taste or preference:

From liturgy to liberty. Many churches used a formal liturgy from a prayer book. Even those which did not use prayer books had a standard “order of service” for the worship service. Some cynics called it “a hymn and a thing and a hymn and a thing and a hymn and a thing”. Nowadays our Services are not so regimented — we are freer in how we express our corporate worship in church on Sundays.

From complexity to simplicity. The earlier order of service would include a complex range of ingredients, such as: an opening introit music led by the choir, a call to worship, an opening hymn, an opening prayer, the announcements, the offering, an Old Testament Scripture reading, a prayer of confession, a children’s talk, a children’s hymn or chorus, prayer of intercession, a New Testament Scripture reading, the sermon, maybe an altar call with ministry to those in need, a closing prayer and a formal benediction. Hymns would be sung at any moment in the service.

Nowadays the order of service is much simpler. In some churches it is a 20 minute block of contemporary worship songs, announcements and offering and the sermon.  Some cynics call it “songs and sermon”.

From hymn-books to screen projection.  The hymn-books handed out by the door stewards have been replaced by the lyrics of songs projected on a screen. This gives flexibility — no longer is the congregation tied to the pre-selected songs printed 30 years ago in the hymnbook. Now we are open to new, contemporary songs from the latest, ever-growing SongSelect catalogue.

From organs to bands.   The organ used to be the only instrument used in churches. The versatile pipe organ, which could create majestic music or light-hearted melodies — or the smaller reed organ — had been standard for centuries.  These led the singing with rich harmonies. Then came the strumming guitar, with pulsating drums accompanying the songs sung by the human voices of the congregation. The band up front provided the rhythm. Without the voices, there could be no tumne. This was a radical shift in congregational singing.

From depth of musical literacy to shallow musical literacy. Though God does desire excellence in music (Psalm 33:3), excellence is a subjective standard, often dependent on culture and context. So don’t pass judgement too quickly!

From stadium evangelism to personal evangelism. The evangelistic outreach of the Church used to be centred in mass meetings, with both congregational hymn-singing and artists performing Gospel songs. That age seems to be passing. Now evangelism is more low-key, with evangelistic sermons from time to time in the usual church services.  Every-day one-on-one conversational evangelism by church-members has become the norm.  

Next month we will review other changes that have taken place in the recent past. For biblical and theological reasons, these changes can be regarded as retrogressive. It is healthy for us to be aware of these, and counteract them in a positive way.

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One Comment

  1. The comparisons in this article, helpful as they undoubtedly are, tend to give the impression that it is always “either/or”. In the church of which I am privileged to be the organist, we have been forced by Covid to hold only one service on a Sunday morning instead of the two (Traditional/ Contemporary) which we had before. I am learning to love contemporary worship more than I did before I started to understand it (I’m 85) – and I believe we are blending the two styles to the glory of God.