Appropriately Traditional

The pic you’re looking at is the Rosedon Hotel, in Hamilton Bermuda. It is a gorgeous Victorian style facility with dignified historical roots. When you enter the Rosedon it immediately feels like you’ve entered a time warp sending you into the early part of the 20th Century.

I’m amazed at how well the Rosedon has preserved, not only their original look, but also their traditional customs. ‘Afternoon Tea’ is offered each day, gathering together many of the hotel guests in the front porch (pictured above). One of the customs they have preserved I had never even heard of—just off the main lobby is an ‘honour bar.’ Someone seeking a pop, beer, wine, or something stronger, simply helps themselves and then scribbles a note with their name and room number. The Rosedon also has a classically decorated library/reading room with furnishings and books much older than I.

The Rosedon is a traditional style hotel and, by the looks and sound of things, is hugely popular. Reflecting upon this, I ask, ‘Can a church offer a traditional style and still be popular?’ (popular is not my preferred word to talk about the church, but I couldn’t think of a suitable alternative!)

I think the answer is ‘Yes’. At St. Giles Kingsway our traditional Sunday morning service is reasonably well attended (200+) and enthusiastically received by those who regularly worship with us. I’m curious, however, if traditionally styled services could help themselves by sensibly integrating that which is not traditional. Again, I think of the Rosedon Hotel. When the hotel first opened, they did not have air conditioning (actually, they didn’t even use electricity for the first few years!). Now, every room is air conditioned. The main lobby looks entirely 1920 with the exception of the flat screen computer monitor, which uses touch screen technology to provide guests with information about the hotel and attractions in Bermuda. Every room has wireless internet access (making this blog post possible!) and satellite TV. The Rosedon is thoroughly traditional, but it has also wisely integrated some contemporary conveniences.

I worry that some congregations commit to the former, while resisting the latter. I regard this to be a mistake. Traditional formats which include contemporary elements is what I would describe as being ‘Appropriately Traditional.’ My conviction is that 21st Century congregations can succeed with a traditional format if they are discerning enough to know how to introduce and integrate contemporary elements. Traditional and contemporary need not be regarded as being mutually exclusive. I’m not advocating here what some would call ‘blended worship’; I’m suggesting that traditional/classical style worship can still be the predominant format, but it would be unwise in my opinion to hold rigidly to that. Just as it would have been unwise for the Rosedon to resist air conditioning, wireless internet, and satellite TV.

If you’ve been tracking this blog, you likely already know of our proposed alternative, not at all traditional ministry, The Well. Many congregations, wanting to simplify things and be specialists, choose one format over against another. I get that. But, frankly, I like both styles immensely. Both styles help me engage God meaningfully. And, Lord willing, I’ll have the energy to promote two very different approaches to worship on Sunday morning. One approach to Sunday morning ministry will be largely devoid of traditional accessories. The other approach will be saturated in them, with an aim of becoming more appropriately traditional. Both, I pray, will glorify God and encourage His people.

What do you think?


4 thoughts on “Appropriately Traditional

  1. Great thoughts Bryn. The first thing that came to mind when I read this post was the idea of “substance over form”. Even if the form changes, the substance does not (or should not). Even as the hotel changes parts of its form (wireless internet, electricity, etc.), it still maintains the traditions that (at least in my observation) make it “special” – the honour bar, afternoon tea, etc. – this is the substance of the hotel, and it transcends changes in its form. I think the same principle holds true for the Church – in Christ we have our substance, and as long as the Church maintains Christ as its substance and foundation, changes in form and style will never threaten the appropriateness of the ministry.

    Now that my (most!) humble opinion is out of the way, I have a question: Given that in Paul’s letters, he acknowledges the unique circumstances surrounding early Churches in different regions (Corinth, Rome, etc.) – does this not imply that a ministry should be responsive in its form to the specific environment in which it serves? If not, wouldn’t Paul have just sent the same letters to everyone?

  2. My question would be: what’s contemporary and what’s traditional? What would a church keep, and what would a church bring in as contemporary ‘moments’ in worship?

    Worship practices (I don’t know if that’s the right term for what I’m trying to convey…anything we do in worship from music to readings to clothing to how the offering is taken up…) which might be on par with bringing air conditioning to that hotel in Bermuda, may be seen by others as on par with demolishing the ‘old world charm’ of the hotel.

    I don’t know the answers, I just ask the questions: What, specifically, would one keep? What, specifically, would one get rid of?


  3. Bryn, you are right. A church can offer a traditional style and still be popular.

    The question is, How do you define “popular”? Generally, it means lots of people show up. But is the church about lots of people showing up, or hearts and lives being changed? Of course, if the Lord is blessing the ministry, then popularity and life-change will go hand-in-hand. But there are ‘popular’ churches that are full of people who enjoy the music, enjoy the architecture, enjoy the liturgy, enjoy ‘whatever’ – but they remain far from God. (This can be true in contemporary-style churches, too, but I’ll bet it’s not nearly as true.)

    It comes down to theological drive, in my opinion. What, theologically, undergirds a move toward contemporary? A desire to stay traditional? It is based on the mission statement of the church, i.e., the Great Commission? This is why evangelical churches have tended to be the growing churches – because at their heart is a desire to share the good news with people in a way that will impact them forever. That’s why evangelical churches have been the most willing to change – because they know that the method of sharing the good news for maximum impact changes over time. The gospel doesn’t change, but how it’s presented does.

    When one compares traditional with contemporary churches, there tends to be a far greater emphasis on relevant biblical exposition and application in contemporary churches. Often, in traditional churches, the tradition gets more airtime than the Bible (even though more of it may be read in the traditional service).

    My experience has been that it is possible to experience life change in a traditional church; our Sovereign God can do that. Heaven knows he did it with me. But because the moniker ‘traditional’ tends to touch fewer and fewer people where they’re at (mindful that the traditional/contemporary debate is a relatively modern [post-modern?] one), the church diminishes its opportunity to reach the maximum number of people with the gospel. Excellent preaching in a traditional church will attract some, but many others will go looking for equally excellent preaching in a more liturgically relevant context (especially if they have kids).

    I believe that not very many churches that stick with the traditional will be popular in the best sense of the term, and only those that do traditional in the best format, in the best atmosphere, in the best way, will even survive, let alone be popular, in the coming years.

    Churches attempting to maintain traditional ministry will not, in my opinion, have as great a chance of making a difference for the Lord if their architecture is too modern; if they lack a large pipe organ; if they lack strong biblical preaching; and if they lack very competent, adaptable, and sold-out-for-Jesus church musicians, pastors and leaders. And that means that said churches that are within a reasonable distance of churches with ancient architecture, large pipe organs, strong biblical preaching and competent, adaptable, and Jesus-following leadership have an even greater chance of dying on the vine because of the ‘competition’.

    I think that a ‘traditional’ hotel that has touch-screen technology, air conditioning, satellite TV and WiFi is no longer a traditional hotel! It might be in a traditional building, and it might still offer a bed with clean sheets and fluffy pillows, but it is not a hotel like a hotel used to be. A ‘traditional’ church service that uses ‘contemporary elements’, however they may be defined, is no longer like a church service used to be. (I could tell you about the time I visited my home church for the first time after they started using an overhead projector for choruses in the service!)

    What are those elements of contemporary that one would introduce into a traditional/classical worship style that would keep it from being either blended (toward something) or already well on its way toward being contemporary? And let’s face it, with 200 people in church, you’ll have 205 ideas (at least) as to what should and should not change. (Gasp! There’s that word. Maybe I should have said, “what is ‘appropriately traditional’.)

    Why did the hotel change? Because it had something good that it determined could be better. Why are traditional churches changing? Because they had something good that they determined could be better. How do we know it’s better? We can measure what we’re doing in terms of life change. If people are being drawn into the kingdom of God, it’s better. (Note that ‘the kingdom of God’ is not just about eternal matters, but involves engaging with the world to make it more into what God wants it to be.) I believe that contemporary worship gatherings are drawing more people into the kingdom of God today than are traditional services, even if solid preaching and godly leadership are common between them. That’s why I’m jazzed about The Well – as someone who likewise loves the traditional and the contemporary, but is willing to give up the traditional if it benefits the kingdom of God.

  4. Araon/Rebekah/Jeff: Great comments!

    Aaron, your thoughtful post reminded me of something a colleague said to me recently, ‘Whether traditional or contemporary, CONTENT is key.’ A great reminder that one’s form can be ‘appropriately traditional’ or ‘cutting edge’ contemporary, but if the message is diluted, confusing, or poorly communicated, the effect of great form is muted.

    I think this post was initially inspired by my visit to Parkside Church in Chagrin Falls, OH. The building is conservatively modern (up-to-date). There’s nothing fancy. Nothing trendy. And yet, neither will you find stained glass windows, uncomfortable pews, or embroidered banners hanging on the wall.

    I remember my first visit to Parkside in 2002 as if it were yesterday. I was sure they were ‘seeker-sensitive’. I was wrong (sort of). The music was largely traditional hymns, although accompanied by grand piano, guitar, and drums. The sermons were simply delivered and entirely expositional. In my mind, Parkside is ‘appropriately’ traditional.’

    Unlike, some congregations that I have seen, Parkside is not clinging to the customs of 1950 Canadian culture, or the customs of 17th Century Church of Scotland. Parkside customs, over the last 7 years, appear to ‘change with the times’. The message, however, has not changed. Neither has the overall approach to worship. I love that. Stability within change. It’s purposeful stability, not stubborn stability. It’s sensible change, not change for change’s sake. That’s what I’m shooting for.

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