Contemporary Worship Failures

In 1993 SIX mission congregations of different denominations were planted in Lawrence, Kansas, ALL WITHIN BLOCKS OF MY CHURCH. All of them received very generous subsidies from their respective denominations, and had nice rented facilities, full-time pastors, youth ministers, directors of music, paid professional musicians for their "worship teams," etc., etc. You name it, they got it. They particularly spared no expense on an unbelievable advertising blitz.

I live in the area, and was inundated with mailings, doorhangers, phone calls, etc. One phone call went like this: "Are you tired of boring church services with outdated music and sermons you don't understand? I'm calling on behalf of a new church in Lawrence which features exciting worship, contemporary music and drama, and messages that really touch your everyday life." (I quizzed the young lady a bit and it turned out she was an employee of a professional phone solicitation service, calling from Omaha, Nebraska! "I really don't know anything about it. I just read the script they give me.")

These churches took out expensive, slick ads in the local newspaper, and in return the newspaper ran glowing full-page stories, chock full of photos, which gave the impression that for the first time in the history of Lawrence there was a Christian church in town.

All this gave me great pause, for this was about the time my little flock was considering an enormous leap of faith, building a new million-dollar addition. Despite being of different denominations, every single one of these new churches featured an amazingly IDENTICAL format of "contemporary" worship as their primary draw. Could they all be wrong? Maybe it really is "shameful the way we drive people away from Christ with the Lutheran liturgy," as one pastor in our circuit actually put it.

However, by the time we dedicated our new sanctuary two years later--complete with pipe organ, brand new copies of TLH and LW proudly in the pews, and stained-glass with very very overtly Lutheran/sacramental themes (I told the artist to design something that the Assembly of God down the street would have to tear out if they ever bought the buiding. He came up with an eight-foot high Communion chalice and six-foot high Baptismal shell as part of a 30-foot high window which fills the entire wall behind the altar.)--all but one of those contemporary churches had gone out of business! This hit me one day when I drove past the building where what seemed like the largest and most successful of them had been located, and it was an Italian restaurant.

I finally figured out that they only stayed in business as long as their subsidies held out. They obviously couldn't attract a following, and so when the money dried up they promptly folded. I'm sure all those pastors moved on to ply their trade--no doubt with even more astronomical subsidies--in another community. (Lawrence, however, is the fourth fastest growing city in the United States and is filled with Boomers and Xers. If it didn't work HERE, where would it work?) I think if someone looked into it you'd find there are pastoral gypsies--even within our church--making a nomadic living this way, moving from one failed experiment to another--but with their reputations and subsidies growing with every move in a ratio perversely OPPOSITE to their "success."

By the way, during the two year period during which all these churches folded using "contemporary" worship, our attendance increased over 15% per year, using strictly the Liturgy and hymns from TLH (!) and LW. And this in a college town with an unusually young--Baby Boomer and Generation X--population. And the majority of our increase came from dozens of converts from outside the Lutheran faith.

THIS is the real mission paradigm for 21st century America. I only hope the Missouri Synod wakes up to it before it's too late.

Rev. Kevin Vogts
Redeemer Lutheran Church (LC-MS)
Lawrence, Kansas

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