The contemporary/traditional divide among evangelical churches is not new; yet, it is disconcerting to note that little progress has been made in the advancement of real dialogue about the nature of church practices among evangelicals. A central issue is, as Rosaria Butterfield has quipped, the Bible is used to end the conversation, not to enrich it. Setting aside the nature of biblical authority for the moment, this practice–of ending conversations by appealing to Scripture–may manifest both a lack of seriousness regarding church practices and a lack of intellectual integrity. My fear is that neither side of this divide is seriously listening, but is rather repeating clichéd rhetoric aimed at fortifying their positions. The aim of this post is simply to serve the conversation by noting the merits and shortcomings of the arguments.
Granted, not every church fits neatly into one or the other side of this debate. Some are very balanced in general orientation toward text or context. However, some general observations can be made of the types of churches in the American context that I am referring to as “contemporary” or “traditional.”
|Generally moves from cultural context to textGeneral sensitivity to popular context, that is, the people among whom the church exists, especially to cultural distinctives||Generally moves from text to cultural contextGeneral sensitivity to theological context, that is, the ideas among which the church exists, and their threats to the church or the gospel|
|Strong practical principles||Strong theological principles|
|Preaching that methodologically begins with application (i.e. The question, “What should I preach on?” is answered topically from a sensitivity to context)||Preaching that methodologically begins with scripture (i.e. The question, “What should I preach on?” is answered with a scripture reference)|
|Highly polished programatic or aesthetic elements (setting, traffic flow, conveniences, sound, signage, food, etc.–if this were a restaurant, one would want to come back)||Purposeful lack of concern for aesthetic elements|
|Elements of pop musical concert in public singing (typical “band” instruments, lighting, stage set up, video feed, etc.)||More traditional musical elements in public singing (can range quite a bit, but even with typical “band” instruments, other elements are intentionally passed over)|
|Strong presence of a screen or screens||Intentional minimization of screens (e.g. only used for the words to songs)|
|Strong focus on “the leader”||Luddite aesthetic for the purpose of drawing awareness to the gathered|
|Strong organizational health–special focus on leadership training and awareness of gifting||Lack in good practical reasoning about a variety of issues from organizational health, community integration, leadership development, to building management|
|Loose or no denominational tie||Strong denominational tie, or at least strong creedal or historical ties|
|Tend to see the “worship service” as a human event||Tend to see the “worship service” as a divine event|
A Sampling of Arguments
The single biggest argument against the traditional model is that it lacks evangelistic concern, that it makes very little difference in contemporary society. This argument is extremely difficult for a traditional church to deal with because it largely hits its mark. The five largest evangelical churches (not considering Lakewood Church, Houston, TX) are all “contemporary” (1. North Point, Alpharetta, GA, 2. Willow Creek, South Barrington, IL, 3.NewSpring, Anderson, SC, 4. Church of the Highlands, Birmingham, AL, 5. Saddleback, Lake Forest, CA). The most common response to this criticism is a deflecting mechanism of the following sort: “we’re unwilling to compromise our [theological] principles to attract people.” Vague condemnations of this sort merely distract from the fact that traditional churches have been ineffective by any measure (not just comparatively) in spreading the gospel in the American context.
An argument that is less common, is that contemporary churches share the theological commitments of traditional ones, but merely do things better practically. In other words, they are in other respects the same as traditional churches, but practically superior (hence, more conversions and attendance). Traditionalists can respond to this by arguing that so called “practical superiority” always involves “theological inferiority” (and in serious ways). Another way of putting this is that attention is zero-sum in the sense that to attend to practical concerns is to leave necessary theological considerations unconsidered.
The single most common traditionalist charge against contemporary churches is that that they are willing to sacrifice theological faithfulness for numerical success. But this sort of charge tends to be pretty severely uncharitable, especially insofar as it gives the impression that there is intent to sacrifice theological faithfulness for success–a devil’s bargain (never mind if the traditionalists are right about what they charge). This charge seems to be the most serious area where the conversation is a non-starter, just where it would be most helpful to continue dialogue. The fault is on both sides. It would be helpful for the sake of discussion to assume that everyone is trying to be faithful to God’s commission and charge to the church, and talk about the particular risks of particular approaches. For instance, might it not be helpful to discuss constructively with both sides the hidden implications of preaching without the actual presence of the pastor.
Another common charge against the contemporary type is that these churches do not recognize that the “worship service” is not a mere human event, but also a divine event, that God meets us in worship and is also an actor. The difficulty with this charge is twofold. First, it has been difficult to find consensus about the definition and significance of the church’s gathering for “worship.” The liturgical tradition has a very well formed idea of this, but many evangelicals remain unconvinced (or are unaware of that tradition). This is an area where the discussion needs to be continued rather than cut off. Second, the implications of worship being “a divine event” are not clear. For traditionalists, the argument is generally left unstated between the premises “worship is a divine event” and “worship should be like ours is.” Granted, the regulative principle complicates this discussion. But among traditional churches that do not hold the the RP, the implications of God meeting the church in worship often are largely unspecified. For example, in a recent podcast titled “Bully Pulpit: Gobbledygook” Carl Trueman and Todd Pruitt discuss some quotes on preaching from Mark Driscoll and Andy Stanley. Todd Pruitt makes the point that to suggest that the preacher eliminate theological language from a sermon is an implicit denial of the sufficiency of Scripture because God promises to produce faith in the hearts of the hearers (God event), therefore, “my methodology becomes less important than God’s program of the word being preached and made plain.” (Todd Pruitt, Mortification of Spin podcast, September 24, 2013). Again, it is not clear what God’s activity might mean for the preacher’s activity, but in this case it is supposed to mean he should use “theological language.”
Another common charge is that the church is not for unbelievers. I’ve never heard a response for this charge from the contemporary folks. I suppose it is worth noting that there is New Testament precedence for acknowledging that unbelievers may be present. Paul seems sensitive to outsiders in 1 Corinthians 14:23 where he says, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” And yet, the traditionalist complaint seems to be deeper in the sense that they assert that the purpose of the weekly gathering is believer oriented, while they charge contemporary churches with being primarily unbeliever oriented. I think at least theoretically the complaint misses its mark because both would say the primary purpose of the weekly gathering is believer oriented, but the disagreement normally lies in what level of accessibility to unbelievers is appropriate and the degree to which this accessibility sacrifices the promotion of maturity in believers.
Some Concerns that are Not Commonly Raised
A related, but relatively undeveloped concern to the last one mentioned is the fact that accessibility is not merely a function of theological language. Some traditional churches (surely not all) are inaccessible intellectually as well as well as theologically. This raises the question, to what extent is the church responsible for the intellectual care of church members? Perhaps there will be a temptation to say, none. But this misses a crucial connection between intellectual virtue and general Christian virtue. This connection can be illustrated with two examples. First, Christian revelation is word revelation. It requires interpretation. Interpretation is only possible with intellectual virtue, otherwise heresy is common. Second, the moral field of the church is constantly changing, leaving new moral issues to be ironed out almost constantly. For this reason, intellectual virtue is necessary for acting wisely in the world. Boiling all Christian teaching down to “a third grade level” has obvious doctrinal and moral consequences.
Second, within the American milieu particularly, capitalism and consumerism are major factors. Traditional churches, since they move from text to cultural context, tend not to place a high priority on the cluster of activities involved with advertising the church. Furthermore, intentional disregard for aesthetic elements also reflects this philosophical commitment. Traditional churches will argue that evangelism is not advertising, and advertising should not be viewed as the paradigmatic approach toward evangelism. This is an area where the contemporary church needs to be especially wary, since to “advertise” reinforces consumerist assumptions that run contrary to the Christian faith in a significant way. God is not the ultimate product, the solution to all our needs. God is the sovereign Lord of the universe against whom we have sinned. To present God in the former way runs the risk of talking about a different God entirely, a sort of fawning obsequious figurehead who just wants everyone on his side.
Third, again, since traditional churches tend to move from text to context, they have the tendency not to utilize technology. The war over technology is heated, some arguing that every technology carries with it unintended consequences, others arguing that there is no point in pretending that technology can be avoided. Probably both positions are true. Technology certainly brings with it unintended consequences, and therefore, leaders must ask what these are and how to mitigate them. But certainly cars and cell phones are here to say. Some may argue that this is not a moral argument for cars or cell phones, and this is true, but the church must deal effectively with the real ever changing moral field, of which technology is a part.
In the end, it may seem that the divide relies on a basic tendency to adopt theological or practical ways of both interpreting situations and addressing them. And yet, the church is both a human and a divine construct. God works through human means. So perhaps the two most important questions are: 1) Does (and to what extent) the fact that God acts in the church affect my methodological commitments? 2) What is the theological freight of my particular practical decision?