Traditional Worship


June 4, 2021

Many churches have both a ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ service. Some people see the differences in terms of demographics with young people preferring the ‘contemporary’ and older people the ‘traditional’ yet there are plenty of exceptions in both directions.    I don’t find those categories all that helpful since ‘contemporary worship’ has actually been the ‘tradition’ of some groups since the 1960’s and some ‘traditional’ churches are very creative,  incorporating new music and liturgies within what would be seen as a traditional structure.  The differences are more a matter of what traditions a particular church values and how they are expressed.

‘Traditional’ Christian worship may sometimes be seen as just what those of us over 60 years old are used to from our youth.  If that’s the case, we are not so much following tradition but rather are stuck in traditionalism. An often quoted comment by church historian Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan is helpful:   “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. … it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”[1]


“Tradition’ as it relates to Christian worship recognizes that we don’t invent Christianity or worship, rather we are invited to join in a stream of faith that flows from the very early days of the church.  In the mid 2nd century Justin Martyr described what worship was like in the churches he knew.[2]   It included elements drawn from the Jewish synagogues including scripture reading, exposition of the passage, an offering and prayers.  The Lord’s Supper of bread and wine was a weekly event with prayers led by the presider and responses from the congregation.  Creeds and handbooks of Christian instruction meant to describe and teach Christian doctrine are part of the worship life of these early churches as well.

The early Christian congregations also sang, drawing from synagogue worship in style though creating Christ-centered lyrics meant to educate people in Christian doctrine.[3]  Some of these hymns likely formed the content of some New Testament passages such as John 1:3-14, Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20 and Revelation 5:9-13.  Like in the book of Psalms, hymns included praise, confession, laments and prayers.  

To say that the Beach Church worship service is ‘traditional’ means that it is a service that seeks to embrace, learn from, and practice these long standing ways of worship in our current setting.  We are not called to replicate a Syrian or Roman or Palestinian second century worship service,  but we are to be in continuity with this ancient and on-going story of God, living faithfully to that story in the present as we pass it on to the future.  Traditions that have shaped Christian worship for centuries in the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic and Reformation churches help us do that.    As written above, an emphasis on the Service of the Word (an invocation, Scripture reading, a sermon, prayers) and the Service of the Table (the Lord’s Supper) goes back to the 2nd century; the Lord’s Prayer was recited in churches as early as the 1st century;  some of our hymns and the observance and symbols of the church year such as Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter date to the mid 4th century.  To those who will listen, these songs, creeds, symbols and liturgies continue to speak powerfully. We need to hear and be shaped by them. 

At its best, a ‘traditional’ worship service consciously draws from this rich legacy such that the Holy Spirit brings life to the present.  If the Spirit is like a flowing river, the traditions of worship are the riverbed in which the Spirit flows.  That does not mean hymnals and organs cannot be replaced or supplemented with other forms of music or that new liturgies cannot develop.  Indeed, the ongoing flow of the Spirit in worship leads us to expect that the Spirit continues to inspire creativity and new expressions of faith,  but continuity with the stream of worship that flows from the past into the present is part of what it means to be included in “the communion of saints.” 

 I suspect the habit of describing worship services today as ‘traditional’ or ‘contemporary’ is too ingrained to change, but let’s recognize that all worship services have a tradition.  What might be best is for churches to so mix the elements and values of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ services such that the tradition is valued and celebrated in a way that engages (and challenges) the hearts, minds and imaginations of people of all ages. 


I’ve seen it happen.  When I was an associate chaplain at Bates College I had the privilege of leading weekly chapel services.  Thanks to the provision of a very talented pianist, our services developed into a rich mixture of a liturgy and prayers based on the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, African American Gospel music, Wesleyan hymns, interpretive dance, Hillsong choruses, Taize chants, various forms of congregational prayer, and weekly communion. 

Were we traditional?  Yes. 

Were we contemporary? Yes. 

Did we experience the presence of God?  Yes.

I hope our church – and all churches – will flow along in the riverbed of ‘tradition’  while being open to the  contemporary tributaries that may pour into it!
Bill Cutler

[1] Quote by Jaroslav Pelikan: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, trad…” (

[2] Justin Martyr: On Christian Worship – 150 A.D. (The Prayer Foundation)

[3] Early Church Hymns | Religious Affections Ministries: Conservative Christianity, Worship, Culture, Aesthetics, Classical Education, Homeschooling, Family