Pandering? How about communicating?

“Newcomers [here] won’t find a youth-oriented alternative service or pop-style music performed by a rock band. In other words, we haven’t really followed the high-tech, culturally accommodating formula that is said to have produced the megachurch phenomenon.” (1)

I’ve heard this sentiment in several places, stated several different ways, and I think it needs to be addressed. Perhaps I am mishearing the underlying message, but what comes through to me is “we don’t have to ‘dumb down’ our message with that pop culture stuff. It’s beneath us.”

The term “culturally accommodating” comes across to me as loaded with value judgments about the sanctity of Our Traditions and about the low worth of popular culture.

Does that sound smug? Condescending? Self-satisfied? It does to me. That’s because it puts forth whatever it is that goes on in that congregation as the One True Way, from which no deviation is needed or wanted.

But people are different – we have different tastes, backgrounds, eye colors, emotional and intellectual needs – and that’s one of the things that makes the world beautiful. So, when we say “we know the One True Way”, we also say “if you don’t find this fulfilling, you don’t belong here”.

Some people need the warm familiarity of tradition. Some people need a quiet hour of refuge from the roar of the world. For those people, the quiet, contemplative, intellectual worship is just the thing.

Other people want a place to rejoice at the beauty of the world, the beauty of community, the beauty of people making joyful sounds together. They want worship that connects directly to the heart more of the time. Those are the people for whom a “contemporary” worship is intended.

Both are valid, both are needed, each fills some worshipers with what they need. But one style doesn’t fit all. And to assume that it does is to dismiss the inherent worth and dignity of those who want an alternative. This, I believe, is a sentiment that keeps us from reaching all those who hunger for our message, but can’t get the package open.


1. Schuler, Michael. “Transformation”, in Belote, Thom (ed.), The Growing Church. Keys to Congregational Vitality, p. 2. (Boston: Skinner House Books.  2010.)


About liberalreligiongetsloud

Contemporary Music and Worship Director (retired), First Unitarian, Albuquerque NM
This entry was posted in contemporary worship and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Pandering? How about communicating?

  1. David says:

    Amen, Vance! I’m with you 100%.

    You and I both need to remember to watch our language, though–“traditional” worship does “connect directly to the heart” for a lot of people (though not me), and “contemporary” worshipcan provide a “quiet hour of refuge from the roar of the world” for others (I fall into this camp quite often). Etcetera….

    Just another facet of exactly the point you’re making: worship is (or should be) as diverse as worshipers.

    Preach on, bro! 😉

  2. Lizard Eater says:

    Amen, amen, amen.

    What is the implicit message that we give? “You’re welcome to be with us, as long as you change your tastes and opinions to match ours.”

    I believe in being missional. Which means that you speak the “language” of the community you wish to reach. Hymns from another century … or even from the 50’s-60’s … are not the native language of most people under the age of 50. Most people listen to rock, country, or r&b, not pipe organ.

    We can still love those old-style hymns. I do. But if we want a diverse religious community, we have to offer diverse musical styles.

  3. Andie says:

    Music is one of my personal hot button issues in worship. Why can’t we embrace a variety of music and styles of worship? What is spiritual for one person may not be spiritual for another — how does sticking to one way represent our values?

    I personally would like to be more engaged in worship through music — by clapping, singing with gusto, and fully participating.

    I’m looking forward to what you post in the future.


  4. Christine Robinson says:

    One thing that Schuller doesn’t know…since he hasn’t tried it…is that the congregation at “contemporary worship” is likely to be of all ages. It’s not particularly “youth oriented”. It is, rather, oriented to people who like secular music rather than traditionally churchy music and people who don’t care particularly for classical music.

    • Excellent point, Christine! The myth that “contemporary worship interests/attracts young people” has been proven incorrect at our own “rock service”, as well as the others I’ve attended. The number of 70-somethings is often higher than the 20-somethings in our services.

      To use educational jargon, it’s a matter of using different “learning styles” to speak to people.

  5. Meghan says:

    Interesting read, Vance.
    I agree. Daylene once told me that some people like square worship and some people like circular worship. (And some just like to be outside.)
    …It would be interesting to do a contemporary service outside on a nice day… but I digress…
    The message you referenced does seem to put in an implicit value-judgment on other types of worship, people who embrace technology, and also youth as a whole, I might add…
    What I read there is “We have no plans to embrace those who like alternative styles of worship, youth, or techo-geeks. Because if we did, we would become a megachurch.”

    While I personally am not a fan of the huge Megachurches in Albuquerque, I am a fan of youth-oriented alternative services, and usage of high technology. But is a megachurch really all that bad? Maybe we are just afraid of the ones we have seen, which -as far as I know- are all fundamentalist churches. But really, they seem to satisfy the needs of many people for worship. Do we dislike the idea because there would be too many people? If so, why are we embracing growth? I think we dislike something else about megachurches, but I’ll save that debate for another time…

    As we grow into a large and extra-large church, it seems that someday we will have to face the fact that we are on track to become a megachurch. But!….Just because a lot of people attend a church doesn’t mean that the worship experience has to be less valuable or less personal. We are creative folks, who will have to navigate new territory, but I think we can do it very well if we try.


    • Bob Hurst says:

      I think that a lot of us do dislike the megachurch concept, not because we like the idea of being small or contrarian, but because it seems somewhat anathema to our values. Whether it is true or not, many people including mainline Christians and UUs, see the megachurch as a dumbing down of theology and the raising of instantaneous experience above spiritual challenge and growth. Then there is that pesky reason thing that we seem to like.

      Our church is very traditional in its worship service. Frankly, I have never been to a UU church that is as traditional as we are. I sing in our choir, and we wear robes. Our choir has a definite bias toward traditional music. Our music director has brought in some contemporary music, but more is from the Christian tradition than from the many fine UU composers. So, are we a gray church? Not at all. We have people of all ages, so clearly our style is not keeping people away.

      For myself, I would like to see a mixture of music. I love the Fauret or Mozart Requiems. I would not wish to completely replace such music, nor would I wish to replace the organ and piano with a “praise band.” But, getting our oh so stodgy choir to let go of their music and get into the rhythm of something a bit more contemporary would add more variety to our services.

      • So, are we a gray church? Not at all. We have people of all ages, so clearly our style is not keeping people away.

        “Contemporary” worship has nothing to do with “young vs. old”. It’s about lowering cultural and style barriers that make people uncomfortable who aren’t already familiar with your rituals and traditions. Your style probably is keeping people away: the people who aren’t “in the know” and feel like they’re in a foreign culture when they enter your worship.

        many people including mainline Christians and UUs, see the megachurch as a dumbing down of theology and the raising of instantaneous experience above spiritual challenge and growth.

        Indeed, this is a gross misunderstanding of how megachurches work. I’ll leave the question of the level of the theology to others (but my feeling it that it’s no “higher” or “lower”, on average, than in any other Christian denomination).

        It is true that it’s rather hard to feel part of an intimate, loving community in a sanctuary with 5000 other people. But that’s not where community happens in megachurches. Small-group ministry is highly developed in these congregations, and they work very hard to make sure that everyone is connected to a small peer group as soon as they walk in the door. Those are the people they do Bible study with, go on mission trips with, etc. This may come more or less naturally in a UU congregation of 100 people, but it has to be carefully tended in very large congregations.

        So, megachurch does not automatically equal dumbed-down or impersonal. Is there a problem with worship going straight to the heart? I don’t think so.

        As Michael Durall points out, you can go to any number of other sources for the intellectual stuff. What gives a religious community an edge over a public library or the religion shelf at the bookshop? The heart stuff. If your congregation’s intimate life evolves naturally, without tending, then you might rightly expect your minister to focus on the intellectual side. There’s no reason why worship shouldn’t go for the heart, too. Isn’t that why we have worship music in the first place?

        Durall, Michael. Almost Church Revitalized: Envisioning the Future of Unitarian Universalism. Commonwealth Publishing Group, 2009.

  6. uuMomma says:

    Yes, Yes, Yes. Thank you for stating this.

    • Debra Guthrie says:

      Thank you so much!!! I was starting to lose faith in my religion. The whole idea that we are not open to the younger generation because they do not find “our” style of worship appealing was driving me away. I have shed many tears. I am so glad that there are others asking the same questions and coming up with the same conclusions.

  7. Ron Stevens says:

    Ironically, I’m being faced with generational and music genre issues in my attempts to develop a “UU-ish music” channel at Especially because the available music in their library is mostly secular (few choir cd’s), I’ve had to try to balance musical selections from folk, rock and gospel. What I’ve come up with is a highly eclectic mix that I’m not sure will quench the thirsts of too many UU’s. The common thread, of course, is our values…lots of love songs, freedom, inclusion, honesty, reason, justice, peace, etc. Looking for what might constitute a “UU song” has been a surprisingly good spiritual exercise for me. Thanks for this thought-provoking thread, and blog!


    • Ron, your list contained many songs I was unfamiliar with. Thanks! I’ve already bought a bunch of downloads from CDBaby and Amazon as a result.

      I play recorded music in a wide variety of styles as a prelude to our worship, and the ones that don’t go into our band’s repertoire will be played while people are entering and centering. Some folks have told me that this is one of their favorite parts of worship — discovering new (and modern) that rocks your soul is a thrill for them (and me).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s