Planting a Church with Two Different Worship Styles

January 5th, 2011

It was little more than a postscript to a lecture, but it struck a chord. “Somebody,” he said, “ought to launch a church with two different services from the beginning, and the contemporary service should be at the later time.” With so many churches struggling to add a more contemporary service to their long-established Sunday schedule in which traditional worship got the prime time slot, the speaker's remark just made so much sense. The possibilities began to take shape.

It's all in the numbers

“The facts, ma'am, just the facts,” as Sergeant Joe Friday from the old TV series Dragnet would say. One of the mandates for new faith communities is to intentionally position themselves to meet the perceived needs of their community. When Wellspring, a United Methodist Community of Faith in Georgetown, Texas, was in the formation stage, the Core Group quickly learned that demographic studies are the breakfast of champions.

Georgetown's demographic studies told us:

  1. Georgetown was 14% United Methodist-inclined (5% above the national average).

  2. On any given Sunday 82% of folks who profess to believe in God do not attend worship.

  3. 66% of that 82% were open to church. One third of that 66% indicated a preference for traditional worship. One third indicated a preference for “upbeat” worship with contemporary Christian music. The remainder had no stated preference.

  4. The retirees, urbanites moving out of Austin, Texas (located 25 miles south), and families with young children and youth would continue to move into planned communities and subdivisions, swelling the population of the immediate five mile radius surrounding Wellspring.

Can two different styles thrive?

In the beginning, the challenge was to envision a community of faith that, from the day it launched, made a place for two distinctly different styles of music and worship. The most natural thing in the world is to believe that others are like us, including our preferred style of music and worship. What we quickly discovered is this: the “heart music” for some is, unfortunately, the “headache music” for others.

In the end, however, it was the diversity within the Core Group and the strength of the demographic studies that helped us see beyond our personal experiences and preferences to what was not only possible, but necessary: launching Wellspring, a United Methodist Community of Faith, with two different worship experiences, one traditional and one “contemporary.”

“Do you want your grandkids to go to church?”

Then came the discussion of the times for the worship experiences. Even with unlimited possibilities to form this new community of faith, we still tended to rely on our experience. Most contemporary services have been added to an already existing morning worship schedule in established churches, either at the earliest time or concurrent with the traditional Sunday school hour. In many cases, this is an excellent example of doing what is easy rather than what is right. Think of it: those most likely to be attracted to a contemporary style of worship are primarily youth and younger families. They are also the very ones who are much less likely to get themselves up to attend an early worship service.

Conversely, the older generations are often the ones who are accustomed to rising early; they also believe in sacrificing for the good of the many. Untold numbers of them have children and grandchildren who are not attending church. When they realized what attracts the younger generations to church (lively non-traditional music, relevant sermons, excellent programs, et al), they (well, most of them, anyway) willingly sacrificed their prime-time worship slot for the good of the cause.

Counting the cost

As with any new endeavor, planners must count the cost. In our case, the cost was two-fold: time and money.

In human terms, launching with two different styles of worship meant two set ups of the worship center. (We met for over five years in a middle school cafetorium.) It meant recruiting a choir and a worship team. It meant two planning sessions and two practice sessions. It meant producing two different worship guides. It meant power point presentations for one and not for the other. It meant two different styles of presenting the message. It also meant that all of these details had to be working exquisitely before the first worship service, before the first person ever joined as a member.

Additionally, it meant being able to fund the acquisition of instruments, equipment, and technology far in excess of what would be needed for just a traditional worship experience.

The nay-sayers

“How can you be sure enough people will come to warrant two services?”

“Why don't we start with one and then, when we need to, add another one?”

“If we have two worship services from the beginning, we won't be able to know everybody.”

“How will people know which service to come to?”

“Why can't we all just compromise on one kind of worship (mine)?”

New churches attract a high population of pioneers, but the settlers are not far behind. Most of the challenges were from the settlers, those who wanted to model this new church after their very best church experience. Thank God the Core Group was united behind the vision of a new thing God would create. Even so, there were some tense times in the ol' corral until launch day when 285 people appeared, sorted themselves out between the two different services with Sunday School between, and a healthy, new worshiping community of faith was born.

The challenge of change

As time went by, another intense look at the demographics revealed a strong segment of the younger families who preferred very traditional worship, including weekly communion. These were among those who prefer to linger over their Starbucks and sports section on Sunday mornings rather than charging out of the house early like they do the rest of the week. These were among those who often start their church experience as “one hour” families, sending their children to Sunday school while they worship. As they are discipled in the faith, however, often they see the importance of growing in depth in their walk with God and become “two hour” families, finding their way to an adult Sunday school class. Clearly they were not impressed with our early morning traditional worship service because our census did not reflect the demographics in the community. Additionally, from within our own community of faith, a voice from a much smaller population registered a need for quiet, reflective, prayerful, almost contemplative worship.

Then we had a real problem! So the question became: Do we continue to meet the needs of the community or be happy with what we've got? There was strong resistance to having anything that would “compete” with Sunday school. For that segment of Wellspring, it was as if God intended Sunday School to be between two worship services only and any other configuration was, well, unthinkable. Lots of grousing and grumbling from the settlers continued, as did the needs.

Three years after launch, we moved the early traditional worship service to the middle hour concurrent with Sunday school, added a reflective style worship experience at the early hour, and an adult class together with a broadly graded class for children concurrent with the latest worship service. Anticipating the growth that comes when a new church finally moves into a permanent space, we occupied the new building with four worship experiences: a traditional worship service was added at the early time slot concurrent with the reflective service which meets in an upstairs chapel. A traditional worship service with communion was offered at the middle hour, and the contemporary service remains at the latest hour.

After eight years, Wellspring now has almost 700 members, four different worshiping experiences, and three different Sunday school times. Thanks be to God!

Looking back to look forward

By now you may be asking: If we had the opportunity to do it all over again, knowing what we know now, would we do it the same way again?” The answer is an emphatic “yes!” and “no!”

Yes, if the demographic studies strongly indicate a dual preference of worship experience styles.

Yes, if the funding is adequate to do everything with excellence.

Yes, if the Core Group owns the vision.

Yes, if the leadership steps forward to meet the needs.

I would change one thing. I would pray long and hard about the possibility of beginning with two consecutive worship experiences accompanied by a Sunday school at both hours (which we did not do). It definitely would be a huge challenge, but the DNA of the new community of faith would be set so as to expect concurrent worshiping and learning times. In the long run, I believe such a configuration would be advantageous.

God is faithful and stronger than any fear we have. Allowing room for God to work, perhaps in new ways, is crucial for any church. Trust. Pray. Listen. Obey. And be blessed.


Nancy Woods is founding pastor of Wellspring, a United Methodist Community of Faith in Georgetown, Texas, where she served for seven years. Nancy also is a frequent lecturer and consultant in the area of congregational development. This article originally appeared in Circuit Rider magazine.

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