By Ron Sellers
Worship styles are becoming more contemporary and diverse for the typical Protestant church in the United States. A nationwide study conducted exclusively for Facts & Trends showed churches moving toward more contemporary worship styles outpaced those moving to more traditional styles by an 11-to-1 margin.
The study was conducted by Ellison Research of Phoenix, Ariz., among a representative sample of 659 senior pastors in Protestant churches across the United States.
More than half are changing
Fifty-one percent of all ministers said their churchʼs worship style has become more contemporary over the last five years, including 15 percent who said it had become a lot more contemporary, and 36 percent who said it had become a little more contemporary. Just 5 percent said their style has become more traditional recently, while 44 percent said their worship style has not changed.
Change is least common among small churches. Sixty-three percent of churches with 100 or more in attendance in a typical week had grown more contemporary in the last five years, including 20 percent that had become a lot more contemporary. Just 38 percent of the smallest churches (average attendance below 100 people) had become more contemporary.
Southern Baptist churches were somewhat more likely than average to be moving toward a more contemporary style. Sixty-two percent of SBC churches had become more contemporary recently, compared to 50 percent of churches in all other Protestant denominations.
Use of technology, arts increasing
The study also analyzed specific worship elements churches are including in their services at least once a month. Of 17 different elements evaluated, most had seen at least some increase of use. The greatest growth was in:
- Video clip usage in the service (up 625 percent from five years ago)
- PowerPoint or similar graphic presentations (up 620 percent)
- Christian rock, pop or country music (up 178 percent)
- Praise and worship choruses (up 95 percent)
- Drama sketches or skits (up 83 percent)
- Childrenʼs sermons or childrenʼs worship services (up 38 percent).
Even though the greatest growth was in contemporary elements such as drama and video clips, there was still growth in some of the most traditional elements of worship. Passing an offering plate or basket was up 19 percent, using printed worship bulletins was up 25 percent and using traditional hymns was up 17 percent, for example.
More diversity in worship
Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, pointed out that this suggests considerably more diversity in worship, rather than just a wholesale move toward contemporary styles. “It appears that there is a lot more of a mixture in the typical church today than just five years ago,” he said.
“Today, a service might include a drama sketch, an altar call, a centuries-old hymn and a brand-new praise chorus. Or, a church might offer multiple services, each with its own style.”
Sellers also cautioned that this growing diversity puts more stress on already-stretched church resources. “Pastors or worship leaders canʼt just select five songs out of their hymnbook any more,” he said.
“Now, they have to search for new worship resources or develop them in-house. They canʼt just prepare a sermon — many now have to get it programmed in PowerPoint. Plus, churches are starting to need expensive computer and projection equipment, actors, more musicians, writers … this all means more time, more expense and more volunteer help are necessary today than was the case just five years ago.”
One thing that has not changed is sermon length. The average church sermon lasts 31 minutes — identical to five years ago. The average sermon length in SBC churches was 32 minutes — slightly longer than average, but shorter than among Pentecostals (40 minutes) and non-SBC Baptists (35 minutes), while longer than among Methodists (22 minutes) or Lutherans (20 minutes). (The study included all Protestant denominations, but these were the denominational groups with enough respondents to provide separate, statistically reliable findings.)
Southern Baptist worship services differed from the average Protestant church in a number of areas, and they tended to use more of a variety of elements. SBC churches were more likely than other denominations to use altar calls (97 percent to 63 percent), traditional hymns (96 percent to 88 percent), printed bulletins (93 percent to 84 percent), praise and worship choruses (89 percent to 72 percent), a choir (76 percent to 61 percent), PowerPoint graphics (44 percent to 35 percent), video clips (41 percent to 28 percent), and offer Sunday evening worship services (82 percent to 48 percent). SBC churches were less likely than others to use congregational readings (40 percent to 53 percent) and communion celebrations (75 percent to 91 percent) in a typical month.
Ron Sellers is president of Ellison Research.