How We Worship: Traditional or contemporary? It’s a matter of style and preference

Kevin Mills grew up at Vineville Baptist Church in Macon. He attended the traditional worship services with his family and friends.

Folks dressed in their “Sunday best,” sat in the pews and admired the beautiful stained-glass windows of the stately brick church.

Founded in 1891, the Baptist church is located on the corner of Vineville Avenue at the intersection of Pierce Avenue -- named after a Methodist bishop -- and Pio Nono Avenue, named after a Catholic priest.

For the past eight years, Mills has been lead pastor at Northway Church on Zebulon Road, a church that began as a satellite congregation of Vineville in July 1998. It was known as Vineville North Baptist Church (or Vineville Baptist, North Campus) until Easter Sunday 2009, when it became Northway. It is no longer affiliated with its mother church.

Worship services that are rooted in tradition, like Vineville, or with a modern flair, like Northway, are choices both churches and churchgoers must make.

It’s like being asked if you want paper or plastic in the checkout line at the grocery store. Or using a Kindle or iPad instead of turning pages the old-fashioned way.

Many Protestant churches across Middle Georgia have followed the same style and order of worship for generations. They sing the “Doxology” and “Gloria Patri.” They recite the Apostles Creed and Lord’s Prayer.

Others have opted for a more contemporary or modern worship style to try to reach younger congregations. Worshippers often come as they are in dress-down and casual clothes. Music is led by “praise bands,” rather than choirs, and songs are often projected on large screens rather than sung from hymnals.

Some churches have “blended” or “mixed” services, with a combination of contemporary and traditional approaches. And several larger churches have the resources to offer both a contemporary and traditional service on Sunday mornings.

“When churches use the terms traditional, contemporary or blended, it all depends on who you’re standing next to,” Mills said. “I prefer to use the word ‘modern’ instead of ‘contemporary.’ What was contemporary in the 1990s is no longer that way, but people still use the label. Worship changes and evolves. I love traditional worship. I grew up with it. But I also really love what we do here.”

At the time Northway grew out of Vineville, the issue was space, not pedigree. Vineville Baptist was landlocked by busy streets and neighborhoods. A study committee looked at several options, including building a parking deck or moving the church to another location.

Using the megachurch models of both Perimeter Church in Atlanta and Saddleback Church in California (made famous by author Rick Warren), the church “planted” Vineville North on Zebulon Road across from Carter Elementary School. The timing could not have been more ideal. Within a few years, major shopping centers, restaurants and nearby retirement communities took root in the area.

Mills said demographics for the area showed a high population of young Generation X families with children.

“More than 60 percent of them did not attend church, so it was believed that contemporary worship was the best way to reach them,” Mills said.

In the beginning, Ben Haygood served as pastor for both congregations, traveling the 6.5 miles between the two churches on Sunday mornings. After 11 years, the north campus of Vineville Baptist evolved into its own church. The name changed to Northway, to avoid confusion and create its own identity. Northway kept its Southern Baptist affiliation.

Mills is grateful for Northway’s charter members who came from Vineville and remained loyal to the new church’s vision.

“It may not have been the worship style they grew up with or what they identified with the most,” he said. “But they have been champions of our worship, even if it’s not their cup of tea.”

Northway has 920 members and a worship center that seats 650. Mills said an average of 900 to 1,000 people (including children) attend the church’s two services on Sunday mornings.

“When I preach, I try not to use the language of Zion,” he said. “I try not to assume anything. We once had someone come to church who did not know there was an Old Testament and New Testament. Sometimes, in traditional service, you’ve got to know the ritual. It’s like being in a fraternity and knowing the handshake. Our services are seeker sensitive. If you are new and clueless, you will not feel lost.”


Those who have not attended church in years might be surprised at the sleek look and feel of the more modern houses of worship.

Northway has theater seating instead of pews. A stage serves as the altar and pulpit.

“It doesn’t feel traditional,” said Mills. “It’s more like a hotel ballroom.”

Music is directed by a worship leader. There is no choir loft. A praise band includes guitars, drums and keyboards. Sometimes an old hymn will be sung -- or an old hymn that has been rewritten in modern style.

“It’s not uncommon for us to sing a song written three months ago, as well as one written 300 years ago.” Mills said. “We are more interested in the theological content of the song than who wrote it or when it was written.”

Barry Collins, the pastor of worship at First Baptist Church of Gray, has been involved in music ministry since 1982. The music at FBC Gray is a blend of traditional and contemporary music, with a wide range of instruments.

“My goal every week is to simply lead God’s people in worship, share the unending love of Jesus and pray for the Holy Spirit to work in people’s lives,” Collins said. “If it takes a gospel hymn, I use it. If it takes a new hot-off-the-press contemporary song, I use it. If it takes a traditional hymn, I use it.

“I never think, ‘Oh my, last week I used two traditional gospel hymns. I had better use more contemporary worship music this week so those people will like me.’ People have their preferred musical tastes and styles. I have never taught church musicians that we have to make sure everyone gets their music fix on Sundays. We are simply to lead worship.”

First United Methodist of Warner Robins on North Davis Drive was founded in 1941, the same year construction began at Robins Air Force Base and a year before the city was chartered.

Services are mostly traditional, but pastor Ken Morgan refers to it as “blended.” The sanctuary is traditional. There are stained-glass windows. There are acolytes. He wears an alb (vestment or clergy robe) on Sunday mornings.

But, while there is a choir and hymn books, the services also include a praise band. Visual elements, such as the words to a hymn, are displayed on an overhead screen, along with Scripture and video.

“A traditional worship service or environment speaks strongly to some people,” Morgan said. “It may be who they are or what they’ve grown up in or just their preference.

“One of my favorite quotes is from Rick Warren. He was talking about church denominations, but I also think it’s true of worship styles. He said there’s a reason why Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavors of ice cream. Not everybody likes vanilla ... but a lot of people do.”

Morgan said we all have different ways to connect with and worship God.

“There is a place for variety of different worship styles that are out there,” he said. “It all comes back to is what being offered to lead us into the presence of Jesus. It may be a traditional hymn and an organ for some folks. Or a guitar and a band for somebody else.

“If it leads us to glorify God, to worship Jesus and be filled with his spirit, I think that is what God desires.”

Contact Ed Grisamore at 744-4275 or