The Suburbanite
  • Churches changing ways

  • Choosing a church can be like choosing a cable provider to some, with endless options tailored to a person’s specific needs and interests. Some people like to stick to tradition, while others want to venture beyond convention.

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  • Choosing a church can be like choosing a cable provider to some, with endless options tailored to a person’s specific needs and interests. A Yellow Pages search turned up nearly 1,000 churches in the greater Akron area. These spaces of worship include churches of all denominations, from Catholic to Lutheran to Baptist and nondenominational that offer a wide range of service types. Some people like to stick to tradition, while others want to venture beyond convention.
    Senior Pastor Butch Pursley knew when he helped to start Maranatha Bible Church in 1995 that modernity was key. Pursley said Maranatha, a nondenominational church on Killian Road, hosts three Sunday services, each one geared more toward new-age worship styles, with a particular focus on music.
    “When I grew up in church, it was very common that you would have an organ and a piano,” Pursley said. “Several years ago, a survey was done for how many people listen to organ music in their cars, and it was less than 1 percent of the population.”
    Pursley said the style of music at Maranatha reflects the culture that people are coming from, and that the church’s musical ensemble includes a piano, a keyboard, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, bass guitars, drums and even violins. One Sunday a month, the church hosts an orchestra, which Pursley believes helps to add a traditional element to those services.
    At Maranatha, big screens project song lyrics so congregation members don’t have to use a hymnal, a facet of service that helps with continuity, Pursley said.
    “The congregation is very much actively involved in the singing and the worship service,” Pursley said. “In some churches, when you’re talking about this more contemporary feel to them, it’s sort of like you come in and watch a performance on the stage. This is not what we have. At Maranatha, you would be very involved in the service, so it’s not a show, its just bringing everybody together to worship God.”
    Pursley said between 1,700 and 1,800 people show up to a typical Sunday service, a number that he believes is growing because of the church’s emphasis on contemporary worship. He considers their service style “alive” and believes that is a major draw for 21st century church-goers.
    At Akron’s Bridge and Temple, once better known as the Akron Baptist Temple on Manchester Road in Akron, congregation members don’t have to lean one way or another. The church offers two services: a more traditional service called “Temple,” and a more modern-day service called “Bridge,” said contemporary service worship leader Sean McNeill.
    McNeill said that about five years ago, the church decided to veer away from tradition to make way for more contemporary styles, but kept a more conventional service geared toward the people who helped build the church. Thus, the re-branding of Akron Baptist Temple to Akron’s Bridge and Temple (ABT) began. McNeill also noted that with the changing of names, the church hoped to welcome people of other denominations, not just Baptists.
    Page 2 of 3 - “Our world is a constantly changing environment, and we found that a lot of people have left church because it wasn’t relevant in their life, so we wanted to bring it to people in a way that they could understand culturally,” said McNeill, who also directs music at ABT.
    McNeill said the distribution between the Bridge and Temple services are about even, but attendance is trending toward the Bridge, the church’s more contemporary worship.
    While McNeill’s primary focus is music, he said modern worship isn’t entirely contingent upon that.
    “It’s a common misconception that it boils down to just the musical style,” McNeill said. “We’re trying to create an environment where people can come and hear the Bible truth without feeling like they don’t fit in, and church can tend to take on a country club mentality where members know how to behave and nonmembers don’t, and it’s an unsaid thing. We’re trying to create an environment where it’s an inclusive mentality where people don’t feel like they’re an insider or an outsider.”
    Still, McNeill said ABT’s Bridge service stands out to many people because many of the songs used in worship are Top 40 hits or songs written in the past five or 10 years.
    “Music is a language like English or Spanish, so it’s the same thing with musical style,” McNeill said. “We take the same truth that’s more traditional, and then we basically say the same thing in a different language. We’ve reached a lot of younger people that we would not have reached in the other way.”
    Rev. Jack Kozak, the 17-year pastor at Hope Lutheran Church on Portage Lakes Drive, maintains a different perspective on fads. At Hope, Kozak wears traditional Lutheran vestments while a pipe organ plays century-old music. There is one Sunday service that is entirely traditional. Congregation members use hymnals, and there is no sign of technology, let alone a big-screen projector, in the sanctuary.
    “Lutherans have a very rich tradition of liturgy and hymnody that expresses our doctrine,” Kozak said. “I believe it is important to preserve these traditions and use them exclusively. Therefore, I do not bring the latest fads, programs or worship styles into Hope.”
    Kozak said the age-old practices are essential to the congregation, but despite that, the church recognizes they must update their practices with time.
    “That does not mean to say we are stuck in 1951,” Kozak said. “The Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) adopted a new hymnal in 2006 that Hope now uses. It is primarily traditional Lutheran hymns that have been in use for a long time.”
    The church also adopted a new translation of the Bible, the English Standard Version, in recent years.
    Page 3 of 3 - Kozak also said that when Hope Lutheran was established, the custom was for pastors to wear a suit and tie and to conduct services vested in a black academic robe.
    “Now it’s more common for our pastors to wear clerical collars and traditional liturgical vestments,” he said.
    The church also upgraded from an electronic organ to a pipe organ in recent years, furthering the experience for members of Hope.
    “Sometimes we get visitors who are seeking a more contemporary experience,” Kozak said. “They will not get this at Hope, so they do not return. (But) just last Sunday, we had visitors here who expressed their pleasure in our traditional liturgy and hymnody.”
    The trend towards modernity falls in line with a pattern of tradition itself. Maranatha, for example, is considered “nondenominational” – a designation marked by modernity, since these churches do not align themselves with any certain established denomination, which typically comes with stronger religious traditions. They do not fall under any governing body, like Hope Lutheran (Missouri Synod) or a Catholic church might.
    McNeill said worship trends tend to follow certain denominations, but that is certainly not a rule.
    “You have your mainline protestant churches that are probably more traditional, and they see declining attendance, and then you have your Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist churches that are changing to a lot more contemporary services,” McNeill said. “But I would say it’s very cross-denominational. It boils down to each local church that decides whether they’re going to be relevant and try to reach people where they’re at or try to reach people in the commonly accepted worship practice.”
    Kozak agreed.
    “The days are gone when the sign in front of the church told you all you needed to know,” Kozak said. “There is no distinguishing formula anymore.”

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