More churches reach out with contemporary services


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The staid, brick walls of Lebanon Presbyterian Church are transformed on Sunday nights, when the lights dim and hymns give way to electric guitars. Two projection screens glow, flashing song lyrics and sermonic messages. Bass reverbs through the pews.

For the 233-year-old church in West Mifflin, the weekly "contemporary" service is one of many strides into the 21st century: The church has a Twitter page, a Facebook group and a blog; the Rev. Bob Titus' sermons, which are published as podcasts, are downloaded tens of thousands of times and are particularly popular with Internet users in China.

But on Sunday mornings, the congregation still gathers for a traditional service, anchored by a liturgy followed for generations.

"We never lift one above the other and say, 'This is better, this is worse,' " said the Rev. Titus, 51.

A 2008 survey by the Barna Group, a research firm that focuses on faith and culture, found that 65 percent of Protestant churches in the United States now use a large projection screen, up from 39 percent in 2000. More churches are using the Internet to spread Scripture than ever before, too.

As local Protestant leaders labor to find a balance between old and new, Lebanon Presbyterian Church's solution -- creating a separate service altogether -- is becoming less unusual.

Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in McCandless offers a contemporary service on Saturday night in addition to three traditional services on Sunday mornings.

Sewickley United Methodist Church and Beverly Heights Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon both offer two Sunday morning services -- one traditional and one contemporary.

And First United Methodist Church in Shadyside suspended its contemporary service four years ago to develop a malleable Wednesday night "worship jam" -- a medley of improvisational chanting, drumming and dancing. The Rev. Gail Ransom calls the service "post-contemporary." The church still offers a traditional service on Sunday mornings.

"There's no reason to take away something that's meaningful to people," the Rev. Ransom said. "You want to do something new? Then do something completely new."

Lebanon Presbyterian hosts about 250 people each Sunday, the Rev. Titus said. Depending on their personal preferences and schedules, some attend either the morning or the evening service; others attend both.

If the church had tried to create one service that wedded traditional and contemporary styles, it would have frustrated everyone, said Praise Worship Coordinator Paul Housman.

Many parishioners prefer the morning worship, the Rev. Titus said. "Its more formal, and some people really respond to that," he said.

The contemporary service, he said, is "experiential."

"High energy," said Joshua Bilsky, 29, who coordinates the church's online content.

There's "more of a happiness," said Penny Sabolsky, 51, who started attending the church a few months ago. She said she liked that people greet each other as part of the service, which made her feel welcome.

"It makes our kids come," said Janet Tennies, whose 16- and 14-year-old children love the praise band, a group of church members who play religious music with a rock 'n' roll sound.

On a recent Sunday night, the audience in the contemporary service spanned all ages. There were young men in jerseys and middle-aged couples with children. A gray-suited man with white hair stood steadily, clutching a cane.

Virginia Miller, 85, who has been a member of the church for more than 60 years, said she attends the contemporary service and the traditional service.

"I love both, because they're both ways to worship the Lord," she said.

But Ms. Miller's magnanimous view is hardly universal. Mainline churches that offer a contemporary service face many challenges, from convincing skeptical parishioners that technology is an asset to preventing schisms in the church community.

"Change can be difficult, especially when you don't know where it's taking you," the Rev. Titus said.

The Rev. Ransom said the decades-old idea that "everyone should come in at 11 a.m. and do the same thing" is hard to dispel.

"It takes churches a while to get past that, to say, 'Our sameness is not about what we do on Sunday, but what we believe, and what feeds us in our belief,' " she said.

"We're still one faith community," Mr. Bilsky said.

The 400-member Beverly Heights Presbyterian Church was particularly concerned that the content of its contemporary service not shift with its style: that it remain "accurate, true, biblical," said the Rev. Nate Devlin, associate pastor.

"We actually try very hard to eliminate some of the distinctions that others would try to make between contemporary and traditional," he said. "What we discovered was that there was a lot of other attending issues that came with the so-called 'contemporary' service, a lot of other perspectives and beliefs -- many of which we've rejected."

The Rev. Titus remembered one Lebanon Presbyerian member who was especially vexed when he saw the new projection screens.

"He thought it looked like we were going to be showing beer commercials," he said.

Now, Lebanon Presbyterian uses the screens during its traditional service, too, to project hymn lyrics and prayers.

"I think that traditional churches are going to have to start to pull themselves into the technological age," Mr. Bilsky said. "If not, they're going to be left behind."

Lebanon Presbyterian is moving carefully.

Mike Carney, who has been a member of the church for three years, cautiously lauded the steady trickle of change.

"I'm like Mr. low-tech," he said. "I have a Twitter account that I never use."

Mr. Carney, 59, of Elizabeth, said he prefers to attend the traditional service. But he likes the contemporary service, too.

"I think it touches people in different ways," he said.

When the praise band finished playing during a recent contemporary service, the Rev. Titus stepped to the front of the room to preach, wearing khakis and a button-down shirt.

The lights flickered on, and the members of the praise band blinked and dispersed.

I love both, [the contemporary and the traditional services]because they're both ways to worship the Lord."

-- Virginia Miller, 85


Correction/Clarification: (Published Dec. 23, 2009) Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in McCandless holds three traditional services on Sunday mornings. This story as originally published Dec. 20, 2009 misstated the number of traditional services.

Vivian Nereim can be reached at vnereim@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413.


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