Change of heart

LEWISTOWN – Weekly worship services aren’t the hymn-filled, formal occasions they used to be. Local demographics are changing, and area churches are evolving to meet the needs of younger generations.

Howard Houtz, senior pastor of Calvary Bible Church, in Lewistown, said the church offers both traditional and contemporary services weekly on Sundays.

“One of the things we key in on here is that people connect with God in different ways,” he said.

Younger generations don’t relate to the traditions established by their elders, he explained. Incorporating contemporary music into worship is one way the church tries to reach those – of all ages – who don’t connect with traditional worship. Houtz said church growth depends on its ability to adjust.

“That’s why churches are dying … they dig in their heels and refuse to change,” he said.

Churches in both Mifflin and Juniata counties are transitioning to more modern methods – or at least mixing them with tradition to reach a broader audience.

Amy Weller, administrative assistant of Cedar Grove Brethren in Christ Church, in Mifflintown, said 250 or more people attend weekly contemporary services at the church, compared to 100 or less at traditional services.

“I think it’s just meeting the different needs of the different people in the church,” she said.

At Cedar Grove, the difference between services is the music.

Weller described contemporary services as more upbeat worship, featuring songs by more commonly-known bands.

Other congregations have embraced present-day worship as the standard for their church.

“While we do incorporate hymns, a lot of times we’ll take a more contemporary version of them,” said Dave Purdy, lead pastor of Evangel Baptist Church, in Lewistown.

He said music at Evangel features drums and acoustic and bass guitar, instead of just piano and organ. Purdy said he believes contemporary worship is a more personal outreach to engage the hearts – not just the minds – of worshipers.

“It seemed like, for years, churches tried to avoid any emotion within a church service … almost viewing emotion as being something that was to be avoided and something that was wordly,” he explained. “God created us as emotional beings. He never intended emotions to be a separate part of who we are.”

Purdy said contemporary worship acknowledges that people are emotional beings.

Joshua Nuss, assistant pastor at Grace Covenant Church, in Lewistown, conveyed the same idea.

“A contemporary worship would tend to have more of the response from the person worshiping,” he said. “It’s kind of a heart connection, not just a mind.”

Nuss said incorporating modern music gives churchgoers the opportunity to respond to God in any way they feel appropriate. At Grace Covenant, he said guests may see worshippers dancing, raising their hands or bowing down to show appreciation.

Church leaders said contemporary worship across both counties tends to appeal to a younger generation, but people of every age can be found at services. Guidelines for attire is generally more casual than traditional services too – most described it as “come as you are” and “business casual or less.”

“Our purpose here is trying to create an environment where people can connect with God,” Houtz said. “Our goal is to promote the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Churches need to understand the times, he said. Traditional worship simply doesn’t appeal to everyone, and transitioning a church takes time.

“For someone who’s going to introduce contemporary worship into the church; do it slowly,” Houtz urged. “Know your audience, who you’re trying to target.”

He said the message remains the same, even when methods change.

“It’s not that we are saying that hymns are bad,” Purdy added. “The thing we recognize is that there is a lot of truth in the scripture that is found in the hymns.”

The same truth is communicated through contemporary music.

“The idea is that we just want to express our love for God in any way … to allow God to work in us and be unashamed of him,” Nuss said.

“I don’t see that there is a right way and a wrong way,” Purdy said. “I just see that as something that we feel appeals to a larger demographic of people.