Traditional worship style? Or contemporary?
Both – that’s the answer from many churches these days, as they try to stay competitive by offering spiritual consumers a choice.
But that usually means holding the traditional Sunday morning service – think robed choir – in a decades-old sanctuary, then setting up (and later breaking down) stacked chairs and portable screens in a church gym for a contemporary service featuring a Christian rock band.
That was the drill at Charlotte’s Christ Lutheran Church until last Sunday, when more than 1,500 worshipers showed up for the debut of the church’s new $13.4 million worship center.
The centerpiece of the new building: An expansive, state-of-the-art sanctuary – three times bigger than the old one – that will let the church on Providence Road be traditional and contemporary in the same space.
Christ Lutheran will still have two distinct services, but both will be in the new 1,000-seat sanctuary – a high-ceilinged space designed with both traditional and contemporary elements.
Traditional: Pews, kneelers, a stately organ, and an area (left of the altar) reserved for the choir
Contemporary: Individual cushioned seats in each pew, big screens to flash sing-along lyrics, ample stage space for dancers, and an area (right of the altar) reserved for the rock band.
Traditional and contemporary: A wooden pulpit, but one close to the people, not elevated above them. And a rough-hewn cross made of high-tech-looking aluminum.
“People like choices, people want high quality and, third, they want a religious experience,” said the Rev. Scott Suskovic, 52, senior pastor for 15 years. “We give people a choice. And whether they go traditional or contemporary, they will have a high-quality religious experience.”
The cross in the center
Translation: Christ Lutheran also wants the new sanctuary to be regarded as sacred space.
So, center-stage, during both traditional and contemporary services, will be the altar, the cross, the baptismal font and the pulpit – representing the four foundations of Christianity.
The music? The choir and band will both perform off to the sides.
“When we sat down with the architect (ADW Architects) to design the sanctuary, we told him specifically that we do not want a multi-purpose room, in which you have worship and then turn around and have a pot-luck. And we did not want a ‘black box,’ which really lent itself more to performance rather than participation,” Suskovic said.
“We wanted a sanctuary in the true sense of that word – a holy space. When people walk into the sanctuary, we want their first reaction to be a gasp, and feeling the presence of the holy. … Not like a European cathedral, but a personal holy space.”
There were gasps aplenty last Sunday. And though Suskovic presided at both the 9:15 a.m. and the 10:45 a.m., the two services couldn’t have been more different – at least stylistically.
At the traditional:
Suskovic and his associate pastors, all wearing traditional robes and stoles, marched down the middle aisle.
The congregation, most dressed in their Sunday best, sang along with the choir, decked out in their black albs, or robes, on such old-church classics as “I Love to Tell the Story” and “A Mighty Fortress.”
There were chants and readings from the Psalms, Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of St. Matthew.
At the contemporary:
The pastor, wearing a black blazer (sans tie), took to the stage. No opening procession. And no readings from Scripture, though Suskovic incorporated that message into his sermon.
Two children were baptized. Costumed, arm-waving dancers performed.
And those crowding the pews and the balcony, many in jeans and sneakers, applauded SpiritSong, the rock band, for their upbeat musical praises to Jesus – “So good, so good/You are good, all the time.”
A thriving church
Over the years, Christ Lutheran has thrived, even as many other churches in their mainline denomination – Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) – have struggled.
The average Sunday turnout at ELCA churches is about 120 people. It’s 10 times that at Christ Lutheran.
Average age at the Charlotte church: 32. It’s 59 in the typical ELCA church.
One big reason for his church’s growth, the Minnesota-born Suskovic said, is that it has learned how to satisfy those seeking middle ground.
Christ Lutheran, he said, has become a place where conservatives and liberals can worship together, where traditionalists and lovers of the contemporary can each find a service that speaks to them, and where couples who grew up in separate faiths can happily compromise.
“Less than 50 percent of our people come from Lutheran backgrounds,” Suskovic said. “Either people marry and one of them gets the church, or they’re of mixed backgrounds, they’re looking for something different, and we end up being the in-between, the compromise.”
In recent years, the ELCA, like other mainline denominations, has tangled over the issue of homosexuality, eventually voting to accept gays and lesbians into their clergy.
Suskovic, who publicly opposed the 2009 change, said Christ Lutheran has not stressed the issue since then – mostly because the congregation is divided.
“There are certainly people in the congregation who would be right in line with the ELCA, and there are others who were very much against the vote,” he said. “We have managed to walk that middle ground between those two poles.”
‘A reverent service’
Judging by the reaction last Sunday, members think the new sanctuary is, to echo the old fairy tale, not-too-cold, not-too-hot, but just-right.
“Overwhelming,” said Raymond Lindbergh, 88, a member since 1969 who moved to Charlotte decades ago to install alarms and security cameras at what were then NCNB banks. “I used to pick a spot in the old sanctuary – my (late) wife picked it. Now I’ll sit in the fifth pew back over here.”
The new worship space also got a thumbs up from Candace Roane, 35, a marketer for a mutual fund company who attended the contemporary service with her daughter, Caroline, 3.
“I won’t miss the gym,” said Roane, who grew up Pentecostal, married a Catholic and chose Christ Lutheran 10 years ago. “The facility is very warm and inviting. It has a relaxed feel but it’s a reverent service.”
For Benner Crigler and wife Trudie, who sat in one of the front pews at the traditional service, it’ll take some time for the new sanctuary to feel like their spiritual home.
Both in their 80s, they’re among Christ Lutheran’s founding members, a small group that started worshiping at what was then Queens College back in the mid-1950s. For most of their time at Christ Lutheran, their Sunday destination was the 350-seat sanctuary built in 1973.
The Criglers said they’ll miss it, but are glad it will still be used for special occasions like weddings, Lenten services and funerals – including their own, the couple said.
But looking out at the new sanctuary Sunday, they agreed that it was an impressive sight.
“Fantastic,” she said.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “Very modern. … They did a good job.”
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