By Dustin Jayroe // Photos By Jamison Mosley
The clock strikes the top of the hour. Lights dim and a curtain of silence envelops the hundreds of seated attendance, each with eyes locked on a stage filled now with only silhouettes. After a few longing moments of lull pass, a single guitar riff pierces the reticence and illuminates a musician in a perfectly timed spot of light. Behind him, a snare begins to clap, complementing the electric beat. A climactic moment of tune finally curbs the suspense and illuminates the entire stage in one blazing note.
Blue- and green-tinted strobes join the luminance, bouncing perfectly to the rhythm. A trio of vocalists center stage begins to belt out the lyrics of a familiar song that the crowd knows well: “How Great is Our God.”
But as choreographed and well produced as this musical act is, this is not some concert of a touring Christian rock band; it’s a Sunday morning worship service. There is no box office collecting money for tickets at the entrance, rather, dozens of buckets passed from row to row for weekly tithes. And the venue is not Simmons Bank Arena or Robinson Center, but the aesthetic of the room is much closer to those than our traditional perceptions would assume when we think of the place this is all happening within — church.
The way we act upon our faith has changed dramatically over the years. A church service from even 100 years ago would be a far cry from the ones of some two thousand years ago. But over the past couple of decades, the worship styles have, in some cases, modernized even faster than before, beyond simply the inclusion of guitars and hand cymbals or an organ.
And in most cases, these contemporary epicenters of the new age have been met with thunderous applause. Trailblazers of modern worship, many of which are affiliated to no denomination, such as New Life Church, have burst onto the scene — and in just a few years, have busted their own seams so much that the construction workers can’t keep up with all the new locations.
Either in spite of, or because of, these recent transcendences to the stylish service, the Baptist family has remained the lion of both Arkansas’ protestant demographic and simply Christians as a whole, representing 27 percent of the religion between both evangelical and mainline beliefs. It’s hard to question why. The services of Baptist churches were already well equipped for such modernization, already fit with instruments and well established in the southern landscape.
But what about everyone else? In a time where, by many accounts, the amount of offerings and tithes is decreasing, so too are the amount of practicing Christians. According to the Pew Research Center, the amount of adults in the United States who identify as Christians is at 65 percent as of 2019, down from 77 percent in 2009. There are fewer in the pool, and now, more competition from new affiliations. Is this the looming death of traditional worship?
Not so fast. Plenty are adapting, while still holding true to their original values.
In the Methodist community, one that is stapled on its traditional traits of architecture, white robes and musical notes complementing hymns, many churches have seamlessly transitioned to appease current appeals. One such church leading that charge is Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church (PHUMC) in Little Rock.
Like many of its flame-bannered colleagues of the United Methodist Church, PHUMC offers both traditional and contemporary worship services on Sundays, both at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., respectively. The traditional service is held in the sanctuary, where wooden beams and beautiful stained glass sit above a congregation of well-dressed, all singing hymns to the melody of a pipe organ. In Wesley Hall, where the contemporary service — or modern worship — New Heights is held, the landscape couldn’t look more different. Absent of pews, individual chairs all face a raised stage where guitars, drums and a keyboard fill the air beside the voices of the casually dressed crowd.
Concerning offerings, PHUMC has joined many others within the Christian religion in providing updated, virtual ways to give in a world where many don’t carry cash or checks anymore. The church still passes offering plates every Sunday, but also offers an electronic funds transfer, text-to-give and PayPal, each of which is especially useful for its even larger base of congregants who watch the televised service on KATV. Recently, it has installed digital giving kiosks, stationed within the church, that take credit and debit cards. It is an interesting sight; there are majestic pillars that reach to high vaulted ceilings, in this historic building that is older than many of its congregants — and within that history, a kiosk that looks more like an ATM than a tribute to God’s splendor. It’s a necessary balance.
“The church shouldn’t make it harder to give,” says Rev. Jay Clark, a pastor at PHUMC. “If people want to give to the church, we’re grateful — that people want to give to God and the ministries of the church.”
Rev. Clark notes there may be some pushback from their more traditionally inclined crowd, but at the end of the day, any adaptations the church makes are part of a bigger cause.
“I think that if people use them, then great,” he says of the kiosks. “Because it makes ministry easier to do. That dollar can go way beyond the corner of Woodlawn and Monroe [the church’s physical location].”
But the United Methodist Church, relatively speaking, is also well suited for adaptation. There are other denominations with traditions that remain rooted in history, lying at the opposite end of the spectrum from some of these modern changes. One of those is the Church of Christ.
The Church of Christ denomination is perhaps most easily distinguished by its a cappella style song worship — you won’t find a single instrument in any true Churches of Christ. Regarding the popular concert-like settings of some of the most modern services of today, many within the denomination have their feet planted firmly in the sand, well behind the line drawn years ago.
“Historically, Churches of Christ have been very much in line with Orthodox Christian beliefs,” says Chuck Monan, minister at Pinnacle Church of Christ in Little Rock, and the famed “Pigskin Preacher” on 103.7 the Buzz radio station. “Our services are pretty simple, even to the point of having a cappella singing. We have communion every Sunday; we read scripture; we pray; we have a sermon. Those are practices that the earliest Christians from 2,000 years ago were following … We’re upfront: This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what we’ve always done. We’re going to continue to do that.”
Even still, Monan’s congregation has remained steady, strong, even. It may lie incongruent with some assessments, but there is still plenty of market for him and his colleagues, and the fact that the Church of Christ style is so counter to the change, is so unwavering and historic, might itself be a selling point. For, at the end of the day, people are going to worship how they want to.
“I think every congregation, every house of worship, offers something unique,” says Rev. Clark. “People go there because they found something.”
Monan sees it a little differently in specifics but still with a relative agreement.
“I think what it’s tied to is a consumer mindset in Christianity,” he says. “People look at churches today the way they would look at patronizing a business or a restaurant or buying a car. They’re going to get what they want and what they think is something that would be compatible with their lifestyle or their beliefs or their ethics. People go to have things done the way they want them done.”
An analogy that Monan provides sums up the debate as well as any. Most households have an iPad, Kindle and/or smartphone where they conduct the majority of their reading — be it news, books or scripture. But, that hasn’t meant the complete eradication of books with paper and binding. Books continue to serve their purpose. And, in his mind, the fact that books aren’t going anywhere also can be said for churches that are based on an ancient doctrine.
But he doesn’t feel out of touch and still finds his own ways to adapt.
“If you come and hear a typical sermon that I would preach, you’re going to get a bunch of Bible in there. There’s going to be a bunch of biblical explanation. There’s going to be a bunch of biblical application. At the same time, there’s going to be a bunch of things from history and from modern culture that you would probably smile at, too.
“I figure if there’s some way to illustrate a biblical truth, I’m not above using something out of contemporary culture to do it.”
Beyond the pulpit, seated proudly in the front section of pews every Sunday, is Renee Hubbard. She’s been in attendance at First Missionary Baptist Church, in downtown Little Rock, for 59 years. The church itself is one of the oldest black churches in the state, and she, one of its eldest congregants. Hubbard has seen the ebbs and flows firsthand, witnessed the comings and goings. She is as qualified as any to speak to the words of Christ and actions of His followers, even if her humble nature might not admit that, so directly.
Much of her life has been shaped and molded by the church, like many devout, lifelong Christians. One particular experience stands out from the rest, however.
As she tells it, it was the fourth Sunday of April in 1963. The church was celebrating its 118th anniversary, and in town as a guest to deliver a message on this day of celebration was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The place was packed with overflow extending outside on the sidewalks. His message was as clear, concise and uplifting as any that he delivered in his life, and is one that will stick with her forever.
But Hubbard has also seen changes to her historic community in the tight-knit church. She’s seen waves of a decrease in worship intensity and diminishing congregation numbers, something very disheartening for a woman of faith who believes that worship is an exchange with God — that you are receiving from Him as you are giving to Him. But, no matter the pitfalls or the changes to what Monan refers to as “consumer Christianity,” Hubbard has remained resolute, her fire burning just as hot as ever. Much of that flame sparks from April 1963 for both her and her church.
Dr. King taught Christians the true meaning of, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Through persecution, he held steadfast to both his beliefs for a better world and, most importantly, his faith. Even in death, his assassination in 1968, his memory and the impact he made on our country remain an unforgotten legacy today. He practiced the Bible’s preachings of turning the other cheek and loving thy neighbor, a once golden rule that has become faded to bronze in the modern world. Much of that might explain the 12 percent drop in those identifying as Christian over the past decade, something that transcends just differing opinions on worship styles.
“There’s a lot of good that churches, temples, mosques, we all do,” Rev. Clark says. “I really believe that when we work together, that’s one of the places that people can see the good that comes out of religion. I think when people are hurting, the church, or a place of worship, is a place where they can go and feel comforted. But then I think there are a lot of people who do a lot of injustice in the name of God.”
“Nobody goes out with the intention of hurting other people, but it happens. It happens a lot,” he goes on to say. “I hope we have a second chance with those who have been burned.”
Worship styles come and go, but Christians will always rely on their belief that Christ is the same yesterday as He is today.
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” Hebrews 13:8.