Church service finds niche between traditional and contemporary worship

Thursday, April 26, 2012 | 9:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:17 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 26, 2012
Olivet Christian Church has started an alternative worship service called The Altar, which includes nontraditional songs.

COLUMBIA­ — It's a few minutes after 5 p.m., but the band is still warming up. The audience sits in relative silence, awaiting the opening notes of this week’s first song, which remains a mystery. Soon, the small acoustic band in the sanctuary at the Olivet Christian Church begins playing Johnny Cash's "Ain't No Grave."

At 5 p.m. each Sunday, about 30 people gather for The Altar, an interactive service that explores what worship means in the modern day. The Altar uses a small acoustic band, a worship activity and a conversation among parishioners to directly engage service attendees with the Scripture.

Many churches in Columbia have gravitated toward offering alternative worship services. The Crossing in Columbia holds worship services specifically for single adults. On Sundays at 6:30 p.m., Woodcrest church offers "Woodcrest at the EDGE", which is a more relaxed service geared toward young adults. At 9 a.m., the contemporary service The Offering takes place at the First Presbyterian Church. 

The Altar, Olivet Christian Church's alternative service, is the culmination of Brad Bryan's 10 years of worship experience as well as information he's picked up from other pastors and seminaries.

Bryan, 29, is the seventh generation of pastors in his family. His father, the Rev. Jim Bryan, served at Missouri United Methodist Church from 2000 to 2010. His grandfather, Bishop Alonzo Monk Bryan, pastored at the Missouri United Methodist Church for nearly 20 years in the 1960s and '70s.

"I felt like Columbia did two things really well and that was traditional high-church organ and praise band worship," Brad Bryan said. "I thought there was a space between for people who didn't respond to handbell choirs and also didn't think contemporary worship was for them."

The Altar service began on a six-week trial run after Bryan proposed the idea to the senior pastor at the church about a year ago. The program has continually passed church board reviews. A churchwide vote on its continuation is expected in early summer.

Bryan distinguishes The Altar from other alternative worship services based on three primary factors. The service always includes a worship activity to get people out of the pews. At one February service, worshippers were invited to look into mirrors placed around the chancel in accordance with the service's reflection theme.

The Altar also includes a conversation for every sermon. Everyone is invited to share their thoughts and feelings about the sermon in an open dialogue with all worshippers in attendance. The lights are often shut off to keep the atmosphere contemplative and meditative.

Music is one noticeably distinguishing factor for The Altar, with tunes from Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead and Hank Williams played throughout the service. Every week, Bryan chooses secular pop, rock or country songs with lyrics that tie in to the message of the day.

"I try to use music that people listen to," he said. "One of the things I've experienced in my worship time is that there are songs that only exist for services. I found myself worshipping through Johnny Cash songs, so I thought, 'Why can't we bring that into a service?' I think the people who would be attracted to the service can worship better through those songs than 250-year-old hymns."

The Altar doesn't have a specific audience for its services, but the idea started as a method to encourage younger people to come to church. Bryan said that the experiences and songs are wide-ranging enough to speak to worshippers of all ages and backgrounds.

"I married into the family from a nonchurch family," said Bryan's brother-in-law Brad Atkins, 32. "So it's been a struggle — but here there's no judgment. I've found my place."

The Altar is the third Sunday service at Olivet Christian Church. Olivet's music director Eileen Sharp said the congregation came together about five years ago to plan for the future of the church.

"We gathered input from all of our members, and we had a good number of members participate in what we called a spiritual strategic journey," Sharp said. "As a result, the church wrote a future story. Part of that story identified the need for a third service."

The 8:30 a.m. service is family-oriented, including a hymn sing-a-long with guitars. Worshippers hold hands in a circle as they pass out communion and give the benediction together.

The 11 a.m. service embodies more of what Bryan describes as the traditional American idea of church. The service includes a chancel choir, organs, hymns and a sermon.

"I've been going to the 11 a.m. service at Olivet since I started going there in 1991," Lori Valleroy said. "I'm in the band, but it wasn't something when I started that I thought I'd be as committed to as I am. I think the folks that have gone there are a real devoted core group of folks who have been there pretty much every week. There's something about The Altar that just draws them."

Bryan compares creating The Altar service to writing an episode of "South Park." Much like "South Park," Bryan plans his services a few days in advance, in this case on Thursdays, to include relevant topics. In this way, he describes the service as more "live" than others that follow a specific format from year to year.

John Dean played professionally in a classic rock band before moving to Columbia about nine years ago. After he found out The Altar was looking for a bass player, he volunteered. With a history of playing clarinet and acoustic guitar, he enjoys bringing his distinctive musical perspective to the band's younger musicians.

"I like the secular music with meaningful lyrics, and I like songs with rhythm because that's where the bass has a lot of fun," he said. "Every time you play with a group, the challenge is not just getting the notes. It's all in the structure of playing and getting the feeling with the group. I enjoy having an impact as an older, wiser rocker."

While Bryan, a music fan and member of the local band Disengaged, thoroughly enjoys picking out songs for the service each week, he also gets fulfillment by causing parishioners to think about the Scripture in new and different ways.

"For me, the most rewarding part is when someone comes up to me after the service and says 'I've heard that Scripture my whole life and I've never thought of it the way that we talked about it,'" he said. "The Bible isn't a list of behavioral roles; it's about engaging your life and brain and heart with the Scripture."

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