THEME: Worldwide Worship

Volume 6, No. 7 (July 2011)

Last month we unpacked the Bridge illustration as a possible approach to the thorny problem of balancing the need for biblical fidelity with the need for cultural sensitivity and relevance in our worship.

To end our brief survey of Lessons from Global Worship (begun in Worship Notes 6.2, February 2011), let us consider some perspectives in applying what we have looked at.

1. Culture does matter.

We are of course as believers to be “in, ” though not “of,” the world. Jesus was very conversant in the culture in which He lived during His earthly ministry: Sometimes He conformed to it, sometimes He challenged it (when it went against God’s ways), sometimes He outright contradicted it. But He was never unaware of it. Culture is not our enemy; it is in a sense “the air we breathe,” so we cannot ignore it. In fact:

Christian worship “swims in creation as a fish swims in water,” as Aidan Kavanaugh has put it. It is permeated with the sights and sounds and smells, the tastes and touch of our material world, and in this way it offers not a disembodied message of escape but rather an encompassing experience of a world redeemed and reconciled to God. (John H. Erickson and Eileen W. Lindner, “Worship and Prayer in Ecumenical Formation,” Theological Education Vol. 34, Supplement [1997]: 23)

As Jesus did, we must always be prayerfully discerning about aspects of the culture in which we live and minister. Very helpful in this regard is the document the Lutheran World Foundation produced in 1996 entitled the Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture. The essence of this document is stated in its Introduction:

Christian worship relates dynamically to culture in at least four ways:

  • First, it is transcultural, the same substance for everyone everywhere, beyond culture.
  • Second, it is contextual, varying according to the local situation (both nature and culture). 
  • Third, it is counter-cultural, challenging what is contrary to the Gospel in a given culture.
  • Fourth, it is cross-cultural, making possible sharing between different local cultures. In all four dynamics, there are helpful principles which can be identified.

The trick is of course is that all of these four characteristics are ( or should be) going on at the same time. The Nairobi Statement provides a helpful grid for looking at the practice of worship in our churches; for of course different churches will be stronger in certain of these characteristics than in others. We don’t want to be so totally transcultural that we ignore the cultural context in which we live (too many missionaries did that in the past and imported Western ways of doing church, including worship); neither do we want to become so contextualized that there is nothing recognizable to Christians from other cultures; nor do we want to “sell out” to culture–we must always be carefully discerning about what from the culture might be against God’s principles and therefore unacceptable in our worship.

And we should not ignore the richness that can come to our our worship through recognizing and seeking to incorporate the way other believers worship God in their culture context (across the world, or in our own city)–hence this series. For some practical first steps in including more world worship elements in your services, please see my article “Global Worship: What in the World Can I Do about It?” from the November/December 2009 issue of Worship Leader magazine HERE.

As Ronald Byars has expressed it:

The gospel ought never to be entirely at home in any culture.  If gospel and culture fit together as easily as hand-in-glove, then the likelihood is that the gospel has capitulated to the values of the culture.  …  There must always be some tension between gospel and culture.  The trick is to tune that tension just right, so that gospel and church can play a transforming role in its host culture.  The gospel doesn’t carry with it a culture of its own.  It must always find its place in the culture of the time and place.  Nevertheless, it always questions the local culture and holds it accountable before the cross. (Ronald P. Byars, Christian Worship, p. 110)

The leadership of each individual congregation, I believe, has the responsibility to study the Scriptures, their own culture, and their congregation and seek to prayerfully discern what form the worship in their church should take (always being subject to ongoing evaluation from a scriptural perspective).

2. The need for self-examination.

We must also be aware constantly how prone we all are to turn our own preferences about what is supposedly “appropriate” and “God-honoring” in worship, and thereby run the danger of (in Jesus’ words about the Pharisees) “teaching as doctrine the precepts of men” (which Jesus said leads in fact to worship that is “in vain‘”, Matthew 15:9). If nothing else, a study of global worship should open our eyes to the fact that there are many, many ways to worship God.

The following familiar verses should be carefully applied to our attitudes about worship as a helpful corrective to our natural tendency to just “want what we want” and “what we like”:

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).

“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor” (Romans 12:10).

3. The need for discernment.

We need to be extremely careful, as suggested above, not to declare as biblical absolutes what are in fact merely cultural norms or traditions. (Of course, there should be no retreat on what is clearly a biblical command.)

A helpful exercise would be to consider the elements in your worship services in terms of what are in fact biblical practices and what are cultural ones. (Note: the cultural practices are not necessarily wrong; but neither do they carry the normative force of the biblical ones.) One such list might look like this (the elements in green are likely “Biblical,” those in red “Cultural):

Candles   Sermon   30-minute Sermon    Lord’s Supper   Passing Communion trays  Coming forward for Communion   Prayer   Seated prayer   Church pews   Use of music   Use of piano   Use of organ   Use of guitar  

4. The need for biblical wisdom and godly prayer.

Discernment in these often contentious issues requires a dependence on God and His leading.

5. The value of diversity.

The wealth and variety of worship expressions the world over honors the God who made such a marvelously diverse creation. And as Reggie Kidd points out:

Every group brings its own voice, but no group brings the official voice. One Voice sings above them all, and this Voice sings in all their voices, excluding none. His singular voice is distributed among a plurality of people. Just because there are so many dimensions to His own being, the multiplicity of their voices amplifies His song. (“Bach, Bubba and the Blues Brothers,” RTS Journal 1999)

6. The primacy of unity in diversity.

Identifying differences is a relatively easy task; maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) is of course much, much trickier–and in fact impossible without the Spirit’s promised help. The body of Christ is not a homogenous group of people who are just like one another; the rich diversity present unique challenges, as we all know. But Steve Bierly challenges us thus:

The New Testament churches were made up of people of different ages, genders, races and socio-economic levels, who came together because of their common belief in Jesus. . . . What would happen if people with different musical tastes got along because of their common commitment to Christ?  What a testimony to the outside world!

Do you not love me enough to sing my choruses?  Do I not love you enough to sing your hymns?  If the answer is no, then our problems are much bigger than what type of music to use in the worship service (I John 3:14-16). (“Sparring over Worship,” LeadershipJournal.net)

Nowhere does the New Testament speak to the issue of what we should wear in our corporate services (though that fact has of course not prevented a lot of impassioned debate on the subject!), EXCEPT for one place where Paul addresses what we should put on for worship:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:14)

All with the goal which Paul articulates there and elsewhere:

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:15-17)

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:5-7)




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