Worship Values: Worship Must Be Culturally Accessible

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[ We've been working on rewriting our mission and also creating a series of "values" about worship that will communicate our vision for what worship should be all about. While those aren't completely finalized, I think it will be helpful to share some thoughts about each value in a series of short posts. ]

What kind of worship do we want to cultivate? Fifth: Culturally Accessible

This might be the most controversial value because of the various positions theologians have taken regarding the Church's relationship to culture. Culture can be simply defined as the customs, values, and social forms, of a particular group of people. This includes both physical and body language, social customs such as how people express affection, and what drives, to some extent, aesthetics in areas like music, art, and architecture. We could also use the word "style" to represent what we are getting at by using the word culture. Mankind is made up of many cultures, even sub-cultures. Because of modern society's amazing ability to communicate (in various forms), travel, and trade, people associate around shared styles even within geographic areas. In fact, in developed countries, one could argue that culture is defined more by affinity than geography.

In our very first value, we stressed the fact that worship is in and for Jesus Christ, which means that worship is made possible by the work of Jesus and He is the main object of our worship. But Scripture doesn't stop here; in addition to commands about what to do in public worship, we also have an important guideline about the horizontal goal of worship (from person to person rather than from people to God). In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is addressing a church whose public worship had become unbalanced. Some were using miraculous gifts like speaking in tongues without interpretation, resulting in a lot of unintelligible gibberish. Paul sums up his teaching on what the church should do in public worship in this way: "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up." (1 Corinthians 14:26, emphasis mine) That last phrase is important - a secondary goal of worship is the edification of believers. God has designed Christian worship to glorify Jesus through the edification of Christians in Jesus.

One of the things the Protestant Reformation restored to the church was the ability to hear and read (both in private and in public) the Bible in the vernacular (one's native language). The Roman church used Latin in public worship in order to maintain and safeguard a common liturgy. But since Latin wasn't understood by the people, public worship was largely unintelligible - it was simply meaningless gibberish or wordless ritual. The people had to rely on the priests to explain what Scripture meant; they had no way of knowing what the Bible said themselves. This is not much different from the case in 1 Corinthians where some were speaking in tongues without interpretation. The result was the same - unintelligible worship. Consider a modern equivalent - imagine if Western missionaries arrived at a remote tribe and started conducting worship services in English, a language only they understood. How effective do you think their worship services would be at communicating the gospel and building up believers in the knowledge of and love for Jesus?

This brings us back to how our understanding of culture should shape our thinking and planning of public worship. The effectiveness of particular vocabulary, phrasing, posture, liturgies, musical styles, lyric forms, styles of dress, and even architecture and room layout are all integrally tied to culture. To one culture, formal dress communicates importance, to another pretentious formalism. To one culture a back-beat represents sexual promiscuity, to another energy and joy. To one culture formal language such as "Thee" and "Thou" represents majesty, to another archaic irrelevance ... you get the picture. To summarize, while truth never changes, the way that truth is expressed and has impact varies from culture to culture (or sub-culture to sub-culture).

While always looking to the past for wisdom and proven liturgical guidance, we will seek, though not exclusively, to update the styles and forms of the past for today's culture. A concrete example of this is taking hymn texts from several hundred years ago and updating their language for clarity and intelligibility, and writing new tunes and styles of music in which to cast them.

The intersection of culture and worship brings up another important consideration. Though public worship is primarily for believers, we must worship in a way that is culturally accessible and intelligible for unbelievers as well. Again in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul gives another reason that worship should be intelligible - we must consider outsiders (those not familiar with the worship customs of the church): "If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you." (1 Corinthians 14:23-25) I humbly submit that if our "culture of worship" is radically different than the culture around the church, a barrier can be inadvertently created for unbelievers to come to Christ and the community of the church.

Too often, we confuse the stumbling block of Jesus' cross with cultural stumbling blocks. On the one hand, the seeker movement begins to subvert or simply remove central teachings of the gospel message - sin, judgment, and the wrath of God. On the other hand, some churches hold on to styles of speech and dress that are generations old in an attempt to hold on to more "pure" forms of worship. References to modern culture (like movies or books) are looked at with suspicion if not avoided altogether. In a church culture like this, an unbeliever must not only come to Jesus, but must conform to the church's sub-culture in order to be welcomed into the community. This is not a picture of the gospel of grace.

Decisions about the culture of our public worship are not simple and require much wisdom and counsel. We must guard the church from worldliness on the one hand, and cultural irrelevance and unintelligibility on the other. Let's strive to unleash the gospel's timeless relevance to the human condition into our communities with faithfulness, clarity, and conviction and pray that the Holy Spirit would use God's Word to move both believers and unbelievers to "declare that God is really among [us]." (1 Corinthians 14:25)


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