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Category Archives: Biblical vs. Cultural

The Challenges of Worship in the Church

Volume 15, No. 2 (February 2020)

An enduring question underliying most of our debates, discussions and dissensions about worship is:

How can we be biblically faithful in our worship, and yet culturally relevant in our own particular setting?

Two issues in particular make this question difficult to answer:

CHALLENGE ONE: The virtual silence of the New Testament

The startling truth is that the pages of the New Testament contain almost nothing in terms of specific prescriptions for what our worship services should look like. This is especially surprising in the letters of Paul: he is writing to brand-new churches that are just getting set up, and surely there, we think, he’ll tell us how exactly how worship is to be done, and that will be the end of the discussion. But the instructions are just not there! As John Piper has observed:

In the New Testament, all the focus is on the reality of the glory of Christ, not the shadow and copy of religious objects and forms. It is stunning how indifferent the New Testament is to such things: there is no authorization in the New Testament for worship buildings, or worship dress, or worship times, or worship music, or worship liturgy or worship size or thirty-five-minute sermons, or Advent poems or choirs or instruments or candles. . . . Almost every worship tradition we have is culturally shaped rather than Biblically commanded. (sermon from Bethlehem Baptist Church, “Our High Priest is The Son of God Perfect Forever,” December 8, 1996) 

This is an amazing observation, but a true one. (This of course does not mean that our worship traditions are wrong because they are “culturally shaped;” after all, we do have to make decisions about how we are going to construct our worship services; but it does suggest that there is no one right way when the New Testament leaves matters so open.)

We might well ask, Why is the New Testament silent on these matters? Piper suggests that the answer may lie in the difference between the Old and New Testament economies.

The Old Covenant was what he calls a “Come and see” system. Worship is centralized in a particular time and place, in Jerusalem, in the temple; people had to come there to worship. Even those from outside Israel could come, but they had to come to Jerusalem, had to come to the temple, had to become a Jew in order to worship the one true God.

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Because worship was localized in a particular time and place, instructions for worship could, and indeed were, be quite definite. The books of Exodus and Leviticus are full, chapter after chapter, of extremely detailed prescriptions for how worship was supposed to be done in that system: how to prepare, when to come, what to bring, what to wear, what to offer, etc., etc.

The New Covenant, on the other hand, Piper calls a “Go and tell” system. There is no geographical center to Christianity. Instead, the gospel is to go out to every nation and into every culture.

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And perhaps for that reason, Piper suggests, the New Testament leaves so much open in terms of worship practices: so that worship can “breathe” the cultural air of the context where the church is planted, and be expressed in ways that are meaningful in that cultural setting.

So the New Testament seems to allow for considerable freedom in how we structure our worship services. Piper says: “[We are] free to find place and time and dress and size and music and elements and objects that help us orient radically toward the supremacy of God in Christ.”

But, of course, that freedom can, and often does, lead to conflict, because of the second challenge:

CHALLENGE TWO: Human diversity

Not only are cultures vastly different from one another, but people within the same congregation can show striking differences as well. And these differences in personality, temperament, cultural conditioning, taste and preferences show up all the time in discussions about worship.

When my wife and I served with Greater Europe Mission in the early part of this century, our mission would have a conference for all the missionaries every summer. At one conference a friend of mine planned and led a Sunday morning worship service during the conference. At the end of the conference, there was an evaluation form for participants to give input on various aspects of event. On that form there was a question about the Sunday worship service. I got to read the forms, and six people made comments about the service:

      1. The Sunday morning service was a real downer.

      2. Sunday was powerful for me – a feast of worship. I appreciated the reverence and awe.

      3. Sunday morning seemed like a funeral.

      4. Sunday was super!!!!! – simple but profound.

      5. Sunday morning worship was extremely boring and difficult to sit through.

      6. The time of worship on Sunday was a very special blessing.

These folks were all talking about the same worship service! This is a illustrative how different people can have such varied responses to worship practice.

This is not a new problem. In the early church, there would have sometimes been in the same congregation Jews, Romans, Greeks, barbarians, slaves, slave owners, etc. There would certainly have been different points of views and preferences among these groups. And addition, at that time there were not multiple church choices in a town, such as is often the case for us. There was the church at Ephesus, the church at Corinth, etc. So they had to learn to live and worship together!

When it comes to the music in our churches (so often the greatest bone of contention), the late Wycliffe ethnomusicologist Tom Avery made some interesting  observations about this issue:

  • We live in a society where different generations may and often do have different musical cultures.

  • This is caused by the rapid rate of culture change experienced by society, probably unprecedented in the history of the world.

  • While there is some overlap in the musical cultures of different generations, there can be very significant differences.

  • It is common for people to feel very strongly about the music with which they identify.

  • People often find the music with which they don’t identify to be extremely distasteful.

Different points of view are of course extremely common between older and younger generations in the church. (By the way, I have found this phenomenon all over the world.) Avery humorously but tellingly illustrated the dichotomy between the contemporary and traditional worship preferences often associated with the generational divide:

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So how can we be biblically faithful in our worship, and yet culturally relevant in our own particular setting?

There is a great need to carefully distinguish between what the Bible actually commands, and what the Bible leaves open. Most worship problems arise when people take their own traditions or preferences and begin to see them as biblically normative, or as the only way that is truly pleasing to God. God can be honored by the rich diversity of worship practices in our churches and in our world; there can never be too many ways to praise His glorious name!

For more on this topic, please see:

Worship Notes 2.8 (August 2007)
“The Bridge: Worship and Culture)

and

Worship Notes 12.2 (February 2017)
“BIBLICAL OR CULTURAL?
Non-Negotiables and Negotiables in Worship”

 

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