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Christian Worship: Culturally Relevant or Culturally Captive?

Julian Doorey

Corporate worship during a Sunday church service, although not the absolute essence of Christianity, does provide a cultural entry point into the life and message of the church. It can invite (or turn away) Christian or non-Christian visitors who may be looking for a spiritual home.

Do our worship services have their own culture? Does it bear any relation to the culture operating outside the church? How important is it that we consider these issues?

In worship we seek to express our love to God using biblical content in a culturally relevant context. Yet many churches use culturally irrelevant forms and are 'captive' to a culture far removed from current non-church culture.

Three examples highlight this. A large church in Phnom Penh Cambodia (where I worshipped in 1993 and again in 1998) used many western worship songs (Scripture in Song, Vineyard, etc) with just the words translated. The music genre was quite possibly 'global-western-contemporary', but certainly not Khmer, either traditional or contemporary.

A small Baptist church in Dunedin had reached the point of stagnation and decline in 1998 with predominantly elderly members. A cultural icon in the pews was the Billy Graham 1969 crusade songbook, undoubtedly an excellent worship resource in its day. Although an evangelical 'heart' was present in the church, the cultural expression was not relevant to mainstream middle-aged or younger kiwis, more used to a rock/pop music style.

It is sobering to realise that someone who was fifteen in 1955 (when "Rock Around the Clock" first played) and has therefore been influenced by the so-called 'new' rock music style, would be sixty plus today. This suggests that most people sixty and younger would be quite at home in — or would even prefer — a more contemporary church worship style.

In 2003 a Baptist church in Bangladesh battles with the same issues. Some young people want the music/songs to be modernised from the currently used hard-covered hymnbook first printed in 1968 (a useful resource to modernise the 'then' worship — perhaps similar to the Billy Graham song book). They also want a sound system and other instruments including western style drums (they currently play a Bangla hand drum). But older men in the church have said, "Western drums would remove the holiness from the church." And so it continues.

Culture, worship and witness

At the heart of the worship and culture debate is the important distinction between what is essential to the gospel, and what is acceptable and preferred culturally. We must distinguish between gospel and culture, or we are in danger of making our culture the message.

Like any message, the gospel must be put into cultural forms in order to be communicated and understood.1 The Christian message is abiding and universal, and exists for all people of every time and culture. However, the contexts in which God revealed the messages of the Bible are very different to those we find ourselves in today. Contextualisation is required.2

Every communication, including worship, has a meaning (what we want to say) and a form (how we say it). How then should the gospel message be translated in terms of language, witness and worship? If alien cultural forms are used the message may be rejected. Alternatively, the message may be accepted, and in the process those receiving the message may reject their own culture by adopting the missionary's culture.3

If the gospel must be contextualised, so must the church. The missionary expansion of the early 19th Century produced churches 'on the mission field' modelled on European churches. Replicas of architecture, liturgies, clerical dress, musical instruments, hymns and tunes along with leadership structures were installed. This assumed the Bible gave specific instructions on these issues and that the western home-church methods were God's first choice. Today a more radical concept of indigenous church life is developing, allowing each church to discover and express its selfhood within its own culture.4

Identity in Christ

In 2 Cor 5:17 Paul encourages us, "if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come". This applies to every culture (including our own) but as no culture is completely right or wrong, conversion should not totally 'deculturalise' a convert per se. Case histories show that converts often go through three stages:

· Rejection of past culture as they see themselves as new people in Christ;

· Accommodation when they discover their ethnic and cultural heritage, with the temptation to compromise their new found faith in Christ.5

· Re-establishment of identity when they grow into balanced self-awareness in Christ and their own culture.

Bible pointers to corporate worship

In terms of corporate church worship the Bible gives only a few general instructions, leaving specific content and form reasonably open for each culture to sort out. Psalm 150 exhorts "everything that has breath" to praise the Lord. Colossians 3:16 speaks of "singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" and 1 Corinthians 14:26 states "When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these things must be done for the strengthening of the church."

Interestingly 'hymns' has sometimes been understood to mean the 18th and 19th century church songs we now call 'hymns', written some 1700 to 1900 years after these Biblical verses were written. Rather, the word 'hymns' should be understood in the modern context as simply any song of praise, or perhaps some form of liturgy.

The Cross-cultural Challenge

Many cultures have existing 'rituals' of music, dance, drama and oral recitations. In some cultures they are used to get in touch with the supernatural, or even to mark the transition from one state to another.6 The study of people's own music can encourage those in non-western churches to use their own music systems in Christian worship rather than adopting western-style hymns and choruses (and those in New Zealand churches to use current music styles rather than out-of-date songs).

Unfortunately, many non-western indigenous churches have abandoned their traditional music style, and the association between Christianity and western hymns is strongly entrenched. Sometimes people have made such choices themselves because their own music was linked to traditional non-Christian religious beliefs,7 but the assumption was often made by western missionaries that indigenous vehicles of communication were so infected with pagan meanings that they were largely unusable.

The close association between indigenous religious ritual and (for example) dance, music and art, has concerned many Christians thinking of using these cultural vehicles. In a similar way the western church often found the rock-n-roll music of the 1950s and 60s to be synonymous with immorality and drugs, even labelling rock-n-roll as being 'of the devil'.

The distinction between content, meaning and form can become blurred, and requires careful consideration as to the best way to proceed.8 The choice made by those within the culture not to use traditional music styles must be respected (although sensitively examined), but too often missionaries encouraged their converts to adopt western styles.

In recent years some Aboriginal Christians have created Christian corroborees (ceremonies, both religious and entertaining), using traditional styles of drama, dance and music to portray the birth of Christ, the crucifixion and resurrection, and other biblical events. There is a renewed appreciation for such traditional forms of expression among Christians.9

Both western and non-western church leaders need to give strong preference to utilising cultural forms that are preferred by (and carry the greatest impact for) the receivers of the Christian message. For music used in corporate worship this usually means song forms from within the society which contain some element of paraphrased Scripture or doctrine.10

Transforming your church worship

Churches may find it helpful to establish a Worship Policy, which sets out their general approach in terms of what and why. What are some of the questions and dilemmas church worship leaders must explore as they navigate the worship and culture minefield?

Who is church worship designed for?

This is the critical cultural question. Its answer lies well beyond the individual worship leader and is determined by the leadership and overall mission of the church, or by the particular church service being considered. A theology of church and mission is necessary.

There appear to be three main options:

· A worship only service solely for Christians. Based on the 'gathered' church approach this considers church to be for those who are already Christians. Primary evangelism is carried on outside the church. The church service is for worship, communion, the "equipping of the saints"11 and for "stirring one another up for good deeds and encouragement".12

· A worship and witness service mostly for Christians. A service which is culturally relevant and 'visitor friendly' for non-Christians, though evangelism occurs primarily outside the church.

· A seeker or witness service mostly for non-Christians. A service of culturally appropriate witness, entertainment and preaching with some worship. This service is a primary tool for evangelism in addition to outside witness.

Each of the above options will have quite different worship requirements.

In addition to determining the purpose of the target group, various other cultural components need to be considered such as ethnicity and language, age, and socio-economic and educational background.

Traditional or Contemporary?

Creating an intergenerational service is very difficult. How do we provide church worship where everybody comes away feeling satisfied? Contemporary songs can leave the older people alienated, just as traditional songs can leave the teenagers and twenties totally bored. The worship leader has a tough job.

Are there any churches that have truly achieved satisfying intergenerational worship with a representative cross section of young and old people? Or do separate services (homogeneous groupings separated by age, culture and interests, advocated by some church growth people) win the day?

It seems that the principle of 'giving up one's rights'13 is very difficult for Christians to apply even for just thirty minutes per week! Perhaps the pragmatic approach is for those who are older and more mature in Christ (and who often prefer more traditional music) to give way to the younger in age and younger in Christ. Let's pray the younger people will show the same grace when they are older. Hopefully this will at least result in attracting people in the younger-to-middle age bracket to help grow the church.

Paul's attitude in 1 Cor 9:19-23 is a challenge: "I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some". Are we prepared even with something as precious as 'my preferred worship style' to give way to others for the greater good of the gospel? This would probably result in more music of the rock/pop genre being used in worship.

Yet with contemporary music style changing so rapidly the problem is not just one of the old versus the young. What may be considered 'with-it' for church young folk, may be at odds with non-churched young people. It's a challenge we have to keep grappling with.

Expectations: professional or proficient?

Let's get real about the level of musicianship and other resources that constrain the development of music and worship. Many in our churches are average in skill and short on time.

My own church in New Zealand had about 45 adults and 25 children in regular attendance on Sunday mornings. Overall we had an average level of ability in terms of music, worship leading and organisation. Our experience was that some contemporary music is difficult to play and sing. "Shout to the Lord" sounds fantastic played and sung well, but terrible played and sung badly.

It takes skilful judgement to choose appropriate songs that suit your particular church's musical and singing skill base. It also takes a lot of time to search out, trial and establish new songs. One practical possibility could be for denominational leadership — or some large churches within each denomination — to assist other less resourced churches by offering a selection of songs that have been assessed as 'workable' in an average church. This would include an audiotape, sheet music (with copyright issues sorted out) and digital copy of the words for OHP or digital projection.

Looking back or looking forward?

For those aged about forty who were converted in their teens or twenties there is a tendency to look back to the honeymoon period of conversion and early discipleship and the accompanying worship experience. We have a natural tendency to like the music of our teenage years and twenties, and progressively buy less new music as we mature into our thirties and forties.

The Bible encourages us to look back and remember the good things God has done.14 Certainly the very essence of our worship is to remember God's great love in Jesus.15 Often in times of rebellion and loss of first love, God's people are reminded to remember when God seemed close to them and led them "through the desert by fire and by cloud"16 during the Exodus.

However, God also encourages his people not to dwell on the past, but to look forward to the new things he will do. His people are encouraged to "Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth"17 and to "forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?"18 Within the context of a besieged Jerusalem, threatened by Assyria, and the eventual Babylonian exile of Judah, God was able to refocus his people to the future.

Perhaps this concept can also apply to our modern day church and corporate worship life. The songs we have sung throughout the ages, whether the traditional hymns or the triumphant songs of the charismatic days of the 1980s, need also to give way to more contemporary songs. We are reminded of King David waiting patiently in a difficult situation for God to intervene. God does indeed lift David from the pit, setting his feet upon the rock. "He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God".19

Theology or Spirit?

Should the worship primarily express statements of faith with respect to God and Christian life? Or should it be focused on creating an environment for God to release spiritual gifts? Or both? The exact biblical basis for the manifestation of spiritual gifts — and the connection between worship style and spiritual gift manifestation — is not straightforward. Paul does say in 1 Cor 14:23: "So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?" Obviously there is less issue in a service where everyone is Christian.

In terms of Biblical theology there have been some good songs written over the years, and some rubbish. Suffice to say that decisions related to emphasising theology or spirit should be made depending on the primary intent of the church service and who is participating in it.

Present reality or future hope?

Fifteen years ago we sang a number of songs with lines like "through our God we shall do valiantly" and "God's got an army marching through the land". These expressed a future hope of triumphally extending God's kingdom, which of course has happened in various situations and lives. However, a reality check based on the current church climate in New Zealand with respect to church attendance and general openness of public life to Christianity would indicate the time for triumphalism is over.

Somehow we need a balance of present reality and the future hope of God's kingdom being established either here or in heaven. Where are the worship songs which express current reality and lament, but with a healthy future view ("and yet I will praise you"20)?

Church worship policy

My church attempted to work through some of these issues and arrive at a Worship Policy that was culturally appropriate for our situation and intended mission. This was at times a painful process — none of us found the necessary changes easy — but a slow participatory pace helps bring more people on board. Our draft Worship Policy included:

· The purpose of the church worship ministry is to create an environment to help Christians express worship to God corporately through music, song and other forms of praise during Sunday church services.

· The worship component of Sunday church services should aim to assist the worship of God and the nurture of Christians and to be culturally contemporary and relevant to both Christians and non-Christians who may be looking for a church home.

· Worship is part of the discipleship process and fits within our overriding church mission statement "disciples making disciples".

· Worship should generally contain Biblical content and have culturally relevant form.

· We aim to reach a balance where people of all ages and backgrounds enjoy coming to church, to think in terms of intergenerational, contemporary services with variety. Specific target group is twenty to fifty, but we seek to include all ages in some way.

e are reminded by John in his revelation14 that there will be Jesus followers "from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne" in heaven. This is a picture of all cultures worshipping together, with cultural distinctives such as language being retained.

Mission requires that we be good students of both the gospel message and the culture we wish to express the gospel in. We must seek to be biblical in our content and culturally relevant in our form, in both our witness and worship. To succeed in both will open the way for God to bless his church, to fail in either will lead to certain death of the church.