Not the ranting of a curmudgeon on the pitfalls of worship forms but a few remarks about the relationship between worship forms and culture inspired by an article in this month's issue of Christianity Today. In "Here We Are to Worship," (page 33) Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger give us six principles that should guide our efforts to keep worship relevant and authentically Christian. They draw these principles from John D. Witvliet's book, Worship Seeking Understanding.
The burden these six principles place on us is to answer this question in the affirmative: "Do changing worship forms adapted from popular culture facilitate an authentic encounter with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit as described by the Scriptures and understood by historic Christian orthodoxy?"
1. All liturgical action is culturally conditioned.
We've got to determine the level of contemporary culture's influence on our worship. How deeply influenced are our worship forms by Western consumer culture?
2. The relationship between liturgy and culture is theologically framed by creation and the Incarnation.
Creation implies that human cultural activity is a God-given good, and the Incarnation, with Christ coming in the flesh and taking upon Himself a particular cultural identity, shows us that God is fully capable of revealing Himself through the particularity of human cultures. Thus, popular culture forms and symbols can be utilized powerfully and positively in worship.
3. Integrating liturgy and culture requires us to be critical of our own cultural context.
Does a culturally-conditioned worship form represent God and communicate the Gospel with integrity? For instance, are we coming before the throne of God to offer him the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, or, are we simply looking for an ecstatic experience of a higher plane of reality? Are the needs we seek to address in worship the biblical needs of forgiveness of sin, repentance, and reconciliation with God and neighbor, or, are we simply seeking to address the popularly cultivated desires that drive the consumer marketplace?
4. The extremes of either complete identification with or rejection of a given culture should be avoided.
As Harper and Metzger state it, "The best array of worship forms will illustrate that the church is both embedded in culture, speaking through its constantly changing forms, and also a countercultural community, one that represents transcendent values and truths that confront cultures' fallenness."
5. Worship must reflect common elements of the Christian tradition through the unique expressions of a particular cultural context.
In tailoring a church's worship to a particular culture or subculture, we must be careful that those outside that particular culture be able to connect the church's worship to Christ and the Gospel. Harper and Metzger make the point that the strategy adopted by larger churches of offering both a contemporary service and a traditional service effectively divides congregations, as younger people invariably opt for the contemporary service and the older for the traditional. If we continue to divide churches into smaller and smaller segments, such as adult Sunday school classes and youth groups, for instance, when are there opportunities for a particular church to come together as a single multigenerational and multicultural community to worship its common Lord?
6. The liturgical actions of the church—including proclamation of the Word, common prayer, baptism, and Eucharist—are among the "universal" or common factors in the Christian tradition.
While it is essential for the Church to communicate the Gospel and draw people to worship God in ways that appeal to their particular cultural situations, we must not forget that the Church is a historical community that "always finds its identity in the same God revealed in Jesus Christ." As such, we must maintain a certain continuity in our symbols and forms of worship with those of the past. The symbols, rituals, creeds, and texts that have united Christians throughout the ages are nonnegotiable because without them we forget who we are and we risk losing the central theological and relational realities that can only be expressed therein.
Imagine expressing Christ's sacrificial death and the life we must live as a response in any way other than through the cross. What about the Lord's Supper? In light of the importance of bread in the biblical narrative (think about the manna in the Exodus, the showbread in the temple, or the miracle of the loaves and fishes) and the appropriateness of breaking bread to symbolize the breaking of Christ's body, could we use anything other than bread here? Can you think of a replacement for wine that better represents life, blood, sacrifice, and judgment? How better do we express the central reality of the Church, namely, Christ dead, buried, and risen, and the communal character of His body than through this most elemental meal?
How does this all relate to the question of contemporary versus traditional worship? I think these principles are sustainable in either worship form. At any rate, in either form we must maintain the tension between the ancient, normative liturgical actions and the culturally-determined innovations that aim at relevant expression of "the faith once delivered to the saints" and worship of the Triune God. Perhaps the best way to do so is to combine elements of contemporary and traditional worship forms.
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