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Worship: Shaper of Society? OR Shaped by Society?

By Paul Rumrill, Tad Hardin - May 31st, 2017

A discussion of the proper interaction between culture and worship

Is the “spirit and truth” worship – worship that Jesus commends in John 4 – completely separate from today’s culture? What makes worship authentic in the Christian faith and daily life? Mankind is a worshipping creature.1 We operate poorly as individual entities, but marvelously in union with another, and best with God Himself. Worship is supposed to be the climax of this relational connection to God. God made man in His own image and likeness, fashioning him to walk with Him, live with Him—bringing pleasure to Him by delighting in Him alone. When Adam and Eve fell, they did not cease worshipping as much as transfer their heart and allegiance to someone/thing other than God—to self and Satan. The great problem of the Fall was that mankind can now choose to worship whomever and whatever he/she wants, in whatever fashion desired. The law of sin and death dictates that we will worship unlawfully, at some point, sooner or later. The thing man cannot do is choose not to worship. Thus, our identity, is shaped by how we express this worship and by the direction to which we direct our worship. 

Therefore, we ask the question, “Can Christian worship truly be free from ALL influences of society?” In reality, no. We are commanded to sing to the Lord (Psalm 98:1, Col. 3:16); in the United States, our songs are usually sung in some sort of Western melodic-harmonic tradition. We are called to love to our neighbor (Lev. 19:18, Mark 12:31); here it is typically expressed in relational, sacrificial, meaningful ways particular to the needs of our society. Our church buildings (encouraging public assembly, Heb. 10:25) are framed in architecture and scope appropriate to what many deem as regionally appropriate or artistically valuable. In short, our expressions of worship and obedience have a cultural bent to them – even for the best and most biblically normative practices.

Many pastors and theologians decry the problems arising from the influences of culture that tempt us to conform to the patterns of this world and not to the mandates of our Lord and Savior. Polls from Gallup (2005), The Barna Group (2004, 2009), and Lifeway Research (2016) indicate concern that an effort toward increasing cultural relevance in the churches has failed to produce true disciples that serve as salt and light in their society. Ed Stetzer summarizes the problem saying, “We have spruced up the worship, spiked up the sermons, and become great at organization-- all the while we are failing to produce disciples.”2

The corporate approaches of Wall Street, the public eloquence of Oprah, and the production values of Nashville in our churches have not produced the righteousness of God. While worship expression involves some degree of cultural influence, we have generally allowed it to dominate the devotional landscape. Yet it is only the word of the Lord that is perfect, converting the soul, enlightening the eyes, rejoicing the heart, making us wise (Psalm 19:7-8). Since the word of God has this wisdom-inducing potency, can Word-saturated worship influence the society around us? We believe it should! Corporate worship should honor the God of the Bible, making known his name among the nations (c.f., Mal 1:11, 14; Rom. 15:8-13). It should call us to deeper obedience and devotion to Christ (c.f., 1 John 5:2-3). It should encourage us to seek repentance, change, and forgiveness (c.f.,James 4:7-10; 2 Cor. 6:16b-7:1). It should exalt Jesus’ rule and reign – His lordship – over our lives and over all (c.f., Col. 1:13-18). It should certainly testify to His crucifixion, death, and resurrection (c.f., Gal. 6:14, 1 Cor. 15:3-8). It should also, however, capture the longings and the struggles of our hearts – our spiritual condition before following Christ – and the reality of who we are in Him now (c.f., Eph. 2:1-7). As a royal priesthood, we should declare our identity: unified in one blood, and called to the purposes of Christ alone, as adopted sons (c.f., Rom 8). This Christ-centric, authentic worship cannot help but transform the participating people of God and, by extension, impact society outside the walls of the church.

Healthy communities of faith realize that when various peoples come together to worship God week after week, they do so all the more richly as their faith identity is built by meaningful, shared experiences. These experiences can give voice to heart cries that respond specifically to the Lordship of Christ and His death and resurrection. Unfortunately, we often seem to lack the fortitude to intentionally communicate the greatest message of all time in ways that address the deepest needs of our people, and in a culturally-constructed mechanism that makes contextual sense from their vantage point. This failure to target the gospel message in order to knit differing hearts together in Christ is one of the reasons why we lack authentic church worship in a culturally shifting society.

Authentic worship in our faith communities intersects with culture in many ways, but can be viewed in four frameworks, working simultaneously in our churches. As highlighted in the Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture, worship expressions that forge a meaningful, Christ-centric identity touch on transcultural, contextual, countercultural, and cross-cultural realities.3

Transcultural elements of worship refer to the immutables of the faith: the work of Christ in His sinless life, crucifixion, death, and resurrection; the Bible text, water baptism, and the administration of communion elements. These essentials are a significant part of every true Christian community among all peoples and cultures. Thus, our prayers, songs, motives, responses, and actions should be mindful of these realities. In forming identity, we should ask: do our expressions of worship stay close to these truths? Do they celebrate the power of these things, or minimize them? Are we emphasizing something other than these transcultural features in our Christian communities?

Such challenges are important to face directly. A vigorous dichotomy exists between Biblical mandates and cultural relevance, between legalism and licentiousness. Even the initial use of electric guitars in our own Western church services brought debate, which was healthy and important. The debate was arguably strongest from 1970 to 1990, when electric guitars served as the showpiece for contemporary bands, many of which modeled immorality and rebellion to a remarkable degree. A few churches incorporated guitars quickly, either with rugged intentionality or with uncritical acceptance. In many churches the guitar was adapted over time, cautiously; some faith communities did so only after much dialogue among leaders, while some chose to avoid adapting it at all. Today, however, the guitar within the church has more or less transcended its worldly association and is one of the most important instruments enhancing worship today. Perhaps the electric guitar’s fate would have been different, had the dispute not been so spirited in past years. The impetus for sanctified uses of the guitar became all the stronger as a result.

In recognizing the contextual framework of worship, we should ask: how driven are our spiritual gatherings by stylistic preferences? Do our expressions of worship proclaim transcultural values in contextual settings, or do they just trumpet contextual values with a coating of transcultural afterthoughts?

Without contextualization, the Gospel message cannot take root in each diverse culture found outside the church walls. Its meaning and manifestations must find expression in local relevant behaviors and traditions. Yet it is not just cultural irrelevance that threatens the influence of the church; contextual adaptation merely for the sake of assimilation and progress can so easily taint a sound doctrine and liturgy. Elements derived from any culture, including that with which we are most familiar, must be distilled and held to the timeless standard of Scripture, rather than the shifting foundation of modern morality. For example, in the labors of ministries everywhere in the United States, efficiency tends to be one of the practices that is supposed to demonstrate commitment to Biblical values such as “excellence” (Phil. 1:9-10, Dan. 6:3) and “good stewardship” (Luke 16:10-13). It is a useful, effective, corporate, American value. Should efficiency, however, be the primary measuring stick for our intersection with people week-to-week? Is time management supposed to be the primary driver of our worship events? Promoting efficiency may not be as important as emphasizing relationship-building, accountability-developing, devotional depth in our gatherings. The American value of efficiency may be a value that actually gets in the way of the most essential goals for ministry. Thus, addressing questions of context are important markers in the pursuit of Christ-centered worship.

While certain dimensions of our identity in Christian community must be contextually relevant, others need to be expressly countercultural. The call to discipleship requires putting everything “on the altar,” including personal preferences, cultural values, individual aspirations, and religious forms - even fashionable societal views of church. Everything passes under the scrutiny of the cross. Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt 16:24-25). For a true disciple, nothing involving one’s former identity is automatically exempt from change or discard; it all must take second place to Christ. In allowing our faith identity to be distinctly different than greater society, we can ask: must we have our choice songs, our favorite Scriptures, our audio mix, our preferred styles in church? Does our worship community pursue the gospel as the means to fulfill the American Dream? Does our gathering emphasize national controversies more than personal repentance and a walk with the Lord? Do we promote the adulation of Christian celebrities? Do we only go to church with people who look like us? Answering yes to any of these questions may reveal how and where we need to better answer God’s call to no longer conform ourselves to the pattern of this world.

Finally, the experiences of today’s society compel us to look at cross-cultural realities in our congregations. The United States is more diverse than ever in race, socioeconomics, ideology, and micro-communities. Cross-cultural communication is not just a world missions issue; it is an essential component of ministering on our own streets and in our own church buildings. Generational differences are significant enough that many ministry strategies for reaching an age group require cross-cultural ways of constructing worship events. Lovingly connecting them to Christ will call us to change some of our approaches for “doing church.” Immigrations and migrations may require us to embrace numerous kinds of people in our city, intentionally adjusting some features of ministry and worship expression to speak to them. Perhaps it will include allowing Christians who look, think, and worship in atypical ways into our leadership and devotional representation. All of this entails music cultures meeting (with all the messiness this implies), cross-cultural friendships developing, differing worldviews wrangling, and worship forms evolving from the life of Christ being brought into another culture. 

Conclusion: Shaper of Society? Or Shaped by Society?

Jesus said that if we greet only people like us (“our own”), how are we different from anyone else? The blood of Christ should wash away the color line, the gender line, the socioeconomic line, the generation line, and many other divisions imposed by and expected in society. In connecting cross-culturally with the gospel, we need to ask ourselves: are we only meaningfully loving and connecting with those like us? In the United States, ethnic divides are perhaps the notable blight of our nation, and cross-cultural disciples in relationship can be a mighty cure. Christ-following worshippers should lead the way by learning and intersecting with cultures far different than ourselves that we might be salt and light that shapes society. 

1. For more on this, see G. K. Beale, We are What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008).

2. Ed Stetzer, “Weeping for Willow’s Disciples,” Christianity Today, July 7, 2008, accessed November 2, 2016,

3. Charles E. Farhadian, ed. "Appendix: The Nairobi Statement,” in Christian Worship Worldwide: Expanding Horizons, Deepening Practices (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 285-90.

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