Should the Church Accommodate Its Worship to the Culture?
Early this morning, I finished reading John D. Witvliet’s essay, Theological Models for the Relationship between Liturgy and Culture in his excellent collection, Worship Seeking Understanding (Baker, 2003). Heady and academic stuff, as the title demonstrates. But the concepts that he unpacks are important for every pastor and worship leader to encounter and grasp.
There are some groups who resist the surrounding culture at all costs. The Orthodox Church, along with certain Anabaptist sects (such as the Amish) are probably the most radical in this regard. But there are other traditional groups who avoid cultural infiltration like it was the plague. On the other side of the spectrum are evangelicals who will do most anything and everything in order to satisfy the god of relevance.
Neither pole on the spectrum is to be desired.
Cultural influence, or inculturation, in corporate worship is unavoidable and should be, in some measure, embraced and celebrated. Those who try to completely shun any cultural impact on corporate worship deny the goodness of Creation (Gen. 1:31) and the divine affirmation of the Incarnation (John 1:14). The “stuff” which shapes culture is the material which God created and the soul of mankind, which reflects the image of God. And God ultimately affirmed that which he had sprung into place by becoming part of it – through the taking on of human flesh (in a specific time; in a specific culture) by Jesus Christ. We should embrace and celebrate the rich diversity of human culture. God does.
But then there is the matter of sin which infects us all and the things that we make. While Creation (and culture) is good, it is also broken by the Fall. Our embrace of culture must be critical as well as celebratory. We celebrate the creative image of God in culture while at the same time we critique and discern where it has become derailed from the Gospel track.
Witvliet offers these seven helpful theses: (pp. 114-123)
1. All liturgical (corporate worship) action is culturally conditioned. Apart from the radical groups mentioned above, all corporate worship is impacted by its surrounding culture in some way.
2. The relationship between liturgy and culture is theologically framed by the biblical-theological categories of creation and incarnation. I was just saying… Some great quotes from this section: “Incarnation provides the model…for the church’s involvement with culture. The gospel accounts present Jesus’ life as a simultaneous full participation in and critique of culture.” “…the church need not shy away from critical engagement with every aspect of a local cultural environment. At the same time, it must not be reticent to question and critique cultural practices that devalue creation, that restrict a sense of God’s redeeming activity in the world, and that deny eschatological hope.”
3. Liturgical inculturation requires theologically informed cultural criticism of one’s own cultural context. This is the area that disturbs me. All too often, the evangelical church has jumped on the bandwagon of contemporary cultural progression without deep theological reflection. Shame on us. I believe this lack of diligence and courage is, in part, responsible for the shallow spiritual character of our churches. “All [worshipping communities] function in the context of a complex and multifaceted cultural milieu. Along with careful study of liturgical theology and history, [pastors and worship leaders] are challenged to study and observe the main lines of cultural context in which they live and work.”
4. The extremes of either complete identification with or rejection of a given culture are to be avoided at all costs. “…the twin dangers that cultural engagement seeks to avoid are ‘cultural capitulation,’ on the one hand, and ‘cultural irrelevancy,’ on the other.”
5. Liturgical action must reflect common elements in the Christian tradition through the unique expressions of a particular cultural context. There must be a judicious balance of particularization and universality. Don’t you just love those big words?! We must remain faithful to the universal truth of the Gospel, anchored in the Scriptures and passed down to us through Tradition (yes…Tradition, I Cor 11:2) while living in the cultural context of our particular time and place.
6. The balance of particularization and universality requires a “mediating strategy” for liturgical inculturation. We need a “way” to address cultural forms: what we will embrace, what we will use, what we will repackage, what we will reject, and, most importantly, why. Most evangelicals need more reflective work here.
7. The constituent liturgical actions of the Christian church – including proclamation of the Word, common prayer, baptism, and eucharist – are among the “universal” or common factors in the Christian tradition. Witvliet quotes Gordon Lathrop in Holy Things (Fortress Press, 1993): “The center is this: Christian assemblies gather around a washing rite now done in Jesus’ name, around the Scriptures read so that the cross and resurrection which bring all people to God may be proclaimed, and around the thanksgiving over the shared bread and cup. These things are not optional, if the assembly wishes to be Christian…[Cultural patterns] are not welcome to obscure the gift of Christ in the Scripture read and preached, in the water used in his name, and in the thanksgiving meal.” (27)
We need to live in the tension of cultural embrace and critique. We should celebrate the creative and meaningful potential for worship in technological innovation, new musical expressions and postmodern critique of our society. But at the same time, we need to recognize the characteristics of our culture that threaten to dilute the Gospel. Consumerism, self-obsession, and worship of performance artists are obvious culprits. These cultural ideals operate like covert operatives dressed in Christian lyrics and cliché. Slowly, over time, they may seductively undermine and destroy the clarity and power of the Gospel.
Everyone lives in a contemporary culture. There is much of it to be celebrated and embraced in our corporate worship. But at the same time, church leaders are accountable to develop a critical eye nurtured by Scripture, history, and tradition to determine how we are to approach the challenge of accommodation to culture.