Should the Church Accommodate Its Worship to the Culture?


and no.

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.


  1. If I am reading you correctly, the title question is actually the wrong question altogether. Should the Church accommodate its worship to the culture? The Church accommodates itself to culture whether we welcome it or not!

    Perhaps an adjective to include to make this a more pointed question would be "contemporary". I would even include those radical groups Witvliet seems to have exempted from his formulations (Anabaptist, Orthodox, etc.) as they have most certainly been influenced by a culture, just not their surrounding ones (Orthodox, for example, developed independent of much of the history of the Western churches, but was still greatly influenced by Greek philosophy via the Cappadocian fathers, as opposed to Augustine in the West).

    Our worship will always be cultural because it will always be communal. Culture is an inevitable result of community. The main question then becomes how we respond to the prevailing culture of our context, and how do we foster an intentionally christocentric culture in our communities. I think you have the right of it on #3 when you become dismayed over the lack of thoughtful criticism of our own culture.

    Seems to me that we are slightly bipolar when we consider culture. On the one hand, we temerariously (how's that for a big word?) implement parts that are culture-friendly, heedless of any consequences those parts may have without critical thought (the very notion of which is the adoption of the aspect of our culture geared towards marketing). On the other hand, we reject outright certain other portions of our culture if deemed against the faithfully exegeted account of Scripture. This also belies an an approach towards culture that is acritical and ignorant of the fact that indeed, the first century Church also lived in a culture to which they were responding. The difficult road left to us that attempts to avoid the pitfalls on either side will thoughtfully discern how one could be a faithful Christian in the context of the Scriptures and how one could be a faithful Christian in our current context.

    I've recently been considering the relationship between the Church and culture a fair amount. I had been working through Neibuhr's "Christ and Culture." The main force of the work indicated that Christians tend to respond in one of five ways to the culture problem. Incidentally, he indicated that either extreme is a radical that should be avoided, the one end as syncretistic and the other as (interestingly enough) idolatrous.

    By the way, this is Doug Walters, Wes's friend. Saw this on my facebook feed. Thank you for your thoughts! It has helped me to recenter my thoughts upon worship, to which they should have been oriented to begin with!

    1. Thanks, Doug. Stimulating and thoughtful reply. Glad you are reading Neibuhr. I believe he is correct in asserting that both ends of the spectrum are to be avoided. Witvliet says the same thing in his distillation of Christ in Culture (#4).

      I just wish we as evangelicals would engage these issues. We need to keep pushing ourselves to face the tough questions in order to be faithful to the mission of God.

      Thanks again!

  2. Simplistically, we seek in worship what we seek in the culture. Want prosperity? We find a prosperity message church. Want community? Friendliness and inclusion over substance. And so on. The culture is not seeking forgiveness and righteousness.

    So do we change culture or worship? Worship should lead us to adoration, confession and forgiveness and thanksgiving. When we seek that in worship, then we can affect our culture.

    1. Thanks, Scott, for reading and replying. You wrote, "we seek in worship what we seek in culture." You are right because our culture is oriented towards consumption. It is the engine that drives Capitalism and innovation. I contend (and it seems that you might agree) that the church has accomodated to much to our culture in that regard by "marketing the church" to religious consumers. That approach, while having some commendable intentions, needs to be challenged.

      I believe worship needs to be grounded in in the firm foundation of doing God's story - where He is both the object and subject of our worship. There is certainly a large place for our actions in corporate worship - "I adore, I confess, I worship, etc...," but worship needs to be centered first in proclaiming (through Word and song) and enacting (through the Table and Baptism) the Gospel.

      Thanks, Scott!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Exhibit A of culture over-running worship:

    Would you like fries with that contrition?

  5. Hey Bob (aka Dr. Myers)! Shalom stumbled upon your blog and I'm so glad that she did. It's amazing that this is the first entry I've had an opportunity to read. This is something that I've been thinking about quite a bit.

    I'm beginning to feel that, as some streams of Evangelicalism (I want to avoid painting with broad strokes here) fall into the trap of consumerism, worship (or, at least, the musical aspect of our worship) is becoming the commodity. The music becomes the "selling point" for the church to attract new members. I'm terribly conflicted on this as I do want to see our churches become more appealing (or, perhaps, relevant) to modern individuals and families; however, I believe that the primary function of worship is to glorify our Lord, Jesus Christ, and to bring honor to His name. A secondary function would be to edify believers through proclaiming God's story.

    All of that is to say that I share the sentiments expressed in this blog post. Yes...we should be willing to express our worship through modern means. Throughout history, whenever the Church has taken on the language and musical styles of the surrounding culture, it has helped to make the faith accessible to the masses (Imagine if we still had to read scripture in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic). On the other hand, we should never allow the culture to distract us from the primary purpose of worship. Many times I don't think we even realize that we have misplaced our priorities. May we, as those who worship and those who lead worship, allow the Lord to examine our hearts and make known any wrong motives.

    ~Adam Lane

  6. I stopped attending church when it turned into "rock 'n roll church." Sorry. It's too loud and I don't appreciate standing up for half an hour singing choruses.
    We have a Christian heritage of beautiful, worshipful,
    meaningful hymns that are never sung anymore. There could be much more of a mix of old and new, instead of all new.

  7. Goodness, I haven't blogged for quite a while and I apologize for not responding.
    Kyle - I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the link.
    Adam - So wonderful to connect with you again. I always appreciate your well reasoned (and increasingly, seasoned) reflections.
    Grammasheila - Your response grieves me; though you are not alone. I grieve for you and for churches who have abandoned their heritage and will not work to be a multi-generational community that loves and honors one another.


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