Hymns & Songs

In search of a global perspective in worship

Mar 2011    

WHAT IS A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE? Is it even possible to have a global perspective? What purpose might a global perspective serve? How might a congregation develop a global perspective?

Andrew Walls, career missionary to Sierra Leone and Professor Emeritus of Christianity in the Non-Western World at the University of Edinburgh, offers an enticing metaphor for global perspective with an analogy entitled “ The Human Auditorium” (from e Missionary Movement in Christian History, 2002). It goes like this:

Let us begin with a visit to the theatre. It is a crowded theatre, with a huge stage, and a stream of actors passing across it. Everyone in the packed auditorium can see the stage, but no one sees the whole of it. People seated in one place cannot see the entrances left, though they can hear the actor’s voice as he enters from the wings. Seated somewhere else, the view is obstructed by a pillar, or an overhanging balcony … As a result, though everyone in the audience sees the same play and hears the same words, they have different views of the conjunction of word and action, according to their seat in the theatre …

Of course, it is possible to get up and change one’s seat; but while this may provide a different view of the stage, it will not enable a view of the whole stage at once; and the way a person who changes seats understands the performance as a whole will still be affected by where they were sitting for the first act.

Prof Walls’ image of “The Human Auditorium” speaks of our experience in culture at large. I would like to apply his metaphor to the area in which I operate the most – the liturgical arena.

When we worship together we participate in the drama entitled “The Story of the Salvation of All Humanity”. Each week another act unfolds as we praise and adore God, invoke the Holy Spirit, confess our sins, hear and respond to the biblical witness, and experience God’s grace around the table. A large part of this witness has to do with the incarnation – the presence of God in human form within our space and time. Jesus was born in a specific place for all places, at a specific time for all times, of a specific culture for all cultures.

As participants in the greatest drama of all time, most Christians view the action from one cultural perspective. Some of us have the opportunity to take a different seat in the human auditorium and we learn to see the play of salvation from an entirely different perspective. Most of us will maintain a cultural bias for the place where we were first seated in the theatre of human experience. A few will learn to enjoy the great drama so well from a new perspective that they have trouble coming back to their original seat in the theatre.

It is natural, of course, for us to view the biblical witness from only one seat in the theatre. e early church faced a similar situation as we do. Paul encountered a struggle between two cultural groups at the church at Ephesus. Jewish Christians felt that they were nearer the centre of the Gospel story than Gentile Christians. e writer of the epistle responded as follows:

… in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. So [Christ] came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself as the cornerstone. Ephesians 2:13-20 (NRSV)

I regret that our worship today often not only erects barriers, but even reinforces cultural dividing walls. Dichotomous thinking about the so-called traditional versus contemporary styles of worship perpetuates this heresy. By adopting narrow views on one side or the other, we make ourselves more comfortable in worship at the expense of limiting our ability to see another’s perspective – in other words, moving to a different seat in the theatre. Whether one is a proponent of “traditional” or “contemporary” perspective, our discussion usually ignores the cultural understandings of two-thirds of Christianity. Even when we propose “blended” worship, the result is usually myopic from a global perspective.

The theological travesty of a culturally closed approach to liturgy is, among other concerns, a distortion of an understanding of the incarnation. Culturally narrow views of the One who came at a specific time and place for all times and places run the risk of idolatry – creating God in our own image.

One antidote to cultural idolatry is exposure to the Other and the experiences of others different from us that point us to the Other. We do not worship only with an isolated local congregation, but with the saints of the church universal throughout time the passage from Ephesians also suggests another insight. Can we worship as fully when we are not aware of the ethnic aliens and strangers among us? Can we engage the diverse ministries of the Holy Spirit when worship reflects only a dominant cultural perspective and is not open to a wider spectrum of ways of singing and praying? inking about the strangers and the aliens among us may help us consider the rich possibilities of observing the drama of salvation from a different seat in the theatre.

 NEXT MONTH: GLOBAL WORSHIP IN LOCAL PLACES

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