Happenings

Worship and culture

Jul 2012    

“Worship cannot just be a somewhat-Christian rock concert-cum-comedy routine – expressions of consumerism and our addiction to entertainment …worship cannot ignore culture, since worship must inevitably rely on the words and customs of culture to express the Gospel (contextualisation).”

PREVIOUSLY, WE STATED THAT RITUALS convey religious or cultural meaning. Because every culture is different, each will have its own rituals or way of ritualising certain beliefs.

“Culture” is a society’s ways of shaping activities which are passed down to succeeding generations. Culture encompasses not only those things normally identified as “cultural”, such as art and music, but also daily activities like eating or taking leave of another person.

Naturally, culture will have an impact on worship. Churches worship God using their culture’s art and music. e Gospel is proclaimed using the local language and language patterns, and yet it is still the universal Gospel of Salvation in Jesus Christ.

Obviously, there are limits when it comes to the relationship between worship and culture. Not all cultural patterns or expressions can be used in worship. For example, the practice in some cultures whereby people of so-called “higher” castes do not eat with those of “lower” castes can never be transposed to the Lord’s Supper, which was instituted as a sign of unity in the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34).

In an effort to clarify the relationship between worship and culture, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) proposed four guiding principles.

First, worship is transcultural. Because the Lord Jesus is “above” all cultures and transcends all cultures, those aspects of worship most closely associated with His living presence in the church – the proclamation of the Word, baptism, the Lord’s Supper – are for Christians of all cultures.

Those things that unfold the truth of Jesus crucified and raised, such as the basic shape of the service – gathering, word, meal and sending – and the church calendar are also common possessions of churches throughout the world. Only when we recognise this fact can we then adapt worship to our local culture.

We cannot omit these core elements in the name of “relevance”. So all churches strive to faithfully preach the Good News, rather than replace true preaching with “talks” on pop-psychology topics. We might observe days of local or social significance, e.g. Mother’s Day or National Day, but these are set side by side with the days and seasons connected with Jesus Christ.

Second, worship is contextual. Because God’s becoming flesh in the person of Jesus means that God embraced a particular culture (first century Palestinian Judaism), worship embraces local cultures for the sake of the Gospel. But, as noted above, only those patterns and values that square with the Gospel are suitable for worship.

Third, worship is countercultural. This is another way of saying that worship will challenge social structures and attitudes that are dehumanising and evil. Not only will sermons expose and criticise the evils of gambling and consumerism, but the very patterns of our worship will be critical of culture.

The fact that all can come to the Lord’s Supper and be fed, regardless of whether we have “earned” it, challenges the social attitude that there must always be “something for something” (li shang wang lai). In the God of Jesus, we get more than we bargain for, and the Lord’s Supper, therefore, reflects the surprising grace of God and reminds that God does not necessary think like we do!

Finally, worship is cross-cultural. Churches can borrow the words, concepts and worship patterns of churches of other cultures. There is already a cross-cultural component built in to Christian worship because of our use of Hebrew words like “Amen” and “Hallelujah.” Our various prayers of thanksgiving, especially the eucharistic prayer of Holy Communion, are based on Jewish prayers. In recent years, much emphasis has been placed on using the songs of different cultures. By doing this, we not only remind ourselves of the relationship between worship and culture, we also affirm that the church is a worldwide reality. In other words, “global music” puts flesh on our belief in the “catholic” (universal) aspect of the creedal statement about the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church”.

Together, these principles help us to put the question of worship and culture in perspective. ey remind us that worship cannot just be a somewhat-Christian rock concert-cum-comedy routine – expressions of consumerism and our addiction to entertainment. At the same time, the LWF’s principles remind us that worship cannot ignore culture, since worship must inevitably rely on the words and customs of culture to express the Gospel (contextualisation).

Let us reflect on these principles as we seek to be faithful worshippers of the God of Jesus Christ.

See http://www.worship.ca/docs/lwf_ns.html


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The Rev Dr Jeffrey Truscott, Lecturer in Worship and Liturgy at Trinity eological College, is also the Chaplain of the college.

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