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Seems like there’s blogger out there with a reason for everything in worship these days
10 Reasons to Do This.
11 Reasons to Do the Exact Opposite.
12 Reasons Why the First Two Guys Were Dead Wrong.
Most of the time these types of posts are helpful. They can help us think outside our context and consider a new point of view. But every once and while, behind all the reasons lurks a subtle sub-text: If your church isn’t doing THIS, then you are not fully expressing a biblical model of worship.
I want to argue for a single criterion for guiding our methodologies in worship, one that is sure to frustrate just about everyone at some point. If your view on worship is narrow – in any stylistic approach – it is sure to make you feel uncomfortable with its broadness. It will keep you from doing all the judging of others that feels so self-affirming. And if your view on worship is as broad as the horizon, it’s liable to make you feel restricted by its narrowness. It will bring your methodological choices under an uncomfortable scrutiny.
The single criterion that should guide our worship methodology is the gospel. (Crazy, right? Okay, I know that sounds like the equivalent of answering “Jesus” to every question in Sunday School, but stick with me here!)
Take a look at 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Paul, the writer of Corinthians, was the first major cross-cultural missionary. He took the gospel outside of the bounds of Jewish cultural expression (circumcision, dietary laws, festivals, etc.) to the Gentiles, a single term that encompassed the vast number of cultures who fit the description “non-Jewish.” (For a more detailed history, read Acts 15 or the book of Galatians.)
The core issue for Paul was this: if the Gospel is truly for all people, then it must be culture-neutral. That is, it must be able to reach people in any cultural context. Paul, as both an educated, observant Jew and a Roman citizen, was uniquely positioned to make this cultural transition, which he illustrated in the passage above.
For Paul, cultural norms did not form a boundary to methodology. Among the Jews he impressed with his knowledge of the scriptures (Acts 17:2, 11) and adherence to the law (Phil. 3:4-6). Among the Gentiles he cooled it with all that “Hebrew of Hebrews” talk, added bacon to his cheeseburger (can I get an amen?) and impressed with his rhetorical arguments, even making use of contemporary Greek philosophers (Acts 17:28). Paul summarizes this approach with one of his well-known aphorisms, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
But lest you think Paul is espousing some Wild West, anything-goes approach to ministry, don’t miss the next verse: “I do all this for the sake of the gospel.” Paul did have a boundary to his methodology: the gospel! And he opposed anything that distorted or diminished it (2 Cor. 11:1-4, Gal 1:6-10, Gal 2:14, 1 Tim. 1:3-11, among others). The gospel may be culture-neutral, but the culture of our churches must not be gospel-neutral!
This gives us a new framework as we discuss various worship methodologies. Think of the things that divide us. Choir or no choir? Hymnals or screens? The Jesus Culture version of This Is Amazing Grace or the Phil Wickham version? These issues can only be put in their proper perspective by asking the right questions first:
Is this methodology the best way for the gospel to reach the people God has called me to reach?
Does this methodology diminish or distort the gospel?
(And I would encourage you, with the support of Matthew 7:1-5, to apply these questions most rigorously to yourself and your own ministry before you start knocking someone else!)
This is the cure for all of our bellyaching about various methodologies. Hymns or choruses, choirs or soloists, emotive or stoic, these are not criteria for judging worship, they are cultural expressions that fit a particular cultural context. And guess what? You might be doing exactly what is right for your context while someone else does the exact opposite and is equally right for his context.
The first church I served had hymnals in the pew backs. Should they have given up their hymnals to make way for a new, modern era of worship music? Of course not! They were reaching the people God had entrusted to them. The next church I served had no hymnals and five screens filled with visual content. Should they have abandoned their approach and stuck hymnals under the chairs based on fifteen good reasons in a blog post? No! Their people would have felt restricted in worship by holding a book and trying to figure out the D.S. al Coda.
One church sang better and worshipped with more freedom with hymnals while one did the exact same thing without hymnals!
Let me illustrate this with one final story. Jess and I love the people of South Sudan, and in 2008 we participated in a mission trip to that war-torn nation. In South Sudan, things are traditionally done in circles. The mud huts that people live in are circular. Important village gatherings are held in a circle. Families share meals in a circle, often shaded by the circular shadow of an ancient tree.
Only buildings that were built by or under the influence of Westerners have right angles. And in many villages, do you know what is the only rectangular building?
It’s a church.
And inside the square corners of the church, the people don’t sit in a circle like they do everywhere else. They sit in rows, rough-hewn logs meant to be an approximation of pews. It’s a striking and instructive contrast.
So this is my prayer for you: don’t be a square church in the middle of a round culture.
And don’t try to force others to be.
The Gospel is culture-neutral. But our church cultures must not be gospel-neutral. The methodologies of our worship should be as broad as the gospel allows and as narrow as the gospel demands.
And that’s all the reason we need.
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