The Calamity of Culturally-Driven Worship
Part One: The Problem
This Mountain, that City…
John 4:19-24 NIV
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know;
we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.
Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.
God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
“Calamity” is a strong word.
Synonyms we might use include: disaster, tragedy, misfortune and catastrophe. They all work. Culturally-driven worship is the very thing Yahweh was concerned about when he commanded that whole cities be destroyed during the conquest of the Canaan by the Israelites. The cultures of man spring from the fallen heart of man. Without the cleansing of the blood of Christ, the heart of man may worship, but it will not worship God in a way that pleases Him. The Apostle Peter said it this way:
1 Peter 2:4-5 NIV
As you come to him, the living Stone-rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
The only way the Israelites could worship God acceptably was through an elaborate system of rites and blood sacrifices based on the anticipation of the Blood of Jesus, the final sacrifice and full payment for all the sins of mankind. Until then, false worshipers would be swallowed by the earth, consumed by fire, struck down beside the Ark or abandoned by Yahweh Himself. The cultural influences of the surrounding pagan nations were so powerful that any contact with them seemed to result in apostasy, backsliding into idolatry. The fallen cultures of man are so foreign to the Kingdom of God they can never become the heart of worship, not True Worship that is meant only for the One True God. Instead, the Word of God must permeate and transform the cultures of man, purifying them and converting them to the culture of the Kingdom of God. The cultures of man are fallen and must be redeemed—just like worshipers. To use fallen forms in the worship of God without first redeeming them is impossible. It leads to calamity.
For the Old Covenant worshiper, idolatry was out in the open: statues, human sacrifice, corrupt priesthoods and lust-driven rituals. For the New Covenant worshiper today, idolatry is more subtle: celebrities, personal choice, corrupt systems of business and government, and pleasure-driven popular art and entertainment. It is idolatrous all the same. Just like the Moabites and Jubusites and Perezites whose names make us giggle when we read them today, contemporary idolatry surrounds us, ready to spoil our offerings of worship and corrupt our church families and para-church organizations.
Driven or Sensitive?
Worship must be sensitive to the culture in which it takes place. The moment worship is expressed, it expressed with cultural arts. The modes of expressing worship are the voices and sounds of the local culture. This is a necessity. However, True Worship uses the arts of the culture to speak the Truth of God into the culture. It is countercultural. The calamity I am addressing is this: when, with sincere motives to reach the lost, the worship of the church is driven by the culture in sound, appearance, and even in content. It is no longer countercultural, but has become an actual subculture of the idolatrous culture, an imitation of it. When this happens “the salt has lost its savor.”
Yet, too often I see Culturally-driven worship:
- congregations demoted to the level of audience while singers, players and speakers become celebrities;
- the politics of deceit and deception in the pastoral staff and church board meetings;
- market-driven services based on the pleasure of certain target groups and oblivious to the pain of less important groups;
- leaders researching every method of their contemporary competitors looking for the latest pragmatic devise that will “work” while declining to research the heart of God as it is revealed in the Word of God.
Like the Children Israel we go into battle without inquiring of the Lord, trusting the Ark of the New Covenant (Jesus) to help us win the battle to be first on somebody’s list, the biggest in town, to beat ourselves a year ago, or just to be on the cutting edge no matter who bleeds from the blade we wield.
Just as Jesus wept over the corruption of Jerusalem as he approached it his last week, surely He must weep over the spiritual Jerusalem—the church—today. I feel Him weeping over us. That city missed their day of visitation and so might we if we continue to let the fallen cultures of man shape our communities of faith.
Winners and Losers
Competition comes from the fall of man and not his creation, but it lies so deep within us, we cannot imagine life without it. Instead of holy callings from the King, we have careers that must be advanced at any cost. We don’t even question the competition among churches and colleges, ministers and members, performers and patrons. The woman at the Samaritan well asked Jesus about a worship competition between her people and the Jews. Since he was obviously a prophet, she tried to see which side he was on. The Samaritans had chosen a mountain as their worship center. The Jews clung to Jerusalem and the third Temple now standing within her walls. The first two, built at the command of God, had been destroyed as judgment against culture-corrupted worship. Now Herod’s Temple stood proudly, its merchants intact and its profane leadership in control. Which side was right? Which human culture was the one Yahweh preferred?
Jesus’ answer to her is his answer to us. There is no other answer, for who can correct Him and who would dare say He got it wrong? But what we can do is ignore His words and look for others. Hear the voice of contemporary culture in these common ideas:
- Let’s canvas the community.
- Let’s do worship to our own tastes.
- Let’s destroy the icons from history and build new ones from our own imaginations.
- Let’s do it our way. Our hearts are right! We want to see God move. We want to tell His story in fresh new ways. We want to present the gospel in relevant terms.
- Besides, “spirit and truth” is too imprecise.
- We need a strategy, a plan, a presentation we can rehearse and critique and improve. We want to win the culture to Jesus.
- We don’t want to lose our young people. Too many of them have been lost, disillusioned by poorly done ministry.
- Let’s target our worship music to them and not worry about the others.
Can we also hear the call of the Spirit?
- To win them, we must be excellent.
- Our presentation must be relevant and real.
- “Spirit and truth” must be our form and content.
- Let’s be One on worship—“till we come into the unity of the faith.”
- Worship is not a church growth tool.
Worship is not culture.
Worship is expressed in cultural languages—art and artifact, music and musicians, architecture and archetype, text and subtext, image and imagination, sign and symbol—but it is not culture. Culture emanates from the heart of man but worship comes from the heart of God. The worship cycle within the Trinity is the culture of heaven. When we worship, we simply join in the heavenly cycle of continuous adoration and praise. When we come to Mt. Zion, (Hebrews 12:24) we are coming to Jesus. Jesus is bigger than any of the cultures of the earth. He is beyond time and space and creation including all the languages of all cultures. We can only encounter Him in the realm of spirit and truth.
- Our spirits, reborn and cleansed by the blood of Calvary, bear witness with His Spirit that we indeed are His children.
- Our truth, our total honesty and our cleansed motivations, receive His Truth, His revelation of Jesus, and we are changed even as we behold Him face to face.
We do more than present the Gospel. We become the Gospel, living letters known and read of all men.
- His truth spills from our spirits in the songs and ceremonies we call worship.
- Our hearts and minds are set on Him.
- His desires form our highest goals.
- The glory due his name becomes the measure of our praise and adoration.
The Flow of the Spirit
Our Calvary-cleansed humanity becomes the conduit for His Spirit and Truth to flow through our cultural expressions to touch a confused world so hungry for His truth. A fallen humanity isolated from its destiny by a powerful enemy finds in our holy counterculture a hero and a champion. One who has overthrown and exposed their enemy and who shares His victory with humanity through a New Covenant of life. “Spirit and Truth” is more powerful than amps and lamps, more relevant than slang or sloppy clothes, and more inclusive than thin smoke or thick smiles.
The problem with cultural clashes is this: somebody wins and somebody loses.
We are so encased in the culture of competition, we think this is inevitable. We have forgotten that in the Kingdom of God the lion and the lamb lie down together. There is no room for competition in the Kingdom of the One who is both Lion and Lamb. Can we let the truth of God ignite our imaginations again? Can we begin to conceive of a place so different from this world where no one loses and all benefit? That’s exactly what the church should be. Paul left us no wiggle-room, “…the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; (2 Tim 2:24). The AV says, “must not strive.” It’s just not in our playbook to argue and oppose each other. The Apostle Jude’s exhortation for us to “contend for the faith” is not an inter-squad game. It refers to a lifestyle of seeking the heart of God and cleansing our understanding of it from corrupting influences so that it is as pure in us as it was in the beginning of the church.
Culturally-driven worship produces strife within the Body of Christ.
We have made it clear that the preferences of one group are more important than those of another. The people with the power always win and the others can take or leave it. We may dress it up with demonstrations of how right we are or how God so obviously approves of our preferences, but everybody knows who won and who lost. We have canonized culture. To the losers we say, “Better luck next time. Maybe the next set of leaders will like what you like.” Worship is not a game. Jesus calls us beyond our preferences to those of the Father, to worship in Spirit and Truth.
Please Continue reading with Part Two: The Solution:
© 2019 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved