The Power and Glory of Culturally Expressed Worship
Part One: How Did We Arrive at this Place?
We who should be one, are many.
In this century the church has come apart. Strong, Bible-believing, Christ-Centered, Spirit-led churches following an errant theology of worship: Worship is a church growth tool. What are the results? Church growth to be sure, but there are also unintended consequences:
- We are experiencing an inter-generational isolation as older worshipers have little contact with younger ones, and
- younger worships have little or no knowledge of the testimonies of God’s faithfulness to previous generations.
- The voice of the Spirit speaking to the churches is limited to the message a single generation has been given to speak.
- Music and tech crews are overworked trying to reinvent so many presentational wheels every weekend.
How have we come to this place? What should we do now? Is there a better, more biblical way to go?
With part one and part two of this article I will take my turn at finding that Bible-based, “more excellent way.”
To the Ends of the Earth
Mark 16:15 NIV
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.
From the beginning, the Church of Jesus Christ has been a multi-cultural reality.
Though it began within the confines of the Old Covenant, the New Covenant quickly broke the cultural bonds of Judaism and took root in every culture of the ancient world the followers of Jesus could reach. When we reach back to learn from the ancient church we find all kinds of ethnic churches: Greek, Hebrew, North African, and Roman. Wherever the Roman Empire went, the church went too, including Asia Minor and even India.
Acts 1:8 NIV
“…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Because the New Covenant between God and mankind is a universal one, it has successfully taken root in every culture of the world. This international, multi-cultural capacity exists by God’s design. Just as He raised up the nation of Israel to bring Messiah to the world, God raised up the church to take the Gospel to all nations. The Great Commission from Jesus insists on extending the Church into the whole world. Jesus predicted the Holy Spirit would be the empowering force behind this global ministry. He said believers would receive power to take His Story “to the ends of the earth.”
In Their Own Languages
Acts 2:5-6 NIV
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
On the Day of Pentecost, a scene of grand theatre played out in the streets of Jerusalem. Jews from the whole world were gathered there for the feast. These faithful Old Covenant worshipers had learned the language of the nations to which they had immigrated. The one hundred twenty followers of Jesus, newly baptized with the Holy Spirit and equipped with the New Covenant language of praise and prayer, spilled into the streets of Jerusalem praising God in tongues. Some say the miracle was in the languages they spoke and others say it was in the ears of those who heard them, but it doesn’t matter one bit “because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” On this inaugural day of the New Covenant Church the Lord demonstrated what the church has been doing for all these centuries since—communicating the glory of God and the story of Jesus to the whole world in their own languages.
A Commission that Demands Preparation
Some early 20th Century Pentecostals travelled to the nations they felt God had called them to without learning the local languages. They expected the miracle of the Day of Pentecost to happen again; they would preach in English and the nationals would hear in their own language. It didn’t happen. Some returned to the USA and ministered where their culture matched the culture of the people they wanted to reach. Others realized that the Great Commission demands careful preparation; missionaries must learn the languages, including body languages and customs, to bring the Good News to the people they were called to reach.
The need for preparation seems so obvious it barely seems worth mentioning except for a crucial fact of life: the generations within one culture also form their own distinctive cultures. The same Commission that demands missionary journeys around the world, also demands that we cross the cultural oceans and mountain ranges between our own generational cultures. The formation of distinct generational cultures has accelerated greatly in the modern/post-modern world. Why? A brief history tells us why.
As media communications accelerated in the 20th Century, first with radio, film, inexpensive publishing, and later with television and the internet, the generations within the American culture rapidly formed cultures designed to contrast with the previous generation at best, and/or to rebel against it at worst. Each generational culture developed its own style of music, its own form of speech, and its own forms of entertainment all carrying the beliefs and passions of the youth it represented.
During the first half of the 20th Century, the church largely stood apart from these generational cultures with a distinct culture of its own, because of three powerful forces within her:
- trans-generational traditions,
- universally held principles of the Word of God and,
- the centrality of Christ.
When preachers began to openly question the traditions of the church and the authority of Scripture, the needs and desires of people supplanted Jesus as the center of the worship life of the church. The “ties that bind” were broken and parents had nothing left to pass on to their children except their own preferences, the last thing their kids wanted. America was ripe for a rebellion.
The 1950’s saw the emergence of a prosperous teenaged culture made independent of their parents by ready access to money, cars, and their own music and films. The rock-and-roll generation came out in open rebellion against their parents. (For the quintessential expression of this phenomenon watch “Rebel Without a Cause,” Warner Bros, 1955, directed by Nicolas Ray.) By the 1960’s this outright cultural rebellion grew into the “generation gap,” “turn on and drop out” generation who changed the American culture as a whole.
The Jesus Movement
Because what happens in the culture also happens in the church, a youth revolution rocked the church a decade later. Christian youth wanted something more than their parent’s tradition and music. We wanted a Christianity like the one we read about in the Bible. In the 1970’s “The Jesus Movement” changed the American church as thoroughly as the 1960’s rebellion changed America. The impact of the Jesus Movement is still with us. From this movement came
- contemporary Christian music in the 70’s,
- the praise and worship movement that began in the 80’s,
- the seeker-sensitive movement of the 90’s, and
- the worship intimacy emphasis since the turn of the 21st Century.
As a boy in the 1950’s, a teen in the 1960’s, a young Southern Gospel singer/songwriter/music minister in the 1970’s, a worship leader in the 1980’s, a worship leader/teacher in the 1990’s and the 2000’s, I have had a front row seat for all these movements.
My whole approach to worship renewal is based on the passions of the Jesus Movement:
- Living and leading by the Word of God,
- Keeping Christ at the center of everything, and
- Flowing with the Holy Spirit as He moves in surprising ways.
Although formed in college in the late 1960’s these principles still inform and reform me today. When, past the age of 50, I discovered “Semper Reformanda”—“Always Reforming!” I found that these Jesus Movement passions were the also the passions of the Reformers and the Church Fathers as well as my Pentecostal fathers and mothers.
Do the Work
One of my favorite things to say is to look a young student or a seasoned pastor in the eye when there is work to be done to learn the Word on worship or to understanding the culture of the people God has called you to lead in worship and tell them, “Do the work!” The Great Commission demands preparation, adaptation, and reformation by the Book.
Do the work!
© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved