Worship and Culture

West-U-Church-Building-1024x576Last night, during our WoW lesson, I asked a question: Describe the typical Sunday morning worship? And I received a lot of beautiful responses about fellowship, adoration, prayer, communion with God and one another, etc.

I followed it up with a second question: How much of our worship on Sundays is cultural? Which left many wondering what I meant. And the discussion ranged on from there.

But much of what we do IS cultural: we sit in pews, not on the floors. We wear pants/dresses and shoes, not robes and sandals; we sing in four part harmony in English in the heptatonic scale not chanting in a call/response format in a different scale; we have a specific order of worship that we typically follow; we have an unspoken but agreed upon length as to how long someone should pray, speak, sing, etc. Much of what we do is dictated by our culture, not by the Bible. It is often tradition, not theology.

Now, don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t mean that EVERYTHING we do is only tradition and not theology. Much of what we do is driven by our theology: singing as participation; baptism by immersion upon a confession of faith; the Lord’s Supper as commanded by Christ; following the Apostle’s Teaching and teaching to obey as part of why we have sermons; etc. There is often deep theology behind what we do. But, too often, we begin to think of the things that are TRADITIONS as our theology.

I know of a congregation that had a knock-down, drag out fight over whether or not it was scriptural to move away from pews in the “sanctuary.” Recently there was a post in the Christian Chronicle over whether or not one cup churches could be in fellowship with those who use multiple cups in communion because we were seen as apostate. (Yes, there is a theology there about Jesus taking “the cup,” but I don’t find it compelling.) Still others have argued about “new music” that is ungodly, the right manner in which to pray, whether or not you can “mix parts of worship,” etc. Too often we begin to think of our traditions as theology.

These cultural norms can be a blessing to us. Tradition is about memory, and memory is meaning. These things carry weight and significance. They are, in many ways, what makes us US.

But cultural norms can also create barriers to worship and fellowship. Here are just a few examples:

How can these cultural norms of worship create hindrances?

  • For those who aren’t bought into the tradition they don’t carry as much weight
  • No memory associated
  • Each new generation has different cultural expectations and norms
  • Culture can be a benefit to some while being a hindrance to others
  • Often our worship can be quite white and middle class. That can involve…
    • Those participating
    • Language used
    • Songs chosen, with music and words
    • Clapping and not clapping
  • Some people see these things as “normative” and essential without realizing they are culturally driven.

Too often we see these traditions as theologically right and wrong. Our tradition becomes our doctrine. Our preferences become our piety. And anything that is different can be frustrating.

Sociology has a principle that seems to play out in churches, as well as many other institutions: the homogeneous unit principle. It argues that churches grow fastest when they are homogeneous, the same.

  • Same ethnic, economic, and education levels
  • Same socio-economic status
  • Same languages
  • Similar background and experiences
  • Same expectations
  • Same desires and dreams out of life
  • Same ways of viewing the world
  • Etc. (And, honestly, anything can fit into this principle).

But what is the problem with the homogeneous unit principle? It isn’t the vision that God has set out for the church! In fact, it goes against the vision that God has set out for the church.

Acts 1 sets a beautiful example of this. The disciples have gathered to spend time with Jesus after his resurrection when one of them asks the question:

… “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.”

The Great Commission in the Gospel of Matthew lays out a similar command: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…” (28:18-19)

Jesus calls his followers to break down the walls that divided people. Divisions of ethnicity, the separation between Jew and Gentile. Divisions between socio-economic level, with masters and slaves worshiping together. The division between genders, with men and women now seen as equally important in the kingdom.


26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)

Which is why the church faces a dilemma in Acts 15. It was a challenge that had been building for quite some time as Jewish Christians tried to understand what Christianity meant.

  • In their eyes, God had revealed himself through their history. It was through Abraham and his descendants that God interacted with the world. “All peoples would be blessed through them.” They were God’s treasured possession and kingdom of priests, meant to help the world come to know God.
  • They were the recipients of the prophets. They were the keepers of God’s law.
  • And it was from the Jews that the Messiah came into the world.

And they fully believed the words of Isaiah’s prophecy that it was too small a thing for the Messiah to come only to redeem the tribes of Israel; instead, he had come for the same of the whole world.

But… if Christianity had its theological and practical roots in Judaism, and Jesus came to fulfill the Law, shouldn’t Gentiles have to adhere to it, too? So they began sending out teachers who diligently, wholeheartedly, wanted Gentiles to start following the Law of Moses. You had to be circumcised. You had to eat and live within the Mosaic laws of purity.

And the Judaizers desire was right: We want these people to be saved! They had the right motivations… but the wrong theology. They were going with their tradition and arguing that it was normative.

But here’s the problem. These Gentiles weren’t Jews and they didn’t want to become Jews. They didn’t want to be circumcised. They didn’t want to cut themselves off from their friends and neighbors and family. They didn’t want to change every aspect of their lives when they didn’t see it as part of the Gospel. They loved their Jewish brethren, but… Jesus is the LORD of all the earth. And that means everyone. Why should we have to be JEWS to be CHRISTIANS??? The Great Commission talked about baptism and teaching, not about circumcision and food.

They wanted to cross as few barriers as possible to worshiping God.

So, the Jerusalem Conference took place in which both sides reviewed their theology and their points of view.

  • The Judaizers spoke, defending their theological point of view.
  • Peter spoke about what happened with Cornelius and how it changed his life (from Acts 10)
  • Paul and Barnabas spoke about what was happening in the hearts and lives of Gentiles to whom they ministered

And, finally, James spoke up with these words:

19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (15:19-21)

In his letter to Gentile believers he refers to this as the leading of the Spirit:

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements…” (15:28)

For James, it became about fellowship. How can these believers worship together in ways that wouldn’t exclude the others.



So, what does this mean for us?

First, please hear me: I am not saying the way we do it is evil or bad or wrong. You can’t escape culture. And we all have our preferences. But…

Second, we need to examine our practices and preferences in light of the Gospel. Are things that aren’t theologically driven keeping people from coming to Christ? I am not talking about throwing out the idea of baptism or stopping the Lord’s Supper. But are our views on clapping a hindrance?

Third, we seek the leading of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t just about what you think or what I prefer or what might be most “helpful.” Instead, we allow God to work in our hearts and lives through his Spirit. And we diligently search the Scriptures to discover what is the core of the Gospel. And, when we find something heretical or damaging, we point it out. But we trust that God is at work.

Fourth, we learn to value our differences and diversity. Christians in Jerusalem who had grown up Jewish weren’t asked to stop practicing their Jewish customs, unless they directly contradicted the Gospel of Jesus. They could still circumcise. They could still go to synagogue. They could meet in the Temple courts. I am sure they would still pray the Shema, read in Aramaic (or Greek or whatever language they knew), eat clean foods, and practice their faith in Jewish ways. But they didn’t place that same demand on their Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ. Because in Christ there is no longer any division.

For us, we can also value differences and diversity. We don’t have to try every new idea or experience that comes along. We can practice discernment and not always incorporate every fad. But we can also give grace to those who do things a little differently, things that don’t fit my preferences.

Fifth, we give grace. I know I said that before, and I’ll say it again. We learn to give grace when we disagree. We trust that God is God, and we leave it at that. If it isn’t heretical or damaging then we learn to get over ourselves, giving grace and love to those with whom we don’t see eye to eye.

Sixth, we live with confidence and courage. Not everyone has to like us. Not everyone has to think our way is the best way or even the right way. But, when we are trying to live for Christ and follow him in our lives and worship him with all we have, we can live with confidence and courage. We can trust, once again, that God is God.

My hope is that we will begin to examine ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with tradition, and I don’t want to toss out tradition for the sake of novelty. But there are definitely times in life in ministry when we have to follow Paul’s example and put our preferences aside for the Gospel. My prayer is that my life might echo Paul’s, in order that I might put  become “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22b-23)