Foundations: No.76 Spring 2019

Worship Today: Contemporary Expression of Worship in One’s Own Culture(s)


In the days of the former Soviet Union, a visitor to one of its cities wished to look around a particular church, only to discover that it had been turned into a museum.[1] This might almost serve as a kind of enacted parable as far as some Christians are concerned: for it has become a cliché amongst many evangelicals in the UK that the church must not allow itself to be caught in a time warp or to be guilty of “cultural drag”. On the other hand, there are believers who fear the opposite danger, that the church which marries herself to the spirit of the age will become a widow in the following generation. Although the so-called “worship wars” have died down, this may well be because churches have opted either to be traditional or to be contemporary; therefore the tensions which once existed are no longer there because the church has identified itself either with a traditional culture (and those of a different outlook have moved on) or with a contemporary culture (in which case those of the opposite view have left). It is not at all uncommon in areas which are blessed with a number of evangelical churches for believers moving into such an area to settle in the church where they feel culturally most at home. Where, however, there is only one evangelical church within reasonable travelling distance, it may well be the case that tensions continue to exist.

The cultural “feel” to a church does not, of course, relate only to the contrast between that which is contemporary or traditional; it also relates to its racial make-up and the socio-economic, educational and cultural background of its members, in general, and of its officers in particular. All of these factors may well influence a particular “church culture”. And this, in turn, can affect the cultural approach and “style” of the church’s worship. Added to all of this are some of the wider cultural influences: in a day of instant electronic communication, where a church in an isolated area can access videos and other material from churches in distant places, it is becoming increasingly the case that those Christians who once lived and moved and had their being in a fairly sheltered ecclesial context are now regularly exposed to ways of doing things which some may find to be truly liberating but which others view as a serious threat to the integrity of their church life.

I have not yet addressed the all-important question of what Scripture says concerning the relationship of the church to culture in a contemporary context and, in particular, what is the nature of that relationship as it affects the church’s worship. The answer is to be found by grappling with the teaching of the entire Bible, quarrying timeless principles from it, and then seeking to ascertain how those principles apply to the very diverse cultures which characterise many modern western societies. Since this paper is prepared for a study conference, where much of the time is devoted to conferring in small groups and then in plenary sessions, I shall give heavy emphasis to questions, rather than to answers. The reason for this is that it is crucial for us to identify the key issues and the questions arising from them before exploring how churches are to give contemporary expression of worship in their own culture. I shall raise the questions in the hope that I shall stimulate thought at the conference itself and that in conferring together we may arrive at biblically informed answers. This having been said, I shall seek in this paper to crystallise certain biblical teaching and suggest ways in which it might be applied.

One final word by way of introduction: although the title assigned to me refers to one’s own culture, I have substituted the word “cultures”. My reason for so doing is that, as I shall seek to make clear, the church must give expression to her worship in what is becoming in the West – and has already largely become in many areas – a multi-cultural context.

I. Definitions

Three terms in this paper’s title cry out for definition. The first is the word “contemporary”, for although its meaning may appear to be pretty straightforward, a moment’s reflection should demonstrate that this is far from being the case. I, as a 65-year-old, may speak of “my contemporaries”. I am, of course, referring to those in roughly the same age bracket as me. Someone who is half my age may refer to their contemporaries, in which case they are speaking of those in their late twenties and early thirties. But both groups are living in 2019 and, in this sense, are living in the contemporary world. This, however, will inevitably mean different things to different people. It is obvious that what the contemporary world means to a 15-year-old will be very different from what it means for an 85-year-old. What will be a contemporary expression of something for the former may well be very different from what it will be for the latter. And this, of course, is true for all the various ages in between. Thus, what is quaint and archaic to one generation may still be modern to another. Indeed, what may be quaint and archaic to one generation in one cultural context may well be ultra-modern to those of the same generation in a very different cultural context.

One final observation is needed with respect to defining the word “contemporary”. Each and every period has its own distinctive emphases and blind spots. If, however, a church understands “contemporary expression of worship in its own culture” as doing that which is only contemporary (bearing in mind the difficulties I have already identified with respect to this term), it will inevitably be the case that the church will fail to give expression to all- important things which are mandated by God in his Word but which do not resonate with contemporary cultures. This is a hugely important matter to which I shall later return. 

The second word which needs to be defined is “culture”. This term has generated a vast literature and has been variously understood. A classic treatment of the nature of culture and its relationship with the Christian message is to be found in Niebuhr’s seminal and celebrated book Christ and Culture.[2] In recent years Don Carson has made a penetrating critique of Niebuhr’s work the point of departure for his own treatment of this subject. Carson’s work in this area, as well as that of Kevin Vanhoozer, is especially helpful. Some quotations from both of these writers will help to elucidate, if not to define, culture. Here is a selection of material from Vanhoozer: “A culture is the objectification, the expression in words and works, of the ‘spirit’ of a particular people who inhabit a particular time and place.”[3] Again: “Culture is the effort of the human spirit to express itself by building and embodying values and beliefs into concrete forms (e.g., cathedrals, colosseums, cemeteries, cinemas, colleges, cash stations, car washes, etc).”[4] Vanhoozer draws a fascinating contrast between culture, which he understands to be a human product, from that which may be created within the rest of the animal kingdom:

A spider’s web is not a cultural product because it is not a work of freedom. The spider’s web, despite its intricacy, is neither a message nor an expression of a set of values and beliefs. There are no arachnid equivalents of our Gothic, Enlightenment, or Romantic… cultural styles. The spider’s web has no meaning; rather, it serves an instrumental purpose. The weaving of the web may be admired; it cannot be interpreted.[5]

The distinction which Vanhoozer makes here between the instrumental and the cultural is not without its difficulties.[6] With respect to the fact that culture is something which can be interpreted, he makes the following penetrating observation: “…there is more need than ever for the theologian to be interpreter and critic of contemporary culture, as well as champion of a counterculture that should be embodied in ecclesial existence – that is, in the church.”[7]

Carson broadly adopts a number of proposals from other writers as a working definition of culture. Here is one of them:

[T]he culture concept… denotes a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life.”[8]

Both Vanhoozer’s definition and that adopted by Carson are open to certain criticisms but I shall adopt them as working definitions.[9] What this means, of course, is that “culture” is a word which is, in some respects, very similar to “language”. Language is an umbrella term, for language is expressed in specific languages. Similarly, culture is expressed in different cultures. In this respect the term “sub-culture” and “sub-cultures” can be somewhat misleading because they suggest that there is one dominant culture in which are to be found certain cultures which, although existing within and alongside the dominant culture, are quite different from (and even alien to) it. Although it is undoubtedly true that some societies are characterised by a dominant culture, in many western countries today there is no one dominant culture but, rather, a plethora of different, sometimes competing, cultures; the very term “multi-culturalism” expresses this reality.

Within the rough working definitions which have been given, at least two key questions need to be addressed in this paper: first, what is the relationship of the church, especially in its worship, to contemporary cultures? Secondly, does the Bible teach that the church has, and must express, a unique, Christian culture, especially with respect to its worship? Vanhoozer’s plea that the theologian be not only interpreter and critic of contemporary culture but also “champion of a counter-culture that should be embodied in ecclesial existence – that is, the church” suggests that at least one leading contemporary theologian is of the view that there should be a distinctive, Christian culture. It is difficult to see how this cannot fail to have implications for how the church is to worship. Such an idea goes clean contrary to much contemporary (that word, again!) Christian thought and practice, and is, therefore, not only counter-cultural with respect to secular society but also in relation to much present-day evangelicalism.

These remarks lead on to the third term in this paper’s title which needs to be defined: “worship”. I shall need to say more by way of definition and explanation of this word than I did for culture. Numerous words are used in the Hebrew Bible, in the LXX, and in the New Testament, which are either translated by our English word “worship”, or which are, in one way or another, associated with “worship terminology”. A brief consideration of the main terms is found in the footnote to this sentence.[10] Such a survey of the biblical language leads to the view that it is a serious mistake to confine the idea of worship to what takes place when the people of God gather together, and still less to confine it to one aspect of a church gathering – the singing. It is something of a theological category error to identify worship solely with vocal praise, be that said or sung. Once this point has been grasped, it not only enables one to view some past controversies in a different perspective and a fresh light but also to see that the title of the present paper could raise much wider and broader issues and questions than those which simply relate to how we “do church”, if by “doing church” nothing other is meant than how our meetings together are ordered.

It is important to keep in mind, therefore, that the whole of one’s life is worship and that we come together to worship in a specific way. Since the conference brochure states that the purpose of the conference is to examine “The principles, practice and history of what Christians do when they gather to praise God”, I shall confine my treatment of worship to what is usually understood by the phrase “worship service”; but it has been important to locate such usage within the wider biblical categories of worship.

II. Culture and cultures: good, bad, and neutral

Culture, as we have seen, is a human phenomenon; therefore cultures are human phenomena and cultural activity is human activity. Cultures will, therefore, express our humanness. Just as God causes his sun to rise on good and evil alike and sends rain to the righteous and unrighteous, so he restrains people from being as bad as they might be. Furthermore, at certain periods and places people are capable of acts of extraordinary kindness, generosity, and so on. This means, of course, that the cultural activities which such people practise may well display positive and noble qualities. And this being so, it follows that some of those things which are often associated with the word “culture” may also be classified as good, not only in an aesthetic sense but also morally. Thus, a great work of literature may explore some moral dilemma in such a way as to extol certain virtues and to make them appear desirable and attractive. And this, of course, may be the case when the work is produced by someone who is not a Christian and not even a theist. The fact that Paul could quote approvingly from Greek poets demonstrates this fact.[11]

Some things in culture may, of course, be nothing other than evil. Phrases such as “gang culture” and “gambling culture” spring to mind. Other things, however, are neither good nor evil but neutral; it is the use to which they are put which is good or evil. The sharp knife, which is surely a “cultural product”, may be used to cut food to prepare a delicious meal for homeless people or it may be used to kill someone. Furthermore, it is quite clear that certain cultural activities which would characterise the people of God and which would be endorsed by God in his Word originated outside of the covenant people of God; the things themselves were neutral and could be put to evil or good use.[12] The fact that such things originated amongst the ungodly seed does not necessarily, therefore, mean that they are inappropriate for the people of God or even for the set worship of God. To think otherwise is to be guilty of something that is not dissimilar to the genetic fallacy. This is an important point to which I shall later return.

Indeed, something which has been directly created by God and which, at one level, may be regarded by him as good can be turned to evil use. Thus, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was created by God. Like the other trees in the Garden of Eden, its fruit was edible (“the fruit of the tree was good for food”) and the tree itself was “pleasing to the eye”.[13] Yet the woman used it in an illegitimate way. The first mention of wine in the Bible has negative connotations: Noah drank some and became drunk.[14] By contrast, the second mention of wine is entirely positive: Melchizedek greeted Abraham as he returned from battle and “brought out bread and wine”.[15] Wine may be seen as a good gift of God and used positively.[16] Equally, the Scriptures warn of the dangers which it can pose, and of the need to avoid abuse of this gift of God.[17] Something may be neutral and thus be used in either a good way or a bad way. In this connection, it should be noted that things specifically prescribed for the worship of God, understanding the term “worship” fairly broadly, may also be abused and put to sinful use. This was surely the case with the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant onto the field of battle during the priesthood of Eli’s sons; it had been turned into an idol.[18] The same kind of thing happened to the brass serpent which the LORD had told Moses to set up on a pole. By Hezekiah’s time, the people had turned it into an object of worship, and it had to be destroyed.[19] Both of these occurrences, the first with the ark and the second with the brass serpent, demonstrate the danger and propensity of God’s people to turn means which God has appointed for one purpose into an idolatrous end, where the means are worshipped in place of and instead of God. There can be little doubt that in the “worship wars” some have been guilty of this. Trust can be placed in Bible versions: some have undoubtedly placed a confidence in the AV or KJV, rather than in God himself and in his holy truth, in a translation of God’s Word instead of in God’s Word itself. This has sometimes gone hand-in-hand with a belief that only hymns written before a certain date or which use a certain language can be fit vehicles of praise to the LORD. On the other hand, others have given the impression that unless the latest technology is employed in every gathering for corporate worship, the Holy Spirit will be mysteriously absent. To a certain extent I caricature, but the fearful thing is that there are these realities to caricature.

The technological revolution with respect to modern means of communication and mass media has been every bit as epoch-making as was the invention of the printing press. Podcasts of interviews with Christians and Christian leaders who are expert on a whole range of subjects; the availability of a vast treasure-trove of sermon material which can be down-loaded; interviews on YouTube; the sharing and dissemination of wholesome gospel and biblical material on social media platforms; the possibility of hearing fine renderings of sung Christian praise – all these are great blessings indeed. The internet and social media are neutral but the Christian material to which I have just referred is in the category of good, not neutral. It can, however, be abused and is being abused by some. While it is a great blessing for a house-bound Christian to be able to live-stream a church service on the Lord’s Day and to be able to download other good material through the week, this becomes spiritually harmful when a believer who is in perfectly good health chooses to stay at home to do this rather than meet with the Lord’s people in his or her local church. The singing may be vastly superior in the large congregation which can be seen and heard on the computer screen than it is in that believer’s local church; the believer may feel that the preaching has an impact upon him that is far greater than he has ever known in the church which he has now ceased to attend; but in essence, what has happened is that he has become a consumer of piped religion rather than a worshipper with God’s people of the living and awesome God. This is so because he or she cannot contribute to the other worshippers who have gathered together. Gathering for worship is a communal and corporate affair, hence the biblical injunction that we forsake not the assembling of ourselves together.[20]

It is significant that this command to continue meeting together is followed by specifying one of the great purposes of our gathering together – that we might encourage each other. In other words, one vital aspect of corporate worship is the ministering to one another which should take place. Furthermore, as Paul makes abundantly clear in his treatment of the Lord’s Supper, this means of grace is most emphatically not a privatised affair but, rather, is communal, where we are to have regard for one another.[21] In addition, being under the pastoral care and discipline of the church is a privilege for each believer; this cannot be had completely on the internet. This is one of the reasons why it is important to locate “worship” in the narrow sense of what happens when we gather together for praise, teaching, and fellowship within the context of worship understood in its widest sense.

III. The Christian’s and the Church’s Relationship to Culture

Niebuhr identified five different ways in which Christians have thought about the relationship of the Christian to culture. They are: Christ against culture; the Christ of culture; Christ above culture; Christ and culture in paradox; Christ the transformer of culture.[22] Niebuhr’s work can hardly be ignored but neither should his paradigms and analyses be taken as definitive. As previously stated, Carson makes penetrating criticisms of Niebuhr’s approach. In recent years the word “engage” has almost become something of a cliché amongst some evangelicals to define what they see as their task with respect to culture: we must “engage” with it.[23] Given the wealth of literature upon this subject, it is hardly possible to do little more than scratch the surface in a paper of this length. Instead of evaluating different approaches, I shall seek to identify a number of key biblical principles which, hopefully, will help us to navigate our way through what some Christians have discovered to be particularly difficult and hazardous waters.

The first and most obvious point is that the Christian must respond differently to different aspects of culture. Where aspects of a culture are good, he or she may surely identify with and endorse these. On the other hand, the Christian must not conform to those aspects of culture which are sinful or bad. Whether more is required than mere nonconformity is something which is beyond the scope of this paper. In the third place, where culture is neutral the Christian is free to go along with it or not. I shall now seek to set out the biblical underpinning for the foregoing observations.

In 1 Corinthians 1 Paul refers to the way in which different cultural groups had different desires, aspirations and expectations, and goes on to describe his response to these different groups in his gospel presentation. Jews wanted and demanded miraculous signs.[24] The Greeks, however, were not interested in such things; they sought wisdom.[25] Paul, however, did not bend his message to satisfy or indulge the predilections of either group. He preached Christ crucified.[26] It is surely significant that later in this letter Paul can refer to people, whether Jews or Greeks, as not receiving the message of the Spirit precisely because they do not have the Spirit.[27] The effect of this is that the gospel message is regarded as foolishness.[28] In chapter 1 verse 23, however, he states that the cultural difference between Jewish and Greek expectations is such that the gospel message is a stumbling block or scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. Thus, human sinfulness expressed itself differently in different racial groups with respect to rejection of the gospel message. Paul’s gospel message was decidedly counter-cultural. When God called Jews and Greeks into fellowship with his Son, Christ then became to them the power of God and the wisdom of God.[29] Signs, of course, were all to do with divine power. But under the influence of God’s Spirit, Jews who embraced Jesus saw his cross-work as the supreme revelation of divine power and, therefore, they no longer demanded signs. Similarly, Greeks who saw the cross as the supreme disclosure of divine wisdom no longer sought from Paul the kind of wisdom which they had hitherto sought; it had been given in Christ.

1 Corinthians chapter 9, however, shows that Paul could be remarkably flexible with respect to cultural matters. The man who in chapter 1 did not indulge the expectations of different racial and cultural groups with respect to the message he proclaimed tells us in chapter 9 that he was remarkably adaptable with respect to certain cultural matters. The spine of the argument which runs through 1 Corinthians 8-10 is that of not insisting on one’s “rights” or freedoms. And this is a crucially important disposition which all Christians should possess when the subject of church worship is under consideration. In chapter 9 Paul explains how he had not insisted on various rights and how he accommodated himself to different people so that by all possible means he might save some. Possibly the most extraordinary statement that he makes is found in verse 20: “To the Jews I became like a Jew to win the Jews.” What is so remarkable about this statement is the fact that elsewhere Paul makes it clear that he was a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” and that, as a disciple of Jesus, he still regarded the Jews as his fellow countrymen, his brothers.[30] Nevertheless, by saying that to the Jews he became like or as a Jew, he is signalling that his sense of identity is no longer defined by anything racial or cultural but, rather, with respect to his now being “in Christ”. This, therefore, enabled him in certain respects to be “outside cultures” and to be able to step into any and every culture and adopt its norms, provided those norms were not contrary to the gospel of Christ and its entailments. It was only because he had thus been set free from being imprisoned within and by his culture that he could not only become as a Jew to the Jews but also become as one without law (though “in-lawed” to Christ) to those without law – that is, people who were culturally very different from the Jews.[31]

The practical implications of the foregoing for the subject of this paper are enormous. It is impossible to consider contemporary expression of worship in one’s own culture unless and until one has addressed the following issues. First, one must distinguish cultural practices and norms which are contrary to the gospel and its entailments from those which are either good or neutral. Secondly, one needs to define one’s fundamental identity – and the church’s fundamental identity – as that of being “in Christ”. Only when an individual and a church has done this is it in a position to be able to be extraordinarily flexible on certain cultural matters while being immovably fixed with respect to the gospel and its entailments. This, however, raises what is in many ways the most acute problem which must be faced when exploring the relationship of the Christian to culture. It is this: what are Christians and churches to do when there is not one culture but a multitude of cultures in a particular geographical and historical context? This leads us to the next area which requires exploration.

IV. The Relationship of Christians and Churches to Different Cultures

In an article in a recent edition of Affinity’s online theological journal, Foundations, Stephen Kneale addressed the phenomenon of assuming certain cultural values without having first assessed them biblically. He gave the following example, which he had first given to a meeting of the Affinity Council:

A middle-class man and working-class man both hear a sermon and think it boring. The middle-class man makes some vaguely positive comment and the working-class man wonders why he is lying. The working-class man says it was boring and the middle-class man thinks he’s rude. This is just one example of how we can talk past each other’s cultures. But when the majority culture is middle class, most people in the church – not least the middle-class elders – think the working-class man is rude, so who is going to make that guy an elder? He’s too blunt. He’s insensitive. He’s not careful how he speaks. Never mind that, biblically, he might be entirely qualified for the role; according to the dominant middle-class culture, he is deemed unfit.[32]

One of the points which Stephen is making is this: what is regarded as rude in one culture is seen as simple honesty in another. What one culture regards as politeness may be viewed by those from another culture as being dishonest. Which culture is one to follow? What if one of those cultures has become dominant within a church? And these differences are not only found to exist between different social groupings within a country: they also exist between countries. What an Australian might regard as an exercise in speaking the plain truth may well be viewed by a Japanese as insufferably bad manners. Likewise, the Australian may think the Japanese to be as inscrutable as the sphinx, whereas the Japanese is merely seeking to be courteous. Although not all of these differences are immediately relevant to the subject of worship services (though they are relevant to “all-of-life worship”), cultural differences can have a huge impact upon a service of worship. I shall give a number of examples.

A very close friend of mine was once due to preach in a church in the West Indies. The service was being led by someone else and so my friend was seated towards the front of the church before he got up to preach. While sitting at the front he could hear a strange and loud “sucking” noise from the back of the church building, and he wondered if some of the congregation had brought animals with them. When he eventually got up to preach and thus face the congregation, he was somewhat surprised, not to say shocked, to see the back row of the church filled with nursing mothers whose breasts were in full view of the preacher as he preached and as they fed their babies. It was not what he had been used to in South Wales! But, as he was later to learn, in that context the baring of the breasts by these mothers to feed their babies had no erotic or sexual connotations for the locals; if, however, an unmarried woman were to bare her breasts, this would have been viewed by everyone in that society as sexually provocative and thus wholly inappropriate. In other words, there was a “cultural signalling” element to who was baring their breasts and as to when and how this was done. It is easy to see, however, that someone from a different culture might interpret those cultural signals in a very different way. What then? Should the mothers of those babies be encouraged or told to abandon their practice in favour of a more discreet way of feeding their babies?

Some Christians genuinely equate silence before a service begins as an expression of reverence before God, as one “prepares one’s heart for worship” by engaging in silent prayer. They may also hold to the view that to speak in the building at the end of the meeting is the surest way to be robbed of any spiritual help that one has received from the preaching of God’s Word and the impression of the total worship service. Believers from a different background may well regard such an approach as being somewhat unnatural and cold. They may reason that one should prepare oneself before getting into the building; that “encouraging one another” as part of the worship service necessarily implies and entails that people will talk to each other; that bearing one another’s burdens is part of worship and this demands that we speak together. This again pinpoints the importance of locating the gatherings of God’s people for worship within the context of the whole-of-life worship. While what goes on at a gathering of God’s people on the Lord’s Day is necessarily different from what goes on if the church has an outing or a family day at the beach or in a park on a Saturday, we do not lose our humanness when we gather together for a worship service. It is not difficult to see how Christians from these differing “church cultures” may fail to understand each other and feel uncomfortable in a culture different from that of which they approve. Clearly, it is essential to work out the biblical principles and teaching on an issue such as this.

Some years ago an elderly adherent of the church I currently serve as pastor (he had, in fact, once been a pastor and is now with the Lord) expressed to me his dismay and disapproval at the fact that the person who had been giving a children’s message during the morning meeting had referred to the children as “kids”. He was outraged; kids, he told me, were animals, young goats, and, this being so, he considered it degrading to refer to children in such terms. The person taking that part of the meeting had obviously intended no slight upon the children but was simply using a word the meaning of which had been extended in common parlance to include children. Again, one thinks of the way in which a younger believer might say of a fellow Christian that he is really wicked, thereby meaning that he is very special. An elderly Christian on hearing this may be perplexed at the way in which his younger brother can speak so enthusiastically of someone who is so sinful. Language is clearly a part of culture. The foregoing are examples of believers being in the contemporary world where certain cultural symbols – words – convey entirely different meanings, depending upon one’s age.

Symbolism is important in culture – and associations are important when one comes to deciphering symbols. Music is one such area, as is musical accompaniment. Take the following quotation from a sermon preached by the late Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the subject of singing:

…we must be careful as to what musical instruments we use. There are musical instruments that are sensuous, that belong to the world, and have no place in Christian worship – saxophones and things of that type. They do not belong to this realm, they are essentially of the world and primitive, and are incompatible with the thoughtfulness and wisdom that characterise the Christian.[33]

The obvious questions to ask here are these: is the saxophone inherently sensuous? Does the saxophone inherently belong to the world and is it essentially primitive and incompatible with the thoughtfulness and wisdom that characterise the Christian? Or was the late and good “Doctor” confusing something that had for him become worldly by virtue of certain associations with something that was inherently of the world? Does this not raise the spectre of the genetic fallacy to which I referred earlier? These questions are so important and open up such fruitful lines of investigation with respect to the relationship of Christians and the church to different cultures that I shall probe them more deeply by analysing the issues behind them.

To begin with, it should be fairly obvious that there can be nothing which is inherently sinful about a collection of musical notes. Air waves of different lengths (and therefore of different frequency and pitch) and different amplitude (and therefore of different volume) hit the ear drum and thereby, through various processes in the auditory system, we “hear” sounds and distinguish different sounds, notes, tones, etc. Since air waves are part of God’s inanimate creation, it follows that they cannot belong to the category of that which is sinful, if we define sin, as the apostle John does, as lawlessness.[34] This being so, one cannot say that certain sounds are inherently sinful and, therefore, worldly.

Sin may attach to certain sounds in a number of ways. If the intention in producing them is to induce loss of self-control or sin in the hearer, or if the effect of the sounds leads to loss of self-control or to sin, then clearly sin attaches to the sounds, though it is not objectively inherent within them. An analogy with pornography may help to elucidate this point. The human body is clearly not sinful per se. Likewise, there is nothing inherently sinful with points on paper or pixels on a screen. We regard it as necessary and perfectly appropriate for someone to produce high resolution photographs of human genitalia for publication in an anatomical text book and we see nothing wrong with a medical student carefully studying such a photo. Wherein, therefore, lies the sin in publishing and looking at pornographic photographs of naked men or naked women, whether those photographs consist of points on paper or pixels on a screen?[35] The answer is to be found in the following areas: in the intent of those posing for, producing and publishing the photos to stir up lust and in the effect upon those who look at such photographs, as well as upon those who pose for them and those who take them. In a similar way there is nothing inherently sinful in congeries of air waves which strike the human ear drum. Where, however, the intent in producing them is to lead people to commit sin or where the result of them is sin, sin has then been committed.

A few examples will illustrate the point that I am seeking to make. Certain forms of torture have involved subjecting the victim to sounds which are so loud and / or discordant that his or her resistance to questioning breaks down. It is not that the sounds themselves are sinful; rather, the intention to induce loss of self-control and the effect of that – quite apart from the infringement of the liberty of the victim in this way – is where evil is to be located. In the same way, music which is intended to lead its auditors to loss of self-control is not evil per se: but the intention to induce loss of self-control is the locus of evil. Of course, whether certain music does knock out the higher control centres of the brain, in the way that alcohol and other chemical depressants do, is a factual question the answer to which can only be empirically and experimentally determined.

We are, of course, at this stage dealing with music, rather than with musical instruments. So let me now apply the analysis thus far to musical instruments. Are the notes produced by a saxophone “incompatible with the thoughtfulness and wisdom that characterise the Christian” in a way in which the same notes produced by an organ, piano, violin or cello are not thus incompatible? The answer to this is, again, a factual matter, rather than one of opinion and taste, and can only be determined empirically and experimentally. There may be studies which have established this but my guess is that this is doubtful. It is far more likely to be the case that, given Lloyd-Jones’ historical context – having been a young man in the “roaring twenties”, when jazz bands, with their saxophones, were commonplace in night clubs – that it was the associations of the saxophone and the like, playing music to which the post-First World War generation danced and “let their hair down”, which led the late Doctor to the view that the saxophone was “worldly”. The problem is, of course, that to many young people today – and not-so-young people, for that matter, the author of this paper included! –  saxophones do not have those associations of sleazy, smoked-filled clubs in which scantily dressed “flappers” danced into the early hours. And therein lies a major problem: what does one do when the associations some make with certain instruments are not made by others?

Many people associate the pipe organ or an electronic version of the same with that which is high-brow, at best and, at worst, that which is stuffy. How does sung praise within a church meeting give a contemporary expression of worship in one’s own culture in a church where for some of the members the pipe organ is associated with “sweet and solemn pleasure” when others feel that they are being forced into being stiff, stuffy and starchy?[36] Will a new convert for whom the organ has these negative associations think that conversion to Christ means that he must become “high-brow” or, in his view, something worse? On the other hand, if someone whose musical tastes have been high-brow comes to faith in Christ and joins a church which has a band where the music is more popular, will he or she feel that they must deny themselves in this area truly to worship God?

It is important to appreciate the fact that some of the differences upon which I am touching may have a generational aspect but that this is not always the case. Taste is also part of the “total mix”. Some thirty years or so ago some fairly culturally conservative evangelical churches began to have the organ and piano playing together, thinking that they were thereby making a great leap forward. But a friend of mine who is a very fine cellist and pianist, who trained at the Royal Academy and was a contemporary of Sir Simon Rattle while there, told me that she knew of no composer of note who had composed music to be played simply by the organ and piano together. Most of her unconverted musical colleagues would be aghast at such a thing and, if invited to a church service where piano and organ were being played together, would find it utterly “cringeworthy” and, if not so offensive to their taste, utterly comical. Whose tastes does one suit?

The question of taste is problematic in numerous ways. Many contemporary hymns and Christian songs are written to be sung in unison. For some who are musically blessed it is a real loss not to be able to sing in parts and in harmony and they lament the fact that usually it is mostly only older hymns which allow for this. C. S. Lewis once referred to the cultural leap he had to make when he began attending church services after his conversion but the blessing which this was to him:

I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.[37]

I shall return to the importance of this shrewd comment of Lewis’. It has much to teach.

Earlier I suggested that Dr Lloyd-Jones’ antipathy to the use of the saxophone in a church service possibly had more to do with the associations of the instrument for him than with anything inherent in the instrument itself. Some associations, however, are so strong that it is quite likely that everybody finds some tunes to be inappropriate for hymns. I think it would be either a bold person or a very foolish one who would want a church to sing a hymn on the Lord’s death – or any hymn, for that matter – to the tune “The Stripper”! Likewise, many would find it difficult to sing a hymn on prayer to the tune of Madonna’s “Like A Prayer”: the associations – especially for those who have seen the video which accompanied the song – would render it wholly inappropriate for them.[38] Yet the whole issue of associations is even more complex. Thus, the hymn tune “Cranbrook” first appeared in a hymn book in the early 1800s and Doddridge’s “Grace, ‘tis a charming sound” was sung to it, as was “While shepherds watched their flocks by night”. Later, the words of “On Ilkley Moor Bah T’At” were set to it and it is with this song that the tune is now widely associated. Such is the strong association of these somewhat ludicrously humorous words that many would find it difficult to sing a serious hymn to this tune. Yet in the past it was not so.

The problems are even more acute. I have just been exploring the issues of taste and association. But let me for a moment return to the whole question of which music is so discordant that it affects one psychologically. Although this is a factual matter which needs to be determined empirically and experimentally, rather than anecdotally and impressionistically, it may nevertheless be the case that some people will enjoy certain music which adversely affects others. Some years ago I was in a very large book shop which belonged to a nationwide chain of book stores. Music was being piped throughout the store. I found it to be so cacophonous that I was unable to think straight: it so disturbed me that I asked one of the assistants if it could be switched off or else I would have to leave. It was not simply a matter of taste, of me not liking the music; rather, I found it to be so unpleasantly intrusive that it was impossible for me to concentrate. There is no way that I could have sung a hymn or song of praise to that music. But other customers appeared to be perfectly happy with it. How is a church to resolve issues such as this?

The reply might be made that in terms of instrumentation the sensible thing would be to sing a cappella – that is, without musical instruments. Before one dismisses such an idea as being culturally alien to many, the following should be borne in mind: First, historically there have been many churches who sang without musical instruments and this is still true of some churches. Secondly, it may not be without significance that the phrase a cappella comes from the Italian and means “in church style”.[39] In the third place, singing without instrumentation certainly resolves the differences that exist amongst Christians as to which instruments are suitable and which are not. Furthermore, it puts the emphasis upon the words and the tunes not on the accompaniment. Fourthly, there have been some sections of the church which have maintained that musical accompaniment is something which belongs to the Old Testament people of God and is not authorised or approved for the New Testament church.

In response to the above points the following may be said. First, many churches would struggle to sing without the help of an instrument or instruments. Secondly, it is not honouring to God if the singing is so poor or even “quaint” that an outsider thinks that there is something decidedly “odd” or strange about the singing practices of a church.[40] The use of a tuning fork may have been quite adequate in the Metropolitan Tabernacle of Spurgeon’s day, when thousands attended the church, but one cannot help but think that it would appear passing strange for a small country church to attempt to do the same today. And while the views of unbelievers who turn in to a church worship service are not to be the determining factor of what goes on, the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that the impression upon such people is not irrelevant to how we do what we do.[41] Thus, while the absence of instruments would remove the problem of the associations which certain instruments have for some Christians, this would come at a price, and for some churches a somewhat high price at that. At the same time, it would be a bold person who claimed that the New Testament commands the use of musical instruments.

The final sentence of the previous paragraph leads on to the whole question of the regulative principle. I am, of course, mindful of the fact that there is a considerable body of Christians and churches – some of which belong to Affinity and which have made very valuable contributions to it over many years – for whom it is a matter of biblical principle not to have musical instruments. This position is held conscientiously and sincerely by many fine believers and there are many illustrious Christians of the past for whom this was a settled conviction. Certainly, theirs is a more consistent position than that of some Christians and churches who seek to justify the inclusion of certain instruments but the exclusion of others purely on the basis of what they like or have come to accept. Arguments for and against the regulative principle and the normative principle are beyond the brief for my paper and properly belong within the first two papers. Since, however, it is possible to argue that differences over this issue exist even amongst those who agree in holding to the regulative principle but who disagree as to its application, I shall say a few words which are relevant to this issue as it relates to musical accompaniment.

First, it is not the case that things belong only within the categories of what is commanded or what is forbidden. There is a third category: that which is permitted. Secondly, it is undoubtedly the case that there is a shift between the two testaments with respect to the emphasis upon the senses in some of the gatherings of God’s people. The Old Testament tabernacle made an impression upon many of the senses: the sight and smell of blood; the smell of incense; the clothing of the high priest; the various objects in the temple; and so on. The whole thrust of passages such as John 2:19-22; 4:19-24; 7:37-39; 2 Corinthians 3:4-18; Galatians 3:15-4:7; and the whole of the letter to the Hebrews indicates that there is a movement from the Old Testament, which is more sensual, to the New Testament, which is more spiritual. The all-important word here, however, is more, for the differences are relative, not absolute. For example, the sensual is not wholly absent from that which is commanded in the New Testament: in addition to the obvious point that the reading and preaching of God’s Word to the church means that the church hears, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are things which are seen. Furthermore, contrary to popular, current-day evangelical misconceptions, the Holy Spirit was active during the Old Testament, both in regenerating individuals and in sanctifying them.[42] So the differences are relative, not absolute. This being so, although it is bad exegesis, based on a faulty hermeneutic to jump straight from those Old Testament passages which speak of many instruments accompanying God’s praise in order to claim that this proves that they should be used today, it is equally mistaken to claim that the shift into the New Testament inevitably means that such things have ceased. It is surely more accurate to say that they are no longer mandatory but they are permissible. Moreover, although one would not expect the same emphasis upon musical accompaniment today, this is not the same as saying that there cannot be any or that everything must be confined to one instrument. But this being so, we are left with the question as to what the church must do when some believers find the associations of some instruments such that they cannot sing to them, whereas others feel differently. This leads to the final section of exposition and analysis before I make some suggestions as to application.

V. Christian Culture?

Our survey of the difficult terrain which needs to be negotiated when churches seek to reason biblically, rather than simply follow tradition or the latest fads, when thinking through the whole issue of contemporary expression of worship in one’s own culture has brought us to the point where we need to ask if there is a case to be made for a specifically “Christian culture”, especially in our meetings for praise, prayer, teaching, fellowship and celebration of the sacraments. In other words, although, since we are human, there will be points of overlap with the cultures around us, because we are regenerate humans, will not this mean that there will inevitably be various things which are quite distinctive and different from any other culture? By this I do not mean that we shall be different in giving attention to Scripture, praying and so on. This should go without saying; rather, I am referring to those issues of “taste” which can be so problematic. A number of key biblical principles should help us at this point.

First, since the church consists of people from diverse backgrounds but who are all one in Christ Jesus, it follows that unity is to be expressed in diversity – and this unity-in-diversity is to be expressed as much in the church’s praise and “worship services” as in every other aspect of its life. Many of the churches of the New Testament period were made up of converted Jews and Gentiles. Clearly singing together was a feature of the gatherings of such churches.[43] Significantly, Paul tells both the Ephesians and the Colossians that psalms are to be a feature of their singing together.[44] Since many of the psalms had been written by David, this means that much of the psalter was already a thousand years old. Yet Paul expected Gentile Christians to sing these. It is possible that many of these psalms had been sung in the temple to traditional tunes. If Jewish Christians carried these over into their church gatherings, it means that Gentile Christians were singing not only very old compositions but were also singing them to quite old music. At the same time, it appears to be fairly clear that contemporary compositions were also being sung.[45]   

Gentiles – certainly Greeks – were, of course, familiar with gatherings together where, amongst other things, they sang, often under the influence of alcohol; this is what a symposium was. It seems fairly clear from Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:17-19 that this kind of thing was the background to his injunction that his readers were not to get drunk with wine but to be filled by the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Thus, something which belonged to their culture – social events where discussion and drinking occurred, inter alia, with singing – were now to be transformed, so that what they sang (psalms, hymns and spiritual songs), why and how they sang (under the influence of the Spirit, rather than wine, and to the Lord, giving thanks to God) were fundamentally different from what they had done in the past. This means, however, that while there were certain similarities and commonalities with the culture from which they had come (meeting together to sing), there were also significant differences (some of what they would sing would come from the “Jewish hymn book” – the book of Psalms). In other words, while not so culturally isolated and disengaged from what they had known, there was sufficient difference for this to be a distinctively “Christian culture”. Likewise, for the Jewish Christians: for they were now not only singing the psalms of the past but fresh compositions by Gentiles which were being sung alongside their sacred Scriptures.

Another, somewhat different kind of example of this type of thing is to be seen from the way in which certain words acquired a transformed meaning for Christians. Words, we have seen, are symbols within a culture. The language of sacrifice was fairly common in the Greek-speaking world. Terms such as hilaskomai and hilasmos denoted the propitiating of a god and the resultant propitiation. But these words were understood in terms of a whole thought-world of sacrifice where the worshipper was, in effect, “buying off” one of the gods. Agamemnon’s sacrificial slaughter of his daughter, to appease the gods which were thwarting his armies’ expedition to recover Princess Helen from her captor in Troy, is a good example of the crude commercialism by which the ancients thought that they could appease the angry gods. By contrast, the LXX uses this sacrificial language but the entire thought-world is different: it is the LORD himself who provides the sacrifice and its benefits, and the monetary or personal value of the sacrifice is not what determines its efficacy.[46] Significantly, the New Testament writers preserved the LXX terminology with respect to sacrifice, even though those Gentiles who were converted but who had had no contact with the synagogue and the LXX would have been used to understand this terminology against its pagan, rather than its LXX and biblical background. This, of course, means that they not only had to learn a different thought-world but a different language, in that certain cultural signs and symbols – that is to say, words – meant something quite different from what they had hitherto been understood to denote. They had to be instructed or educated into the different meaning of these cultural symbols – words – from that which they had hitherto attached to them.

The preceding paragraphs have set out some arguments for the fact that the New Testament church was something of a unique culture. Although it bore certain affinities with the cultures from which the first Christians were drawn, it was also different in significant ways. Thus, it was not completely culturally alien to what its members had been accustomed to but neither was it the same. This being so, churches today should seek to develop a similar culture: one where people from each kind of cultural background make contributions; but this, of course means, that at certain points everyone is challenged. Just as Jewish Christians had to get used to Gentile Christians bringing their own fresh compositions, so Gentile Christians had to get used to singing psalms. Today, Christians who have been raised in churches and who have been used to doing things in a certain way need to be prepared to allow Christians converted straight from the world to bring some of their cultural background into the church, provided that this is allowed or sanctified by Scripture. Equally, those freshly converted from the world must learn to adapt and to assimilate, absorb and accept much that is new and that may appear to be alien to them. The same applies to a church which is comprised of people of various ethnic groups.

The wall of division between Jews and Gentiles in the ancient world was very high indeed and its foundations ran deep throughout the Roman Empire. But part of the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that that middle wall of division, symbolised in the Jerusalem temple by the wall which separated the court of the Gentiles off from areas where only Jews were allowed, has been destroyed in Christ; Christ’s purpose is to create in himself one new man; Gentiles are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household; Gentile branches have been grafted into the one olive tree, which had hitherto consisted only of Jews and of those who had been fully “judaised”; and consequently, there is now “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for… all are one in Christ Jesus”.[47] It is quite clear that the New Testament churches consisted of people from different socio-economic backgrounds, as well as having different racial and ethnic identities, and, of course, different genders.[48] The “homogenous unit” idea of the church, beloved of the “church growth” movement and associated with names such as Donald McGavran, finds no support from New Testament principle or practice. Indeed, how significant is the fact that the “kings of the earth will bring their splendour” into the heavenly Jerusalem which will “come down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” and that the “glory and honour of the nations will be brought into” it![49] Although there will be major discontinuities between life as it now is and the eternal state, it is equally clear that there will also be continuity, and one area where, it appears, continuity will exist will be with respect to unity-in-diversity. This, therefore, is something which churches should glory in, and display and exhibit.

The New Testament makes it clear that tensions could arise as a result of cultural differences but that these issues were to be worked through in the spirit of the gospel. Romans chapter 14 through to chapter 15:13 is a classic treatment of such a theme. Although this passage is not directly addressing the question of worship services, it is not difficult to see that differences over food and “sacred days” could well have implications for the gatherings of God’s people: what food was to be served at a fellowship meal or “love feast”? Was it mandatory for the church to meet on certain days which still had an “emotional-cultural-cum-spiritual” significance and appeal to Jewish Christians, when these things meant nothing to Gentile Christians?[50] Indeed, the sub-section beginning with 15:5 and closed at 15:13 is studded with references to joint, corporate praise and singing.[51]

It is in this connection that the words quoted earlier from C. S. Lewis are so important. His point was that part of adapting and coming out of one’s cultural comfort zone is good for one and is a means of sanctification. So what, if the music is sixth-rate and the poetry of the hymns is fifth-rate? The church is neither a music society nor a literary group. This, of course, is not an argument for deliberately writing bad music and doggerel, nor is it an excuse for being lazy and seeking only mediocrity in our worship rather than excellence; it is an argument for saying that someone with what may be termed refined or classical taste can appreciate the fact that someone of very different taste can be truly praising the Lord. And, of course, the opposite is equally true. It is surely significant that for all its many words, the Bible does not contain one musical note. In his messages to the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, Jesus makes no reference at all to the quality of their singing or of their music. He is concerned with their faith, repentance, love, obedience, humility, patience, or the absence of these things. It is here that the emphasis has always been placed in God’s Word, both in the Old and in the New Testament. One thinks of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount that one should leave one’s gift at the altar and first be reconciled to a brother and only after this has been done should the gift be offered.[52] This, of course, was in line with what the Old Testament had already said.[53] Similarly, Paul places the church’s worship services in the context of living under the influence of God’s Word and Spirit, an influence which is worked out not only in singing but in relationships within the church, family household, the work place and society at large.[54] Worship and ethics must go together.

VI. Applications: contemporary expression of worship in one’s own culture

One needs to distinguish a culture which has not had the gospel and one which has already been influenced by the gospel, especially where this has been so for many years. A country which has no gospel history, and thus no heritage of hymns, must do one of a number of things: translate a large body of material, or compose fresh hymns, or both. The last course of action is the ideal because it expresses the church’s link in that society with the church across the world and across the ages. Of course, they may also sing psalms – indeed, should sing them – though this will require that these be arranged to be sung. Where, however, a church belongs to a country which has been greatly influenced by the gospel in the past, there will already be a rich heritage of hymnody indigenous to that country, as well as material translated from other countries and other periods. Ray Evans has dealt with the subject of maintaining continuity with the past and across the world; I shall not, therefore, seek to repeat or duplicate what may be in his paper.[55] Suffice it to say from what I have written thus far with respect to the fact that Gentiles would have been singing the psalms of the Jewish “church”, a contemporary expression of worship in one’s culture should not entail the jettisoning of earlier hymn material. The one qualification to this is as follows: where the language of a hymn has become so archaic as to be unintelligible in today’s world to all except the cognoscenti or where the language, though intelligible, is “quaint”, either the hymn needs to be modernised or it may have to be put to one side. Equally, however, modern hymns need to be sung. There is something profoundly wrong when older believers, who have expressed their praise for decades in what to them are very well-known hymns, are told that such things belong to the past and that they are meaningless to new converts, and therefore only what is contemporary is to be sung. Equally, there is something profoundly wrong when younger believers who have thrilled to sing God’s praise in modern compositions in their CU or at conferences can never sing such things in their home church because only what is old is regarded as gold.

What of the issue of associations of certain types of instruments? Surely, the pastoral ministry of the church has, amongst other things, an educational role. This means that Christians, no matter how many years they have been in the faith, need to be helped to see that instruments per se are not evil: it is the associations in their minds which may lead them to think this. And once this has been done, it is surely incumbent upon those in pastoral leadership to help such believers to see that such associations are contingent, incidental things, not matter of ontological necessity. Surely it is part of spiritual maturity to be able to see such things. It really comes to this: is this only a matter of opinion or of conscience? If it is the former, then a Christian must learn to be forbearing with those whose opinions differ from his own. If it is the latter, then, in line with the teaching found in Romans 14, such a believer must not violate his conscience; but, this having been said, conscience needs to be enlightened and educated. The issue here, of course, is that the conscience of, say, one believer is not to be the yardstick for the whole church. At the same time, it is wrong for a church to do anything which forces a believer to do something which violates his or her conscience: “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”[56] How this might work out in practice is something which is eminently discussable![57]

One major problem with some contemporary worship in our culture is the emphasis which is given to singing at the expense of other things. On numerous occasions I have preached in large churches of a “charismatic” flavour. Although on each occasion I have thoroughly enjoyed the fellowship in these churches, I have been dismayed at the paucity of Bible reading and prayer that was offered. I realise that many hymns are prayers, and it is possible that where there is a lot of singing there may well be prayer in and through those hymns. Alas! The heavy subjectivism of many of the hymns was such that the result was that very little prayer was offered and certainly none for world leaders and for the work of the Lord in all the world. Yet these things are commanded in Scripture, as is the reading of God’s Word.[58] Music plays a huge part in much modern culture. I fear that in the churches to which I have just referred, culture was driving their practice, rather than Scripture. Likewise, in a culture where feelings and subjectivism are very predominant, we need the corrective of hymns from earlier periods, where great objective truths are sung, truths which may well stir the affections, as well as some of the excellent modern hymns which do the same thing.

Where do “worship leaders” fit into this? We do not, of course, find them in the New Testament. But are they permitted? It depends what one means by this. Given the fact that God is triune, this surely means that sung praise demands that there are either explicitly Trinitarian hymns or a mix where each of the Persons of the Godhead is addressed. Then, since the church is a corporate or communal gathering, there surely need to be hymns which are in the first-person plural. Equally, since numerous psalms which were written to be sung by God’s people as a whole were nevertheless in the first person singular, we do need such hymns. There needs to be a balance between objective and subjective. Furthermore, on the subjective side of things, the whole range of Christian experience needs to be addressed. And so one could go on. What this means is that if there is to be a worship leader, such a person needs to be far more than musically gifted. There is need for a very thorough knowledge of theology and how this relates to doxology. There needs to be wide and deep knowledge of both contemporary hymns and hymns reaching right back to the early church. And there surely needs to be a link between what is sung and what will be preached. In many situations the person best placed to do this will be the one who is preaching. This does not mean that he is to lead the singing. It does mean that he is best placed to choose what will be sung.

Another area where culture can become wrongly predominant and eclipse Scripture is in the area of formality and informality, structure and spontaneity, form and freedom. Sadly, some of an older generation identified reverence with formality, structure and form. This could extend to dress codes as well as to every item of “the service”. The mood in society today is, of course, much more informal than it was in the past. This has led some Christians to assume that spirituality and “real worship” must be marked by informality, spontaneity and freedom. The biblical metaphor of the church as a body surely teaches that both elements are important in church life. The human body is remarkably well structured and formed. It is this very structure and form which enable it to express itself freely and spontaneously. In the total life of the church there is surely need for both these elements to be expressed and for this to be the case in the church’s worship. How this is done will vary from situation to situation but it must surely be done. A comparison of 1 Corinthians chapter 14 with 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and the teaching found in the Pastoral Epistles, as well as in some sections of the book of Acts, indicates that leadership and authority were to be exercised in the gatherings of God’s people; it was not to be a “free-for-all”. Equally, structure is not the same as a straitjacket.

Contemporary western societies are marked by an emphasis on discontinuity, where change is invariably regarded as being “change for the better”. This can lead to a mentality in the life of God’s people where constant change in the worship services is something which is regarded as desirable. Indeed, Philip Jensen, an Anglican minister in the Diocese of Sydney, has argued for a theological underpinning to such a mentality: the gospel is all about change because repentance means and demands change and, therefore, this should be modelled and mirrored in the church’s gatherings for worship.[59] On the other hand, C. S. Lewis once said that he could cope with any manner of form of worship as long as it did not change. He maintained that one great advantage of liturgy and ritual is that one does not have to concentrate on the mechanics of the ritual or liturgy but, rather, on what it is about. In the case of worship, therefore, one is not endlessly wondering what will come next, because the liturgy ensures that one knows what will come next; instead one is able to focus on what worship is really about: God.[60] The Bible surely emphasises the importance of both: constant change and nobody knows where they are and everybody is concentrating on the mechanics of worship, rather than upon God; on the other hand, a never changing liturgy can degenerate into a rut. We should not put asunder what God has joined together. This having been said, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit are essential in both that which is structured and that which is spontaneous.

Given that the gatherings of God’s people in the New Testament are governed more by principles and general commands, whereas the Old Testament was very detailed and specific in its regulations for worship, it surely follows that the various cultures in the area in which a church is found will and should have more influence than was the case in the Old Testament period. The natural exuberance which is a general characteristic of some nations is such that one would expect greater spontaneity and even “colour”, as it were, in their gatherings than would be the case in a church located in a nation where the people are generally more sombre in their demeanour. Of course, spiritual joy should mean that in the latter case one would expect Christians to rise above what their unbelieving compatriots are like; equally, the natural exuberance which some nations display may be moderated somewhat by the realisation that one is coming before the Lord who is truly awesome. John did not exactly dance a jig when the risen Lord appeared to him in apocalyptic form on the Isle of Patmos! But after due allowance has been made for the sanctifying work of the Spirit, who may liberate the more restrained and restrain somewhat the more exuberant, the fact remains that what is “natural” should surely be expressed. (I am using the term “natural” here not to denote that which is sinful – “the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit” – but, rather, that which is authentically human and which expresses the diversity within the human race.) It is surely cause for regret that some well-meaning western missionaries of the past, in uprooting godless practices within certain nations where they took the gospel, went beyond that and forbade perfectly legitimate aspects of the culture of the people whom they were evangelising by stamping western cultural values upon them.

This leads on to a consideration of the relationship of evangelism to worship. Earlier I expressed criticism of the Church Growth Movement’s principle of homogeneity. This, however, related to its ideas of the church and its gatherings. In terms of evangelising people, there is much to be said for this principle. It is surely part of Paul’s different approach to Gentiles and Jews to which he refers in 1 Corinthians chapter 9, and which we see exemplified in his different approach to those in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch in Acts chapter 13 and his approach to the people of Athens, especially as expressed in his message on the Areopagus and recorded in Acts chapter 17. Churches may work this out in a variety of ways. What is crucial is that those who are made disciples are then to be baptised. Amongst other things, this identifies them with the visible church. They are then to be taught everything which Christ commanded. In other words, a church may have a variety of ways of evangelising its community and using all (legitimate) means to save some. Such people then need to be identified with the church. It is important that the gap between such evangelism and the regular meetings of the church is not so great as to be itself a culture shock for those who have been converted in a “homogenous unit” but who then find the gatherings of the church to be quite alien to them. This being so, especially if the evangelistic meeting is very informal and the church services are very formal, there is need at some points to make the worship service nearer in style to the evangelistic meeting and vice versa, without causing either to lose their own distinctive identity. All this having been said, we should expect unbelievers or enquirers to turn into the regular meetings of the church and not to find them entirely culturally alien.[61]

So much more needs to be said concerning things such as the right use of the internet in the church’s gatherings, such as the use of Skype or the like to speak directly to gospel workers overseas before a time of prayer. With respect to leading worship, what, for example, is the significance of verses such as Ps. 22:22? And there is so much more to say!

VII. Conclusions

This paper has not attempted to answer all the questions but to raise some of the important ones. Some of my suggested applications have been intended more to stir up thought rather than to express my own convictions. My prayer and hope is that such thought will lead to profitable and peaceable discussion in conferring together and for light to be thrown upon what is still, for some, a hotly disputed topic.


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