culturally driven worship? :: not with a fox, not wearing socks, not in a box

August 5, 2011


Should the culture around our church influence the culture inside our church?  And if so, how much is too much?

The late, great Robert E. Webber, in his book Ancient-Future Worship, says the following:

Anyone who travels and visits churches will see that “program,” “theme,” and “creative” are the most dominant words of worship planning that force leaders toward designing culturally driven worship.  My concern is that culturally driven worship will nurture a culturally formed spiritual life.

Whoa doggie.  That right there is loaded.  I agree with Robert Webber.  And I don’t.  Let me es’splain…

Culturally driven worship?  What does that mean?

This reminds me of the false dichotomy that has often been leveled against “seeker sensitive” churches that are simply trying to remove unnecessary “churchy” barriers for people who don’t usually attend church.  Calling those churches “seeker-driven” ministries insinuates that thinking about how an outsider might feel coming into church equates to making the comfort and retention of the non-church-goer the HIGHEST priority.  Perhaps Dr. Webber intended to word this as strongly as he did, but I think describing the approach of most contemporary evangelical churches as “culturally sensitive” worship may be closer to the mark.

While I wouldn’t ever condone a ministry model that put people-pleasing above Biblical truth, I think the criticism of “seeker-sensitivity” often is unfair and counterproductive.  In its truest sense, I believe EVERY SINGE CHURCH should be “seeker-sensitive,” or in Webberian terminology, “culturally sensitive,” to the degree that we make our churches a place that welcomes sinners to hear the whole truth of God’s Word.  (1) God loves us and He created us to enjoy relationship with Him.  (2) Our sin has broken that relationship and we deserve eternal punishment and separation from Him.  (3) Jesus died on the cross to pay our penalty so that we could enjoy that redeemed relationship with God He created us for in the first place.  And (4) He’s coming again in victory to judge all of mankind and establish a new heaven and a new earth.  All to His glory.

I want people – anybody – who is willing to walk through the doors of our church to hear that message.  I don’t want unnecessary churchiness to shot block the Gospel.  I’ll encourage every church I serve to be unashamedly “culturally sensitive…”  But that isn’t what Webber is warning us of.  He’s warning of a worship ministry model that is “culturally driven.”

Dr. Webber says that a focus on program (service planning), theme (communication strategy) and creativity (artistic storytelling and response) will inevitably lead to “culturally driven worship.”  And that in turn, our worship services/experiences will inevitably lead to a “culturally driven spiritual life.”

Robert Webber is wise.  There is great danger in letting the culture drive worship service planning (i.e. “programming”) to the degree that we out-plan the Holy Spirit or creatively mask the simple and pure teaching of the Word of God with creative storytelling and culturally relevant analogies.

To that degree, I agree with Dr. Webber.  It is possible for contemporary churches to reflect our culture to the degree that there is hardly any difference between a “church event” and any given Thursday night at Buffalo Wild Wings.  Maybe less swearing…

If the contemporary church leans into contemporary communication models and reflects cultural trends to the neglect of clear preaching of the Word of God and the traditional pillars of the local church (prayer, confession of sin, confession of faith, reverence, etc.), people’s spiritual lives WILL be shaped in the image of the culture, where religion is personal and relative, compartmentalized, comfortable.

Not with a fox…  One example:  Some contemporary ministries seem to have been called to reach out to the “hot young and trendy” mission field.  Sunday morning and evening worship events are led by Ambercrombie and Fitch.  And I understand that the 20-something hottiesneed to hear the Gospel, too, so we ought to present a foxy female vocalist and guitar playing Zac Efron with skinny jeans to reach them.  Makes sense.  But what if someone came in to our church dirty, broken and smelling bad?  How quick would we be – any of us – to befriend them and warmly welcome them to come again… or to come over for dinner?  Culture is about image.  The Church is about love.

Not wearing sox…  I remember the day one of my great friends and fellow worship team members came to the evening service at our national youth convention to play guitar wearing a t-shirt sporting the old-timey image of a service attendant holding a fuel spout with a smile and a dialogue bubble proudly displaying the words, “I’ve got gas!”  While his choice of apparel certainly reflected the Junior High culture we were steeped in that week, it was perhaps not the best choice to promote the deep reverence we hoped to model as we led the students into the throne room of the King of Angels.  My point has little to do with fashion.  It’s about reverence.  Depending on your culture, worship leading in shorts, flip-flops and print T’s may fit like a glove.  But remember that what we do is a high and holy calling.  We usher the local body of Christ into His presence, to be transformed by the renewing of their mind, and to interact with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Word.  Too many casual references to pop culture, edgy jokes, coarse language (and yes, some ministries use off-color language to reflect their “authenticity” and “cultural relevance”), movie clips, or fill-in-the-blank can keep people comfortably “stuck” in the cultural paradigm they walked out of when they entered our church.  Culture is about looking like we fit in.  Church is about becoming set apart.

Not in a box…  Some churches are admittedly “variety junkies” when it comes to worship programming.  As they run with a theme each week, they pour their best creative juice into the planning bucket and mix it up until something attention-grabbing, something arresting, something MEMORABLE rises to the top.  I’ll admit… I love it.  In my perfect ministry world, I would forever work with a team of creative programmers who would craft memorable, God-honoring worship-inspiring moments that teach God’s truth and allow room for the church to respond.  This leaves a congregation with a “what will church be like THIS week?” intrigue, and if it is handled well – and led by the Spirit – this can help keep people from “rote religious hoop jumping.”

The down-side, or danger, of a free-flowing “out of the box” worship planning paradigm is that congregations lose the many benefits of liturgy and the life-grounding repetition of the truth communicated through the corporate worship structure. Important traditional elements of the service, such as corporate confession of faith or time for personal confession, can get lost in the creative flow.  Variety for entertainment’s sake has limited value.  We mustn’t sacrifice age-old core functions of God’s church in our thirst to do something new. Culture is all about variety for the sake of entertainment.  When the Church embraces variety, it must be for the sake of more potent communication (or celebration) of God’s truth.

So should I worry that so many churches want to program their services creatively around a theme… or not?

Again, I agree with Robert Webber… and I don’t.  Look at his quote again.  In his estimation, the words “programming,” “theme,” and “creative” were the most dominant words in worship planning for many churches.  In a ministry where that is truly the case, I may agree with him.  There is danger in that ministry stepping past cultural sensitivity into culture-driven worship models… and that does run the grave danger of promoting spiritual life shaped more by cultural norms than by the transforming power of the counter-cultural Word of God.

Perhaps the most dominant words shaping our local church worship experiences ought to be JESUS, love, sin, forgiveness, brokenness, healing, wrath, grace, truth, and surrender.  It is the SUBSTANCE of our worship that must be dominant, not the METHOD.  It is the essence, not the form.

However, this is a babies and bathwater situation.  I plead with the Church to THINK as they program services.  To communicate truth with a thought-through focus that will resonate after the benediction.  To unleash their deepest and most beautiful creative efforts to speak the truth and celebrate the story of God.

Let’s look at the culture, but not look like it.  Let’s invite the culture in and redeem it.  Let’s creatively program services around a theme in a culturally sensitive paradigm that is driven not by cultural trends, but by the call of Jesus to go and make disciples… led by the Word and the Spirit.

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“culturally driven worship? :: not with a fox, not wearing sox, not in a box” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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Psalm 24:7 & Luke 10:42 >> Like David, and Mary, I'm in pursuit of my one thing. I'm the Pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Pastor, teacher, writer, communicator, designer, and drummer. I definitely got the better deal in my marriage to Amy. And I couldn't be any more proud of my five amazing boys. Deeply grateful.

5 responses to culturally driven worship? :: not with a fox, not wearing socks, not in a box

  1. This post is superb!

    Here are a couple thoughts on culture and worship.

    The words that drive our programming in worship have more to do with ABCs…attendance, buildings and cash! That is where I think we are most culturally driven. So, music and creativity are driven by things that correlate to the ABCs. Ouch. But, I think it to be true.

    I’ve decided to use the word “indigenous” to clarify that what we do is no different than when ministry extends to cultures different than our own overseas. Also, you can fight culture, copy culture or you can create culture. The latter is where I think we can solve much. Is what drives our worship planning transcending culture? Is it what we could teach a tribal people in Asia to model?

    • Rich, thanks much for the encouragement! My last few days have been a little crazy, so I know I’m replying to you later than I should. My apologies for leaving you hanging. You have some GREAT thoughts here, man.

      A-B-C… Sadly, I think you’re right. And this is also huge:

      “You can fight culture, copy culture, or you can create culture.”

      I’ve blogged about this struggle before. I used “Receive, Reject, or Redeem,” but your options may be closer to the mark. What do you think? Check this out… >

      Thanks for checking in here, brother. I love the interaction. God bless.

  2. “I don’t want unnecessary churchiness to shot block the Gospel.” = so true

    From someone with experience in what can be considered a pretty conservative, culturally-irrelevant format, I’ve had that argument as well. Being unchurched for most of my life, I was drawn to the tradition, liturgy and history that’s offered by my church body.

    Since then, I’ve traveled and worshipped at many different churches and I’ve made the mistake thinking the church needed to “get with it.” While I sometimes still think “wow, wouldn’t it be great if OUR church did THAT?,” I often come back thankful for what we do well – and would worry more if we weren’t teaching Truth, Grace and Love. I think some could focus more on our WELCOME to others, and let the Holy Spirit take care of the WOW.

    Like we talk about often, 1 Peter 4:10 says we should use whatever gift we have to serve others & share grace in its VARIOUS FORMS. It’s not to say that one kind of service or worship style is better or worse – they can all have their place to bring in the lost, when we’re – as you said “led by the Word and the Spirit.”

    • Great great great thoughts here Mela! This was may favorite:

      “I think some could focus more on our WELCOME to others, and let the Holy Spirit take care of the WOW.”

      That’s a money quote for me. I couldn’t agree more. If we are intentioally, radically, passionately OTHERS-focused when it comes to our WELCOME, we can let the Word and the Spirit ring their bell once they are in. Lasers and smoke machines will never substitute for the impact of the Word piecing a heart and the Spirit moving a soul.

      And to those churches who have invested in lasers and fog machines… God bless y’all, too. Just keep feeding people the full truth of the Gospel message. Preach the Word, brothers! Then if you sense God leading you to reach out to the culture with smoke and pyrotechnics… so be it.

      Mela, this has been a very significant comment – it crystalized something that I’ve been feeling but never put into words before. Radical seeker-sensitivity in the WELCOME department may just trump almost any stylistic barrier if the Word is preached and the Spirit of God is freely moving. Just as essence must trump form, maybe this is a key toward finding some peace in the “Seeker-Sensitivity” wars.

      I think I need to send you a prize.

      God bless, friend. Keep speaking (and singing) the truth.