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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.

Thankfully, the majority of the five boys under my roof still think, at least to some degree, that girls have cooties.  I’m all for it.

The day will soon be upon me when their vision will be transformed.  Girls will no longer be mystifying, unexplainable… weirdos.  They will soon become equally mystifying and unexplainable… yet irresistibly appealing.  Such is the way of the world, I suppose.

Achhh!  The world! Culture and the flesh… partnering up again to infect the innocent.  My boys’ upcoming hormonal hurricane is just another stroke in the case against this world and all of its carnality and rottenness.  Wouldn’t it just be EASIER if my boys thought girls had cooties… right up until they say “I Do”?

There is a growing movement in the Christian community… a sub-culture within the sub-culture. It is family focused, protectionist, and isolationist.  And it tends to view the world around us as if it has cooties.  Only these cooties have real spiritual power, and once they take root in a believer, they spread like a cancer.  Sucking the spiritual life out of a person with small temptations that lead to moderate indiscretions and overlooked compromises, which easily turn into large scale sin problems, which will eventually grow into full blown apostasy.  Beware the power of this cultural leaven, which is sure to tarnish the whole loaf.  Beware the corruption of culture. The world has cooties, and these bad boys are Ebola to the soul.

So, for protection of the family, Christians don a HAZMAT suit of their own construction, finding support in the Bible for keeping the culture at arm’s length.

What does this cultural HAZMAT suit look like? Kids are home schooled.  Kids are often not allowed to attend a church Sunday School or Youth Group because of the influence of the unregenerate hooligans who attend.  Besides, the spiritual instruction of the children is a PARENT’S responsibility, anyway…  not to be left in the hands of another believer who may or may not share the same scriptural convictions.  In fact, many families are actually deciding against participation in an organized congregation with traditional pastoral leadership, opting instead for home church, led by dad… or maybe shared leadership with a few other like-minded families.  TV, movies, music, etc. are closely monitored for signs of cultural cootie-ness.  And life centers on and revolves around the godly home – the family. Children are “trained up in the way they should go,” and a healthy concern for cultural contamination is modeled and reinforced.

Here’s an honest moment for you… that sounds AWESOME.  We actually DO home-school our kids (for a number of reasons), and I LOVE my family.  So I would love to hunker down with them and make my boys and my bride our primary platform for Christian fellowship.  I hate the effect of sin on our culture, and it breaks my heart to see my boys’ innocence lost as we have to help them understand murder, lust, greed, perversion…  My kids light my world – and so does Amy.  If I could pull it off somehow, I recognize the draw of the HAZMAT suit. I wish… often… that I could more adequately shield my family from the cooties of the world.

Can you understand, from a Christian point of view, why this isolationism has appeal and is gaining steam?  Doesn’t it make sense in this perverse culture not to “conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2) and to “go out from their midst and be separate from them?”  (2 Corinthians 6:17)

In other words… to be OUT OF the world, and NOT OF it.

BUT...  (and this is a BIG “but…”)

Honest question:  is the culture our enemy?

Should we circle the wagons and don the HAZMAT suit and protect our kids from a case of the cancerous culture cooties at the cost of cultural engagement?

I can’t answer that question for you.  I have good friends who have gone the isolationist way.  I know families – good families – who love the Lord and are doing their best to honor him by reflecting a DIFFERENT way of life – a separate and distinct, transformed life with their family.  BUT…

I have some significant concern as I see this trend growing – gaining strength – a movement away from not only culture, but even from organized church fellowship in many cases.  I see intentional disengagement from the world we live in, with all of its hurt and need.  And lost people.  Dying people.  Damned people.

With humility, I submit we take our cue from Jesus Himself on this issue.  He did not come to condemn the world (John 3:17) – and his harshest words were not for the culture around him.  Christ came as a transformer of culture.  He came as a Redeemer – literally to “buy back” from the tyranny of slavery the souls of dying men and women in His culture and in ours.  Jesus didn’t endorse or participate in a separatist lifestyle.  Instead he used positive illustrations from culture as parables.  He participated in His culture, engaging it, and shining a light into its dark corners.  In His last hour of freedom before being captured and taken to his death, Jesus prayed in John 17 for ALL believers… both then and now.  And what was that prayer?

“Not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one.”

Like I said before, it is not my place to choose for you how to live out your faith.  But I submit this for consideration… CULTURE is not our enemy. Sin is.  Satan is.  I see culture as a theater in which God’s glory can be displayed – to both the redeemed and the resistant.  Instead of being OUT OF and NOT OF the world, maybe we are called to be IN, but NOT OF…  Maybe in order to be salt and light, we need to rub shoulders with the needy people in dark places.  If not us, who will go? Culture is a minefield.  It is dangerous, without question.

I submit that we need to embrace the danger inherent in engaging our culture, for the sake of the Gospel.  And instead of relying on the safety of a subculture to protect us or our children, let’s echo and trust Jesus’ prayer on our behalf.  No more HAZMAT suit.  No more cooties.  Our family will be a redemptive force in the lives of those we rub shoulders with on purpose.


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“the world’s got cooties! get it off! get it off!” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.