Here We Are to Worship
Those of us who are baby boomers and grew up in evangelical churches in America experienced firsthand the birth of "contemporary Christian music" and the battles it has spawned. The cultural revolution of the 1960s affected every institution, including the church. For one of us, living in Southern California during the 1970s meant witnessing the culture shift brought to the church by the Jesus Movement, giving rise to Maranatha! Music and Christian rock bands playing every Saturday night for thousands of young people at the original Calvary Chapel, in Costa Mesa. On the other hand, it also meant being lectured by ex-rock-musicians-turned-Christians who warned Christian teenagers to stay away from rock music, even when it had Christian lyrics, because, as everyone knows, "volume plus pulsation equals manipulation."
As the large response to John Stackhouse's recent Christianity Today article ("Memo to Worship Bands," Feb. 2009, page 50) attests, the worship wars are alive and well. In part, that's because more than ever, churches strive to make their worship culturally relevant, and when they do, this invariably raises questions about the nature of Christian worship. What we haven't seen articulated enough in these disputes, however, are theological principles that can help worship leaders incorporate culture into worship in such a way that the church's worship remains authentically Christian.
Culture and the Spirit of God
The symbols of popular culture transmit the shared meanings by which a people understand themselves, identify their longings, and construct their world. There are no truly neutral symbols, images, or rituals in popular culture.
Whether popular culture and its symbols are inherently evil or good has been a matter of much debate throughout church history. Today, most Christian leaders recognize that like it or not, as theologian Tom Beaudoin contends, "We express our religious interests, dreams, fears, hopes, and desires through popular culture." Religious expression is a cultural reality. Christian symbols were not pristinely dropped from the sky. As the Incarnation so profoundly illustrates, God reveals himself in the common. As he reveals himself through the common reality of flesh and blood, so we engage him through the common elements of bread and wine.
At the end of the day, culture is an arena from and to which God speaks, but also one that distorts God's self-revelation. So it is not only acceptable but also necessary that we bring popular culture and its symbols into the church, for through them God engages us, and we respond to him. But since culture's symbols can also distort both God's engagement and our response, we must be wary.
The church has used and adapted thousands of cultural symbols for worship that reflect and shape its view of God and of the gospel of salvation. Pulpits, kneeling benches, vestments/robes, fish symbols, pictures of Jesus and the disciples, video screens, incense, movie clips, and so on all affect the church's view of God and the communication of the gospel. The result has been a consistent tension in the church between form and function.
If the forms of worship are meant to communicate God and his message of salvation (the function), then as culture precipitates a change in forms, this change necessarily affects the function. The basic question the church must address is, Do changing worship forms adapted from popular culture facilitate an authentic encounter with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit as described by the Scriptures and understood by historic Christian orthodoxy?