Worship Incarnate

Central to our faith is the incarnation; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The second person of the Trinity became a man, and simultaneously looked very similar to and distinct from them men and women around him. God becoming man was necessary to accomplish our redemption. Central to the concept of the "missional church" is the idea of incarnation. Just as the word became flesh, so the church must identify with her culture (looking both similar to and distinct from it) in accomplishing her redemptive mission. This is a huge topic, and one that I would like to limit here to our practice of worship. There has always been tension over what our worship should look like, what is permissible and what is compromise, and I am often dissatisfied with the popular answers given.

In Breaking the Missional Code it is pointed our that "seeker targeted" worship is often hostile to believers, denying them what proper biblical worship should afford all, and that "believer targeted" worship can be hostile to the uninitiated, and unbelieving. The authors offer some helpful assertions and thought provoking questions on pages 101-102 to guide a church through the process of evaluating their worship. I want to hit this issue specifically from a reformed/missional perspective, and would therefore say it this way: I believe worship should be God targeted, biblically governed and culturally expressed. Does that last part bother you?

I understand the tendency of us Reformed folk to get touchy about the issue of worship. We take it seriously, and rightly so. It is all about ascribing worth and honor to Christ. Both the object of our worship and the way in which we worship matters and should be biblically determined. We believe in the regulative principle, or at least some version of it, meaning that only what the Scripture prescribes is appropriate as essential elements in our gathered worship. Preaching, the reading of Scripture, sacraments, prayer, song, testimony, offering, are those essential elements.

So when some "missional" guy comes along and says, "our worship should be culturally relevant," it is easy to get defensive. We might even bring up the golden calf or Nadab and Abihu's inventive worship practices and God's just response to such "culturally relevant" worship. But before we conclude that the regulative principle answers all of our questions, and that cultural accommodation in worship is of the devil, it is important to consider a few things.

1. We have to make a distinction between things "essential" and things "accidental" in our worship. Things essential are the primary components of our gathering. It is what we are doing. Things accidental are incidental; they are often the ways in which we do what Scripture prescribes. Preaching is essential, length of sermon and style is accidental. The sacraments are essential, but where they are placed in a service or how frequent they are celebrated is accidental. Things like pews, folding chairs, candles, PowerPoint, pipe organs, electric guitar, and hymnals should be thought through, but their use or absence does not constitute a betrayal of God's plan for worship.

2. All worship is culturally expressed. Throughout the history of redemption God's people have always sang in their own language with melodies common to their own culture. The hymn Jesus sang with his disciples did not sound like "Heaven Came Down and Gory Filled My Soul (and I imagine the disciples are still grateful for that). When Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper it looked nothing like what is common in most of our churches - even our reformed churches. The clothes worn, the structure of the service, even the way the Gospel is explained has always been culturally accommodated. Worship in the first century looked and felt different from church in the 16th century which looked and felt different from church in the 20th century.

So cultural accommodation in our worship is not the abandonment of God's ways, but the incarnation of one aspect of the Kingdom (worship) into a particular context. To accommodate the culture is not to let culture rule the church, but to allow the church to identify with the people to whom God has sent it. Just as Jesus "explained" the father to us, the church "explains" the Kingdom to her community through identification and antithesis.

My point is not that the church should simply make worship more inviting to outsiders. I think it is rare for an unbeliever to walk into worship and feel completely at home. Our Christian traditions are inherently esoteric to the uninitiated. This is a good thing. We can explain what we are doing, and express it culturally, but eating bread and drinking wine as a symbol of Jesus' body and blood is just plain freaky to the unchurched. Sitting and listening to someone speak for 45 minutes who isn't telling jokes or trying to sell you something can really throw you. Believing that God uses his Sprit and words to change us internally is mystical. Singing songs together is, unfortunately, not a common component of 21st century American culture. I know, because I was one of those unchurched guys who wound up in worship before his conversion. The whole thing was very awkward for me. But it is the essential elements of worship that are esoteric, not things accidental.

At Grace we sing a lot of (good) hymns, though many of them have new arrangements. Recently one of our Elders wrote new music for A Mighty Fortress. We sing good current music as well, some of which we write ourselves. The music in our worship is not alien to any visitors, though the act of corporate singing and what we sing about often is. We dress like our neighbors. When I preach, I speak like those in our community speak - even when dealing with the issues of election, reprobation and divine hardening (topics of late).

There is room for different forms of congregational worship, but more importantly I believe we need to be careful of our tendency to settle for a 19th century model (or pick your favorite century) of worship assuming it is God's preferred expression. It should go without saying that this is not an anything goes approach to worship. I believe only what God prescribes in his word should form the essential elements of our gathering, but I also believe this should be expressed in culturally relevant ways.