Worship and Culture
by Rick Shrader
In the twenty years that I have been writing Aletheia articles, perhaps nothing has been written about more than worship and culture. Worship has become the description of how we “do church,” and culture has become what we are, not what we should strive to become. Ravi Zacharias wrote, “Culture has become like a dress code, varying with the time of the day and presence or absence of the elite.”1 Os Guinness wrote, “Compared with the past, faith today influences culture less. Compared with the past, culture today influences faith more.”2 A sad commentary on today’s faith and church life.
To this modern milieu of cultural expression in our churches, Harold M. Best has written, “Hence, in this culture in which experiential narrative has preempted concept and proposition, in which language has become circularly relativized, and in which a musico-visual matrix turns out to be the communal glue, the last thing any worship model should do is to modify the centrality of the Word simply because culture does.”3 But it seems that this is exactly what contemporary worship models often do. Yet let me quickly add that the avant-garde churches of any generation no doubt have done the same thing. A 60s church built on gospel quartet concerts and ice cream cones may have been no different than a 2014 church built on CCM concerts and lattes.
The operative word here may be “built.” Jesus used the word, of course, when announcing that He would build His church (Matt. 16:18), and though we probably don’t have a better word for the business of evangelism and church planting, we have to be a lot more careful how we use it. Professionals of any age have built churches and so can professionals today. There are ways to get people in the doors and ways to keep them there. There are ways to raise the funds needed and ways to advertise for more. There are ways to get oneself known around the world and ways to get a place at the associational table. If a church (or school, or organization) grows in size and influence, especially if it can show numerous “ministry” opportunities, then it has been “built.”
I will be 64 years old this year. By now I have done more than I will do from here on. I have made my decisions about what paths I will take in my ministry. I have attended and worked in mega-churches and have attended and pastored in small churches. I have been a youth pastor in a large church but now I pastor a small church which has a truly great group of senior saints. Though I defended my youthful ways when I was young, now I understand the ways of senior saints. I don’t believe senior saints in a smaller church want to “just sit and do nothing” any more than middle aged saints want to do that in a big church. In fact, I find the seniors more involved, especially considering their physical limitations, and willing to work, than I see from many younger saints.
I do find that I have narrowed my focus of ministry as I grow older, not just because I am older, but because I think I see more clearly what is important. At this point in my life I must worship. I find that this is not optional. I won’t short that for any other reason, nor do I need to. First, I have become convinced that we do not come together to worship, we are worshipers who come together. Jesus Christ is my High Priest Who ever lives to make intercession for me. That worship service which He performs for me before the Father in that heavenly tabernacle never stops. If it would, I would have no plea for my sins. He is my Advocate, my Propitiation, my Shepherd. I am not the active one in that worship, He is. Therefore, I will live my life, private and public, with the full knowledge of what is going on. I cannot acknowledge the culture when it contradicts that worship.
Second, I will come together with other believers to do what believers are supposed to be doing when they come together. I have grown firm in the determination that I will be just as blessed with three, thirty, or three hundred other believers. It makes no difference to me. Jesus has promised to be in the midst of such gatherings by His Spirit regardless of size. However, I must strive to do this without compulsion, show, hypocrisy, division, or worldliness. That isn’t always accomplished, but it has to be the norm.
I cannot be a part of worship which copies the world. It is false worship that speaks like the world so that the world hears (1 John 4:5). That kind of worship does not draw people to the Savior though it may draw people into a room. The Holy Spirit cannot be pleased with it since it is He Who wrote that to be a friend of the world is to be the enemy of God (James 4:4). In the world the pop singer and the frowning athlete are the same—worldly. And so is the Christian singer, minister, or performer who copies it trying to influence people.
I have been blessed in corporate worship in a congregation of 2000 voices singing the great hymns of the faith, and I have been blessed in the Wednesday prayer meeting of 10 people, hearing the weakened voice of a grandma blended with the untrained voice of a child. “The cries of the lambs must mingle with the bleating of the sheep, or the flock will lack much of its natural music.”4
I want the documents of the church to define what the corporate worship ought to look like. Sure, the New Testament defines it, but since different churches interpret it for themselves (a must in Baptist churches) it should be known to all what that interpretation is. The narrower the better. Why? First of all, I have to live with myself. That is the narrowest of all social circles. Then I have to live with my family. If I have been wise, I married a woman who wants to worship as I do, and we will try to raise our children to want the same. But the next circle is the local church. We want to join with other families who, as much as possible, want to worship the same way we want to worship. The more alike that is, the better. The documents of the church are the official declaration of what that worship will believe and how it will practice. A mission church or a new church may take time to mold itself into that stature, but the growing period is always rewarded in adult life.
Brethren, we are the salt of the earth. If we lose our saltiness we are good for nothing but to be thrown into the streets (Mark 9:50). I fear we would rather become “old salts” who have learned to get along with the language of the world. But salt is an irritant to its surroundings. So is light. Accept that or admit you are going a different way. If we are not willing to actually lose our lives, if we would rather keep our lives in this adulterous and sinful generation, then we will lose it in eternity (Mark 8:35).
What about evangelism? Surely we all care about the lost soul and realize the danger of eternal fire. I have always felt that those old evangelists whom I grew up hearing, who gave long invitations, who also reaped many tares among their wheat due to an easy believism, always loved the souls of men. And I will accept the same about those who are performing more modern evangelistic gymnastics today. But have we not also said that we are doxological before we are soteriological? Have we not also committed ourselves to the holiness of God as an absolute which we must not offend even by our evangelistic techniques? If we perform this bait-and-switch to draw the lost person, explaining later what Christianity really means—the loss of one’s life for the glory of God—are we not being dishonest? The degree to which I bend this conviction is the degree of my non-commitment to the Word of God.
I am not a very good Calvinist. I would rather be more than I am, I could easily let a lordship view of salvation explain away my poor evangelism, but I am not that either. I believe in “means” for the gospel’s sake (as many of my more Calvinistic friends also do) mixed with a healthy dose of the free will of sinners to accept or reject. But I do believe this, that the Holy Spirit has to draw and save every sinner who comes to Christ and, that though the gospel doesn’t make demands (as in works for salvation), grace does make demands for which a person has to count the cost.5 Will a person seek forgiveness without a burden of their own sin? Will a person turn to God without turning from his idols (1 Thes. 1:9)? Repentance is not a work for salvation, it is a sorrow and release from guilt when accepting joy and forgiveness in Christ. My point is that evangelism is much more about me being in a place to be used of the Holy Spirit than it is about my headiness in the methodology of this world. “The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord” (Matt. 10:24).
There are real consequences for thinking like this, but at this time in my life I am beyond caring too much. I won’t have a big ministry that will be viewed with approval by, well, whomever. I won’t be invited to speak at the national pastors’ meeting where all must be positive and uplifting. I won’t be given a place at the table of the movers and shakers of my movement. I may even be considered narrow, legalistic, pietistic, in the box, unloving, uncaring, et.al. by family, friends, and fellow ministers.
Now before you think I’m having a pity party and enjoying a martyr’s complex, let me say that this is actually a great relief in my life. It’s too bad it has come so late. Young ministers of my generation have grown up with a tremendous burden of being a success or failure in the ministry. Our schools have been busy teaching us how to be great men and do great things. It’s taken me until now to see that great men never wanted to be great, they just wanted to be men of God, and God used them in great ways. But also, the ministry has always been filled with men whom no one ever knew, who never had a place at the so-called “table” and never missed it. To all of them I say I’m sorry I didn’t realize who and what you were. We’ll never know the front line men of Normandy, we just know they were great men.
This is the great thing about being old, at least by comparison. I don’t care about my “brand” in a world of branding. I care little what the young people think of me now as much as I care what they will think of me in their old age when the time of thanks is gone. “Time like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away, they fly forgotten as a dream dies at the op-’ning day.” I have learned from those older than I that the nearness of seeing the Lord, by death if not rapture, is a great motivation in life. But we learn it when life’s physical struggles really begin, and when the inner strength is all that we have, when the years draw nigh and you have little pleasure in them. What an irony! The outward man is perishing but the inward man is being renewed day by day!
What if! What if a generation of young men and women would love God more than the world? What if young ministers would lead a movement to honor God and His Word above the applause of men? What if there were churches that would live out their convictions at the cost of popularity or success? What if our Bible colleges and seminaries would ask for those who wanted that more than they wanted a fun time, or a comfortable room, or even an accredited degree? What if there is still a young William Carey somewhere who would say, “I go to mine for souls, you hold the ropes?” And what if there were young Andrew Fullers and John Sutcliffs who would do it? For the rest of their lives! We can always hope.
I heard such a young man preach this passage last Sunday night:
5 I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times. 6 I call to remembrance my song in the night: I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search. 7 Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more? 8 Is his mercy clean gone for ever? doth his promise fail for evermore? 9 Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies? Selah. 10 And I said, This is my infirmity: but I will remember the years of the right hand of the most High. 11 I will remember the works of the LORD: surely I will remember thy wonders of old. 12 I will meditate also of all thy work, and talk of thy doings. 13 Thy way, O God, is in the sanctuary: who is so great a God as our God? 14 Thou art the God that doest wonders: thou hast declared thy strength among the people. 15 Thou hast with thine arm redeemed thy people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. Selah.
Notes: 1. Ravi Zacharias, Deliver Us From Evil (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996) 5. 2. Os Guinness, Dining With The Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993) 16. 3. Harold M. Best, “Traditional Hymn-Based Worship,” Paul Engle and Paul Basden, Editors, Exploring the worship Spectrum , 6 Views (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004) 236. 4. C.H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Prayers (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002) 158. 5. See Myron Houghton, Law & Grace (Schaumburg: RBP, 2011) 120.