Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Fallacy of Uniformity in Worship

One of the most common defenses for traditional worship is that it best expresses the catholicity of the church. It is argued that because traditional hymnody is tied to the church’s past, it is the best way for the present church to express its solidarity with the preceding generations. The argument is compelling for several reasons.
  • First, the Christian religion is more than any other religion tied to history. Its basis lies in the historical work of God with his people culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The desire to remain linked to the church’s past is simply an outworking of the desire to remain vitally connected to the work of the Father, Son and Spirit in history.
  • Second, remaining grounded in the history of the church grants stability and unity in the midst of great cultural instability. Culture in America has been fragmented into isolated and competing subcultures. The church is either unable to adapt to the fluidity of society, or unwilling to compromise with those cultural expressions it finds either distasteful or sinful. Grounding worship in the church’s tradition avoids all the messiness involved in cultural engagement.

Whatever virtue these motives may hold, upon close examination, this reasoning falls short for several reasons.

  • First, traditional worship and hymnody fails to express the catholicity of the church as much as contemporary forms. One does not have to spend much time examining a hymnal to realize that the vast majority of the hymns were written in either the Reformation and post-Reformation period or the 18th and 19th century revival movements. While there are a few exceptions, the rule stands. Further, the music style is almost exclusively located in the white, Western European culture, whether that be of a classical or a revivalist genre. Rather than expressing the catholicity of the church, hymnody shuts out the majority of the church. The church has existed since its inception in Egypt and Palestine with its own rich cultural and liturgical heritage- none of which finds expression in traditional hymnody. There are currently more Christians in Africa than in North America and Europe combined. How are the cultural and musical contributions of Africa being recognized and celebrated in conservative, Western churches? For those within the Reformed tradition in particular, how is the shift of the center of Reformed theology from Europe and the United States to Africa and Asia (most notably Korea) being expressed in corporate worship? It seems that catholicity applies exclusively to dead Western Europeans.
  • Second, the argument against novelty based on church tradition has already been answered and rejected. During the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church argued against the “novelty” of the Protestants based on the necessity of the church’s unity. Calvin and the other Reformers responded that the catholicity of the church was not determined by external criteria such as organizational unity or intellectual submission to church tradition but was found in holding fast to the faith delivered to the church through the testimony of the prophets and apostles. The Reformers rightly argued that the unity of the church wasn’t determined by what was seen or heard, but by what was taught and believed. Worship that respects the catholicity of the church isn’t determined by externals, such as style, publication date and provenance; but on content.
  • Third, traditional worship’s inflexibility in light of changing and competing cultures contradicts the Biblical and apostolic pattern of cultural accommodation for the sake of mission. No one stated this more clearly than Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, “I have become all things to all people so that by all means I might save some” (I Corinthians 9:22 NET). Paul was not unique in his perspective, but was simply expressing the pattern God has always utilized in reaching out to his people. God spoke to Israel in its infancy adopting the surrounding Near Eastern cultural forms and patterns. As his people matured and their historical situation changed, God adopted the wisdom of Egypt and the legal forms and traditions of Assyria and Babylon. Even in the New Testament this pattern continued as the common language and the current literary forms and conventions of Hellenistic culture were utilized by Paul and the other New Testament authors to communicate meaningfully with the people they were charged to reach. The strongest demonstration of this pattern of God’s speech is the incarnate Word- a Second-Temple Jew, speaking as a Second Temple Jew to Second Temple Jews. The incarnation was not as a generic human, but as a specific human, fully accommodated to his specific time and place. The goal has never been elegance or refinement; but effective, accommodated communication with the current culture, and anything which opposed this goal was rejected, in spite of its pedigree. It was and is only Christ and him crucified which is to cause offence; and no element, whether of Jewish heritage or Gentile wisdom, classical refinement or contemporary relevance, has any claim to unalterable necessity. This fluidity has been witnessed throughout the Christian world as the Gospel has been able to adapt to vastly different peoples and situations throughout its history, and is the reason for the worldwide expansion of the Christian faith. This diversity does not militate against unity; but witnesses the power of God through the Gospel to unify humanity in its diversity as people from every tribe, tongue, people and nation worship the Lamb. Since God has not expressed a desire nor made a demand for monolithic worship, we should not hold uniformity as a criterion for Biblical, God-honoring worship; but rather we must be willing to speak in contemporary terms to the specific time and place God has placed each individual congregation.