Worship and Culture

Robert Jenson wrote:

“If you can teach previously clueless inquirers to participate in some ‘service of worship’ in a week or two, the service is merely thereby unmasked as dubiously Christian. The baptized face a new culture of the church like a mountain in front of them, which they will be climbing till they die. Where the convert does not face such a challenge, one must ask if it is the church he is entering.”

I don’t remember the context of this quotation. I can say two things about it. First, it can easily be used as a polemical cudgel in worship wars. Second, there’s an important truth here.

The important truth is the easiest thing to observe. What we may variously call “Christianity” or “the Christian faith” is more than just a set of easily acquired bits of mental furniture. Being a Christian does entail having certain beliefs, i.e., believing that certain claims are the case. Having these beliefs is part of being a Christian. Having these beliefs is very far from being the whole of being a Christian. James tells us that “the devils believe – and tremble.” Demonized individuals confronted Jesus when he was out and about. They tended to know who he was – even when the others around did not. Their knowing who he was – their having that bit of mental furniture – changed their lives not a bit, and did them no good.

A too often neglected part of becoming a Christian is being enculturated into the Kingdom and its ways. If there is no difference between the person’s original culture and the culture of the church he or she enters, then there’s something seriously wrong. Becoming a Christian includes adopting a new culture. becoming a functioning citizen of the Kingdom. Jenson recognizes that this enculturation into the church is a big thing – a “mountain in front of them.” The mountain cannot be scaled in a few weeks – even a few years. Enculturation into the church and the kingdom it represents is a whole-life phenomenon and a life-long adventure.

Services of worship, Jenson asserts, are events that find their home in Christian culture. The assumptions and actions implicit in Christian worship make sense in Christian culture. They will in important ways be alien to the host culture of the Christians worshiping there.

But how alien? This is where the cudgel comes in. Will we have to ruthlessly critique any worship that aims at intelligibility for outsiders or newcomers? Will having Latin again be the language of worship be sufficiently alien? Learning Latin well enough to participate well in worship will take a while. Well, at least for us. But in at least some of early western Christianity, Latin was the language of the people. Worship in Latin was not alien.

True Christian training for worship requires focused awareness on the shift from one’s host culture to Christian culture. This is easier said then done, since Christian culture is always and only found enmeshed in various host cultures. Andrew Walls’ Pilgrim and Indigenizing principles get at this. The Pilgrim Principle teaches that we are always pilgrims, always in transition, always seeking to move toward greater alignment with Christ and his kingdom. The Indigenizing Principle teaches that we are always become more at home in our host culture, bringing the message of Christ to the culture and its inhabitants. If outsiders are to understand enough to become insiders – or even to be offended by and coherently oppose the Christian movement – they will need some common ground to do so. This common ground is always partial and inadequate, but there’s no way around it. Our challenge, illustrated by two millennia of Christian history, is to collapse neither into the purity and otherness of the Pilgrim Principle alone nor into the identification and ease of the Indigenizing Principle alone.

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