These three posts are taken from a sermon I preached in October 2016.
Once upon a time, long ago, there were three missionaries in Japan. Each of them was used by God to plant a Christian church. To this day you can still identify which of the three groups Christians come from, because each has its own distinctive style of worship and prayer. One group prays very quietly with deep reverence. The Whisperers. Another group exhibits great enthusiasm and pray loudly and fervently as if to make themselves heard in the heavens – the Ranters. The third group takes a moderate volume, not too loud not too soft but with peculiar hissing interjections. They are the Whistlers. Why? The first missionary had a very quiet voice. The second a very loud voice – an American probably – and the third one had false teeth that did not fit. The disciples had simply adopted the worship style of their pastor.
Most of us learn about worship by imitating others, and we do pick up some cultural idiosyncrasies along the way. By culture I don’t mean ethnicity, I mean the ways we make sense of life in order to make decision about how to act. Organisations have a culture, so do schools and restaurants. Our church has a culture that says it’s okay to arrive ten minutes late. The majority Kiwi Culture is based on individuation, where personal choices and preferences take priority, as compared with, say, a Pacific culture where privacy and individual choice are subject to the needs and values of the community. Worship is influenced by culture, but not defined by it. It is defined by the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.
We are focusing on the gospel, looking at it from various viewpoints in order to build our confidence in it as “real good news”. Because we seem to have forgotten the meaning of the Greek word evangelion – which for Christians does not signify a genre of anime (computer animation). In the Greek-speaking Roman-ruled culture of Jesus’ day, it was a royal proclamation that carried huge meaning – a military victory, a new emperor, or a royal birth. In the first century everyone in Palestine was familiar with an evangelion, a royal announcement from the emperor or his authorities, sharing good news that would have a long term effect. That promised radical change. An evangelion was a political message, a message about who is king and what that means for the inhabitants of the region. In English, gospel. Good News.The catchphrase that for two millennia Christians have used for a very different royal announcement - the still reverberating change that took place with the coming of Jesus the Christ - a new kind of king.
There are 1000 ways of explaining what this means. Why it is news and how it is good. We have looked at a few. But Paul puts it quite simply in Galatians 2: 20 - I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. This is not good advice or even good ethics. It's good news. He took the fall. But perhaps we have become so familiar with this notion that we’ve lost sight of how radical this news was and is. We need to wake up and rediscover the story of Jesus – his birth, life, death, resurrection and his saving and transforming power. It was an announcement of a whole new world. A new regime where God lifts us up, dusts us off and starts us over again. This story of grace, mercy, forgiveness and changed lives needs to be at the heart of everything we say and do. A river of love that we can all be caught up in here and now.
I believe that worship that emanates from this good news will transform us – and challenge the culture we live in. It will form in us a deep conviction that faith is an intelligible explanation of reality, and that Jesus is alive and able to make a difference in our human experience. There are many tacks one could take in teaching about worship, but here I want to look closely at how the gospel defines and constrains worship, and how culture can sometimes undermine the kind of worship God seeks. For that we are going to turn to a Bible story that may well be familiar to many, but from which we are going to distil some key truths about worship that apply, both then and now.
It’s actually a story about worship wars. Do you know what I mean by that? Over the years I have been embroiled in many worship wars, between ministers and musicians, between organists and guitarists, between drums and cymbals, between classical and folk, monks and hippies, teens and parents, those who won’t sing anything older than twenty years and those who won’t sing anything written more recently, and those who want to sing and those who won’t. Theologian and musician Marva Dawn wonders if the binary nature of our technological culture makes us prefer either/or debates when what is needed is a genuine and gracious conversation where both /and is possible. Where there is a genuine spirit of generosity, community flourishes. We are working on building that kind of collaborative culture.
To think about: What culture shapes your worship practices?
Go to Part Two.