By Nancy Nethercott
Walking through the noisy streets of New York, I noticed people talking loudly on the phone or with headphones on listening to music, some loud enough for me to join in on what they were hearing. I felt accosted by the noise overload from the sound of traffic and construction, and by the visual overload of advertising. Needing a break from the sounds and sights of distracted life, I ducked into a church whose doors were open and invited me in with a sign that read: “Enter freely; enter quietly.” I stepped into another world—another culture—where my attention was captured by vaulted ceilings filled with beautifully painted biblical scenes creating an atmosphere of mystery and awe, where silence was valued and encouraged, where ancient beauty and art were celebrated, and where prayer was invited.
As I sat quietly in one of the pews, I felt my heart crying, “Oh, give me something different from the world out of which I have come! My heart yearns for a different world and a God who is so much bigger than me and my problems.” I needed the mystery, transcendence, and hope that this peaceful “counter-cultural” environment offered me.
Creating a Different World
We tell people that Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest,” but then we have a fast-paced service with no time for silence, meditation, prayer, healing, etc. It is no different from the world out of which people walked as they came into our doors. How are they hearing that text? How can we attend to the heart-longings of those who come seeking rest for their weary souls? Are we offering people more of the same, or something from a different world…a world centered on God’s heartbeat? What does it mean for us to be counter-cultural?
Walter Brueggemann, in The Bible and Postmodern Imagination, gives us a glimpse of the mystery of what happens in biblical counter-cultural worship when he writes, “The action of meeting begins—music, word, prayer, theater. At its center, the minister reads…these very old words, remote, archaic, something of a threat, something of yearning. In the listening, one hears another world proposed. It is an odd world of ‘no male or female,’ of condemned harlots and welcomed women, of sheep and goats judged…. If one listens long and hard, what emerges is a different world.”1
Another way to see worship as counter-cultural is the call for our worship planning and practices to not be informed by a secular, worldly, and materialistic mindset, or even a religious one which runs counter to Christianity or the Gospel. Yes, we need to keep our ear to the ground, ask sensitive questions, and listen well, but Scripture must guide our thinking about worship as we use wisdom and discernment. Listening to the voice of Jesus and following Him should actually make us a nuisance, a wrench in the wheel of the surrounding culture, not an echo or mirror.
Anne Zaki, an Egyptian pastor and theologian, reminds us that “every culture contains some sinful, broken, dehumanizing elements that are contradictory to the gospel and present us with ‘rival secular liturgies that compete for our love.’”2 The illustration above relating to my day in New York City highlights two examples that compete for our love and attention: the trap of busyness and an addiction to noise. These forms of brokenness may seem harmless or trivial, yet need to be considered as we contemplate ways to incorporate stillness and silence into corporate worship. My church begins each service or prayer time with silence, inviting us to become present with the God who is always present with us. Stilling our hearts and minds and being present to one thing or person is actually very counter-cultural!
Bearing Witness to the World
As we listen to the pain due to oppression, systemic racism, and social injustice, we need to encourage those who are contemplating how worship should go against the surrounding culture. Many churches are grappling with these issues in a new and intentional way. The call is to choose to create worship spaces and events where all are welcomed to “enter freely,” where uncomfortable issues are named and talked about, and where the immanence and transcendence of God is palpable, so that we can become the Church that transform(s) people and cultural patterns by “acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God, the Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6; Mic 6:8).3 We are called to live out Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” A few of us from my small group are engaging in a webinar on racial injustice and then meeting on Zoom to grapple with what we are learning. This is a small but necessary forward step towards hearing the cries that can give us insight into how to create safe space in worship for everyone and aid in our imperative personal transformation.
Jill Ford, Arts Lecturer at All Nations Christian College (UK), encourages us to be attentive to the voices of the culture around us because the true essence of the Church is people, living in transformed community—a community that is a counter-cultural vision of humanity—and because “it runs against the natural tendencies of humans to assemble only with like-minded persons.”4 There is an evocative invitation in Ford’s words, “The mission of the Church points to the future reality that all people are included in [the invitation to] God’s kingdom, and it already embodies that counter-cultural vision by demonstrating that God calls all people, nations, and races into a transformational relationship with Him. In light of this, there is a need for the church to consciously and constantly re-contextualize itself and its worship forms to bear witness to the world as a counter-cultural fellowship.”5
Your church, and my church, bears witness to the world. What kind of witness do we bear? Do we offer hope to people that life can be different from what they are experiencing? Who is welcomed and included in our worship communities? What kind of atmosphere do we value and cultivate? What are our priorities? We need to seek God’s wisdom and spend time paying attention to the culture around us in order to discern what it means to be “in the world, but not a part of it” (see INSET). Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy on us as we navigate how to be God’s counter-cultural witness in our world. Lord, enable us to listen—to the Holy Spirit and to others.
How does worship relate to culture? How is worship in culture, but not of it? The Lutheran World Federation’s Study Team on Worship Culture met in Nairobi in January of 1996 and produced the Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture. The statement presents four central principles—succinct but subtle, clear but challenging—of the relationship between worship and culture:
ONE. Worship is transcultural.
Worship has certain dynamics that are beyond culture.
All worship should have some universal elements (prayer, baptism). Often difficult to discern core things from cultural things.
TWO. Worship is contextual.
Worship reflects local patterns of speech, dress, and other cultural characteristics.
In-Culturated: must be somewhat contextualized and relevant to local culture.
THREE. Worship is counter-cultural.
Worship resists the idolatries of a given culture.
Must be somewhat challenging to local culture.
FOUR. Worship is cross-cultural.
Worship reflects the fact that the body of Christ transcends time and space.
Must be connected to church in all times and places. Beware cultural arrogance.
We have found that the most meaningful worship—and the wisest worshiping community—does not just choose one of these four as its defining principle, but instead is invigorated by the truth of all four.
Note how this statement nuances the model of being “in but not of” culture, and calls us to a more sophisticated understanding of worship’s relationship to culture.
We encourage worshipers and worship leaders to reflect on it as they consider the context and challenges of their culture, and answer God’s call to worship within it and minister to it.
The complete text of the Nairobi Statement is posted on the website of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship.