Navigating the difficult relationship between corporate worship and the culture around is is a challenge, but it is one made easier when we recognize the importance of corporate worship for actually forming our behavior.
You see, worship is not simply the natural expression of a Christian; corporate worship—the public acting out of the spiritual realities of drawing near to God through Christ by faith—actually helps to shape the behavior—the “culture”—of God’s people.
The indigenous cultural expressions of a civilization are not automatically acceptable for Christian worship; in many cases the new-found faith of a people will require them to change their behavior, especially in their corporate worship. This is one of the purposes of ordered worship. Those with more Christian maturity structure worship in such a way that it shapes the affections and teaches others how to worship rightly.
Christians are a new ethnos united around new “culture”
Rather than simply adopting the cultural expressions of the people around them, Christian churches form a new, distinct race that unites around a new way of behaving. In 1 Peter 2:9, Peter calls the church a holy nation (ethnos), here used metaphorically to describe the new people God has created in the church:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Pet 2:9)
The term was also used at times of Israel as the people of God united by their covenantal relation to him, making them distinctly his nation. It is in that latter sense that Peter applied the term to the church, which forms a unique international nation having a common spiritual life from God and committed to his rule. Holy indicates its separation from the nations of the world and consecration to God and his service. Its position of separation demands that the members must not, like Israel of old, stoop to the sinful practices of the world (1:15–17).1
As I’ve argued before, “nation” is not the same as “culture,” but rather a “nation” is a group of people that share a common way of behaving (“culture”). This behavior, according to 1 Peter 1:15, ought to be holy: “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” Christians are not supposed to be defined as indigenous residents of unbelieving communities; rather, they are to be “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11; cf. 1 Pet 1:17). Often the behavior of unbelievers will resemble the behavior of Christians (even behavior in public worship), but this is not because Christians mimic unbelievers; it is because unbelievers have borrowed Christian values in those particular behaviors.
New Creatures—New Culture
Therefore, since Christians have been “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [their] forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18) since their values and worldview are now different from when they were unbelievers, and since they are not members of a new and distinct ethnos, new Christians need to be taught how “to behave in the household of God” (1 Tim 3:15) through the process of discipleship.
Public worship, consequently, is a significant means for teaching this new “culture.” The liturgy, cultural forms chosen, and biblical content of a worship service help to shape and form believers into acceptable worshipers. Calvin Johansson explains this well:
Though worship belongs to God, it has an effect upon the worshiper, determined largely by its quality and design. We plan it. We craft it. We execute it. As a result, this which we fashion, the work of our hands, molds us in its own image. Worship itself has an outcome which is directed back to the believer. Though not particularly self-evident, in large measure, worship determines the quality of our walk with God. If it is immature, then the congregation becomes immature. The shape of our worship shapes us.2