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The Incarnational Mode of Missional Worship

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series

"Missional Worship"

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With regard to the missional movement’s understanding of Christendom, it is important to recognize that they saw what happened during this period as little more than the church contextualizing worship to the dominant culture of the civilization. Since Christianity happened to be the dominant religion of the western world, the church was able to easily reflect the culture around it and thus “attractional” evangelism thrived. But because the West has now moved beyond the Christendom era, missional writers insist that the church must once again learn how to contextualize worship to the dominant culture since one of the key values of the missional movement is incarnation.

For the missional church, worship forms must reflect the dominant cultural forms of the target group. Guder argues that worship services “must be substantially changed in many settings in our world.”1 Stetzer likewise insists that “worship must take on the expression that reflects the culture of the worshiper if it is to be authentic and make an impact.”2 He sees this contextualization as a self-evident reality in which all churches take part when they use the common language of the people to whom they minister. Specifically addressing musical styles, Stetzer suggests that a church should seek to discover what styles are dominant in its target “focus group” and “adapt [its] own tunes an styles to the preferred styles of [its] focus group.”3 Contextualization is a significant emphasis of Hirsch who argues that “worship style, social dynamics, liturgical expressions must result from the process of contextualizing the gospel in any given culture.”4 Driscoll based his entire church planting strategy on the principle of contextualization, arguing that churches must be willing to regularly change their worship forms “in an effort to effectively communicate the gospel to as many people as possible in the cultures around them.”5 Likewise, according to Lepinski, “The need for the Church to remain effective in speaking the ‘current language’ and to successfully engage all people and age groups is a practice that can be seen in the life of Jesus. Christ’s earthly life manifests the importance of relevancy.”6

For all practical purposes, this implies a view of cultural neutrality, at least in the forms themselves if not always the content. Several authors mention that Christians will need to reject some elements of culture, but usually this refers to the subject matter of songs or movies, for example, rather than the cultural forms themselves. Various content may be immoral, but the culture itself is neutral. This is no more evident than when missional writers discuss music in worship.  Guder insist that music must be “translated for the sake of the witness we are to be and do,” and says nothing about the possibility that certain styles might be unusable.7 Stetzer specifically states that “there is no such thing as Christian music, only Christian lyrics”8 and that “God has no preference regarding style,”9 implying that cultural forms are neutral and only lyrics may be judged as moral or immoral. Driscoll implies the neutrality of culture by insisting that “it was God who created cultures,”10 thereby rendering various cultural forms intrinsically good. Parris gets to the root of the issue by insisting that since “a single biblical style is not commanded in Scripture,”11 cultural styles are neutral. Since culture is inherently neutral according to missional advocates, contextualization becomes as simple as discovering the dominant cultural forms of a target group and reflecting them in worship.12

In missional thinking, two important reasons necessitate that worship must be contextualized. The first is that worship must be “intelligible” to unbelievers, which has already been discussed above. But the second reason worship must be contextualized is that even believers have been shaped by the dominant culture, and so for worship to be intelligible and even authentic for them, the forms used in worship should reflect the outside culture. Guder exemplifies this thinking when he says, “Our changing cultural context also requires that we change our worship forms so that Christians shaped by late modernity can express their faith authentically and honestly.”13 Driscoll also implies this when he says that “God promised that people from every race, culture, language, and nation will be present to worship him as their culture follows them into heaven,”14 which follows the same line of reasoning as Hirsch when he claims that “it is from within their own cultural expressions that the nations will worship.”15 This reasoning is primary in Kimball’s thinking, who argues that “since worship is about our expressing love and adoration to God, and leaders teaching people about God, then of course the culture will shape our expressions of worship.”16

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Guder, The Continuing Converstion of the Church, 96. []
  2. Stetzer and Putman, Breaking the Missional Code, 100. []
  3. Ibid., 64. []
  4. Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 143. []
  5. Driscoll, Radical Reformission, 80. []
  6. Lepinski, “Engaging Postmoderns in Worship,” 6. []
  7. Guder, The Continuing Converstion of the Church, 96. []
  8. Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches, 267. []
  9. Towns and Stetzer, Perimeters of Light: Biblical Boundaries for the Emerging Church, 43. []
  10. Driscoll, Radical Reformission, 80. []
  11. Parris, “Instituting a Missional Worship Style in a Local Church Developed from an Analysis of the Culture,” 2. []
  12. Van Gelder seems to be the only significant missional author who recognizes that cultural forms themselves may actually express meaning and shape content. See Van Gelder, “Missional Context: Understanding North American Culture,” 30–31. []
  13. Guder, The Continuing Converstion of the Church, 157. []
  14. Driscoll, Radical Reformission, 100. []
  15. Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 138. []
  16. Kimball, Emerging Worship, 298. []