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The Progressive Philosophy of Culture and Worship

One of our primary objectives at Religious Affections Ministries is to carefully articulate a biblical conservative philosophy of Christianity. We try to primarily focus on what we are for rather than simply what we are against.

However, it is helpful at times to examine opposing views, which helps to contrast views we consider in error with what we’re advocating.

The opposing position to a conservative philosophy of culture is what we might call a “progressive” philosophy.1 Such a philosophy suggests that, instead of beginning with some notion of universals we wish to conserve in determining our posture toward culture, especially in our worship, the church’s foundational missional impulse requires prioritizing contextualization in the contemporary culture. This philosophy denies any universal meaning in cultural forms, and thus all forms of culture are equally valid; the only criterion for discerning what forms to use in worship is their propositional content and the relevance of the cultural form to the people in the congregation.

Likely the most thorough articulation of such a philosophy remains Harold Best’s 1995 Music Through the Eyes of Faith, a book that remains the most frequently cited by contemporary authors and speakers2 defending what Best called cultural “pluralism.”3 Best places a hard distinction between truth and beauty; truth, he argues, “transcends time, culture, and human invention.” Beauty, on the other hand “is a simple quality which has degrees”; in other words, standards of beauty differ from one culture to another, or even between different kinds of things.4 He explicitly claims that “there is no such thing as absolute beauty” and “no such thing as centralized perfection.”5 Based on this fundamental philosophy, Best insists that “art and especially music are morally relative and inherently incapable of articulating, for want of a better term, truth speech. They are essentially neutral in their ability to express belief, creed, moral and ethical exactitudes, or even worldview.”6

Best’s pluralistic philosophy is the default position of most in evangelicalism today, including those writing and speaking on topics of culture, worship, and music. This philosophy rejects the idea of universal standards and makes cultural choices for worship rather on what is indigenous or authentic to a particular people group. For example, Constance Cherry argues, “For it to be authentic, musical style must arise from within the community as a true expression of its culture, not borrowed from another culture.”7 Like Best, Bob Kauflin claims that cultural pluralism in worship “communicates God’s heart for all generations, cultures, and races.”8 They deny any universal principles or meaning in cultural forms, such as Robin Harris, who insists “Music may be a universal phenomenon, found in virtually every culture around the world. But it is definitely not a universal language!”9

A fundamental assumption beneath this practice of contextualization is the belief that content and form have no intrinsic connection and are therefore easily separable. These conservative evangelicals admirably repudiated emergent leaders who argued that both content and form must be contextualized; they insist that since God’s Word is inspired and inerrant, God’s truth transcends culture and must be preserved intact. But since they consider culture as entirely neutral in itself, the form in which Christians communicate truth is fully fluid. This is seen in David Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen’s distinction between cultural contextualization that is “true to . . . indigenous culture” and theological contextualization that is “true to . . . the authority of Scripture.”10 Ethnodoxologist Ron Man argues for applying this perspective to cultural choices for worship, claiming, “It is a reasonable assumption that the virtual silence of the New Testament writers on the matters of form and style for worship means that the Lord intends for us to have considerable latitude and flexibility in these areas.”11 Therefore, Christians must defend the unchanging theology of Scripture, while the contextualized cultural forms through which that theology is expressed remains relative.

Similarities and Difference

Proponents of each of this philosophical posture do share much in common with conservative advocates like us, distinguishing them from theological liberals, for example.

First, both philosophies affirm the inspiration, inerrancy, and absolute authority of Holy Scripture. Second, both philosophies affirm the absolute nature of truth and morality as rooted in God’s nature and expressed in his Word. Third, both philosophies affirm the necessity that corporate worship should be rich with doctrine, Scripture, and expository preaching. They both reject the “attractional model” of worship popularized by the church marketing movement, which softens doctrine, minimizes Scripture, and seeks to meet “felt needs” in the preaching. When comparing worship services that result from applying each philosophy, one might expect to find in both a deep respect for Scripture, songs with doctrinally rich lyrics, and similar preaching based on careful exegesis. Contrary to some extremes and caricatures, both philosophies even agree that cultural forms in worship will change over time and differ to some degree between groups in different cultures.

However, although these philosophies share some similarities, fairly significant differences emerge, especially when observing the cultural and aesthetic elements of worship. First, each philosophy begins from a different starting point. In determining what kinds of cultural forms a church might use, the conservative philosophy begins with absolute principles and the assumption that Scripture regulates even aesthetic factors, while the progressive philosophy begins with the prevailing culture with the assumption that culture and aesthetics are relative. Second, the driving goal of the conservative philosophy is that cultural forms chosen to express truth and facilitate worship be biblically faithful, while the aim of the progressive philosophy is that they be culturally intelligible. Third, when assessing meaning in cultural forms, such as music, conservatives determine meaning primarily based on its relationship to universals, with secondary consideration given to conventional associations within a certain cultural context, while progressives almost exclusively determine meaning based on individual or cultural factors, largely denying universal standards or meaning. Finally, while the progressive philosophy sees truth, morality, and beauty as separate ideas, the first two absolute and the latter relative, the conservative philosophy considers all three to be interwoven strands of a single cord. For the progressive, form and content are easily separable; for the conservative, meanings is found in the union of form and content.

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. I struggled with what term to use here. Technically, I could have used “liberal,” “pluralist,” “missional,” or even just “evangelical.” []
  2. For example, see Barry Liesch, The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church, Expanded (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001); Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008); Mike Cosper, Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2013); Matt Boswell, ed., Doxology and Theology: How the Gospel Forms the Worship Leader (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2013); Bob Kauflin, True Worshipers: Seeking What Matters to God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2015); Constance M. Cherry, The Music Architect: Blueprints for Engaging Worshipers in Song (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016). []
  3. Harold Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 63–85. []
  4. Best, 42. []
  5. Harold Best, Think: Worship Conference – General Session 6 Part 2, accessed July 25, 2018, []
  6. Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, 42. []
  7. Cherry, The Music Architect, 183. []
  8. Kauflin, Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God, 105. []
  9. Robin P. Harris, “The Great Misconception: Why Music Is Not a Universal Language,” in Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook, ed. James R Krabill et al. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013), 89. []
  10. David J. Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2003), 55. []
  11. Ron Man, “The Bridge: Worship Between Bible and Culture,” in Worship and Mission for the Global Church (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013), 17–18. []