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Applications from By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture

By the Waters of Babylon Cover 2Ultimately, this book is not meant to address very specific application; rather, I have sought to lay the biblical groundwork that will allow church leaders to make informed, practical decisions regarding the relationship between worship and culture as they seek to reach an increasingly pagan culture. However, I will draw several general conclusions and applications from the arguments I have presented.

Christians should resist equating culture with race.

As I have suggested, the idea most likely associated with culture today is “race,” and any attempt to critically evaluate a particular cultural expression is, therefore, judged as racism. Yet as this book has demonstrated, race and culture are not equal. A race describes a group of people with shared ancestral and genetic roots, while culture describes behavior. Such behavior may be passed down through the traditions of a given race, but there is nothing inherently ethnic about any cultural expression. If Christian discussion regarding culture is going to move forward, especially as it relates to worship and evangelism, this misplaced connection must be rectified.

Churches should not start with the surrounding culture when choosing worship forms; they should start with Scripture.

So much of the missional contextualization posture finds its starting point in analyzing and appropriating whatever cultural expressions dominate the surrounding society. Yet this framework sets the culture as the authority in church practice. Instead, churches should begin with the authoritative Word of God, seeking to develop a unique and holy culture that flows from biblical values. A certain amount of translation may be necessary to communicate those values and behavior to people who do not share the same constructs, but even the translation must accurately reflect Scripture. In some cases, the target audience may be so foreign to a biblical system of values that nothing about their indigenous culture is usable; in those cases church leaders will find it necessary to explain to them the meaning of holy cultural forms and teach them to learn to appreciate those kinds of forms.

For this reason, church leaders, and indeed all Christians, must have a skilled knowledge of the cultural forms used in the Bible to express its truth. A certain amount of study of biblical literary forms, including how they shape their content, will help a church leader better discern which forms in his culture best communicate truth. Likewise, church leaders should study the kinds of sentiments and affections the Bible prescribes for worship and choose worship forms that accurately express those affections.

This will also require that church leaders know how to parse the meanings and values of the cultural expressions within their own culture to determine whether or not they are compatible with Christian sentiments. This may be one area where the missional church emphasis is helpful—churches must know how the people in their community think and the worldviews that influence their thinking as well as how this thinking and worldview is embodied in their cultural expressions. Christians do not necessarily need to immerse themselves in the culture of their community in order for this to take place—in fact, that might sometimes be dangerous for one’s spiritual well-being.

Corporate worship should make disciples.

Disciple-making is the church’s mission, and corporate worship must fit into this framework. Indeed, as I argued, making disciples and making worshipers are actually two aspects of the same mission. Thus, worship is not primarily about evangelism, nor is it an entirely vertical encounter. Corporate worship must contribute to the goal of making disciples so that they might worship God acceptably by leading people to draw near to communion with God through Christ by faith using appropriate cultural expressions.

This may be accomplished in public worship in at least three ways. First, corporate worship can proclaim the gospel in its very structure and content. Since corporate worship is the public acting out of the gospel—drawing near to God through Christ by faith—a liturgy structured to reflect that progression will both strengthen the believer and proclaim gospel truth to the unbeliever. Appropriating a structure such as that suggested in Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship ensures that true worship takes place and that unbelievers are always confronted with the gospel message when they attend a service. Likewise, the content of particular elements within the service, because they are chosen to fit specific moments in the gospel progression, also help to proclaim the gospel to believers and unbelievers alike.

Second, if worship is to make disciples it must contain rich, doctrinal content. Corporate worship is not simply about “authentic,” “natural” expression of praise to God—it is about shaping people into disciple-worshipers. This means that teaching and preaching must be central in worship services, and the textual content of music must contribute to shaping people, both intellectually and spiritually, into worshipers for the glory of God.

Third, the aesthetic forms used to express that truth in corporate worship must be compatible with the content, for it, too, shapes the worshiper. Since form and content are not so easily divorced, and since the Bible’s authority extends not just from its propositional truth but also from how that truth is expressed, there are limits as to what kinds of cultural forms are appropriate for use in corporate worship. Only those forms that shape their content in ways similar to the forms of Scripture may be used.

Churches should rely on the Judeo-Christian worship tradition.

If churches are intent upon preserving and communicating the truth handed down from Scripture, both the truth’s doctrinal content and the way it is imagined, they would be wise to continue preserving and cultivating what might be called the Judeo-Christian tradition. Churches have at their fingertips a rich heritage of cultural forms that have grown within the biblical value systems of Judaism and the historic Christian Church—forms that were cultivated with the goal of expressing transcendent biblical values. Although the church/state alliance of the Christendom period was ill-advised for many reasons and caused serious theological and ecclesiastical problems, by the providence of God it did create a tradition that perpetuated and cultivated worship forms of the same character as the biblical forms. The forms through the early nineteenth century were text-driven, modest, and distinguishable from the pagan culture; those with Bible-informed imaginations nurtured them in order to communicate that imagination to others.[1]

This cultivation of the Judeo-Christian worship tradition continued until Revivalists in the early nineteenth century rejected the tradition in favor of the novelty and “excitement” of pop culture—they were among the first in church history to allow outside culture to shape the culture of worship. William McLoughlin observes that “[Charles G.] Finney’s revivalism broke the dam maintained by ‘The Tradition of the Elders’ (the title of one of his most pungent sermons) and transformed ‘the new system’ from a minority to a majority religion.”[2] From that point on, most of the evangelical movement has failed to cultivate this tradition but has instead favored more novel and “stimulating” cultural forms nurtured by secular culture. The Church is now ruled by what Loren Mead called the “Tyranny of the New”—a complete rejection of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Mead explains the problem with this rejection: “When the new way is considered the only way, there is no continuity, fads become the new Gospel and in Paul’s words, the church is ‘blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine.’”[3] Quentin Faulkner devastatingly summarizes the effect of this rejection of tradition upon the worship of the Christian Church:

Music (for that matter, all the arts) had become a theological orphan. In fact, no important theological movement, either in the nineteenth or twentieth century, has concerned itself in any profound way with the significance of harmony, order, or beauty in Christian life or [worship].[4]

Tradition is neither infallible nor authoritative in itself, but failure to preserve and accurately communicate God’s truth, in both its doctrinal and aesthetic faithfulness to the revelation of God’s Word, is due in large part to a failure to cultivate the Judeo-Christian worship tradition. In evangelicalism’s desire to preserve and communicate the truth, churches must realize that they cannot start from nothing; since fully orbed truth is preserved and communicated in large part through worship forms, churches must be committed to preserving and nurturing those forms that have been cultivated within the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Churches should actively pass on their worship culture to their children.

Since acceptable worship is something to be learned, churches should commit to teaching worship to their children at early ages. Unfortunately, most Christians do not recognize that before a child can even comprehend facts, his affections and imagination are already being shaped. In fact, most Christians never really even consider the moral imaginations of their children. They may be targeting their hearts, and by teaching them biblical doctrine their hearts are certainly influenced. But many churches fail to realize that a child’s imagination is shaped long before he or she has the capacity to comprehend doctrinal facts. In other words, long before a child can comprehend his need to love the one true and living God, before he or she can comprehend the concept of a god at all, the child learns how to love. Long before a child can comprehend his need to fear and reverence God, the child learns how to fear and reverence. Long before a child can comprehend his purpose to worship God, the child learns how to worship.

What happens with most churches, though, that see only the need to teach their children’s minds, is that in order to teach such truths, they are willing to use almost whatever means necessary to do so. So they use puppets to teach Bible stories, never realizing that their children’s imaginations are being shaped to view biblical truth as something light and trivial. They use cartoons to teach moral lessons, never realizing that their children’s imaginations are being shaped to view morality as something silly or “adventurous.” This problem occurs acutely in children’s music. Christian parents, educators, and publishers have the noble goal of teaching their children about God, his Word, and how to obey him rightly, but they set such truth to irreverent, trivial music, forgetting that long before their children learn those doctrines, they must learn how to imagine those truths rightly.

Children learn to worship God primarily through participating in rightly ordered worship. Children learn to love God by first learning how to love. Children learn to reverence God by first learning how to reverence. Children learn to fear God by first learning how to fear. If evangelicalism fails to preserve and accurately communicate the truth, both in its factual and aesthetic correspondence to God’s reality, it will be due in large part to its failure to shape their children’s imaginations in their desire to teach them the truth.

Churches should actively cultivate evangelistic outreach outside the walls of the church building.

While I have argued that the primary purpose of corporate worship is not evangelism, evangelism is the first step in accomplishing the church’s mission of making disciples. And while even public worship can aid in that evangelism through its structure and content, making disciples of all nations will require that individual Christians fervently proclaim the gospel outside the normal meetings of the church.

Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, some of which are helpfully identified by the missional church movement, many Christians today view evangelism as little more than inviting unbelieving friends to a church service. For this reason, church leaders must actively encourage the people in their congregations to change this mindset and strategically plan ways to reach people with the gospel at other times. The missional church movement may be right that churches today are ineffective in evangelism. The answer is not to reduce corporate worship to weekly evangelistic events. The answer is to encourage regular, relational evangelism in the community.

Churches should consider themselves strangers and aliens in the world.

Ultimately, the church’s relationship to the surrounding culture is very similar to Israel in exile or the early church in its Greco-Roman environment. The missional church is correct that Christendom lulled the church into complacency. But the missional church falls prey to its own critique when it does not recognize the nature of post-Christendom as essentially hostile to Christianity. Churches today should relate to their surrounding situation in ways similar to the Hebrews in exile or the early church. They should be initially suspicious of any of the world’s culture since in most cases the safe assumption is that the culture is an expression of unbiblical values. However, with that as the initial posture, Christians can be free to appropriate whatever culture happens to be, by God’s common grace, an expression of a biblical worldview.

[1] Space does not allow the full explanation of the development of the Judeo-Christian worship tradition or full support of these claims. For a more thorough exploration, see Quentin Faulkner, Wiser Than Despair: The Evolution of Ideas in the Relationship of Music and the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (Simpsonville, SC: Religious Affections Ministries, 2012); Stapert, New Song for an Old World..

[2] William G. McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (New York: Ronald Press, 1958), 66.

[3] Mead, The Once and Future Church, 11.

[4] Faulkner, Wiser Than Despair, 190.

Taken from By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture (Kregel, 2015).

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.