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

How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
Psalm 137:46

By the Waters of Babylon Cover 2Christians today live in a strange land, just like Israel in captivity. Christians today wrestle with how they should relate to the culture of unbelievers around them, just like the Hebrews did. And Christians today often fail to worship God according to his Word in the name of “contextualizing” to their surroundings, similarly to Israel’s persistent syncretism.

I have presented what I believe is the most biblical approach to the current cultural condition by analyzing the philosophy and practice of worship that has become perhaps most influential in evangelicalism, the conservative evangelical missional church movement. Although the movement has contributed positively to evangelicalism in many ways, including its strong emphasis upon fervent evangelism and its recognition of cultural shifts in the West, I have nevertheless argued that deficiencies in its understanding of the nature of culture, the posture of contextualization, and the relationship between worship and mission leaves the missional philosophy of worship without clear biblical and theological support and, ironically, renders it less able to accomplish God’s mission for the church. I have insisted, rather, that God’s mission is to create worshipers for his own glory; he accomplishes this mission through redemption, and he has tasked the church with making disciples who will worship him acceptably. This requires that churches communicate God’s truth to both believers and unbelievers using cultural expressions that fittingly shape the content in similar ways that the Bible itself does. Only with this understanding will churches accomplish the mission God has given them for his glory.

In this concluding chapter, I’d like to briefly summarize my argument and then offer some practical applications and conclusions from the discussion.

The overarching principles of the missional church movement—missionary imperative, twenty-first-century western postmodernism as missionary context, and the incarnational mode of mission—shape the movement’s philosophy and practice of worship. Since everything about the church’s existence falls under the category of “mission,” even public worship serves mission. Missional church advocates are critical of both the “attractional” worship model of the church growth movement as well as the “Inside & Out” model in which worship serves to motivate individual Christians to evangelize outside the church’s walls. Rather, missional authors typically advocate for a model of worship that aims for it to be both an authentic expression of believers and a culturally relevant and “comprehensible” presentation for unbelievers.

According to missional authors, in order for worship to be authentic for believers and understandable for unbelievers, churches must evaluate their cultural context and contextualize worship to that culture. Since the West is post-Christendom culturally, churches must avoid allowing their worship to be shaped by forms nurtured during Christendom and instead shape their worship according to the cultural expressions most dominant in their target culture. This particular posture of contextualization is driven by the principle of incarnation, which suggests that as the Son of God became incarnate in order to redeem the world, so churches must become incarnate in their cultures in order to reach those cultures, and this includes their worship forms.

The missional philosophy of worship is rooted in specific understandings of culture and contextualization. As I have shown, the current missional/evangelical definitions of culture find their substance in anthropological discourse, and thus the implications and applications that naturally flow from secular anthropology also find their way into the thinking and practice of missional evangelicals. This is particularly true with the anthropological understanding of culture as neutral and the related issue of religious beliefs being but one component of the broader idea of culture. I have shown how missional advocates accept these principles since the concept of culture comes through the discipline of anthropology in the first place.

I have also sought to place missional ideas of contextualization in a standard historical framework. After showing that, like culture, contextualization is a relatively novel idea developed in recent liberal-leaning missions conversations, the chapter explained how conservative evangelicals—including those of the missional bent—adopted the idea with reference to cultural form while nevertheless protecting the authority of Scripture by insisting that truth must never change regardless of culture. The chapter then surveyed the historic approaches toward culture that various Christian groups have articulated and demonstrated that the missional approach fits perfectly within the transformationalist framework.

I critiqued these positions along with articulating alternate views on a number of issues. First, I demonstrated that although the New Testament does not speak of “culture” per se, the idea of “behavior”—represented by terms like anastrophe—quite closely resembles the anthropological/missional definition of culture, taken on its own merits. While the standard definition of culture may be accepted in Christian discourse, however, the implications and applications typical to anthropological/missional discussions may not be accepted. Culture, defined as behavior, is clearly not neutral. All human behavior is moral, and therefore what is commonly called “culture” is either good or evil. Furthermore, religious belief is not just one part of culture, it is the pervading system from which culture (“behavior”) flows. What a group or civilization believes concerning God, the world, humankind, and sin acts as the environment in which behavioral patterns are cultivated and out of which cultural forms emerge. Therefore Christians must evaluate all cultural expressions—especially those used in public worship—to determine what values and beliefs are embedded in those expressions and whether they are compatible with Christianity and corporate worship.

Presenting this reorientation with regard to culture and contextualization sets the stage for a more biblical understanding of worship, mission, and their relationship to each other. I explored the relationship between worship and mission by first defining worship biblically. It argued that the basic elements of worship, including communion in God’s presence, sanctuary, priests, and atonement, were instituted in the creation/fall events, permeate the storyline of Scripture and culminate in the gospel of Jesus Christ, leading to a definition of worship as drawing near in communion with God through Christ by faith. This understanding of worship reveals the important connection between Christian worship and the gospel: redemption in Christ enables people to worship. I then discussed the significance of public worship. Contrary to missional authors, who suggest that little significant distinction exists between corporate worship and worship as Christian living, Scripture presents corporate worship as a sacred event in which the gospel is publicly acted out in order to strengthen the faith of believers and proclaim that gospel to unbelievers who may attend.

With this understanding in mind, I then continued by defining the mission of God, the mission of the church, and the relationship between this mission and worship. God’s chief end is his own glory, his mission is the creation of worshipers, and he accomplishes the creation of worshipers through redemption. God’s mission and the church’s mission are related, but not the same, however. The church’s mission, as articulated by passages like Matthew 28:18–20, is to make disciples. An initial step in this mission is the proclamation of the gospel, but that is not the full extent of what the church is tasked to do. Furthermore, although redemption is a primary task of God toward the end of creating worshipers, the church is never commanded to redeem anything; rather, the church makes disciples by proclaiming the gospel to individuals and teaching them God’s commandments. Thus in making disciples, churches do participate in the mission of God to create a people who will draw near to communion with him through Christ by faith and thereby bring him ultimate glory.

Recognizing this relationship between worship and mission, I explored the issue of cultural forms within the context of corporate worship. Contrary to the conservative evangelical missional position, which tries to artificially separate form and content when discussing worship expressions, the chapter argued that since aesthetic form shapes content, form is essential to the content itself. Therefore, as churches seek to communicate God’s truth in corporate worship for the sake of making disciples and nurturing worshipers, they must ascertain which cultural forms best express and support that truth. The best way to accomplish this objective is to rely on the authority of Scripture, not only in articulating doctrine in propositional constructs, but also by the way in which that doctrine is expressed aesthetically.

This led to the final primary argument of the book, namely, that the Word of God should regulate corporate worship in its doctrinal content, liturgical elements, and the cultural forms used to express that doctrine in the liturgical context. I presented three primary arguments in favor of the regulative principle of worship, including the sufficiency of Scripture, the fact that in Scripture God rejects worship that he has not prescribed, and the limits of church authority on the free consciences of God’s people. The last chapter concluded by extending the typical discussions of the regulative principle to cultural forms in worship, taking into consideration the earlier discussion of the authority of aesthetic form in Scripture.

Thus the book has argued that the most missional worship is that which seeks to glorify God in making disciple-worshipers by communicating God’s truth through the use of appropriate cultural forms that are regulated by Scripture.

Taken from the Conclusion to 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.