For those who do not know what I do for a living currently, I teach about the intersection of music, worship, church, and culture. Put simply, I teach musicians how to help churches around the world worship God in their heart languages and cultures. I have students who go out all over the world and it is a joy to hear all the stories of God multiplying His kingdom everywhere they go! We often talk about this type of work, often called ethnodoxology (the study of how worship and culture interrelate), as part of an effort to contextualize the gospel and church worship, but it’s really more than that. There’s a tension, because the church is really not about culture at all and yet the church is integrally connected to culture. Here’s what I mean.
THE CHURCH IS ALWAYS ALREADY CULTURAL
We are born into our parent cultures and grow up in a specific environment of ideas, values, principles, communal experience, legacy, ancestry, history, food, music, etc. We know that how we experience life is through a cultural lens. Jesus was a Jew. He was born into a human culture. The way Jesus taught was through a Jewish cultural lens and we can better understand His commands and His life by understanding Jewish culture. He talked about fishing for men, how his word is like seed, how the kingdom was like yeast. If you tell these stories to people who have never fished, planted, or baked, you first have to explain fishing, farming, and baking to them. In the same way, we can understand a people’s relatable connections to the gospel so that we explain it easier to them. And we can encourage musicians to compose worship songs in music that will best express their cultural identity.
THE CHURCH IS ALWAYS ALREADY ACULTURAL OR TRANSCULTURAL
At the same time, the church is acultural (without culture) or transcultural (above culture) on an experiential level, because we all experience the same God! We experience the pure love of God in a way that speaks to our souls, and we can often recognize this in others regardless of culture. The gospel is able to be de-culturalized so that we can present it without our cultural baggage. We just plant the seed of the gospel, the pure truth of Jesus, and we ask God to root down and grown up in a way that thrives in that culture. When we go to teach worship seminars cross-culturally, we don’t start by teaching music theory or songwriting techniques. We teach the Word of God and the principle of the seed and the soil. Then together we ask God to grow the Word in them and let it produce a song from their hearts. Why does this work EVERY time? Because the commandments of Jesus are acultural (not only appropriate to one culture), the gospel of the kingdom is acultural (without earthly culture), and the church can be too, because we are operating as citizens of Heaven right now (our cultural ideals must conform to the culture of heaven).
THE CHURCH IS ALWAYS ALREADY MULTICULTURAL, CROSS-CULTURAL, and INTERCULTURAL
As the simple seed of the Word is contextually growing in each place, we notice different flavors of worship styles popping up. Because we are people in culture, we are making music that aligns with what we find beautiful for our time and for our people. And that is exactly what should be happening. People should be singing to God in their own languages and in their own musical styles! This is part of the richness we get to bring before the Lord at His throne when we come before Him as every nation tribe and tongue!
Here’s my favorite part! We get to also sing other peoples’ songs in hospitality, mutuality, and solidarity. We have been doing this for a long time with a group I am involved in called Global Worship Community. We invite people to add their songs or dances to our repertoire so we can worship with them in their languages. And this is not superficial inclusionism, pity, or tokenism. It is because we love seeing God how other cultures see Him–what resonates with them, what is beautiful about Jesus to them. And so we get to experience the multi-lingual nature of the throne room of God here on earth! And we experience the power of God in the love, mutual humility, unity, and expectation that brings!
So the church is multicultural when “we” come together and appreciate “others'” worship. It is cross-cultural because we can incorporate “others'” songs into “our” culturally located worship. It is intercultural when “we” and “others” seem to effectively disappear and join to actually worship together in love and mutual affection and unity!
THE CHURCH IS ALWAYS ALREADY COUNTERCULTURAL
The church and its worship will need to also be counter-cultural because we are sometimes operating inside nations, institutions, and structures not governed by gospel principles. We as believers hold the value system and culture of the Kingdom of God which will often conflict with the value systems of the world around us, even the nations, institutions, and ideologies that once held our allegiances. When we wake up to our citizenship in the Kingdom of God through Jesus, we surrender our old citizenship. Our brothers and sisters are those who follow Jesus. Our fellow citizens are those who walk in the way of the Kingdom–loving God, loving our neighbors, and discipling the nations.
THE CHURCH IS ALWAYS ALREADY A GLOBAL WORSHIP COMMUNITY
So it is holding the tension of all these together that we get to experience how the church is at once completely human and also being re-made into the image of God in Christ as a GLOBAL WORSHIP COMMUNITY. There is no such thing as a monocultural church. Because we ARE the church. The question is–are we operating in our true identity?
When this happens, we get to stand as a united people of God who are citizens of another place, who are living as aliens here, who are not home yet. We get to speak the truth in love. We get to defend and help the oppressed, we get to feed the hungry, we get to defend the captive, we get to open eyes that are blind, we get to set people free who are imprisoned, we get to listen when one another is hurting. We have permission to stop and tend to wounds instead of rushing to our next engagement. We follow the unearthly wisdom to give generously even out of our poverty. We get to be led by the Spirit of GOD! We get to encourage those who have been injured to get up and fight the enemy of their souls who is already under our feet! We stand alongside one another and we worship God together. This is the church. Always already all nations, all peoples, all welcome. This is the culture of the Kingdom!
Wanna see it in action? Here’s a taste of what it’s been for us over the last couple years. We started Global Worship Community as a group of students, faculty, and staff at a university interested in cross-cultural music and worship. Our first meeting we just prayed and asked God to lead us into His agenda. And He has! What started off as fifteen people praying in a room together grew to over 150 people weekly gathering to worship in other languages. But we found out that music in other languages wasn’t the point. God used that space to heal and show us His glory and presence.
His presence is the goal and treasure of the Kingdom. When we find it, we sell everything to buy it.
Recently, God, according to His plan, has expanded and multiplied our group that used to be centered at Liberty into smaller, but just as vibrant, communities as we worship in living rooms and parks and outside our buildings around Lynchburg, VA. But many of our people have gone out into the world, so we are tracking with people wanting to start something like Global Worship Community in at least thirteen other states, and eight other nations of the world. Please pray that God continues to wake up His Bride and give them His heart for the nations! And pray for us as we travel to encourage global worship communities around the world.
Also, if you are interested in starting anything like this where you are, let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org! We’ll pray with you and try to give you what we’ve learned so that God’s kingdom can multiply in your hometown, in your city, in your church building, in your school, in your front yard or living room, on earth as it is in heaven. To God be the glory forever! Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!
Note: A lot of these ideas are from the broader ethnodoxology community–if you would like articles or resources, let me know!