Cultural Inflection in Worship

Each culture uses its own rhythms, melodies, and instruments to convey meaning through music. An intonation that signals politeness in one language may signal disbelief in another. It would be inappropriate to use victory music at a tragic scene, party music at a serious scene, or shaman music at a worship scene. A familiar musical setting helps people identify with the message. A song that sounds beautiful to a Westerner may sound dissonant to someone else and hinder them from opening up to the message.

—Wycliffe Bible Translators, “Scripture Engagement”

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Worship in Revelation (14)

This is, I think, a very significant thing in the NT, and certainly here in Revelation chapter 5—if the goal of worship is to admire Him in all of His majesty and to cast our crowns before Him and crown Him Lord of all, then notice that in this portrayal of worship, all worship flows from Christ’s leadership and through Christ’s mediation. Isn’t it interesting that John sees the Lion/Lamb standing right at the front of the throne of God, and from Him the Spirit of God flowing to all those who are present in heaven’s glory—as though to say, your worship of the One who is seated on the throne need first of all to be conducted by the One who stands at the front of the throne. And it always need to come through the Spirit by the Son to the One who is seated on the throne. Because, as we have noticed already, He is not only the Mediator of our reconciliation; He is the Mediator of our adoration in worship.

—Sinclair Ferguson, “The Church’s Worship” (audio message: Ligonier Conference, 2006)

Worship in Romans (37)

“…in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” (Romans 15:9)

How does Paul unpack the word “glorify” from verse 9? He does it with four Old Testament quotations in verses 9–12.

As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.”

And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”

And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.”

And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.”

Praise, sing, rejoice, praise, extol, hope.

Glorifying God for his mercy starts with the emotions of joy (verse 10) and hope (verse 12) in the God of mercy. Joy as you savor the merciful God now, and hope as you happily expect to savor him even more in the future. Then that joy and hope overflow in praise (verse 9, 11) and song (verse 9).

This is the essence of gospel worship: Heartfelt, hope-filled joy in the God of mercy overflowing in fitting outward expressions. The reason I say this is the essence of worship is because I know there are other emotions that are part of worship besides joy. Like the sorrows of confession. But these sorrows are not true worship, unless, at root, they are sorrows for our failures to experience joy in the God of mercy. Therefore, joy in the God of mercy remains the essence of gospel worship. And that is really good news, because in God’s design, we get the mercy, God gets the glory. We get the joy, God gets the praise. We revel in hope, God receives the honor. When we call the nations to worship the true God in Christ, that is what we call them to.

—John Piper, “Gospel Worship: Holy Ambition for All the Peoples to Praise Christ”

Not So Fast!

There is a need to explore a given culture in depth before elements from it are imported into worship. Christians need to understand, for example, the cultural meanings of an African tribal king’s hut before they use it as the model for a Christian church, or the Buddhist meaning of a pagoda before they use it as a Christian baptismal font. Christians need to understand the dynamics of the entertainment culture before they use a theater or an opera house as the model for a worship space. One of the leading proponents of contextualization in Africa says that “syncretism occurs when enthusiastic missionaries conduct a superficial adaptation in ignorance of the true meaning of cultural symbols.”

—S. Anita Stauffer, “Worship: Ecumencial Core and Cultural Context,” in Worship and Culture: Foreign Country or Homeland?, 205