When missionaries came to our lands they brought not only the seed of the Gospel, but their own plant of Christianity, flower pot included! So, what we have to do is to break the flower pot, take out the seed of the Gospel, sow it in our own cultural soil, and let our own version of Christianity grow.
—D.T. Niles (1908-1970), from Sri Lanka
You may wipe away tears of worshipful awe while hearing a mass choir sing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” [Some] who’ve shared the famous chorus in other countries find that it’s not universally appreciated.
- Senufo people in Ivory Coast said it sounded “like crying music.”
- It reminded Maasai people in Kenya of noisy jet engines.
- Tibetans said it was “not steady.” They wondered how a song with so many high and low pitches and loud and soft volumes could be considered fine art.
“Music is a universal phenomenon but not a universal language. In other words, our response to music is learned and not intrinsic,” says . . . Robin Harris, an ethnomusicologist who’s been a missionary in North America, Siberia, and Russia.
—Joan Huyser-Honig, “Ethnodoxology: Calling All Peoples to Worship in Their Heart Language” http://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/ethnodoxology-calling-all-peoples-to-worship-in-their-heart-language/?source=news
There are dangers in both extreme ends of this authenticity-relevance continuum. The danger on the authenticity end is that worship can become culturally irrelevant, out of touch, meaningless; on the other end of the spectrum, the relevance end, the danger is that worship can become captive to a given culture, isolated from the whole church of Christ, and, at the worst, syncretistic through becoming detached from Christian roots.
—S. Anita Stauffer, “Christian Worship: Toward Localization and Globalization,” in Gláucia Vasconcelos Wilkey, ed., Worship and Culture: Foreign Country or Homeland?, 40
The Ascension event allowed the disciples and the current worshiper to access the presence of Christ wherever they were located in time and space.
Even the resurrection appearances allowed Christ to be accessed only by those in certain locations. If Thomas was not with the rest of the disciples when the resurrected Christ appeared, the Thomas had no access to Jesus (John 20:24-29). Thomas had to be in the right location to confront the Christ with his challenge and to respond in faith. After the Ascension, access to Christ was open to any worshiper who drew near in heart and soul. In Christ there was full assurance of access to the Godhead wherever the worshiper might be located.
The expansion of the Church has been built on the principle that Christ and the Godhead can be accessed from any point on the globe and at any time in history. The worshiper is no nearer to Christ in the places of the historical setting of the Jesus of Nazareth. Pilgrimage can enliven faith by making real the geography of the Gospels and assuring the disciple that the gospel is not a fable. We know that the life of Jesus is rooted in geography and in history. Yet the access to the exalted Lord is readily available at whatever time and place suit the worshiper. Christians live by this assumption, but it is important to realize that the assumption rests on the doctrine of the Ascension.
—Peter Atkins, Ascension Now: Implications of Christ’s Ascension for Today’s Church, 93-94
Heard at a worship conference in Uganda:
“O for a thousand drums to beat
My great Redeemers’ praise.”
If you have not seen this powerful defense of culturally diverse expressions of worship by a late, great theologian, I think it’s well worth pondering. He clearly lays out what dare not change from place to place, as well as what may profitably vary:
However much, therefore, worship and prayer may vary in linguistic and behavioural forms, as they inevitably and rightly do when they are expressed in the habits of different societies, peoples, cultures and ages, they nevertheless have embedded in them an invariant element which derives from the normative pattern of the incarnate love of God in Jesus Christ. In so far as worship and prayer are through, with and in Christ, they are not primarily forms of man’s self-expression or self-fulfilment or self-transcendence in this or that human situation or cultural context, but primarily forms of Christ’s vicarious worship and prayer offered on behalf of all mankind in all ages. However, precisely because our worship and prayer are finally shaped and structured by the invariant pattern of Christ’s mediatorial office, they are also open to change in variant human situations and societies, cultures, languages and ages, even with respect to differing aesthetic tastes and popular appeal, if only because these variant forms of worship and prayer are relativised by the invariant form of worship and prayer in Christ which they are intended to serve. Hence when worship and prayer are objectively grounded in Christ in this way, we are free to use and adapt transient forms of language and culture in our worship of God, without being imprisoned in time-conditioned patterns, or swept along by constantly changing fashions, and without letting worship and prayer dissolve away into merely cultural and secular forms of man’s self-expression and self-fulfilment.
–T. F. Torrance, “The Mind of Christ in Worship: Thee Problem of Apollinarianism in the Liturgy.” In Theology in Reconciliation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), 213.