Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Crossing the Church's Cultural Chasm

Talk about being a rare breed: I've got a black friend who is a recruiter for a Presbyterian college in Tennessee.

You don't see too many black Presbyterians, especially in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, to which we both belong. And that's tragic, because it only serves to highlight the racial and ethnic divide that permeates not only the PCA, but the evangelical church in general.

In addition to being a college recruiter, my friend Andrew is also a musician, and recently on his blog, he mused about how a cross-cultural church might approach decisions regarding corporate worship. In other words, assuming that we can get people of different cultures and lifestyles to worship in the same room at the same time on Sunday, what would it look like?

Andrew grew up in the Bahamas, exotic home of junkanoo and calypso rhythms. He jokes that, "if you want to communicate to the heart of a Bahamian, play some junkanoo music and give them a whistle... then WATCH OUT! Cuz dey ga break it down bey!"

Now, obviously, there aren't many churches in North America - Presbyterian or otherwise - that wouldn't find that expressive of a worship service a bit unusual. Parishioners might consider it a tolerable diversion or even a delightful break from the ordinary, but few of us would welcome it every week. And Andrew points out that in the Bahamas, many of our white styles here in America would be about as popular.

Nevertheless, I think Andrew's right in pursuing the issue because it does help us explore some basic questions about corporate worship that would benefit even homogeneous congregations.

Culture is Ancillary in Worship

On his blog, Andrew reviews some of the primary considerations for corporate worship with which nobody can argue. First, the object of corporate worship is God. Period. We participate, but it's not all about us. Second, we cannot worship without love; love both for God, and for those around us in the congregation and in the community.

Up until this point, we should be all on the same page, right? But go any further, and we usually start picking sides, don't we? We rely on our own personal experiences, cultural prejudices, normative values, and sheltered worldviews to establish the methods and aesthetics for what corporate worship should look like. And to a certain extent, I believe that part of the reason greater racial integration hasn't taken place already within evangelical congregations stems from unresolved issues regarding the style with which we worship God.

To the extent that we value corporate worship, it's good that we're conscious of and deliberate in the ways we engage with the Creator of the universe. And there is some merit to the argument that the reason God does not prescribe a specific order of worship in the Bible involves the proliferation of cultures God knew would blanket the globe.

But personally, I believe that we give culture too much control over our lives, and our corporate worship. Whites, in particular, have been taught that we need to respect other cultures, with the assumption being that all cultures are equal in terms of their integrity, importance, and intrinsic value. Blacks, at least subliminally, have been taught for generations that my white culture is superior to theirs.

To all of that, with every ounce of political incorrectness I can muster, I say: "Balderdash!"

Yes, God has ordained that the kaleidoscope of human experiences we call culture should proliferate across the globe. But all you need to do is take a good look at our dominant white, middle-class, suburban culture in the United States to see that it isn't perfect. And if our culture isn't perfect, chances are, none of the others are, either. Even in the Bible, God did not consider all the cultures of Israel's day equal in merit.

Instead, we would probably be better off picking and choosing the good things from a panoply of various cultures instead of assuming everything's equally valid when it comes to how different people groups live their lives.

I realize that for some people, getting beyond that concept will be difficult. But please try. Because the values we could pick and choose should seem pretty obvious.

Simply put, they're qualities that respect God's Word, character, authority, and creation, with humanity receiving significant affection, since we're the part of creation for whom Christ died.  Stripped of the clutter of culture, then, corporate worship seems so much more refreshing and genuine, doesn't it?

Common Ground of Separateness

We can't stop here, however. We can still go a bit further with finding common ground in corporate worship, because we actually do have tidbits of scripture which inform us of God's expectations of us.

Perhaps the most significant instruction is that we are to "worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness." This means we are to incorporate a proper perspective in and for our worship; one that does not exalt ourselves or draw attention to ourselves, but defers all praise and significance to God.

Another is that we are to rejoice in gladness and come before His presence with thanksgiving, knowing that the Lord is our God, and it is He Who has made us. From this instruction I believe we are to assume that our joy and thanksgiving are directed upwards, which further enforces our position as unworthy recipients expressing gratefulness to the One Who created us, and Who bought us with a holy price.

From these two observations, I find it difficult to advocate for worship practices and styles which draw attention to those leading in worship, those participating in worship, and even the components of worship. Irrespective of culture, the idea of making a spectacle of one's self during corporate worship should be severely measured against the degree to which such activity can draw anyone's focus off of God. Remember, He is a jealous God, and we remove our gaze from Him at our peril.

It kinda sounds scary, doesn't it? Except that corporate worship should be anything but, at least for people of faith. Joyful, orderly, reverent, authentic, loving, and purposeful; yes.

Wholly befitting the King of Kings.

Why Not Aim High?

I'm going to propose something that might seem a bit radical to some people, and positively archaic to others. Hardly anybody agrees with me on this 100%, but if you think about it, nobody else has any better ideas on bridging our culturally-based corporate worship divide.

Are you ready?

I don't pretend to be an expert on classical music, nor will I insist that a corporate worship style which ignores classical elements is wrong.  I surely can't say it would be sinful.  Yet I can't help but insist that classical elements be given far more respect and consideration than our throw-away culture wants to give it.

And the reason has to do with that troublesome "c" word: culture. Here in the United States, we've all been virtually forced to tolerate classical music as the silly blandishment of society's elite. We've been told it holds no relevance for modern life, with the possible exception of weddings and funerals.

Yet therein lies the proof of classical worship's exceeding relevance even in today's myopic culture! Weddings and funerals are singularly special in their function and form, and so should corporate worship be! If we're worshipping the Lord in the splendor of His holiness, what gives us the right to treat it as just something else we do on the weekends? Corporate worship itself should be set apart from the ordinary in that although we should be comfortable with incorporating worship into our lives, it should not be something that mimics a pep rally or rock concert.

Here again, we must remember: corporate worship is not an opportunity to celebrate our culture. In Heaven, our culture will be meaningless, and here on Earth, each culture is fraught with sinful routines and carnal motivations. Indeed, culture has been one of the most significant factors separating, well, different cultures in communities of faith.  So why do we insist culture matters so much?

Calvary Set the Standard

Well, probably because nobody has been able to figure out how to cross the gaping cultural chasm in corporate worship. But I think my wonderful former church, New York City's Calvary Baptist, did.

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my experience at Calvary, probably the oldest evangelical church in Manhattan, and until Redeemer Presbyterian came along, one of the most famous.  What had been a mostly-white congregation got noticeably darker during the years of white flight from New York City, and by the time I started attending in the 1990's, American and African blacks comprised about 50% of the church's membership of about 1,000.

The rest was a robust mix of WASPs, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, Chinese, Dominicans, Brazilians, Koreans, Central Americans, and ethnic whites like Russians, Greeks, Scandinavians, Italians, and even converted Jews. At least one homeless man regularly attended services, while at least one genteel matron arrived each week in a chauffeur-driven limousine. Republicans who were furious that Bill and Hillary visited our church one Sunday, and Democrats who were thrilled (and the political affiliations didn't fall along strictly racial lines). Young families and elderly never-marrieds.  University professors, Wall Street brokers, secretaries, doormen, Park Avenue private school teachers, the administrator of the Harlem Boys Choir, advertising executives, fashion designers, municipal workers, Broadway actors, office clerks, Metropolitan Opera singers, accountants; Calvary had them all. It was utterly and lavishly diverse.

So, all you people who think culture should dictate worship style: what do you think Calvary's corporate worship looked like?

To my amazement, it was classical.  Not just traditional, but classical with an urbane dose of choral, solo, and instrumental participation from some of the city's best musicians.

Why classical, you may ask? Because it attracts the widest spectrum of affirmation while managing to be remarkably acultural, shared, and even neutral. True, most classical music was written for European whites by European whites, but the quality of the music is so stellar that today, it's studied from Russia to Argentina and Kenya to Vietnam.

Can rock music claim such a pedigree? Soft rock? Black gospel? Bluegrass? Techno-funk? OK; now I'm just being silly.

Do You Get My Point?

Even though today, Calvary has added a contemporary service, and the classical service is less grand that it was when I attended, the fact that their flagship traditional service remains relevant to the diverse congregation should not be dismissed as merely one church's solution.

Should it?

Granted, New York City is a pretty unique place. Not everything that works there will translate to suburbia. But is Calvary really an aberration? After all, Calvary isn't the only multi-racial church which uses classical music as a cross-cultural worship component, although unfortunately, it is one of the few evangelical churches that does.  I suspect one of the reasons is that white and black conservative evangelicals typically spend more time wanting to emulate our peer cultures than is good for us. Another is that classical music can be perceived as elitist, it requires substantial training to be done well, and its musical instruments can be expensive.

Although I'm a huge pipe organ fan, I'm not saying that to do classical worship correctly, every evangelical church needs to install a massive pipe organ. Or purchase a $50,000 Steinway. Or sing in Latin.

Good grief - the reason classical music won't die is because there is a core repertoire that appeals to a surprisingly broad cross-section of people. A well-trained musician should be able to help a church on a modest budget craft worship services of integrity with as much as an acoustic guitar for accompaniment.

Just don't be scared of old music. Whatever your race or background, don't automatically wince at the thought of enduring mathematically-intricate noise by dead Europeans. If you haven't been taught to appreciate good music - which many Americans of all races and classes haven't - then be teachable.

Either that, or try coming up with a better idea for solving corporate worship's cultural chasm.


  1. My favorite black Presbyterian from the South is a gifted classical pianist. You know who - Condi

  2. Great blog! I appreciate the shout out. What's the best style of music to reach every culture? Well I like to take the both/and approach rather than an either/or. I think either/or approaches are more divisive when it comes to uniting people of different cultures.

    America is increasingly becoming more diverse because of the growing immigrant communities. And if a church is going to reflect their community (depending where that church's community is, of course) they must learn to play and sing in different styles. Calvary Baptist decided to do both classical and contemporary. New City Fellowship (PCA) in Chattanooga does both traditional hymns, contemporary praise and worship, Spanish, Swahili, and black gospel. New City Fellowship (PCA) St. Louis does both black gospel, Spanish, Congalese, Contemporary, and Traditional hymns. New Beginnings Community Church (PCA) in Memphis, TN does both classical, contemporary, and black gospel. Park Cities Presbyterian Church (PCA) does both classical, contemporary, and jazz. The point is that we must be willing to not only be appreciative of sacred music but we must also be bold enough to learn new musical styles and incorporate them in one's worship service, if a church is seeking to reflect the culture around them.


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