What Is Directing Our Worship?
When asked to serve as the Music Minister at his church, Steven gladly accepted. He led the congregation in the great hymns from the church’s history—such as “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” “Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty,” and “Near the Cross.” An elderly gentleman, strictly accustomed to southern gospel music, approached Steven one morning: “These new songs are nice and all, but I really prefer the o-o-old-timey hymns,” referring to the southern gospel songs of the mid-twentieth century. Steven humorously replied, “Well then you should have really enjoyed this morning’s hymns, which were written centuries ago.”
While this anecdote is humorous and light-hearted, it illustrates the ease with which a particular tradition can captivate us. Whatever our generation, we often defend our own cultural captivities in the name of cultural relevance, while we nevertheless consider others’ captivity as close-minded and foolish. However, when we allow the idiosyncrasies of any time-period to dictate any element of worship it makes it worldly rather than spiritual. On the one hand, we must be careful to never dump tradition simply because it is not trendy. On the other hand, we mustn’t shun “cultural relevance” as merely worldly either. How do we balance these seemingly opposing tendencies to offer worship that is biblical, traditional, and yet relevant?
Let’s first consider Scripture’s views concerning tradition and cultural relevance. Then we’ll apply what we find to our worship principles.
Tradition Is Not Our Enemy
We’ll first consider tradition: To abandon it is to abandon our spiritual family. The tradition of our spiritual family does not refer simply to our parents’ expressions of worship, but to the great Christian tradition, including everyone from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to Martin Luther to Fanny Crosby. Indeed, the church is chronologically unbounded, stretching through millennia, and so our spiritual fathers have much to teach us. Consider Asaph’s words in Psalm 78:1-4:
I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and His strength and His wonderful works that He has done.
Asaph’s entire purpose for relating God’s work through history is to teach “the generation to come” about God’s works. He is literally passing down his natural and spiritual fathers’ tradition and history. Even more telling are verses 5 and 6, in which Asaph reminds the Israelites that God “commanded [their] fathers, that they should make [the testimony in Jacob] known to their children…that they may arise and declare them to their children.” In the same way, tradition informs us of the past and guides us toward the future.
God also commands children to obey and honor their parents (Ex. 20:12). While absolute obedience to our parents becomes qualified with adulthood, honoring them does not. And while this commandment applies to our natural parents, it also applies to our spiritual parents, whom and whose views we are also to honor and respect. If we are going to err by either discarding or preserving their views, we should err on the side of preservation. We can’t carelessly disregard their thoughts and applications. It was always God’s intent for us to hold to biblical traditions and history.
History and biblical tradition are not enemies. They are guides, inspirations, and protections from heresy. But if tradition is helpful, does that make cultural relevance the enemy? In short, no.
Cultural Relevance Is Not Our Enemy
While tradition is helpful, that does not mean that cultural relevance is necessarily harmful. All expressions of worship are culturally bound to some degree, and to ignore the need to express worship to God in new and culturally engaging ways is to disregard the needs of each successive generation. When we choose to exclude and prohibit new biblical expressions of worship, we drive people toward individualistic and undisciplined worship . What does Scripture say concerning this?
Ephesians 6:4 states: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” In this verse Paul instructs parents to teach their children how to worship God biblically. As they grow older, they will worship God in their own way, but it will remain biblical. The previous generation should happily accept their descendant’s new biblical expressions of worship, especially if it is an organic outgrowth of biblical, traditional worship. For example: preaching with an eye toward the entire Christian tradition, including biblical hymns from all periods, or wearing your best clothes to the worship service.
When previous generations disallow all new forms of worship, they inadvertently “provoke their children to anger,” and we must guard against this. Cutting one another out of the body is self-mutilation and always ends in disfigurement. Rather God created us in the spirit to be unified, to use all of our gifts together, and to fill out the body of Christ.
Cultural Captivity in the Age of Plenty
Having established these prior elements, let’s consider a paradox: Although we have access to more worship practices and thought than any prior generation in church history, we are more constrained by culture than any generation as well. Whether we’re young, old, or in between, we may trace our own cultural captivity to the time-period of our late-teens or early adulthood.
Often the culture of our teens or early adulthood so engenders itself to us that we choose to embrace it to the exclusion of all else. And it so captivates us because that is when we realize and discover our adult personality. This trend has undoubtedly affected the church, as each generation focuses upon its own cultural surroundings to escape the constraints of their parents’ concept of worship and to embrace their own forms.
What’s the result of this action? Each generation tries to escape the prior generation in favor of trendiness to the point that our churches are bound to one single period of time. Some churches look like snapshots of the 1950s, others of the 1980s, and still others of the 2000s. We avoid these unbiblical snapshots by looking to Scripture.
Whenever we focus in on one generation’s culture to the practical exclusion of all others, we cause division in the Church. We must view tradition with the left eye and cultural relevance with the right. If both are biblical, we cannot exclude either. We must resist one culture’s pull to exclude others, especially when based purely on preference. Rather what we should exclude are those characteristics of culture that lie beyond the pale of Scripture, and pull the best out of both tradition and cultural relevance.
Biblical Captivity In Worship
Whether we err on the side of tradition or relevance, we must look wholly to the Bible. When we allow the Bible to guide our decision-making concerning worship, we are much less likely to stray. We may misinterpret or misapply it at times, but we’ll still be much closer to the mark than if our worship is directed solely by traditionalism or a desire for cultural relevance.
So how do we discern what parts of traditional and modern worship are biblical? The first principle is God’s glory. Jesus commands us to live our lives and worship in a manner that causes others to glorify our Father in Heaven (Mt. 5:16). We should focus our worship on glorifying God rather than using cultural hot-buttons to illicit purely emotional experiences in the congregation.
Second, we worship in love. We have liberty, yes, but this liberty must be tempered with love. Paul writes in Galatians 5:13, “Do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Clinging to personal preference concerning the elements of worship violates this tenet, but lovingly accepting unfamiliar biblical expressions of worship reflects Scripture.
Third, worship must conform to the Christian characteristics set forth in Scripture. Philippians 4:8, Ephesians 4:17-32, Galatians 5:16-26, 1 Thessalonians 4:11, and 5:14 all describe a Christian demeanor. If applied to the whole of Christian life, then worship will conform to them as well. Worship then should be clean, tenderhearted, calm, noble, pure, lovely, of high regard, and praiseworthy while abandoning dissensions, heresies, revelries, and clamor. Worship which attempts to enervate the senses and create revelries in the worshiper then is unbiblical.
Fourth, worship must accurately reflect God. Truth is a main tenet of God’s character and His expectation of us (Ps. 100:5; 2 Tim. 2:15; Jas. 5:19-20). The content of our worship must accurately portray God and His relationship to both fallen and regenerate man. Descriptions of worship in the Bible focus on the fear of God and a realization of man’s sinfulness and depravity before Him . So our worship should reflect our fear of God and humble acceptance of His gift of salvation.
When the whole of these passages are applied to our worship we escape cultural captivity. When we are captive to the Scriptures we worship God in spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:23-24).
It’s easy to snicker behind our hands at the gentleman who claims to like the “o-o-old timey” songs, thinking him so silly for being captive to a “long-a-go” worship culture. But we had best look to ourselves. In forty years it would be oh so easy for us to walk up to some young whipper-snapper who’s full of new ideas and say: “Yep, I guess I just like them o-o-old timey songs.” Cultural captivity is always an ugly color on a person, but biblical captivity denotes wisdom and discernment.
 When considering the definition of biblical worship I highly recommend Calvin Stapert’s extremely readable and helpful book A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eardmans Publishing Co., 2007).
 An examination of the usages of the words “worship,” “worshipped,” “worshiping,” and “worshippers” will reveal in every instance that Scripture describes it as being accompanied by falling down or bowing down in fear and trembling before the Lord. Even in instances of rejoicing in conjunction with worship, Scripture describes it as being done in a spirit of fealty and awe. The passages that best directly describe worship are: Genesis 24:26; 24:52; Exodus 4:31; 12:27; 34:8; Deuteronomy 26:8-11; Joshua 5:14; 2 Kings 17:36; 1 Chronicles 16:29; 2 Chronicles 7:3; 29:27-30; Nehemiah 8:6; Job 1:20; Psalm 5:7; 95:6; 96:9; 132:7; Isaiah 27:13; 66:22-24; Jeremiah 7:2-3; Matthew 2:11; 1 Corinthians 14:24-25; Revelation 4:10; 11:16; 14:7; and 15:4.