Worship Q & A with Dr. Curt Watke and Mark Powers

Q&A with Dr. Curt Watke, PHD, Intercultural Institute for Contextual Ministry:

Worship in Cultural Contexts   (edited by Mark Powers from e-mail exchange)



I’ve really been trying to process this whole idea of worship within a cultural context. Here’s my question: If we are worshiping within a blended context, forcing people to worship in many styles, have we truly worshiped? How can we know if they are worshiping when God looks at the heart?  Only He knows whether or not we have worshiped?

CURT: First of all, we can never know for sure if anyone has truly “worshiped” because, as you stated, we cannot know their heart. However, we can know those things that will likely keep them from worshiping. We do know that people truly worship when they express their worship in the cultural forms that are indigenous to their culture. Because of that we know that if we require people to express their worship in a form that is foreign to them the likelihood of their truly worshiping is extremely diminished. We also know that the likelihood of that “foreign form” being used in the spread of the gospel among non-believers is just about nil.

Here’s where my confusion comes in… I understand that we need to be culturally relevant, but when the lost of the world meet Jesus, shouldn’t they be taught how to worship? And don’t they learn how to worship by watching other believers? Yes, they will add their own flare to it.  But take for instance a tribe that is saturated in voodoo. If you allow them to worship in their own context, won’t they continue to worship with voodoo practices since that is all they know?

CURT: Because all human beings have been created in the image of God, all human beings are worshipers. Worship is ascribing honor and glory to someone or something – so people innately know how to do that. The point is whether they will be able to do that within a cultural form that makes sense to them or whether they will be required to adopt a different cultural form in order to “worship” God. They can learn from other believers – but if those believers are using cultural forms that are not indigenous to them then we are asking them to leave their cultural forms in order to “be a Christian” (a clear violation of Acts 15). It is more than adding flare by using a different style of worship – it is a matter of what cultural patterns speak to their innermost heart. A voodoo tribe would have to leave their voodoo beliefs, of course. However, the style of music that they use can be redeemed for God’s glory (except for certain patterns if they were exclusively used in the voodoo religion).

Let’s apply that to my situation and community. In talking with my pastor, he thinks, and I tend to agree, that the culture around us is a blended culture in which we have people who are traditional, people who like contemporary, and people who like southern gospel.

Curt: One of the unique challenges we have in North America is that we do live in a society where many cultures are represented and many styles of music form the “heart language” of certain pockets of people. These “pockets” are ethnic, lifestyle, life-stage and socio-religious groups. However, it is far more than the categories of “traditional, contemporary and southern gospel” (lesson four). Please keep in mind that traditional church music is the “heart language” of Christian-heritage people. CCM has become a neo-traditional “heart language” of primarily boomer and buster Christians. Southern Gospel is the “heart language” of Christians from a primarily blue collar and country background. You will notice that whenever you include a focus on one of these styles of music in your church, certain people respond. For example, if you incorporate Southern Gospel in your service you will notice that certain people “come alive” – clapping and enjoying the music style. For these people, Southern Gospel resonates.

But please notice – all of these are “heart languages” of Christians or people with a Christian heritage who are already pre-disposed to Christianity. There is very little overlap between “traditional” church music and secular music styles, if at all. CCM has a limited overlap with some “Adult Contemporary” music styles. Southern Gospel has an overlap with some of the sub-genres of secular country music.

The point is that we do need to provide worship opportunities for believers that are in their “heart language” for them to truly worship. But we need to also be aware that when we use cultural Christian forms of music (traditional, contemporary, southern gospel) that for the “pagan pool” of people, it will be a cross-cultural event for them to participate in our “worship” services. Thus, if we truly desire to reach the pagan pool we will have to learn to provide ways for new believers among them to worship within their indigenous cultural forms. That will be easier with the overlap between CCM or Southern Gospel and secular music.

If we truly wanted to create a service with the idea of reaching every style, we’d have to have 10 worship services and we don’t have the manpower for that. That being said, when we cater to the preferences of people aren’t we feeding the selfish desire? I know we have to get past the style because the worship of God is our sole desire. But, I’m really having a hard time understanding and grasping how we do that. I want our worship services to be engaging and relevant, but I find it so hard to plan blended services that have contemporary, traditional, and even southern gospel in them.

Curt: Worship is a cultural experience. The way in which we ascribe honor and glory is encapsulated in the cultural forms that are part of our cultural group. It is not a matter of catering to people’s preferences – instead it is the reverse. To require that people conform to the way we want to express worship is actually being very arrogant and ethnocentric – not unlike the Jews who wanted the Gentiles to conform to their worship norms in order to be Christian. The Jerusalem council in Acts 15 settled that issue. Churches that require people to conform to their worship styles in order to be considered Christian violate the Acts 15 mandate. Blended worship allows Christians to only participate in the cultural forms that are the core of their “heart language” part of the time. The rest of the time they may or may not actually be worshipping – because the other cultural forms do not resonate with them. You can never get beyond the “style” in order to get to worship – because all worship is culturally encapsulated in some cultural form. Therefore many churches find that having a traditional service – done well – for believers who are culturally “traditional” and a different service for either CCM Christians or Southern Gospel Christians will resonate better with their indigenous cultural forms. In particular, North Augusta has several churches who offer a “Contemporary” worship service – but to my knowledge, I do not know of anyone who is doing a “Southern Gospel” worship service. Personally I believe this would go over extremely well. I would recommend that you have two services –one very traditional and one very country – Southern Gospel. I believe that you would grow by serving a real need for traditional and country Christians. I also believe that you would be able to reach some of the country music “pagan pool” for whom the Southern Gospel style of music would.

If we sing hymns, the whole congregation seems to join in. If we sing contemporary, people stand around with sour looks on their faces and it’s very discouraging as a worship leader. We can’t seem to get past the “It’s not about me” idea. I can do hymns in a contemporary way and it’s a little better, but I want people to enjoy worship because they are worshipping God with their full being and I know I have to teach that, but how do I do it? That’s where I’m confused. I want to be culturally relevant, but we must also be doctrinally sound.

Curt:  If people are standing around with sour looks on their faces while you sing contemporary music that should tell you something – the style is not part of their culture and they are not worshipping because of that. That said, it is a fine line between culturally appropriate worship and the “it’s all about me” idea. Worship has to use indigenous cultural forms in order for people to truly worship. That being said, worship is all about ascribing honor and glory to God – not about what I get out of it. My counsel would be to fix the first problem – the cultural forms. Once that barrier is no longer there then you can tackle the second problem. But people’s resistance to “foreign” cultural forms is not due to their selfishness – it is due to the fact that they intuitively know that worship is a supremely cultural event – and what they are experiencing is not enabling them to truly worship.

Your response has helped me greatly. I understand where you are coming from, but I still am having a major issue with one element. Where is the room for the Holy Spirit in what you all are saying? I understand the Holy Spirit to be a unifier, even across cultures. Right now I understand you saying that 2 cultures can’t come together and both truly worship because we aren’t speaking the “heart language” of the culture. But with the Holy Spirit living in us, doesn’t He determine the heart language?

Curt:  The Holy Spirit uses our “heart language” to convey truth to us. It is a fallacy to believe that there is a “holy language” through which the Holy Spirit speaks to us that is different than our own language – He uses God’s word to communicate to us in our own spoken language. Yes, the Holy Spirit is God – he can even break thru language barriers such as in Acts 2 when the listeners heard the message in their own languages. But notice, the Holy Spirit was moving beyond the Aramaic that Peter knew so that all would hear the message in their own heart language. In the same way the Holy Spirit uses “heart music” to speak to us – our own “heart music.” Of course cultures can come together and worship—and our bond in Christ enables us to overcome cultural barriers – but that doesn’t eliminate the fact that worship is always encapsulated in cultural forms and we truly worship when the cultural forms are meaningful to us.

Even in Ephesians Paul talks about the barriers between Jew and Gentile being broken down. We can all worship (even cross culturally) if we are coming together with the idea that we are there to ascribe worth to God. The goal of the church is not to worship. It is, however, one of the functions of the church as outlined in Acts 2. The mission of the church is to make disciples (the Great Commission). We are to live our lives as a sacrifice meaning everything we do is worship. Worship is not just a gathering of people in our own context to praise God. That’s thinking inside the box, isn’t it?

Curt: Yes cultural barriers – the animosity between groups and sour intergroup relations can be broken down by our “oneness” in Christ. But even in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural setting each group is still worshiping in their own heart language and heart music. The goal of all of life actually IS worship. Even the “Baptist Catechism” stated: the chief end of man is to glorify God forever. You are right that worship is more than just the service on Sunday morning. Acts 2 talks about the things that believers did which included worship. Making disciples is the mission of all believers – it was given to all believers – not to the entity we call “the church.”

I hope this helps — keep the questions coming until you get it all figured out. God bless.

I’m really trying to grasp all this; I really am… thanks for being patient with me!




~ by Rick McCollum on March 14, 2012.

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