I just returned from a worship service here in Austria on this 2nd Sunday in Advent. Though I understood only a few dozen words, I wanted to be there both to worship, and because of my friendship with the pastor (we had a discussion about Austrian church history, and you can view it here). It was beautiful and by beautiful I mean many things, not the least of which is that it was utterly appropriate for the Austrian culture. The church choir sang two numbers, and Austrian singing is distinct. I don’t know if it’s tone, intonation, or something else, but if I’d heard them on Pandora, I would have said, “these are Austrians”. The dress was mostly formal, mostly wool. Of course, the ornate architecture of this tiny Alpine church is distinctly European as well; ornate, expensive, visually stunning. The people sat, facing the front, the whole time, standing periodically for a reading or song.
This is the third experience in the past year of worshiping in a culture that is not my own. Rwandan worship services, and a Russian Pentecostal service in the foothills near the Canadian border are the other two. The three services couldn’t be more different if the leaders had gathered and tried to make them different. Each worship service demonstrated culturally distinct expressions of the gospel.
Rwanda – The offering, which can often be a solemn moment in wealthier, more reserved cultures, seemed to be the height of celebration in Rwanda. People came forward randomly, when they were ready, and put their offering in buckets, and then they danced. By the end of the offering I was at a dance party – and it was pure worship.
Russian Pentecostals – At the end of the 2nd sermon, and before the 3rd one, all the children, from about two years old, through college students, came forward and huddled near the front. The remaining adults circled them and prayed – and prayed – and prayed some more. For nearly twenty minutes they prayed for the youth of their church, most of whom were first generation Americans, adapting to all things American while living with parents who’d fled the old country when they had a chance, back in the early 1990’s. It was powerful prayer.
Austria – The order, timeliness, and reserved nature of the Austrian people is evident in the worship that unfolds within these walls. The pipe organ still plays, the people still recite the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. “Decently and in order” as the good book says, is the mainstay of these services. Go for a run through this Alpine village and you’ll see the same order in their gardens, houses, roads, shops, trains. The Austrian clothes of the gospel fit perfectly here.
The apostle understood that one of the great strengths of the gospel is its cultural flexibility. It plays well in Rwanda because Jesus is there dancing right along with Tutsis and Hutus who slid into maniacal darkness a few short years ago in 100 days of genocide. Chastened, they now worship from deep places in the their hearts, and it’s beautiful.
The same could be said of course, for these Austrians, many of them in the service this morning old enough to remember the war, and the Reich, and the madman’s rise to power right in the midst of reformation culture. Chastened by their own losses, they worship through the lens of their story. Russian immigrants, particularly of Pentecostal background, no doubt have their own stories of persecution and loss from the old country. And now, in their new found freedom, they fear for their children who are growing up with an ease and access to material comforts unimagined during their own youth. You can understand why they pray so hard.
The gospel is flexible enough to find authentic expression in every culture. It is, however, precisely this strength which, at times, creates challenges for the church as well. The reality is that we’re called to find expressions of Christ which work within our various cultures, while at the same time realizing that it is the nature of the gospel to also stand out, in contrast to the prevailing values of culture. Thus, for example, in Rwanda, the music, worship, and sense of community one finds in worship is very much in keeping with cultural norms. On the other hand, the Christian call to monogamy and sexual abstinence until marriage, and the interdependency of believers as they share resources to help each other through times of poverty are distinctly Christian elements not shared by the culture at large.
The church, in other words, wears the clothing of the culture, but embodies the very life of Jesus and His ethics in that clothing. At lest, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Without discernment though, the church can get this utterly backwards – adopting the slavery, materialism, individualism, or nationalism of the prevailing culture, while defending cultural “forms” or “clothing” of Christianity as if they were the most important thing. Thus do we debate the kind of music, or whether coffee is appropriate in worship, or whether the church should be big or small, while ignoring our unquestioning loyalty to cultural values in certain areas, be they political, financial, or sexual.
As I teach through I Corinthians this week, I’m mindful of this important subject because students here have gathered together from a wide variety of nations and denominational backgrounds, and as a result. they’re far more open to finding culturally appropriate expressions of the faith. Often, however, they’ll go home to churches that are fighting over outward issues, cultural expression, and form. This is discouraging because they’ve seen, through this ecumenical international experience that God doesn’t really care that much about organ vs. drums, or real wine vs grape juice, or dancing vs. sitting in straight back chairs. Those are clothing questions, and the right question is, “which clothing fits the culture best?”
They’ve also learned, though, that God does care, a great deal, about what’s inside the clothes. They’ve learned that in God’s kingdom violence isn’t the preferred solution, that sex belongs in covenant relationships, that we’re called to find our identity in Christ rather than what we own, that we’re called to radical generosity and hospitality, called to challenge the prevailing individualism of our culture. They’ll learn all that, but often they’ll find that these aren’t the conversations their churches are having.
Instead of talking about the health of the body, they’re arguing about the clothes the body is wearing. The beauty of the gospel is that it’s flexible enough to wear any clothing. The challenge though is this: unless we’re deeply connected to Christ, we’ll wear the right clothing for the culture but fit in so well that we become salt that lost its saltiness. And that, Jesus warns, utterly misses the point – no matter how relevant you look.
Why do you think churches are more concerned sometimes with the cultural clothing, than with the body of Christ?