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Church and Culture
Because cultural identity and church heritage are found in the music used in worship, the introduction of more contemporary content is a challenge many churches are facing.


Every summer, Winnipeg, like many other communities, celebrates the cultures represented in the city. Here it is called "Folklorama" and during two weeks about 50 cultural communities cook and serve their traditional foods and provide entertainment. This year I noticed how many of these activities were sponsored by and held in churches. Within those communities of faith, immigrants to Canada can retain a strong cultural identity including language and worship practices.

… some of the tension in the worship discussion is as much cultural as it is theological.

While taking note of this, I was also spending time monitoring Lutheran Church Canada's (LCC) discussion forums. The major topic of discussion in the young adult forum for the past three months began with a simple question: What do you, as Lutheran young adults, think about having contemporary music for a church service? More than 225 responses later, the discussion continues!

Reading through the discussion, (and yes, at times it was heated, but always respectful) I realized that the cause of some of the tension in the worship discussion is as much cultural as it is theological.

My family came to the Lutheran church from a British-based Christian tradition. As a result, the hymns chosen by our Lutheran pastor were, for the most part, completely foreign to me. (My sight-singing skills improved greatly!) A quick look at the authors and composers explained why. The hymns did not originate in the culture in which I grew up. Many were translated from German and many of the melodies originated in Germany. I suffered "church cultural shock."

For the immigrants who founded and populated our branch of the Lutheran church in North America, these hymns not only reflected their confessional doctrine, they also provided a "touchstone" with the "old country." Cultural and church heritage were and are found in the music used in worship. It's the same for the Anglicans (England), the Presbyterians (Scotland) and the various orthodox churches (Ukrainian, Coptic, etc.). Each surrounds the liturgical basics of its worship in culturally-relevant expressions.

But is it wrong to want to express our faith in the cultural context?

However, each succeeding generation springing from immigrant families assimilates part of the culture of the new country, much to the distress of parents and grandparents. (Watch the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding for a humourous take on this.) As this happens, the church, while trying to keep true to its cultural roots, struggles to "keep" these same youth. Our LCC census data shows that our congregations have fewer "baby boomers" than the Canadian population-at-large.

Succeeding generations of immigrant families do not necessarily follow their traditional cultural heritage when it comes to worship. Perhaps they are looking for cultural expression within worship mirroring their own assimilation of the current North American culture.

Most members of our congregations listen to the radio, spending hours hearing contemporary popular music, but it is not something they want to hear in church. Why? Because it doesn't reflect the historical cultural context in which their church developed. For many, it is like introducing a performance of the "Twist" into an Irish Country Dancing festival.

But is it wrong to want to express our faith in the cultural context? No. It happens all over the world. You'll find our confessional Lutheran churches in Nicaragua singing Spanish-language hymns in the rhythmic Latin American style accompanied by guitar.

Are all types of music appropriate in worship?

So what is the answer? We need to approach our worship discussions with Christian charity based on understanding where we have come from and knowing where we would like to go. As I see it, the role of Word and Sacrament and the liturgy content is "non-negotiable." Over the centuries, the liturgy has developed and maintained its continuity outside major cultural influences. The cultural content (i.e. music) is negotiable.

Visit a liturgical church from another tradition and you will hear similar, if not identical liturgy, but it is delivered and surrounded by other elements reflecting the culture in which the worship developed.

The difficulty facing the Church today is deciding which elements of the current culture should be reflected in these "worship negotiables." Are all types of music appropriate in worship? How does a 21st Canadian Lutheran church relate to the current culture while maintaining our confession and doctrine? These are the questions facing our Committee on Worship and Music.

What we do when we worship makes us comfortable. But we are not the focus of worship. What God does for us when we worship goes beyond organs, drums, guitars and flutes. He comes to us in Word and Sacrament, washing away our sin, forgiving us and declaring us righteous. In turn, we, from our hearts,

Praise God in His sanctuary; praise Him in His mighty heavens. Praise Him for His acts of power; praise Him for His surpassing greatness. Praise Him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise Him with the harp and lyre, praise Him with tambourine and dancing, praise Him with the strings and flute, praise Him with the clash of cymbals, praise Him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord (Psalm 150) (NIV).

Ian Adnams is editor of The Canadian Lutheran.

Originally published in The Canadian Lutheran, September 2003.

 

 
 
 
 

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