The Relationship Between Worship and Culture (the Nairobi Statement)

The Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture (available for free here), prepared by the Department for Theology and Studies of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) via Lift Up Your Hearts web site, states,

The reality that Christian worship is always celebrated in a given local cultural setting draws our attention to the dynamics between worship and the world’s many local cultures.
The Nairobi Statement helpfully organizes the dynamic relationship between worship and culture in terms of four dimensions:

  1. Transcultural – Having the same substance for everyone everywhere, beyond culture.
  2. Contextual – Varying according to the local situation.
  3. Counter-cultural – Challenging what is contrary to the Gospel in a given culture.
  4. Cross-cultural – Sharing elements across cultures.

Transcultural

The fundamental shape of the principal Sunday act of Christian worship … is shared across cultures: the people gather, the Word of God is proclaimed, the people intercede for the needs of the Church and the world, the eucharistic meal is shared, and the people are sent out into the world for mission. The ways in which the shapes of the Sunday Eucharist and the church year are expressed vary by culture, but their meanings and fundamental structure are shared around the globe. There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one Eucharist.

The recovery in each congregation of the clear centrality of these transcultural and ecumenical elements renews the sense of this Christian unity and gives all churches a solid basis for authentic contextualization.

The challenge: This reality should be a “given.” In other words, our corporate worship should assume this, as all of our varying expressions of worship according to various cultures should be rooted in the same authority–scripture. But nonetheless, let us ask ourselves, does our worship accord with these transcultural values and elements?

Contextual

In the mystery of his incarnation are the model and the mandate for the contextualization of Christian worship. God can be and is encountered in the local cultures of our world. A given culture’s values and patterns, insofar as they are consonant with the values of the Gospel, can be used to express the meaning and purpose of Christian worship. Contextualization is a necessary task for the Church’s mission in the world, so that the Gospel can be ever more deeply rooted in diverse local cultures.

The challenge: We often think of contextualization as something that occurs “out there,” on the mission field when missionaries take Christianity to non-Western, non-American cultures… as if true Christianity is its Western, American manifestation. We have to remember that Christianity and Christian worship are not fundamentally Western or American. Therefore, worship in the West and in America also requires contextualization. So, are we contextualizing our worship to our culture?

Counter-Cultural

On the side of culture, it is understood that not everything can be integrated with Christian worship…. Elements borrowed from local culture should always undergo critique and purification….

Jesus Christ came to transform all people and all cultures…. Some components of every culture in the world are sinful, dehumanizing, and contradictory to the values of the Gospel. From the perspective of the Gospel, they need critique and transformation. Contextualization of Christian faith and worship necessarily involves challenging of all types of oppression and social injustice wherever they exist in earthly cultures.

The tools of the counter-cultural in Christian worship may also include the deliberate maintenance or recovery of patterns of action which differ intentionally from prevailing cultural models.
The challenge: Is our worship counter-cultural? The “no-duh” challenge here is, does our worship include sinful elements from our culture? But maybe a challenge we less often make is, does our worship challenge sinful and unbiblical assumptions in our culture; or does our worship actually comfortably harbor these assumptions due to our lack of criticism of the prevailing thoughts and assumptions in our culture that have infiltrated the church? For example (and I know this may be uncomfortable for us baptistic-types who want to avoid appearances of liturgy at all cost due to a stigma of looking Catholic… or something like that–sense the sarcasm, please), by including corporate responsive readings of scripture could we resist the individualistic and consumeristic mindset that pervades our culture and many of our churches?

Cross-Cultural

There is one Church…. The sharing of hymns and art and other elements of worship across cultural barriers helps enrich the whole Church and strengthen the sense of the communio[n] of the Church. This sharing can be ecumenical as well as cross-cultural, as a witness to the unity of the Church.
The challenge: Are we intentional about resisting such an attitude that focuses so much on our particular local church that we forget that we are apart of something much larger–the universal church that exists across cultures, across time, and is united to the community of saints in heaven? Is our view of this thing called “the Church” of which we are a part too narrow, uni-cultural, and uni-historical? Would we be willing to include ecumenical elements such as congregational readings of creeds to help convey this reality, that our particular local church is a part of something much bigger than itself alone?
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