In our congregation we have something we call the 75% rule. It goes like this: When we gather together to worship on Sundays, everyone should be happy with no more than 75% of what is happening during the worship service. Why such a strange rule? Because we realize that in our culturally diverse congregation, if you are happy and comfortable with more than 75% of what is going on, it most likely means that your personal cultural preferences are being dominantly expressed. So we’ve decided that no one cultural form will be dominant and everyone will be equally unhappy with the worship!
We believe this “rule” is true to the pattern of the gospel. Even though there is one, true, unchanging gospel, there is no one single way to express the Christian faith that is universal for everyone in all cultures. In fact, one of the most beautiful things about Christianity is that the Holy Spirit is at work in every culture under heaven to create God-pleasing worship that is expressed in all the many particular cultural forms of all the nations of the earth. The Book of Revelation suggests that in the New Kingdom all of these different cultural expressions will be present to God’s glory.
What this means for the here and now is that what you do in worship is never culturally “neutral.” Each element of worship expresses a particular cultural form that will naturally be more welcoming to some and less to others. What songs you choose, how long your worship service is, or the way you preach all communicate certain things about the kind of people that are welcome there and the kind that aren’t. You may state openly that you welcome all kinds of people to your service, but if you only sing 19th century hymns, print a bulletin that requires a high degree of literacy, and have a tightly structured 60-minute service, you are doing a lot to communicate what kind of person this worship service is for (white, literate, and middle class). Of course we cannot be everything to everyone, so every church does have to come to some conclusions about the cultural expressions they will settle on. But it does also mean for the sake of the gospel we should try to stretch as much as we can to be as welcoming to as many as possible.
I am aware that this seriously rubs against the grain of the way people tend to think about worship in the church. Typically we want our “customers” to be as happy with everything in worship as possible so they will keep on coming back, invite their friends, and give us their money! But it may be more faithful to the gospel to call people to sacrifice a degree of personal preference to make space for the other – and that space is often reflected in the way we worship.
So go on: embrace the uncomfortable. Be willing to endure a song you don’t like or a worship form that seems awkward or out of place. In doing so, you may be opening the door to a person to know Christ and to be welcomed in your community that, were it not for your own worship displeasure, would never have felt at home.
Corey Widmer is Associate Pastor at Third Presbyterian Church and Co-Pastor of East End Fellowship, a multi-ethnic congregation in an inner city neighborhood of Richmond, VA. Corey, his wife Sarah and their four daughters live in North Church Hill and have been part of a community development effort there for the last 8 years. Corey is a graduate of the University of Virginia and Princeton Seminary, and is currently pursuing a PhD in theology. He loves the outdoors, especially biking and birdwatching.