Christians regularly gather to worship all over the world, just as Scripture commands us to (Hebrews 10:25). However, these gatherings don’t all look the same. Some aspects of worship are essential and should remain the same, while others are more flexible because they are tied to our cultural context. So how do we know the difference? To help us think through this issue, we posed a few questions to Paul. Paul previously lived and worked in Africa and the Middle East, and he has seen corporate worship in a variety of contexts. Here’s that conversation . . .
1. How does corporate worship look different around the world (as compared to what many Christians in our culture are used to)?
Over the last decade, I have participated in worship gatherings in dozens of countries around the world. I have experienced a broad range of worship experiences with our brothers and sisters from other parts of the globe. In East Asia, I joined with underground house churches to worship in secret to avoid persecution from local governments. In Africa, I sat on the dirt in the back alley of a large slum while studying John’s Gospel. In Southeast Asia, I saw people being baptized in a home bathtub because the church did not have a building or a baptistery. I’ve participated in musical worship that was played by iTunes through a small speaker and experienced the joy of observing a house church in India worship the Lord through the giving of tithes and offerings as they pass a cloth basket around a small room. For those of us in the West these things might seem foreign or strange when we think about our “normal” worship gatherings. However, as we think about the New Testament and the practices of the early church, we are quickly reminded that in all of these things what is most essential is not the particular form of these elements in our worship services, but the consistent practice of them as we gather with the people of God.
2. Which aspects of corporate worship are flexible and which are not? How do you decide?
Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, describes the essential functions of the early church in Acts 2:42-47. We know from this passage and others in the New Testament that the early church prioritized certain practices: teaching from the Word (42), fellowship/gathering (42), corporate worship (praising God corporately) (47), communion (42, 46), prayer (42), giving (45), and baptism (47). Therefore, as followers of Christ gathering in local churches around the world, we need to be mindful that these primary elements are present in our worship gatherings. In the end, Scripture is our guide and final source of authority when it comes to the various aspects of corporate worship. Therefore, we want to purposefully align ourselves with what we see in the Scriptures when it comes to corporate worship gatherings.
3. For those planning to serve as missionaries in a foreign context, what counsel would you give in terms of how to think of corporate worship?
First, I would encourage every missionary serving in a foreign context to be a committed member of a local church. I praise God for sending churches, and certainly a high level of relationship needs to remain between the sending church and those that they send. At the same time, missionaries need to be a meaningful member of a local congregation where they live as well. So, I would encourage every missionary, regardless of context or location to be a committed member of a local church as they are able (recognizing the unique challenges that exist in some places).
Second, I would encourage missionaries to prioritize the practice of the biblical essentials (teaching from the Word, fellowship/gathering, communion, prayer, giving, and baptism) over the particular forms. Teaching in a house church may look different than teaching in a two thousand-seat auditorium. Baptism in a predominantly Muslim context may look different than it does in the Bible Belt. Musical worship may be led by a guitar player, a pianist, a device playing iTunes, or it may be acappella; as long as the lyrics and message of the songs are Christ-honoring, the Lord can be glorified through all of those means. One must be careful, though, not to suggest that the forms do not matter (I firmly believe that believer’s baptism is best pictured and administered by submersion under water). Yet, it is a reminder for those of us moving from a more church-saturated context to a church-less context to look to the Scriptures (not simply to tradition) to be our guide when it comes to the essential elements of corporate worship.
Third, celebrate and enjoy the beauty of the body of Christ as you participate in a variety of different worship experiences around the world. Let us together praise God for the Christ-honoring energy and joy expressed by our African brothers and sisters as they worship the Lord through musical worship, the genuine fellowship shared by our Asian brothers and sisters as they gather in house churches, and the extended periods of prayer that mark the corporate gatherings of our Arab brothers and sisters in the Middle East.