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Response to "Inculturation, Worship, and Dispositions for Ministry"

This essay is a response to John Witvliet's Afterword in Christian Worship Worldwide: Expanding Horizons, Deepening Practices.

Response to "Inculturation, Worship, and Dispositions for Ministry"
By Roberta R. King, Fuller Theological Seminary

This essay is a response to John Witvliet's Afterword in Christian Worship Worldwide: Expanding Horizons, Deepening Practices.

All worship takes place within particular cultural contexts. In the history of Christian witness and worship, this fact has remained beneath the surface of the church’s ministry worldwide. Worship and liturgy as a universal form has most often taken precedence over creating understanding within a people’s language, symbolic imagery, and cultural patterns. In Charles Farhadian’s groundbreaking edited work, Christian Worship Worldwide, we have the long overdue first broad strokes of how God is at work among the nations at worship. In the midst of this dizzying array of diversity and cultural variations on a theme of worship, Witvliet’s afterword, “Inculturation, Worship and Dispositions,” astutely interweaves together three major themes in a way that both grounds and suggests future arenas of research and study for scholars and practitioners alike. In this response, I will interact with each of the themes and suggest some additional steps for moving forward in the future.

Theme 1: Conceptual Frameworks for Contextualized Ministry

In discussing the universal phenomenon that “all Christian worship is shaped by culture,” we are rightly directed to critical issues of cultural worship praxis. Premier among these is the model set forth in the life of Christ who worked both fully within culture and also challenged, crossed cultural divides, transcended, and transformed culture. As Witvliet correctly observes, “The perennial challenge of all Christians is to discern how a transcultural faith can be practiced faithfully in a contextually appropriate way” (p. 275). The conversation soon turns toward identifying practices, images and themes that are transculturally significant with the designation of essential and non-essential elements in worship. While true on one level, we need to be careful to realize that "non-essential elements"—i.e. cultural elements—are critically essential in facilitating "spirit and truth" worship for the people of the originating context. Thus, they are the cultural forms that free a particular group of people to enter into baptism in the name of the triune God, to engage in the Lord’s Supper, and other worship rites in ways that challenge, critique, and transform their society as well as our own. At the heart of discussions about worship and culture is the essential need to communicate with understanding the profound truths of the Christian faith.      

Theme 2: Depth and Texture in Worship  

Throughout the book and in this afterword, there is a wonderful desire to consider how worldwide worship enhances, broadens and brings new depth in intercessory prayer and worship practices to the church in North America. This wisely lies at the heart of such a volume. Embracing, adopting, and adapting such practices from around the world brings new depth and experiences of God to our times of worship. Indeed, entering into worship through culturally distinctive worship practices different from our own does broaden and enrich our understandings of the breadth of God on a global scale. The challenge before us, however, is not only to draw from such global resources, but to also enter into worship together with the people from whom such practices are taken. These are often the ‘strangers’ in our midst on any given Sunday. There is a need to take the next step by moving further into fellowship with believers from around the globe. Such fellowship honors Christ, fosters greater unity among all Christians, and offers new insights and theological dimensions of the work of Christ in the worship life of local churches. It is a step that requires learning to understand cultural rites, songs, and prayers from the believers’ inside perspectives, not just from our outside experiences. This is well exemplified in Robert Priest’s judicious call for "giving voice" to the Aguaruana believers by quoting their perspectives so that we actually hear how they theologize and walk with God. This too expands our horizons and deepens our practices.
Theme 3: Holy Restlessness and Eschatological Doxology

Finally, the ambiguity of dealing with the ever-changing dynamics of culture evokes a restlessness and longing for common ground in our contextualized ministries. Yet, it is at this very point that, as Witvliet notes, inculturation of Christian truth has always played a significant role in the life of the church across the centuries. As we enter into worship with the church worldwide we come to realize the influence of our own cultural patterns and ways of approaching God in worship. Furthermore, in the Andrew Walls citation, we are helped to realize the “delightful paradox that the more Christ is translated into the various thought forms and life systems which form our various national identities, the richer all of us will be in our common Christian identity.” The implication is that we are enriched by new perspectives of who Christ is as we enter into other peoples’ indigenous perceptions of him. Furthermore, in interacting with believers worldwide we have opportunity to critique ourselves in constructive ways. Thus, Witvliet captures the heart of the matter that profound worldwide awareness of the church at worship engenders not only “a sense of abiding hope, but also new learning and spiritual growth.” It pushes our horizons and lifts our eyes to new heights as we look to the future gathering in of the nations. 

A note of caution is in order at this point. In discussing the church at worship around the world, we tend toward creating the perception that all Christian peoples have appropriately contextualized their worship. While many have indeed done so, I suspect a majority are still dealing with the vestiges of mission imperialism first introduced in the 19th century. Historically and empirically, we know that great numbers of Christians around the world have embraced Christianity within a Western framework for it was the way it was presented to them. With current globalization forces and the power of the media, there is a danger of imposing a neo-imperialism into the 21st century. Not all peoples have been released to worship in contextually appropriate ways. The issues discussed in Witvliet’s article provide validity and encouragement for local believers to embrace Christianity within their own cultural soils. As I write this critique I am teaching in Chennai, India, at an institution where national church leaders are launching bold initiatives to contextualize their worship and make Jesus Christ known within their culture in ways that have never been attempted previously. They, in the midst of a global world, are seeking a "cultural renaissance," partly triggered in reaction to the overwhelming imposition of globalization within their own country. New issues of identity and further outreach are emerging.

There is much yet to be done in reflecting upon and implementing worship praxis based on the dynamic interplay between worship and culture. In many ways, as one pop song put it years ago, “we’ve only just begun.” Perhaps one of the most important next steps is to partner together in such ventures. May the Lord lead us further in listening to one another on deeper levels as we look to one another and see "Christ in us, the hope of glory."


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