Culture, Worship, and my Trip to Haiti
Many of you came to the presentation I gave Sunday night about my trip to Haiti. I hope you were encouraged by the ministry happening in Haiti and how Open Door Fellowship got to be a small part of that.
But I am sure there were many questions raised about the nature of church life at Bethsaida Evangelical church in Haiti in comparison with our own church life. I am sure there are questions, because I raised many of them and left them dangling in midair. For the last two weeks my mind has been rolling over what I saw there and why our experience is so different. I wanted to try attach those dangling questions to some kind of weight so that they don’t just fly off into nowhere, or grow into a thickening fog, but begin to settle down into some spaces with a biblical shape. Several of you spoke briefly to me about some of these things and the comments were very helpful.
First, I wanted to make a few comments about music. Music seems to be wired into the very nature of the image of God. Music fills the pages of scripture, and when the Spirit of God fills a person singing naturally flows forth (Eph. 5:18-20). But oh how differently it comes out! So immediately we come to a huge cultural issue. Musical ability and music preference are tied so closely to culture that there is often not much overlap between cultures. One of the things I saw in Haiti was profuse amounts of musical ability. The Haitian people, and seemingly many African peoples are raised up to hear and reproduce music in ways that most western cultures don’t do on the whole. I think we must say that this is an inherent strength of their culture we don’t have. We should strive for thankfulness and not envy.
Second, and flowing naturally from the first, is the issue of worship within the church. What was immediately noticeable to me while down there was that their worship times went on for over an hour. What are we to make of this? Well, first I want to focus on the external nature of this. We will turn to the internal nature below. The external facts that should be considered are these: the reason for the length of time, and the content to the time. Regarding the length of time, I think one of the easily identifiable reasons why they went so much longer is that it was easy to do so. They didn’t have to practice, arrange music, or prepare slides. With so little demand upon their resources, why not worship for an hour? Here we actually do begin to touch on the internal issues just for a bit. As was pointed out to me, there are churches in America that have long worship times. But what is the reason? Most of the time it is not because it is easy, but rather because entertainment and/or emotional manipulation is the grand goal and incredible resources are poured into that. The music is often the reason why the people come, and the music is what gets them into a spiritual tizzy. But this is all wrong, and what indicates the wrongness is the second issue, that of content.
What is the content of worship? If the content is guitar riffs, repetitious fluff, and spiritual sounding razzmatazz, then you know that this is lasting a long time because it is only this at the core of what they are. There is no more depth in it than a wet spot on the pavement. In Haiti, I couldn’t really discern the content because the songs were all in Creole. But there was praying, there was giving, there was substantial preaching that followed. So this drives me to the conclusion that quantity of worship is not as important as quality of worship. Why? Because God doesn’t tell us how long worship should be, but he does tell what the quality of it should be. If we are just not able to pull off a long time of worship because of lack of resource or ability, then we must make sure that what we are doing is really good. And by good I mean our songs are lyrically rich, our prayers are substantial, our giving is free and eager, our Bible readings are clear and authoritative, our preaching is biblically faithful and forceful.
Third, let’s talk about the internal/external dynamic of worship in light of culture. In the Haiti church I saw a lot of moving and hand waving. In our church there is very little of that. Why the difference? I think the question should be framed slightly different. As one pointed out to me, you can find many churches where there is all kinds of outward expression during worship. So the question is this, why is there so little outward expression in fundamental Bible churches committed to sound doctrine? At this point I think we must briefly review what God calls us to in worship. We must worship in spirit and truth (Jn 4:23). We must worship wholeheartedly (Ps. 86:11). We must worship both individually and corporately (Heb. 10:25). We must have music and song flowing out of our Spirit-filled heart (Eph 5:19). We must worship with a host of attitudes such as thanks, repentance, joy, soberness.
There are some externals that Scripture speaks of. Singing is commanded in our worship as seen above. We also see the call to “shout for joy” numerous times in Psalms as well as clapping our hands. There are at least two times in the Psalms (149:3; 150:4) where dancing is called for. While this is admittedly a very, very brief survey, I believe we can see a couple things. First, worship must flow from a heart captivated by truth and the beauty of holiness. Second, worship will have outward displays. Just as we are called to love God with all our strength, that love will come out externally in worship. Shouting, clapping, and dancing tell us something. The book of Psalms is God’s authorized book telling us what we are to worship and how our worship should sound, feel, and look. There is still massive room for how all of this will look and sound, but we cannot be content ignoring the whole-person expressions of worship God instructs us towards.
So what do we say to what has been brought to light here? First, I think we have to say that culture will always provide helps and hindrances. I believe the American culture helps people live lives that are serious about time and making the most of it. Many cultures waste a lot of time with their disregard of the clock and calendar. But the Haitian culture helps people easily worship in fullness. Be aware that I did see Haitians waving their hands with about as much worship as you would find in waving down a taxi. Let's not forget that the heart must be fully engaged in this and culture can’t effect heart change. It does however seem that fundamental Bible churches have developed a hindrance for deep heart-felt expressions of worship in the spirit of "orderly" worship. Orderliness is clearly called for in 1 Corinthians 14, but so is whole-person worship. We must strive for both without any neglect for either. May the Spirit help us in this!
Therefore, every culture should be confronted, and the area of whole-person worship is a place where we need admonishment. God is not boring. Luke-warm worship is disgusting. If our hearts are full of truth, then you need to ask yourself why there isn’t a full expression of this outwardly. We are created as body/spirit people and our worship should match in both body and soul.