Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. – 1 Corinthians 9:19–23, NIV
When a classically trained singer hears a pop singer’s signature style featuring light resonance, breathiness, de-emphasized consonants, and overdone diphthongs they usually respond, “How strange and contrived that singer sounds.” When a pop singer hears a classically trained singer’s signature style featuring full support and resonance, over-enunciated consonants, and pure vowels with full vibrato they usually respond, “How strange and contrived that singer sounds.” Of course, the same would be true for a country singer, an urban music artist, an oriental vocalist, or a jazz singer. Our reactions are based on our cultural context which informs and determines our personal taste. If Christian singers want to target a specific audience with the message of Christ, then they must learn the musical style that speaks to that audience. Like a Nashville studio artist who makes a living by learning to manipulate their voice to sing all styles, a missional artist must adapt. To do anything less is to be a culture snob. Culture snobs are not just limited to classical music. They are fans of any style who deify their favorite and demonize others—country, gospel, rap, jazz, pop, hip-hop, you name it.
The above Scripture indicates that God wants us to understand that culture is a tool to connect people with him in their real-life context. This scriptural principle also applies to other cultural signifiers such as personal fashion, hairstyle, jewelry, interior decorations, architecture, etc.
A Christian newsletter recently became a forum for a fiery month-long debate between fine Christian people over whether appropriate dress for church is a tie and jacket or jeans and a golf shirt. I have heard heated arguments over whether appropriate architecture for a Christian church is a large warehouse with portable seating and a stage, or a traditional church sanctuary with pews, choir loft, stained glass windows, and a pulpit. I have tried to explain lovingly to someone as mad as a hornet why the youth choir was not wearing neckties or dresses when they sang in resort areas. 1 Corinthians 9:22–23 tells us that appropriateness must be determined by the cultural context of those we are trying to reach. Of course, we are never to deem appropriate anything that is sinful or wrong by biblical standards or could be a stumbling block to others coming to faith in Christ.
My father-in-law is a classy businessman from the old school of suits and ties, and my bearded son is a nouveau hippy. Both of them love God and have served him faithfully in their contexts. It’s fun to watch them poke fun at each other about what is appropriate in facial hair and fashion. After attending a large regional conference involving young church leaders, my father-in-law asked me what the conference was like. I told him that it was like worshiping with 15,000 young church leaders who look just like my son.
He exclaimed, “How could you stand to be with that many people who look like that and worship like that?”
I replied, “Because we were focused on worshiping God together.”
“Oh, okay,” he relented, “I hadn’t thought about that.”
Worship wars result when we decide that our own style is preferred by God. Worship wars result when we become the self-appointed keeper of standards and try to force our preference on others. Worship wars result when we forget that God created worship for himself and gave us lots of different cultural styles to connect others with him. — Mark Powers