The Devil You Know

Another Facebook friend linking to this interesting article on how where we worship influences and affects our faith life.

I’ll begin by saying that the basic premise – that where we worship matters – I agree with, to an extent.  I believe that where we worship can have a big impact on our understanding and living out of our faith lives.  However, the problem I have with the premise beyond that very limited caveat relates to history.

Basically, the Church has been in the business of adapting to culture since the beginning.  Understanding that where people worship can matter a great deal, the Church has opted – or been forced – to make use of culturally relevant but spiritually diverse (or even oppositional) spaces from the beginning.

Where did the very first Christians meet?  In the Temple courtyards in Jerusalem.  They continued to utilize their traditional place of worship – the Temple – even though the substance of their faith had been radically transformed through the person and work of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus the Christ.  They also met in the homes of believers.  There were no ‘churches’ as Chad defines them in this context.

It could be argued that this was necessity, that they had no other option.  That’s fine – I won’t bicker too much on that point.  Regardless of the necessity of such an arrangement, despite being in an area that was dominated by the very betrayers and executors of our Lord, what happened?  The Church grew.  The Church didn’t simply grow, the Lord added to their number day by day (Acts 2:47).

In recent years this has become a key verse for me.  American Christianity’s obsession with evangelism as the ultimate spiritual gift and act is in many ways flawed, and this verse highlights the source of that flaw for me.  The early Christians didn’t necessarily focus on evangelism.  But they did center their lives of faith in Word and Sacrament.  That centering in Word and Sacrament flowed out into other aspects of their lives, so that they found themselves gathering together socially and lived with “glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). Their faith influenced how they lived, and God the Holy Spirit brought people to them.  I think the Church today could learn a whole lot from these few simple verses.  Let those called as evangelists evangelize, by all means!  But for those who are not gifted with that ability, let’s quit beating them over the head about inviting their neighbors to church and instead encourage and praise them as they live out their lives of faith.

But, to the topic at hand, despite the locales the early Church met in, the Church grew because the focus and emphasis of the faith was on the right thing.  God didn’t tell the Church to build a church before He added to their number.

That evolution to ‘churches’ as we think of them today by and large wouldn’t happen for another 300 years.  Christians remained a small and often times persecuted religious sect for 300 years.  They couldn’t have churches.  They made do with what they had – their homes, or catacombs, or what have you.  Only after Christianity became the darling of the Roman Empire was it possible to have churches.  Many of those first churches were pagan temples.  Christians didn’t have much control over the architecture – they were given a building to use and they adapted it to their purposes.  I suspect that most Christians today would have a hard time with the idea of converting a Satanic temple into a Church.  Particularly if we have problems with the idea of adapting something like a movie theater to worship purposes.

Fast forward another 1200 years or so, and what do we find Martin Luther doing?  Adapting contemporary music and songs to Christian use.  Utilizing tunes that people already knew and putting Christian lyrics to them.  He jumped on the bandwagon of a new-fangled communication medium called printmaking, and the Word of God was suddenly available everywhere, to nearly anyone who could read (which was admittedly a small minority).  What else did Luther do in culturally adapting the Word?  He translated the Word into German.  He argued that the Word could and should be translated into the language of the people everywhere and in every situation.  That sounds like a lot of cultural accommodation by Luther, yet we don’t blink an eye at it (well, Lutherans don’t, at least!).

But it’s ironic that Lutherans can be some of the least flexible people these days when considering the possibility or necessity of further adaptation.  

Those hymns we love to sing?  They were composed in particular times and places, and they reflect the cultural norms of those times and places, whether in the language they use, the meter and tone and style of the music, or in the instruments they were designed to be played on.  Each came into existence fairly recently, overall – within the last 500 years, and many within the last 300.  Are those examples of cultural accommodation?  Taking what people were already familiar with and putting it to God’s use?  I think so.

Can this be a tricky process?  Of course.  Can we err?  Most assuredly!  Will there be confusion by some in the process of utilizing secular spaces or sounds or visuals to communicate the Gospel?  Undoubtedly.  Does that mean it shouldn’t be done?  Judging by Christian history, our answer has to be no.  It takes good, faithful minds and hearts to discern this process so that the Word is not compromised, and Christ remains the center of all things.  Whether this happens in a movie theater or a 1000-year old cathedral, whether it involves drums and synthesizers or a pipe organ – these are ancillary issues.  Not unimportant, but secondary or even tertiary.  Arbitrarily putting our feet down and saying that nothing more can change, that everything that can be changed already has been and no further innovation or adaptation is possible is a misreading of Christian history, and ultimately distrust of God the Holy Spirit’s incredible power to work not simply in and through us, but when necessary (which is often), despite us.

Where the people of God are focused and centered on Christ and living out their lives of faith, the Holy Spirit will continue to add to their number.  Maybe one or two at a time.  Maybe hundreds or even thousands at a time.  Either way, individual congregations always have, do, and will continue to adapt to ensure that those people being brought into saving faith by God are welcomed and integrated.  This is our privilege and duty in all times and places.

Even if that means movie theaters.

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One Response to “The Devil You Know”

  1. Mike Says:

    Excellent thoughts

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