I am currently serving as convener of the Philadelphia Liturgical Institute, an ecumenical foundation that endeavors to cultivate the renewal of Christian worship in local congregations in southeast Pennsylvania. The PLI is currently seeking to understand better how local congregations experience the relationship between their liturgy (that is, the times when Christians assemble for worship) and culture (broadly understood as the general ways in which people act in, understand, and think about the world around them). Culture finds expression in the language(s) people speak, the clothes people wear, the music to which they listen and the musical instruments they play, their choices at the mall or supermarket, how they greet acquaintances (or strangers), and so on.
The 1996 Nairobi Statement of the Lutheran World Federation identifies four ways in which worship and culture relate. Liturgy is contextual, counter-cultural, cross-cultural, and transcultural. Using this Statement as a template, the PLI has crafted the questions below. Question #1 sets the stage for #2 through #5. Later this year, we plan to attend Sunday worship services in a number of Christian churches in our area and afterwards discuss these questions with worshipers.
- What distinctive elements characterize the culture(s) in your assembly and local community? (These elements might include dress, language, music and artwork.)
- In what ways, if any, is the worship of God in your assembly enhanced by elements that characterize the culture(s) present in your assembly? How does your assembly seek to strengthen those elements in the local culture / community?
- In what ways, if any, does the worship of God in your assembly challenge elements that characterize the culture(s) present in your assembly? How does your assembly seek to transform those elements in the local culture / community?
- In what ways, if any, does the worship of God in your assembly employ elements of cultures other than the culture(s) that predominate in your assembly?
- In what ways, if any, does the worship of God in your assembly indicate that God and God’s reign are beyond the expressive capacities of any and all human cultures?
Eventually, we at the PLI plan to share our findings and offer interpretations of their significance for churches in southeastern Pennsylvania, but at this stage we wish simply to be in a listening mode.
I invite Pray Tell readers to share their own comments either on the clarity of the questions themselves (e.g., how well do they capture the descriptions in the Nairobi Statement ?) or by way of response to any or all of the questions with respect to worshiping assemblies you may know.