The Not-So-Comfortable Pew

In this article Matteuci argues that Christian worship ought not to reflect some key aspects of North American culture. Matteucci reminds us that, regardless of our geographical location, the church is called to be in the world but not of it.


American culture is driven and saturated by mass media. Opinion polls and election results reveal a culture deeply divided over political and moral issues, but this divide is rarely found in news reports, movies, or television programs aired on American media outlets.

For example, even though tens of millions of Americans attend worship services every week, and even though millions more believe in some kind of supernatural existence, the media still portrays any nonmaterialistic worldview as extremist and irrational. Thus American culture is not defined merely as the ideas held by most North Americans; it is defined as the dominant ideas presented to Americans by our mass media outlets. Many of these are antithetical to Christianity, and they should be opposed in corporate worship services.


One dominant idea in American culture is the relativity and subjectivity of truth. People who hold this view say that universal truth is implausible and anyone who thinks that certain propositions can be true for all people at all times and in all places is intolerant.

Christian worship must be countercultural because it proclaims not only universal truth, but revealed truth. By making the Word of God (in song, in prayer, in preaching) the center of the service, Christian worship opposes the relativism that dominates the culture.

Worship is especially countercultural when it includes the faithful exposition of the written Word. By seeking the intended meaning of the biblical authors (both human and divine), Christian worship stands against deconstructionism—a primary pillar of relativism.


Second, American culture trumpets pluralism and tolerance. Although these ideas arose from a desire to respect opposing viewpoints, their adherents now demand that every point of view be considered equally valid—no matter how weak, no matter how ill-supported, no matter what the consequences are. Any attempt to change someone else’s ideas is branded as intolerant or even immoral.

Christianity, on the other hand, proclaims a message of exclusivity. It proclaims that there is one way to heaven and that only those who approach God through Jesus Christ will be saved. In each worship service, the exclusive claims of the gospel should be rehearsed: by confession and forgiveness, in prayer, in song, in creed, and in preaching. The supremacy of Jesus Christ must be proclaimed, avoiding any hint that other acceptable roads to reconciliation with God exist.


Third, our culture is obsessed with putting people into groups, usually for some political purpose. We are divided by race, by economic status, by age, by gender, by religion. The old idea of America as a melting pot—where all our differences were melded together into one national identity—has been lost.

Christian worship should stand in stark contrast with this trait of our culture. At the cross of Jesus Christ there is no white or black, no rich or poor, no young or old, no male or female. Rather, people from all these groups worship together. Instead of looking suspiciously at one another, Christians in all demographic groups can stand shoulder to shoulder as a testimony to the world of the power of the cross compared to the weakness of human rhetoric.

Broken Relationships

Fourth, our culture has produced an inordinate number of broken relationships. We’re taught that the highest priority is personal happiness and fulfillment, and anything that gets in the way of either should be discarded. Making a commitment for the sake of others—even when it means hard work or inconvenience—is often inconceivable. As a result, millions of people are scarred by family failures and breakup, and have no experience with long-term loving relationships.

Christian worship is countercultural because it occurs in a community. Christians gather for worship that is both vertical and horizontal, that listens to and responds to God while encouraging believers to submit to one another. Countercultural worship is not a private, individual expression of a person’s relationship with God. True worship shows the world that real relationships can still exist.


Fifth, our culture has abandoned hope. Modernists once exuded hope—hope in science, hope in the perfectibility of man, hope in ever-increasing progress. Postmoderns, however, have abandoned hope after watching how science has been used to kill rather than heal, to oppress rather than free. They have concluded that no hope exists.

Christian worship, on the other hand, is a celebration of a great hope. Christians know that the world has problems—they see the wars, the oppression, the illness, the suffering, and the poverty. Worship is not countercultural because it ignores reality; it is countercultural because it has a message of hope for this world. Christian worship proclaims the certainty of justice, the expectation of grace and mercy, and the creation of a new world in which sin and death are banned. The Lord’s Supper is a regular expression of that hope. This obedient act of remembrance proclaims that the one who was killed by the evil acts of humans is still alive; it proclaims that the one who lives will one day return in glory.

So Let Us Stand

There is much in our culture for which we can praise God—from the music that accompanies our worship to the architecture that surrounds our worship to the technology that enhances our worship. It may be hard for us to think of what we do in Christian worship as countercultural; nevertheless the followers of Jesus embrace values that have been rejected by those who shape American culture.

In places where Christian worship could once stand with the culture, it must now stand against it. Every week Christian congregations have the opportunity to join in radical opposition to this culture . So let us stand.


Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture

How does worship relate to culture? How is worship in culture, but not of it? The Lutheran World Federation’s Study Team on Worship Culture met in Nairobi in January of 1996 and produced the Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture. The statement presents four central principles—succinct but subtle, clear but challenging—of the relationship between worship and culture:

  • Worship is transcultural . (Worship has certain dynamics that are present on every continent.)
  • Worship is contextual . (Worship reflects local patterns of speech, dress, and other cultural characteristics.)
  • Worship is countercultural . (Worship resists the idolatries of a given culture.)
  • Worship is crosscultural . (Worship reflects the fact that the body of Christ transcends time and space.)

We have found that the most meaningful worship—and the wisest worshiping community—does not just choose one of these four as its defining principle, but instead is invigorated by the truth of all four.

Note how this statement nuances the model of being “in but not of” culture, and calls us to a more sophisticated understanding of worship’s relationship to culture.

The complete text of the Nairobi Statement is posted at the website of Lift Up Your Hearts ( It was also published in Christian Worship: Unity in Cultural Diversity, ed. S. Anita Stauffer (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 1996).

We encourage worshipers and worship leaders to reflect on it as they consider the context and challenges of their culture, and answer God’s call to worship within it and minister to it.

—Taken from Used by permission

Stephen J. Matteucci ( is an M.Div. student at The Souther Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Reformed Worship 82 © December 2006, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.