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Making Cultural Connections - Reshaping Worship for Evangelism in a Missionary Church

By Simon Reynolds.

The need to respect the background and experience of those who come to explore the Christian faith has become established as a primary foundation of evangelism. The work of the Catechumenate Network, for example, as well as the spin-offs from John Finney's research, have provided local churches in the UK with appropriate tools to begin building such assumptions into their future agenda for growth.1 However, despite the best intentions of those doing the welcoming, there is always an element of pressure present. Much of it is located in the need to enter into a new linguistic and symbolic environment, with its associated assumptions about lifestyle and structural relationships. This places a significant responsibility of sensitivity and imagination on those who seek to nourish enquirers and journey with them on the road to initiation and a lifetime of discipleship.

How all of this impinges upon the worshipping life of the Church is becoming a substantial question for churches of all traditions. While it is generally acknowledged that church services in themselves do not usually prompt enquirers to begin the process of exploration in the first place, the quality and content of worship becomes increasingly important as people grow and belong within the community of the faith.2 Add to this the emerging evidence that churches find it relatively easy to bring people to the point of conversion and initiation, but then face considerable difficulties in enabling them to remain after initiation,3 the question becomes significant for those in ordained and lay leadership.

This short article attempts to introduce three of the general underlying causes of cultural disorientation that newcomers may experience as they begin to grow into the life and worship of the Church, and to suggest how those responsible for ordering worship can take account of this, particularly in relation to the use of language and symbols, as well as the ambience of worship and the environment in which it takes place.


1.1. Community and Privatisation

That the Reformation and the Enlightenment were the launching pads for far reaching social change, in which the needs and experience of the individual eclipsed the corporate nature of both Church and society, is hardly a contentious assertion. At a popular level, however, it is possible to see Margaret Thatcher's 1979 election victory as providing a convenient marker of recent history. As it heralded the advent of legislative measures to reform the trade unions, privatise public utilities and effectively end the provision of local authority housing, it also gave rise to a flourishing of values to promote self-improvement and personal wealth creation as the goal of human fulfilment. Coupled with this has been the rising tide of rootlessness in communities and a general unwillingness by people to commit themselves to the long-term future, either in relationships or to the social fabric of their locality. So successfully has our culture been evangelised by this gospel of market forces that it is now the credo of the West, and few of us realise that we instinctively live by its values!

It is from such a milieu that most people come to explore the Christian faith. Their needs and expectations are usually expressed in the first person singular, coupled with a desire to withdraw into another privatised existence. Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence which demonstrates that many who are seeking a religious dimension to their lives reject the institutional churches, primarily because they want to believe without belonging.4 One of the most basic challenges to confront both the Church and the enquirer, therefore, is the need to explore how the aspirations and expectations of the individual can become linked into the wider, communitarian nature of Christian discipleship. How this is done in detail will depend to some extent on the ecclesiology of the welcoming church, but it seems obvious that the exploration should at least highlight a sense of belonging to the Church in historical, global and local terms, exemplified in the creeds as the 'Holy Catholic Church' and the 'Communion of Saints'. Much of this impinges on the theology and liturgy of Initiation - not least in the interaction between the individual turning from sin and embracing salvation, and being accompanied by others on the journey of exploration and being welcomed into the wider fellowship of the Church.

1.2. Public Truth and Personal Choice

Another obvious point of contradiction is the complete disappearance of any publicly-owned, objective source of truth around which society can cohere. Now that 'choice' is sacrosanct in Western culture, the Christian faith may be approached, at first, as just one more commodity to be purchased or rejected as the solution to a quest for personal fulfilment. If there is no commonly acknowledged source of truth, then there is no common framework of meaning, no shared hopes and aspirations for the future. This is further reflected in the abundance of gods which may be worshipped, all competing for our attention and devotion. A dead princess, pop stars, footballers, clothing designers and film stars jostle with the weekly Lottery draw and dreams of owning a mock-Tudor mansion as the icons through which ultimate meaning and reality can be grasped.

A Church which seeks to welcome and nurture enquirers must discover sensitive and creative ways of demonstrating how the meta-narrative of the Bible and of the Christian tradition challenges and subverts the contemporary world-view. The need to help people to make connections and explore this 'subversive' world-view is becoming particularly acute in a cultural setting like our own: history is dismissed as irrelevant on the one hand; yet, on the other, the Church seeks to proclaim that ultimate reality, and the goal of human existence, is located in a single human life and death, which took place at a particular time and in a particular place. A worthwhile exploration of this interface between our present cultural circumstances and the biblical world-view can be found in a recent approach to homiletics, which aims to draw direct comparisons between the challenges of our contemporary situation and that of the exiled Jews.5

1.3. Compartments and Integration

The state of social fragmentation, idolatry and rootlessness, referred to above, has come to be seen as an entirely logical consequence of the Enlightenment. Not only is religion no longer a public commodity which shapes the policies and values of the rest of society, but it is also a commodity that should be kept separate from other spheres of life. Religion is for the religious. The roots of such thinking can be located in the contemporaneous reactions to the 17th century wars of religion; but the recent atrocities of Auschwitz, Bosnia and Ulster have done little to diminish the more recent view that religion and public life don't mix. An obvious example is the political uproar caused by Bishop David Jenkins' attempts to relate the values of the gospel to the 1984 miner's strike, and the predictable reaction that this dispute was outside his competence or concern!6

This contrasts sharply with the Judaeo-Christian biblical view of God's relationship with his world as holistic and incarnational. Certainly, missiological study and reflection over the past decade and more has highlighted the importance of reconstructing a world-view which breaks down the barriers between sacred and secular, between feelings and analytical judgements, or between science and the arts, for example, as the basis for a credible public theology and spirituality.7 Over a decade ago, in a ground-breaking study, Robin Greenwood argued passionately for an explicit 'connectedness' between what goes on in worship and the encountering of the fragmented nature of the human person and human society.8 Drawing upon the insights of Jungian psychology, he explored the many ways in which a renewed presentation of the language and symbols of worship can enable healing to take place in fragmented and compartmentalised lives, and how such worship can impact upon the Church's wider, world-engaging agenda. Here again, the Church which welcomes, and the seeker who enquires, will find two contrasting world-views rubbing shoulders. If the regular worship of the Church is to nurture the enquirer as (s)he explores, it must make vital connections between the journey of faith and life lived in post-Christian society, and between the journey of faith being undertaken in community and the contours of the enquirer's life experience. In this respect, it is worth challenging the prevailing assumption that the Church, in its emerging missionary mode, is growing out of its pastoral mode. As I hope to demonstrate below, if the Church is serious about the importance of welcoming new enquirers, and respecting their background and experience, the need for pastoral care will become even greater within a new, missionary framework. Nowhere will this need be more crucial than in the ordering of worship.


2.1. Symbols

Those who have been nurtured in the Protestant traditions of Christianity are often deeply ambivalent about the use of symbolism and ritual in worship. The reasons for this are rooted in the events of the Reformation as well as the eighteenth and nineteenth century Revivals. Christian history and mission has moved on, however, and we now face a new situation. Not only has the prevailing anti-Catholic interpretation of the Reformation been vigorously challenged and reassessed in recent years,9 but we live in a highly pictorial and symbolic culture, dominated by television, video, and computer technology. Prefiguring all this has been the multi-disciplinary studies of the past half-century and more which recognise the capacity of symbols to communicate and evoke reality at a far greater depth and potency than is always possible with language.10 And, in popular folk culture, symbols and rituals play a distinctive part in events of national, local or family significance. Lighting candles on a birthday cake, swapping shirts with the opposing team at the end of the Cup Final, and more recently, the laying of flowers at the location of a tragedy, are all examples of the way people instinctively express what can never be articulated by words alone.

A holistic and incarnational understanding of Christian worship will be sensitive to this, recognising that, in worship, we are not simply engaged in a rational, easily evaluated activity; rather, we use the whole personality, which includes all our senses and feelings - as well as our brains! Additionally, symbols allow a person to explore the content and meaning of faith within a wider framework of reflection and experience than would be possible by verbal and didactic instruction alone. Above all, however, symbols relieve from those leading worship the need to project a particular style or personality, which can become a filter through which the sources of a worshipping community's nourishment must pass, thus limiting or restricting their diet.11

Two examples spring immediately to mind. The use of candles as an aid to intercessory prayer (each candle representing a particular person, nation or concern) is becoming widespread, especially when an accompanying period of silence allows worshippers the space for more in-depth and imaginative engagement with the focus for prayer. Their use can also highlight particular points of emphasis in an act of worship. Good contemporary Roman Catholic practice, for example, usually places candles around the place where the Bible is read during the first, scripture-centred part of the Mass, and then they are moved and placed on or around the altar for the second, sacrament-centred part. This allows worshippers to see the explicit connections between word and sacrament, and it becomes concrete for them. Similar things could be said about the use of incense left burning in a simple bowl. Again, this provides a visual focus for prayer 'rising like incense' (Psalm 141), but also introduces the dimension of worshipping with the sense of smell (and a smell which may be a welcome change from flowers and furniture polish!). Additionally, it is another way of linking a worshipping community to their origins, through the use of a practice which was widespread among their Christian and Jewish forebears.12

As with the use of all symbolism two things are vital. First, do it well and prepare carefully. A sloppy approach will only convey the impression that it should not be taken seriously, and will, over time, starve those who come to worship with a 'hunger to be more serious' (Larkin). Second, resist the temptation to explain symbolism. Doing so will only rob symbols of their non-verbal potency, and remove from worshippers the capacity to explore and own meaning at a variety of levels. As Andrew Walker has recently identified, "liturgy, as divine drama, tells again the old, old story...[it] demands words and images of wisdom and power, theologically significant body language, lights, colours, smells and food. If we are asking contemporary culture to 'come and see', we must have something to show them as well as something to say."13

2.2. Language

Within a year or two of the publication of the Church of England's Alternative Service Book in 1980, pastoral theologians, social scientists and missioners all began to highlight a pivotal weakness in its attempts to relate more easily to culture. Although it used modern language in addressing God as 'you' rather than 'thee' or 'thou' and had overcome many linguistic and liturgical archaisms, the language of concept and analysis dominated its 1300 pages. Similar things could be said about the (considerably slimmer) Methodist Service Book (1975) and the work of the ecumenical Joint Liturgical Group during the 1970's and 1980's. At the same time, there was a growing awareness that the majority of the population communicated through language that was experiential and concrete, as well as through story, pictures and images. Tabloid newspapers, television (particularly soap operas), video and, more recently, computers, have all contributed to highlighting the need for a more concrete and narrative approach to the language of worship. The Iona Community were (and remain) especially innovative in this respect, not least through their hymnody.14 The Baptist Patterns and Prayers for Christian Worship was arguably the first official denominational resource to set a new standard for concrete liturgical language,15 followed closely by the Church of Scotland's Book of Common Order (1994)16 which benefited from the involvement of John Bell of the Wild Goose worship group. Special note need to be made here of the work of women, often working outside formal denominational structures, such as Janet Morley17 and Kathy Galloway.18

Clearly, the use of appropriate language will differ from one situation to another. It seems, obvious, however, to say that language which speaks to real experience, which triggers the imagination and evokes a feeling response will seek to paint pictures rather than introduce concepts; it will be rooted in the particularities of people's expectations, desires and relationships, rather than simply promoting general attitudes. It is in this respect that a warning note needs to be sounded about the predominant, but unquestioned, notion that if something is biblical it is always more suitable than something which is not. How you define 'biblical' in these terms is a notoriously tricky exercise; but it will be obvious from what I have said so far that worship, arbitrarily littered with unrefined biblical quotations and allusions, may be the least desirable way of enabling many people to worship, and may further promote the use of conceptual liturgical language.19

One other significant dimension concerning language requires an introduction at this point, and is related to the growing concern for common prayer in Christian worship. Individualism is not an exclusive characteristic of post-modern culture: it underlies the ordering of much Christian worship. There is a growing need to challenge a fundamental contradiction which invites people to embrace the commitment of belonging to a community of faith which is local, global and historical; but which often makes no attempt to relate the content of its worship to the way other Christian communities worship. Most obvious here is the use of a Lectionary, especially now that the adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary20 by the majority of mainstream denominations in the UK and overseas has enabled the reading of the same portions of Scripture on the same day across the world. As yet, we can only guess at the impact this could begin to have on both Church and culture if it is handled responsibly and imaginatively. Similarly, the work of the Joint Liturgical Group has enabled the availability of common forms of key texts such as the Lord's Prayer, the creeds, the content of baptismal, marriage and funeral services, and the Eucharist. As with the use of symbolism, it may now be time for those traditions which, because of its one-time legal imposition, have historically dissented from the use of common prayer, to reassess its value for a new situation. Significantly, within the Church of England, questions are currently being raised about the long-term desirability of too much choice in liturgical forms. The arguments against an over-dependence on variety presuppose that future generations of Christians will be unable to remember key texts and make them part of the fabric of their discipleship, which will add to a further erosion of common prayer and any sense of belonging to the wider Church.21

2.3. Space and Ambience

When worshippers enter the Anglo-Catholic church in Yorkshire which nurtured me during my teens, they are 'hit' by the lingering smell of incense. It is at least a hint that they are entering an environment that differs significantly from the surrounding streets and houses. Visiting parties of school children used to ask the Vicar why we had incense, to which he would reply "because they don't have it in Woolworth's"! It was a uniquely characteristic way of saying that, in worship, a Christian community is offered a glimpse of a different world - one that challenges and subverts the values of the prevailing culture. The space within which that worship takes place can either be the frame through which the kingdom is glimpsed with clearer vision and imagination, becoming a catalyst for mission as worshippers return to their locality inspired by the gift of prophetic imagination; or it may simply be the cause for a total eclipse of heart and mind.

Very often we are inviting searchers and enquirers into drab, dilapidated buildings, cluttered with yesterday's junk, resembling the interior of the local magistrate's court or a lecture theatre from the set of Shadowlands. Add to that a seating plan which turns a worshipping community into a captive audience for an oratory monologue, a ritual performance by a select group of detached professionals, or a cringe-worthy routine by a stand-up comic with the now ubiquitous overhead projector, and you have the perfect obstacle to the encouragement of in-depth exploration at any level. The state of our buildings, and the environment in which worship takes place, is often a telling reflection of how a Christian community understands itself in relation to its locality and its model of ministry. It is also a good indicator of the depth of its community life and the quality of its worship. And yet, many Christian communities fail to see these connections, which partly explains why proposals for the architectural re-ordering of a church building are likely to evoke passionate resistance at first. Financial anxiety is a factor, of course; but this may be a foil for more deeply concealed needs in an established congregation to remain dependant on the ordained leader, for example. If a worshipper finds herself, as a result of changed surroundings, becoming an active participant rather than a passive receiver, it will begin to fundamentally change her relationship to other worshippers, and to the culture from which she comes to worship, which could be deeply disturbing - for worshipper, ordained leader and, eventually, the culture.

This is a complex and fascinating, but vitally necessary, aspect of the Church's mission, and of the three foci I have chosen to discuss it is supremely dependent on the individual circumstances of a particular building.22 However, I offer three suggestions which may find broad application.

First, what degree of welcome is communicated by the outside of the building? Are people being invited into a place of warmth, light and colour, or do they have to hack their way through a jungle of weeds, brambles and litter before doing battle with a heavy door which leads into a place of darkness rather than a place where the resurrection is celebrated and proclaimed? Churches need to seriously consider whether they should be using more glass at their main entry point, for example, particularly if it leads directly off the street. As well as providing light, this will begin to remove any mystique about what is inside an otherwise potentially forbidding place. Similarly, how might the provision of a 'welcome space' between the door and the place where worship takes place help to give the worship area heightened significance? An area with easy chairs, appropriate lighting, space for refreshments to be served and for people to generally relax, will heighten the initial message of welcome. If people enter the building and are able to exchange greetings in such a space, they may then enter the worship area with greater expectation and openness.

Second, a worshipping community must ask how its worship space relates to its model of ministry, its theology of worship, and its desire to enable newcomers and established Christians to explore the faith and be nourished for mission within sacred space. Special significance needs to be given to the places where new converts are baptised, the scriptures are proclaimed, and bread is broken. Here more than anywhere, a draconian attitude to clutter is required! Flexible seating arrangements are crucial, especially if different acts of worship lend themselves to different models of participation. It goes without saying, of course, that the use of symbolism within such a space should naturally enhance the environment, and not be clumsily imposed. Above all, this space should be a place of real beauty in which people can begin to know that they are loved, accepted and forgiven.

Third, to what extent does the building, and what takes place within it, enable worshippers to return more hopefully and confidently to the realities of life, work and relationships in the local community and the wider world? How can the building be used in addition to Sunday worship in a way that communicates both stillness and vitality? In other words, is the church building known as a place where real questions can be wrestled with in a welcoming and accepting environment, where people have plenty of opportunity to participate in the growth of the Kingdom, or is it a one-way escape route for those who can't "bear very much reality"(Eliot)?

Parting Proposal

I recognise that I have done no more than briefly introduce some of the questions that impinge upon the relationship between worship, evangelism and mission, and that the content reflects my own background, personality and denominational perspective. I continue to be fascinated by the way in which different groups address these and similar questions, according to their location, ecclesiology, ethnic background and theological perspective. I hope that what I have written, therefore, will provide the impetus for further discussion and dialogue in future editions of Ministry Today.

Footnotes 1. see for example Peter Ball, The Adult Way to Faith, London, Mowbray 1992, pp 1-10; also the Catechumenate Network's Starter Pack, available from Canon Peter Ball, Whittonedge, Whittonditch Road, Ramsbury, Marlborough, Wiltshire, SN8 2PX; also Emmaus: The Way of Faith, London, Church House Publishing and Bible Society, 1996, especially 'Introduction' booklet.  Return 2. John Finney, Finding Faith Today, Swindon, Bible Society 1993; and John Finney, Stories of Faith, Swindon, Bible Society 1995.  Return 3. see Leslie J Francis and Philip Richter, Gone But Not Forgotten, London, DLT 1998. This is a recent socio-theological investigation into the reasons people give for dropping out of church life. A bare summary of the findings is provided on p 165.  Return 4. see for example David Hay, Religious Experience Today, London, Cassell/Mowbray 1990.  Return 5. Walter Bruggemann, Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press 1997.  Return 6. see David Hay op. cit.  Return 7. see for example Lesslie Newbiggin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, London, SPCK 1991; also David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission, New York, Orbis 1994.  Return 8. Robin Greenwood, Only Connect: Worship and Liturgy from the Perspective of Pastoral Care, London, DLT 1987.  Return 9. see for example Eamon Duffy The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, New Haven and London, Yale University Press 1992; also Eamon Duffy 'The Reformation' in ed. Donald Reeves Prejudice in Religion, London, Cassell/Mowbray 1997.  Return 10. see for example F W Dillistone, Christianity and Symbolism, London, Collins 1955; also S K Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, Harvard, Harvard University Press 1941; also Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion, New Haven, Yale University Press 1938.  Return 11. for a more in-depth consideration of how such criteria impinge on the Eucharist as a normative act of worship for evangelism see Stephen Cottrell 'The Three Kisses' in Anglican World, Summer 1995.  Return 12. Liturgical scholarship over the past two decades has opened up a rediscovery of the popular, symbolic nature of urban daily worship, prior to the dominance of monasticism, in the first three centuries AD. A detailed historical introduction is provided by Paul Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship, London, SPCK 1992, especially pp.185-204. A practical outworking of how the insights from daily worship in the Early Church might enrich contemporary worship, along with musical and symbolic examples, can be found in Bryan D Spinks and Simon Reynolds ed. Christ our Light, Rattlesden, Kevin Mayhew 1990.  Return 13. Andrew Walker, Telling the Story: Gospel, Mission and Culture, London, SPCK 1996, p 99.  Return 14. for those unfamiliar with their material, a representative selection appears in the URC hymn-book Rejoice and Sing, Oxford, Oxford University Press 1991; also Common Ground, Edinburgh, St Andrew Press 1998.  Return 15. Baptist Union of Great Britain, Patterns and Prayers for Christian Worship, Oxford, Oxford University Press 1991: see for example the prayers 'for families' on pp. 47-48.  Return 16. The Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland, Edinburgh, St Andrew Press 1994.  Return 17. see for example Janet Morley All Desires Known, London, SPCK 1991.  Return 18. see for example ed. Kathy Galloway, The Pattern of Our Days, Glasgow, Wild Goose Publications 1996.  Return 19. for example, compare no. 653 in Mission Praise (combined 1990) with no. 63 in Common Ground.  Return 20. Revised Common Lectionary, Norwich, Canterbury Press 1995.  Return 21. see for example Stephen W Sykes 'Ritual and the Sacrament of the Word' in ed. David Brown and Ann Loades, Christ: the Sacramental Word, London, SPCK 1996.  Return 22. for those wishing to explore the re-ordering of church buildings within a missiological framework, see Richard Giles, Re-Pitching the Tent, Norwich, Canterbury Press 1996. This influential and highly-illustrated resource combines theological reflection with a thoroughly practical approach to the subject.  Return

Simon Reynolds is an Anglican ordinand studying at Westcott House, Cambridge. He was formerly a Commissioning Editor with Bible Society.

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You are reading Making Cultural Connections - Reshaping Worship for Evangelism in a Missionary Church by Simon Reynolds, part of Issue 16 of Ministry Today, published in June 1999.

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