This is an article from the September-October 2014 issue: Ethnodoxology

The Bridge

Balancing Biblical Faithfulness and Cultural Sensitivity

The Bridge

Every grounded and mature believer would maintain that the Scriptures must guide us as our supreme and final authority in understanding and shaping our worship.1 After all, worship is about God, and it is through the Scriptures that God has revealed to us his nature and ways. Worship is likewise for God, and it is the Scriptures that tell us what he expects of us creatures. The Bible is to be our guide in every area of life. So certainly in this crucial area of worship, we must look to it to guide us. 

People change. Times change. Cultures change. Only in the pages of Scripture can we hope to find an unchanging standard for our worship. And with all the debates about worship forms, styles, and practices which continue to rage today, the church of Jesus Christ desperately needs a unifying understanding of the unchanging, nonnegotiable foundations of worship—and we must turn to the Scriptures for that purpose. 

Yet even with this commitment to the Scriptures as our guide for worship, we immediately run into a problem when we go to the New Testament for models and guidelines for congregational worship. That problem has been summarized by John Piper as the “stunning indifference” of the New Testament writers to issues of form and practice in corporate worship.2

We search the pages of the New Testament in vain for detailed instructions, much less structures or liturgies. Even in the Epistles, where we might reasonably expect Paul and the other writers to address these issues as they write to guide brand new churches, we find frustratingly few details.

This presents us with a crucial question: just what is it in the Bible that is supposed to govern and determine our worship? It is a reasonable assumption that the virtual silence of the New Testament writers on the matters of form and style for worship means that the Lord intends for us to have considerable latitude and flexibility in these areas. Yet our worship services still need to look like something, so how are we to make choices? Is it just a case of “anything goes”?


I would like to suggest a model that gives biblical guidance, yet at the same time allows for biblical freedom. By way of illustration, this model may be based on certain characteristics of a suspension bridge, similar to the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

In a suspension bridge, the weight is supported by both the towers and the suspension cable. The towers are sunk deep in the earth and are meant to be as stable and immovable as possible. The suspension cable, or span, on the other hand, while sharing a significant portion of the load-bearing, has by design a great deal of flexibility to expand and contract, thus allowing the bridge to withstand variations in temperature, wind, weight load, and other conditions. It should also be pointed out that, while both the stationary columns and the flexible span are important parts of the bridge’s construction, it is ultimately the cable that transfers much of the weight of the road bed and its traffic to the towers, so that the towers are crucial to the bridge’s integrity and durability.

What can we learn about our worship from this illustration? Our worship needs to be supported by firmly rooted biblical foundations—the two towers of the bridge. The flexible cable span suggests the liberty that the New Testament seems to allow for individual faith communities to constitute their corporate worship in ways that fit their situation. Like any art form, Christian worship allows for much creative expression, but within defined parameters. The Bible provides for those parameters, as well as that freedom.


The first tower suggests an immovable aspect of Christian worship that we could term “Biblical Constants.” These are non-negotiables, elements that simply must be present for our worship to be considered Christian. 

What are these elements? One clue may be found in Acts 2. Luke has just recounted the events of the day of Pentecost: the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ followers, Peter’s sermon, and the conversion and baptism of about three thousand people (2:41). In the very next verse, Luke tells us what these believers did when they gathered together: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer . . . praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (2:42,47; italics added). The words in italics suggest a list of crucial activities for the people of God when they congregate: 

  1. The word of God 
  2. Fellowship 
  3. The Lord’s Supper 
  4. Prayer 
  5. Praise 

A number of commentators have assessed these verses as something more than simply a description of what the earliest church did, but rather as a prescription of normative practice for the church of all ages.4 Indeed I have often given an assignment to students to list what activities are consistently found in every Christian worship service, in every denomination around the world, and down through history—and the results they come up with generally correspond very closely with the list found in Acts 2:42,47! These elements seem to be nonnegotiable constants which define and characterize truly Christian worship—elements that must therefore be represented in some form in every church’s corporate gatherings.5 These “Biblical Constants” serve as one foundational pillar for our worship.6


Just because the New Testament does not provide many specifics about how to do worship in local congregations, this does not mean that “anything goes” and that we have no biblical guidance concerning worship. As with other areas or practices in our lives that are not specifically addressed by the Scriptures (e.g., movies, smoking, internet use), there are most certainly biblical principles in God’s word to be applied with wisdom and honesty to our situation and worshiping in it. There are a host of principles that can be drawn from the pages of Scripture to guide us and to guide the leadership of local churches in fashioning biblically appropriate yet culturally meaningful expressions of worship. These principles serve as the second tower in our illustration, giving further stability and strength to the worship structure as a whole.

Biblical principles are different from biblical constants because, as has already been mentioned above, principles must be applied and sometimes applied differently in different situations. 

What follows then is a list of biblical principles that pertain to the practice of worship in the local church.7 In each case, the principle is stated, followed by a supporting scripture verse (or verses) and an explanatory paragraph.

1.  God’s glory, and our joyful celebration of it in worship, should be the focus and goal of all life and ministry.

“Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31 NASB)

2.  Worship is first and foremost for God.

“Worship God.” (Rev 19:10; 22:9 NASB)

3.  Worship is a dialogue between God and his people, a rhythm of revelation and response.

“Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.” (Ps 96:4 NASB)

4.  The Word must be central in our worship. 

“Praise Him according to His excellent greatness.” (Ps 150:2 NASB)

5.  Worship is the responsibility of all God’s people. 

“So we your people and the sheep of your pasture will give thanks to you forever.” (Ps 79:13 NASB) 

6.  Our worship is acceptable in and through Christ our High Priest. 

“In the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” (Heb 2:12, NASB) 

7.  Our response of worship is enabled, motivated, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. 

“We are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” (Phil 3:3 NASB) 

8.  Worship is the response of our entire lives to God.

“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” (Rom 12:1 NASB)

9.  God is much more concerned with our heart than with the form of our worship.

“I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice.” (Hos 6:6 NASB)

10. Worship should promote the unity and edification of the body.

“Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom 15:5,6 NASB)

11. Young and old need each other in the body of Christ.

“Young men and maidens, old men and children: Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted.” (Ps 148:12,13, NIV 1984)

12. These things must be taught and retaught. 

“Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more.” (1 Thess 4:1 NASB) 


The span, with its built-in elasticity and flexibility, represents the freedom that the New Testament seems to allow for wise, prudent, and biblically based application of culturally meaningful expressions. The “heart language of the people” is to be considered when making decisions about forms, styles, music, and other artistic expressions of faith. 

We can certainly see the application of this principle, consciously or not, in the vast array of worship expressions that have developed throughout the history of the Christian church and in churches around the world today. There has been, and is, an enormous variety in terms of architecture, atmosphere, form, structure, style, dress, music, liturgy, and other expressions. God, who has created the world and humanity with such incredible diversity, must certainly rejoice in such worship variety from his people.8 One would never use Bach organ fugues for worship in an African tribal village—a form that would have little or no meaning for this people. And conversely, some of the most natural cultural expressions of various African villages would be incomprehensible to most northern Europeans. In many contexts in Africa, drums are the primary instrument for worship—not a debated add-on! Recent developments in missions have given more weight to the importance of helping local faith communities develop their own indigenous forms of worship music, rather than simply borrowing and translating songs from the West—as was the practice for far too long in many church planting contexts. 

The virtual silence of the New Testament as to the specifics of congregational worship practice seems to allow for local churches, as the fundamental unit of the body of Christ on earth, to have considerable autonomy and freedom in such specifics. Individual or clusters of congregations can work out the issues involving the balance of biblical constants and flexibility in the worship of their own churches. This does not mean that it is an easy task, however, as recent history has amply demonstrated. The so-called “worship wars” are symptomatic of the kind of danger into which freedom of this sort can cast us, and we might indeed be left wishing that Paul had simply prescribed a set liturgy for all time and left it at that! God obviously wants his people to apply biblical wisdom and discernment in this, as well as in many other areas where he has chosen not to spell everything out for us.


“Man looks at the outward appearance; but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7 NASB). We squabble about so many little things related to worship, but God is looking for people who will worship him in spirit and truth. The externals are not nearly as important to him as they are to us! God is not as worried about which songs you sing as he is about you “making melody with your heart to the Lord” (Eph 5:19 NASB). 

In today’s raging worship debates we desperately need to see that there are biblical constants and principles that we can really agree on. And then we need to have the grace and maturity to allow for the flexibility for which God seems to allow. There is far more that binds us as worshipers than divides us through our different expressions—“there is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4–6, NIV 1984). Let us obey Paul’s command to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1–3, ESV). 


photo credit:

Photo: Women in the DRC respond to hearing a Bible story told in their heart language. Photo credit: Alan Hood © Wycliffe Canada 2011.

  1. Originally published in a slightly different form in Ron Man, “Worship Bridges,” Worship Leader (September 2005): 18–21. Published in expanded form in Krabill, James R. et al, eds. 2013 Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 17–25. Used by permission.

  2. Piper, John 2000 Gravity and Gladness on Sunday Morning: The Pursuit of God in Corporate Worship. Minneapolis: Desiring God Ministries, 13.

  3. Piper suggests that this lack of detail may arise from the need for the message of the gospel to go out into every nation and culture (we are to “go and tell”). Therefore, Christian worship must be flexible to allow for cultural differences—whereas in the Old Testament the worship of the one true God was rooted in one culture and place (Jerusalem), and the message to the world was one of “come and see.” For more on this, see Piper’s chapter in the Ethnodoxology Handbook, “The Missional Impulse Toward Incarnational Worship in the New Testament.”

  4. For example, R. C. H. Lenski writes: “Here we have a brief description of the religious life of the first Christian congregation. All the essentials are present and are in proper order and harmony. The church has always felt that this is a model.” See Lenski, R. C. H. 1961 Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 117.

  5. Allowing, of course, for periodic rather than weekly celebrations of the Lord’s Supper—though the practice of the early church was certainly weekly if not more often.

  6. Some scholars who advocate drawing more guidance for Christian worship from the Old Testament might want to add more elements to these biblical constants.

  7. These principles and their supporting material have emerged from the process of constructing a guiding philosophy of worship in a particular local church.

  8. Reggie Kidd in his book With One Voice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005) explores various legitimate expressions of worship in the US today that use art music, folk music, and popular music.


Ron, thank you for a great article but please allow me to provide some correction. Several times you repeat the concept that:
1. “Just because the New Testament does not provide many specifics about how to do worship in local congregations,…”
2.  “The virtual silence of the New Testament as to the specifics of congregational worship practice…”
3. “We search the pages of the New Testament in vain for detailed instructions, much less structures or liturgies. Even in the Epistles, where we might reasonably expect Paul and the other writers to address these issues as they write to guide brand new churches, we find frustratingly few details.”

There are very specific instructions on worship in the NT.  I realize that you may not think there are because you have never heard a sermon that specifically states what the NT specifically states on a form of NT worship. I have never heard one on these texts that reflects what these texts say. They always ignore what the text clearly says. Could that possibly be true in a nation with as many NT greek scholars as America and as many highly trained Bible expositors? Sadly it is true. If you go into 99% of American churches for worship you will not find these texts practiced (It may be 99.99%). In fact the exact opposite is practiced.

You came very close by quoting the end of Eph. 5:19. For some reason you considered the beginning of the verse of no consequence, but it provides the specific dynamic or instruction for how to “make make melody in your heart to the Lord.”
Eph. 5:18, 19 And do not get drunk with wine, [l]for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;…
The first mark of being “filled with the Spirit” is speaking or addressing one another in singing of many varieties. One another speaking is every believer being prepared to speak to the others present. It might include what song to be sung, what the song teaches, and after singing what the song taught. Not only is the song a message but the selection, preface and response to the song are all elements of participation from each believer that demonstrates he is controlled or filled with the Spirit. Not only is the initial word and song by any believer important but the response from the others to the others demonstrates the multifaceted work of the Holy Spirit in every believer present to accomplish Gods dynamic for building.  There is nothing ecstatic here but it demonstrates a high level of interaction between the believer and God, the believer and other believers, the other believers and God, and the other believers back to the first believer. When you are in a worship service where everything is driven from a platform and zero heart expression from the believers to their fellow priests you have the exact opposite of this. When I shared this concept with the saints in our church of 16 years, no one wanted to do this. They really enjoyed the worship pastor led version of worship. This text had no meaning to them. They wanted to “worship in spirit and truth” but not this truth.
The term translated “one another” in the NASB is not the typical word for “one another” that appears down in verse 21, but it is so close in meaning being a reflexive pronoun that the NASB and others translates “one another”. In the context of the NT this is consisted with the partner verse in Col. 3:16: “ Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
Are these not specific, detailed instructions for a gathering of believers?
You spoke of “today’s raging worship debates” and “worship wars”. All of this occurs in the absence of “one another” driven singing and speaking. It flows from platform driven gatherings where everyone is forced to follow the selected dominant music style, or some combination of 2 or 3 styles. This has led to the separation of believers to a church with their preferred style or to a separate worship service with their preferred style, etc. This is one of the reasons why churches in America are so monocultural. Only when every culture present is encouraged to participate and contribute speaking and singing can the gathering be truly multi-cultural and represent God’s design for unity.
What do you think? Where am I wrong? Are Americans addicted to a cultural form driven by convenience and ease that rejects God’s instruction? Are Bible experts in a fog driven by 1000+ years of traditions of men? Am I a kook for pointing this out? Does not mono cultural forms teach Americans to be ethnocentric to a degree that hinders their full ability to bring the gospel to all nations?

Most Beloved in Christ!                         
Dear precious Servants of God, I greet you in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ the Son of the Living God. I am from India and it was by the grace of God .I am Pastor P. Raja Rao & happy to tell you that I visited & reading and studying your precious web page and was find your contact, it has really ministered to my soul and refreshed my inner being, I was spiritually changed, moved and thrilled. Jesus said to His disciples: Matthew 9:37-38,
My God touch and told His glorious mighty hands. He has awake from my death and rigged sins to proclaim His Gospel and word of God. His Faith works in the end days on the Earth than after I have changed an Evangelist I have been serving the “LORD JESUS” since1994. Organize with some co-pastors to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Mainly based Faith and gospel work Independently in rural, tribal, remote, slum, back ward areas, our co-pastors services in thatched Churches, the gospel meetings, services are being done very strictly every month and yearly, proclaimed the word of the Lord Jesus Christ, His miracles & His glorious resurrection. “Matthew"5:16. Our humbly kindly request, please pray to fulfill the basic needs of Church, & distressed innumerable people. “There is more hunger in the world for love and appreciation than for bread” Mother Teresa.
I therefore requesting, please to share with me more about the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have some “orphan children, and old aged” people these are lived very terrible & enormous poverty and it is our desire to show them the love of Christ as he did in the Bible by saying that let the children come to me, I also commissioned to bring home the homeless and to give hope the hopeless. Please the cry of our hearts to you is to humbly remember us in your prayers as I seek to find a place where the Lord can lead us to house, to feed, to clothe, to educate both spiritually. I can pray and given small breads & Fruits every three times in a month who are the sicknesses, diseases, evil spirits, blind people, the lame, the dreaded skin diseases, the deaf people, the paralyzed, the mental disorder people, These people are living near the Churches, Hindu temples, Street centers, villages and many places, they have many cases.
I invite you to India as The Holy Ghost guides us. Kindly do come Minster to India & ministry the Word in a series of Pastoral Seminars and Evangelistic Meetings as well. I need a mighty Revival By your Powerful Ministry. Once again I thank the Lord for your ministry. I want to know more about your Ministry. I do hope you may react very peacefully. I can very need of our local Language “TELUGU” Bibles. I will distribute at the Churches, prayer halls, gospel meeting places, Hospitals, Towns, Road centers, Streets, Forest, rural areas, etc.. David said, Psalm -36:9,10. So please pray to send some Bible Books. I stand in Romans 8:38-39. The kindness mercies of the Lord share this need with the Beloved body of Christ. Our humbly request you pray for my work & please just send me your e-mail. Mobile/ Tel No, email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  Mobile No: 091-9618478867
May the Lord deal with you bound fully as you take pleasure to share with us and bear each other’s burdens. May the Lord bless & keep your ministry. I look forward to hear from you soon. May the faithful in Christ be beside you and support your efforts. I am expecting the Lord to move mightily in your behalf soon! I can constantly praying for you, for your family and for the Brothers & Sisters there with you working in Ministry, God bless you In His Grace
With much love in Christ,
I look to receive your mail soon
Lovingly in His precious service
Pastor P. Raja Rao

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