I remember clearly the events in our little church in Hawaii. The pastor abandoned the large, beautifully hand carved, elevated pulpit for a portable music stand, took off his coat and tie, and came to preach on Sunday in his jeans and Aloha shirt. We exchanged the choir for a four member singing group and started to use a guitar to accompany the singing (still no drums, however). It was dramatic and the church was ready. We even initiated a Sunday morning beach service in Waikiki (no drums there either as they were too much to haul back and forth, but we did use a tambourine and a small hand-held drum). And some came…at least enough to make us feel that our reaching out was partially successful.
We thought that we were being culturally relevant and it felt good to acknowledge our ability to adapt. Cultural tensions (secular values) have, of course, influenced the church for much longer than the last half century. Since the beginning, Scripture records multiple tensions that shaped the worship experience for believers and in some instances divided the church. The book of Acts records these almost in passing, recording the facts of church growth without describing methodologies or offering judgments.
Note the events that followed Peter’s first recorded public sermon (Acts 2:14–40, KJV) when 3,000 souls were added to the church on one day. We know surprising little about their worship experience. All that is recorded is this simple sentence: “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house” (Acts 2:46, KJV).
From the beginning, a new form of church experience characterized their assembly and worship: “breaking bread from house to house.” No other mention of how to accommodate all these new believers, except that. “And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ” (Acts 5:42, KJV); and again, “they were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch (of the temple)…and believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women” (Acts 5:12, 14, KJV). “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith”(Acts 6:7, KJV).
The account in Acts records the fear and disbelief of the apostles in Jerusalem regarding Saul (later called Paul): “And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26, KJV). Eventually, Paul became an accepted and powerful dispenser of the good news about Christ, yet still, he continued, “as was his custom,” to reason with the Jews in “the synagogue…from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2–3, NIV). There is little doubt that the early church was transformational, while at the same time remaining culturally relevant.
It seems that the early days of the church were the only time in recorded church history during which secular influences were not invading the church, but rather the reverse was true.
The sacred penetrated the secular and the change was rapid and dramatic. What we do know of worship in the early church was recorded as being God-directed, sacrament observing, life changing, participation inviting, non-pandering to cultural or personal preferences, and multi-ethnic, yet exclusive. As churches struggle to meet the challenges of declining attendance and/or membership, the temptation for church leaders is to try new strategies to increase attendance and participation. Here the potentially conflicting values of being attractional versus missional or culturally relevant versus transformational may take center stage. Many contemporary churches have exchanged an exclusive spiritual focus for what can only be described as a secular strategy of inclusion.