Sudhir Isaiah, Ph.D.

Westernized Patterns of Theology in Asian and African Cultures

Some of the ways in which the westernized patterns of theology crept into Asian and African cultures are as follows: emphasis on print media and literacy as a prerequisite for being a real disciple of Christ, concept of individualism, time, privacy, honesty, worldview of marriage which excludes categorically polygamy and other forms of family life, denominationalism, cultural ways of eating, dressing, urinating, washing, etc. This naturally resulted in a Church that is foreign in the eyes of nationals; hence it became an obstacle to people in coming to Christ. Well, this is the picture of the church that we find in many parts of the world today.

The Nature of True Worship

Music and worship or worship and music must go together hand in hand. The Word of God makes it very clear that true worship comes from the heart (“Those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth”).

Therefore, any worship that originates from the heart cannot be programmed, nor can there be programmed worship. The church service elements, and the forms (including the musical instruments) used in it are not in themselves the worship, but they are simply external cultural forms that aid in bringing out true worship in the worshipper to worship God and to draw into His presence.

The Role of Spontaneity in True Worship

True worship does not happen spontaneously, it needs preparation, because we come from a world where our lives are filled or cluttered with things, which distract us from God. Therefore, preparation includes:

1. Things that need to be done by the worshipper prior to coming to the service.
2. Waiting on the Lord to receive fresh anointing prior to the start of the service.
3. Careful and prayerful preparation of the worship service.

Hunger and Thirst to Worship

In the heart of worshipper, there must be a deep desire (a hunger and thirst) to worship God. Therefore, true worship must be preceded by a commitment of the will to seek the Lord.

A contemporary song “The Heart of Worship” captures this thought very well. It requires concentration and active involvement, as well as a spirit of expectancy.

True Worship Is Also Learned

True worship does not come out of a vacuum. It is something which is experienced in dependence upon the working of the Holy Spirit in t he heart of the believer, his cultural upbringing and the way he has been trained and conditioned to worship (enculturated forms). This does have an influence in the expression of true worship.

The worshipper needs to be taught what worship is, the importance of worship and music and on how to express worship. True worship also requires a degree of freedom to be spontaneous, without restrictions, although this freedom sometimes has its limits in a public service. The Apostle Paul writes:

What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two-or at the most three-should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. (1 Corinthians 14:26-33)

Freedom in Worship

Freedom in worship has certain responsibilities too, otherwise total freedom leads to confusion as has happened in some cases. So, there needs to be an element of control as well. This freedom will also be limited by consideration of the perceptions of non-believers, as this especially relevant in the context of living and worshipping among Muslims. The Apostle Paul writes to Corinthians,

But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me. I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast. Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it. 

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:15-23)

Individual’s Feeling and Experience

Another factor in freedom in music and worship is how an individual feels to follow his heart’s leading as opposed to following the expectations that he perceives others have of him. This freedom to be spontaneous comes about as a result of having confidence in God, in one’s own self as well as in the other worshippers present in the worship.

A person is unlikely to spontaneously fall to his knees if he has never seen anyone else ever do it in a worship service and if the service never called for kneeling or other similar postures as such as part of the service. On the other hand, routinely kneeling in a service does not necessarily result in spontaneous falling to the knees either.

Ethnomusicology and Contextualization

What then do we make out of Ethnomusicology and Contextualization? It means that it is important to note that worship and music play a tremendous role in ushering the people into the presence of God. Music, which is ‘in the bones’ of the people, in a given culture needs to be discovered and used as a useable contextual vehicle for communicating the gospel. Imported music forms and patterns distance a believer’s heart from the heart of God.

Therefore, whether we go on short-term or long-term missions, let us then remember to be culturally sensitive people when we want to led them into worship of God, for this is always the danger that what is ‘true’ worship may be misunderstood to be ‘mere performance’ by some one in another culture that we have been called to minister.


Sudhir Isaiah, Ph.D.
Bethany International University

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