Let’s say you’re chatting with a co-worker at the office on a Friday afternoon. He asks what you’re doing on Sunday, to which you reply, “I’m going to church.”
“Wait, you go to church?” the co-worker asks incredulously. “Interesting. So what do you do there?”
What a question! How do you even begin to answer that?
Depending on your denomination, doctrines, ethnicity, geographic location and/or cultural environment, your answer to this question is going to be vastly different. It will also differ depending on the decade or century you happen to be living in. (For my part, I happen to be in the 21st century. How about you?)
God is not interested in how well we perform physical acts of worship. He is concerned about our hearts because he loves us. He offers us salvation through faith alone. Any act we do in church does not earn us salvation or bonus points with God. We gather together because we love him and want to worship him. God gives us some instructions in the New Testament about how a church is to function, but there is an incredible amount of freedom in how we apply those instructions to our current situation.
The way that churches and individuals choose to carry out these instructions reveals their inner beliefs, attitudes, and values. Throughout my adult life, I have become fascinated with studying what churches and their members do and what that reveals about their faith and relationship with God. As I visit church meetings throughout Canada, I have developed my own theory for understanding what people do at church and why.
I believe that every “thing” that we do in church falls into one of two categories: biblical practices and cultural practices.
Or as I like to think of them, wine and coffee.
Wine: Biblical Practices
Biblical practices are things we do in church that have a biblical basis. You should be able to point out a specific Bible reference that supports this action, such as Acts 2:24.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
In this verse, we see that the New Testament believers valued teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Other practices we find in the Bible include baptism, tithing, and giving to those in need. We see these practices enacted in the Bible and we may even be instructed to continue to do them.
God has given us these practices in a desire to bring us closer to Him. They may be symbols of the redemption story, like the wine representing Jesus’ blood being spilt for us or baptism representing dying and being raised again with Christ. These practices may also be used to help us grow closer to God and love one another, such as praying together or teaching.
Unfortunately, these biblical practices can sometimes morph into rituals that we do simply because we ought to do them, even without remembering their purpose. When this happens, some people claim we should throw them away. After all, what’s the point of practising monotonous traditions if we lose track of what they mean?
But Christians should be extremely careful before dismissing Biblical practices in church meetings. God has given us these practices so Christ may remain the centre of our meeting. Without these, we lose focus on why we meet together and what God desires of us.
Coffee: Cultural Practices
Cultural practices are things that we do in church because of habit, convenience, or culture. Any practice that does not have a Biblical reference to support it is a cultural practice.
That’s right. Any.
One of the most obvious examples of cultural practices in North American churches is serving coffee. About 8/10 Canadian churches that I visit throughout my travels serve coffee. Christianity Today even wrote a whole article last year about coffee and the church. It argues that coffee is universally understood as a symbol of hospitality in North America.
There is nothing written in the Bible about coffee. In fact, when coffee was first introduced to Europe, many Christians actually avoided it because they considered it a Muslim drink! But today, this is one of the ways that we encourage fellowship together.
These cultural practices can either have an external origin, which a church absorbs from its environment, or an internal origin, which the church creates on its own. Middle Eastern Christians will often remove their shoes before entering a church building. This is a behaviour they have learned from their cultural environment. In my home church, children recite memory verses to raise money to send to missionaries. They have done this for decades. This is an internal cultural practice which we created ourselves.
Some churches are very rigid against incorporating culture into church. After all, Christians are meant to “be in the world, and not of the world.” This causes them to reject anything of cultural significance. But the church itself is a cultural entity. As believers meet together regularly, they form their own sub-cultures, with norms and practices that are particular to them, whether they desire to or not. The time a service begins, the way the building is designed, the length of the service, the music, the fellowship time, the clothes people wear, the children’s programs… all of these are cultural practices. And they need to be remembered as such.
Mixing Wine and Coffee
God does not change and neither should our biblical practices. These are things God has asked us to do. No matter what environment or circumstance that we find ourselves in, we need to continue to do these things out of love and obedience to God.
On the other hand, our cultural practices must change because we change. We live in a world that is saturated with change, and as technology progresses, change will come at an increasingly faster rate. If we are to live healthy, dynamic, influential Christian lives, we must be prepared to sacrifice cultural practices that may bring us comfort and a sense of stability but are not based on scripture.
Here are two major mistakes a church can make when they mix their wine and coffee.
1 – Cultural practices are mistaken for biblical practices
This church will hold on to cultural practices and refuse to let them go. They fear that if they give up their cultural practices, they will also lose their biblical practices. They believe that in order to serve God faithfully, they must continue to do church the way it has always been done without any variation. These cultural practices are considered to be evidence of a healthy Christian life and any person or church that does not continue to do these things are considered to be less spiritual. This is pride and legalism. Though they desire to put Christ first of all, this church ends up worshipping itself.
2 – Biblical practices are dismissed in favour of cultural practices
This church recognises its need to change in order to provide for the needs of their members and continue to be a powerful force for the gospel in the world. In order to adapt to their environment, they alter their biblical practices or drop them completely. Their priorities shift from being focused on Christ to focused on satisfying people. Christ is no longer the centre of the meeting. While this church once desired to be a force for the gospel through cultural relevancy, in the end, they will be unable to meet the needs of those they desire to serve because they will no longer be serving Christ.
Both of these churches have good intentions, but the results are catastrophic. They wind up being a hindrance to the gospel and develop confused and immature disciples.
But a church that manages to prioritise the wine while adapting the coffee to best serve the people in their environment is an unstoppable force. This is a church that has Christ as its head and desires to serve him in everything. This is a church that knows what it believes. It doesn’t depend on cultural constructs to develop mature disciples. Instead, culture is used as a tool to strengthen believers to love and serve God wherever they may be.