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Let Justice Roll: Worship Planning Resources with a Justice Theme

How much justice in worship is enough justice? Churches often develop a service once a year around one specific justice issue like hunger, but rarely does justice penetrate every week of our worship, or even better, every component of that weekly worship. How can the whole of our worship service reflect God’s special love and passionate concern for those who are poor and excluded? These resources will help worship planners integrate God’s call to justice in worship throughout the church year.

The Reformed tradition understands worship as covenant renewal. In worship we remember our covenant relationship with God and how that is connected with our relationships with our neighbors. We recommit ourselves to living as God would have us live. As the people of God, we come together to recall and proclaim the history of salvation, the story of God’s delivering power in this world—a story filled with God’s special love and passionate concern for the poor and excluded, the enslaved and oppressed. In worship we celebrate God’s past, present, and future deliverance and proclaim the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God in which peace will exist in its fullness and all people, regardless of age, race, or gender, will flourish in God’s presence.

Initial Planning

Justice in worship can be a celebration of God’s character of justice, a cry to God for justice in the midst of injustice, a call to God’s people to practice justice, and a proclamation of God’s kingdom vision.

As we plan for these aspects of justice in the individual components of worship, we need to ask whether our worship practices themselves are just. Do we welcome and include all members of Christ’s body? How will this service sound or seem to the elderly? To children? To people with disabilities? To different races or cultures? Who are the poor and excluded, the “least” within our church, our community, our nation, our world? How are we remembering them and making room for them in our worship? (For a justice in worship checklist from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, see p. 25.)

Gathering and Call to Worship

The gathering encourages God’s people to join in praise and also establishes the reason for worshiping God. Does our gathering celebrate God’s love, mercy, and justice? Is God’s justice proclaimed as a reason to come together and worship?

Here are a number of suggestions:

  • Many psalms calling the people to worship begin with an exhortation to praise and then give God’s love and justice as the reason to praise. Psalm 33 is a good example:

1 Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
2 Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
3 Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.
4 For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.
5 The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.

Too often we use only the opening verses and leave out the “for” part, the reason for praise—in this case that the Lord is faithful in all he does, the Lord loves righteousness and justice. Psalms can be divided to form a litany, with the leader giving the call to praise (vv. 1-3 above) and the people responding with the reason for praise (vv. 4-5).

  • The new hymnal Sing! A New Creation (SNC) includes a setting of Psalm 146 from Cameroon in which a refrain of praise responds to the recitation of the psalm. This psalm both calls God’s people to practice justice and celebrates God’s own concern for the oppressed.
  • A number of songs open worship with justice. The song “Gather Us In” (SNC 8) celebrates the unity of all people in Christ and proclaims that God draws all of us, no matter our gender, social class, age, or physical abilities, into worship together. This song also calls for worship to commission us to be salt for the earth. “O Praise the Gracious Power” (SNC 35) praises the power of Christ to break down barriers and transform the brokenness and injustice of our world.
  • Opening litanies can also proclaim God’s justice and envision a new creation or emphasize God’s will for justice as an act of worship in our own lives:
Litany 1

In the midst of a world where people hunger and thirst . . .
come worship a God who feeds the hungry.
In the midst of a world where people are abused and oppressed . . .
come worship a God who calls for compassion and justice.
In the midst of a world filled with wars and rumor of war . . .
come worship a God who desires nothing less than peace for the world.
In the midst of a world of spiritual emptiness . . .
come worship a God who gives life meaning.
Come worship a God whose grace and love know no end.

—Taken from Sacraments and Seasons: Peacemaking Through Worship from Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. Call 800-524-2612 to order.

Litany 2

With what shall we come before the Holy One,
and bow ourselves before God on high?
God has shown us what is good.
What does the Holy One require of us,
but to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with our God?

—Book of Common Worship, p. 50 © 1993, Westminster/John Knox Press.

  • The greeting of God should also embrace and communicate justice. We can accomplish this by naming God as “the God who desires all people to be free” or using other justice-themed titles for God (see p. 10). How is our worship different when the “God of deliverance” as well as the “God of love and mercy” greets us each week?

Confession and Assurance

We incorporate justice into confession when we broaden our confession to include our participation in unjust structures of society as well as our individual shortcomings:

Eternal God, our judge and redeemer,
we confess that we have tried to hide from you,
for we have done wrong.
We have lived for ourselves
and apart from you.
We have turned from our neighbors
and refused to bear the burdens of others.
We have ignored the pain of the world
and passed by the hungry, the poor, and the oppressed.
In your great mercy, forgive our sins
and free us from selfishness,
that we may choose your will
and obey your commandments;
through Jesus Christ our Savior.

—Book of Common Worship, p. 54
© 1993, Westminster/John Knox Press

  • A powerful song of confession that includes both our indifference to the “least” in our world and the causes of why so many of these people exist is “Perdón, Señor” (SNC 59).
  • The songs “In An Age of Twisted Values” (SNC 61) and “Who Can Sound the Depths of Sorrow” (SNC 63) confess the misplaced priorities that exist in our nations. In addition, numerous Kyries from around the world can add international flavor to our cry for mercy, reminding us that we are connected to the whole world, whether as oppressor or oppressed.

Prayers and Songs

We can weave justice into our prayers by interceding for the oppressed and the oppressors both locally and globally. Most prayers of intercession can be used with choruses or refrains between the prayers for our concerns and the concerns of the world. Good examples include “Let Us Pray to the Lord” (SNC 202), “Ososo” (SNC 209), and “Open Our Eyes” (SNC 263). “Ososo” calls for God to bring reconciliation to the people, while “Open Our Eyes” asks the Lord to make us more aware of the oppressed in our world. By including prayers concerned about issues of justice, worship directs the congregation beyond itself and builds the fellowship of the body of Christ.

  • Spontaneous prayers can incorporate God’s justice by simply addressing God as the God of freedom and deliverance, the God who hears the cry of the widow, or the God who raises up the humble and humbles the proud.
  • Bring justice into your worship by incorporating the reading or singing of more psalms that are justice-themed. The song “O Great God and Lord of the Earth” (One Is the Body) is a disturbing yet powerful proclamation of justice based entirely on Psalm 94. “Do Not Be Vexed” (One Is the Body) is a setting of Psalm 34. Psalms 72, 37, 103, 140, and 146 are a few of many such psalms.
  • Sing the many songs that bridge music and justice. “O God, Your Justice Towers” (SNC 272) contrasts our blindness to injustice to God’s desire that justice roll like a mighty, cleansing stream. “In Labor All Creation Groans” (SNC 270) creates a yearning for the way God wants the world to be. “Jesus Heard with Deep Compassion” (SNC 124) sings of the justice spread by Jesus during his life on earth, and “Bring Forth the Kingdom” (SNC 123) commissions the people to engage the world with justice. (See also “Songs for the Season” on p. 29 of this issue.)
  • The simple act of incorporating global music into worship, preferably sung in the original language, encourages us to remember the global church, builds the unity of the church universal, and directs our attention to our neighbor. This in turn places the needs and concerns of these people groups before our eyes and into our mouths. This can be particularly meaningful when combined with prayer interceding for the particular struggles of the people of that nation. Singing global music proclaims that we value the contributions from all people, all are welcome here, and worship is for all of us.
  • Another way to incorporate justice into prayer is by praying for the further establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. This prayer from the Iona community is a good example:

Let us pray for the breaking in of God’s kingdom in our world today.

Lord God, because Jesus has taught us to trust you in all things, we hold to his word and share his plea:

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

Where nations budget for war while Christ says, “Put [away] your sword”:

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

Where countries waste food and covet fashion while Christ says, “I was hungry . . . I was thirsty . . .”:

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

Where powerful governments claim their policies are heaven blessed while Scripture states that God helps the powerless:

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

Where Christians seek the kingdom in the shape of their own church as if Christ came to build and not to break barriers:

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

Where our prayers falter, our faith weakens, our light grows dim:

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

Where Jesus Christ calls us:

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

Lord God, you have declared that your kingdom is among us. Open our ears to hear it, our hands to serve it, our hearts to hold it. This we pray in Jesus’ name.

Amen.

—A Wee Worship Book, pp. 16-17
© 1999, by WGRG The Iona Community (Scotland). Used by permission of GIA Publications, Inc.

  • Incorporate prayer and song that lament the injustice in the world. “Jesus Christ, Hope of the World” (Mil Voces para celebrar, 387 [the Spanish hymnal of the United Methodist Church]) by Joao Carlos Gottinari looks ahead to a world without injustice and asks God to bring that hope into fullness. “Inspired by Love and Anger” from the Iona Community asks why God allows suffering to continue and challenges the singer by asking why we are not more active in being God’s transformers of the injustice we lament.
  • Litanies can incorporate both prayers and songs that express concern for justice, lament occurrences of injustice, celebrate God’s love of justice, or commit to practicing justice. A good justice litany should address the root causes of the injustice rather than solely encouraging a mercy response. It should challenge people to understand their role in the systems and structures that perpetuate this injustice. It should pray for both the oppressed and the oppressors, for both are made less by injustice than they were created to be. Finally, it should proclaim the hope of the way things will be in the fully established kingdom of God, urging people to help make that a reality.

Preaching

The setting in which the Word is proclaimed is important. Is it read or is it celebrated?

  • What if we read these words Jesus quotes from Isaiah before every sermon? “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19). Or what if we sang “Listen Now for the Gospel,” a song from Zimbabwe published by the Iona Community, before reading Scripture? This song declares that God’s Word is able to transform our lives.
  • Is the whole council of God being preached along with individual salvation? Are we preaching from the prophets as well as from Paul’s letters? Do we preach Jesus’ life of upsetting the status quo, challenging the exclusive purity laws of the Pharisees, along with Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection? Do sermons inspire a vision of the kingdom of God in all of its justice and shalom? Do they exhort God’s people to be redeemers of culture and establish as much of this kingdom here and now as possible? Do the sermons address structural and societal injustice and encourage us to strive for right and just relationships not just between God and God’s people but also between ourselves and our neighbors and all of creation?
  • How would this sermon sound to women? To the homeless? To someone with AIDS? To an abused wife? To children? Are the illustrations carefully inclusive and even intentionally challenging to gender and cultural stereotypes, often using the least-expected gender or cultural representative for certain professions or behaviors illustrated?

The Lord’s Supper

Celebrating communion builds the body of Christ and emphasizes our equality before God. Does our celebration reflect this? Do we invite those who take part into fellowship with believers around the world of all races, all social classes, all ages, genders? Does the liturgy not only remember Christ’s death but also point forward to the eternal feast in heaven where there will be no more injustice? Does it challenge us to remember those who desperately await that future feast? Consider this litany, which remembers the forgotten in the world and expands the communion service into a service of healing for all nations:

Lord God, as we come to share the richness of your table, we cannot forget the rawness of the earth. We cannot take bread and forget those who are hungry. Your world is one world and we are stewards of its nourishment.

Lord, put our fullness at the service of the poor.

We cannot take wine and forget those who are thirsty. The ground and the rootless, the earth and its weary people cry out for justice.

Lord, put our fullness at the service of the empty.

We cannot hear your words of peace and forget the world at war or, if not at war, then preparing for it.

Show us quickly, Lord, how to turn weapons into welcome signs and the lust for power into a desire for peace.

We cannot celebrate the feast of your family and forget our divisions. We are one in spirit, but not in fact. History and hurt still dismember us.

Lord, heal your church in every brokenness.

—A Wee Worship Book, pp. 98-99 © 1999, by WGRG The Iona Community (Scotland). Used by permission of GIA Publications, Inc.

The song “God Bless to Us Our Bread” (Love and Anger) simply asks for bread for the hungry and a hunger for justice for those who are fed. It subtly shifts the scope of communion to include people we might otherwise forget.

Baptism

Does baptism emphasize joining in the community of Christ, a community that stretches beyond the walls of the church? Do we celebrate being baptized into Christ and into his mission in the world—a mission that includes a call to justice? This simple prayer reminds us of our own baptisms and the responsibilities that come with it:

As we celebrate this baptism, we, your gathered people, renew our vow to walk together with those who suffer even as Jesus journeyed with the poor, the forgotten, the excluded, the sick. Let this baptism be a reminder that we do not walk alone; that you have claimed us as your own, and that you go with us. In our attitude and actions may we live justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you. In the name and power of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Offering

One way to incorporate justice into the offering is to do an offering of letters. This idea, promoted by Bread for the World, suggests collecting letters to the government on behalf of the poor or oppressed rather than simply collecting money during the offering. This action conveys the need to be involved politically in today’s democratic societies in order to promote justice and change systems of injustice. Giving money often is not enough—societal structures need to be changed as well.

Sending

Are God’s people encouraged to understand themselves as transformers of culture as they leave? Are they commissioned to live justly? Are they blessed by the God of justice, who desires freedom for all the oppressed?

  • Closing songs can do this effectively. “Canto de esperanza/Song of Hope” (SNC 282) is a song of blessing and of challenge. “Enviado soy de Dios/Sent out in Jesus’ Name” (see. p. 33) commissions us “to make the earth the place in which the kingdom comes,” keeping the kingdom vision of love, justice, and peace before us as we leave.
Advent
  • The call to justice can be particularly powerful during Advent as we anticipate Christ’s second coming, bringing with him a new kingdom of peace and justice. Sing! A New Creation includes an Advent prayer (99) that gives voice to our yearning and expectation.
  • This call to worship casts a vision of renewal:

Leader: Among the poor, among the proud,

Men: among the persecuted,

Women: among the privileged,

All: Christ is coming to make all things new.

Leader: In the private house, in the public place,

Men: in the wedding feast,

Women: in the judgment hall,

All: Christ is coming to make all things new.

Leader: With a gentle touch, with an angry word,

Men: with a clear conscience,

Women: with burning love,

All: Christ is coming to make all things new.

Leader: That the kingdom might come, that the world might believe,

Men: that the powerful might stumble,

Women: that the hidden might be seen,

All: Christ is coming to make all things new.

Leader: Within us, without us, behind us, before us,

Men: in this place, in every place,

Women: for this time, for all time,

All: Christ is coming to make all things new.

—A Wee Worship Book, pp. 19-20 © 1999, by WGRG The Iona Community (Scotland). Used by permission of GIA Publications, Inc.

  • In the song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), the proud are scattered, the humble are lifted up, and the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty. Numerous songs and reflections build on these themes, and this song itself is an example of justice integrated with worship.
Lent

How can our Lenten worship remind us both of our need to embody Christ’s sacrificial love and also of God’s ultimate victory over the powers of evil in our world? Consider this litany:

The cross,
we will take it.
The bread,
we will break it.
The pain,
we will bear it.
The joy,
we will share it.
The Gospel,
we will live it.
The love,
we will give it.
The light,
we will cherish it.
The darkness,
God shall perish it.

—Stages on the Way, p. 70 © 2000, 1998, by WGRG The Iona Community (Scotland). Used by permission of GIA Publications, Inc.

Worship Space

Does the worship space itself make room for the old, the young, the immigrant, the disabled? Is the service welcoming to all cultures? What does who we have up front communicate about power and authority?

  • Are the sanctuary and classrooms easily accessible with room for wheelchairs in the midst of the seating and not off to the side? Are ramps for accessibility prominent and central? Is effective hearing assistance available to those who need it (see p. 45)? How are the blind or sight-impaired affected by bulletins, printed litanies, projected song words, or orders of worship? Does the church offer large-print bulletins complete with words to the songs?
  • What message do the banners and other visual elements convey? Do they celebrate the diversity of the body of Christ, proclaiming, “All are welcome here”? Images can either embrace or exclude; they can encourage the congregation to value the diversity of the family of God or reinforce a culture of forgetting the forgotten.
Excerpt
Names for God

The way we address God shapes and reflects our understanding of God. Consider using these titles in greetings, prayers, litanies, and blessings:

God who brought your people out of slavery and exile
Prince of Peace
Light in a dark world
One who gives voice to the voiceless
Hope of all generations
God of justice
God of just love
God of the poor and excluded
Defender of widows and orphans
Provider
One who hears your people’s cries
God of the oppressed
God who desires the flourishing of all
Freeing God
Liberator
Deliverer
Rescuing God
Sustainer
Potter
Creator
Our Maker
Challenging God
One who blesses and disturbs us
God of love and anger
Suffering God
Passionate God
God who raises up the humble and humbles the proud
God who feeds the hungry but sends the rich away empty
God who brings sight to the blind, freedom for the captive, justice for the oppressed
God who blesses the persecuted
Persecuted God
God of Abraham and Hagar
God of Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth
God of Moses and Miriam

Do
  • Integrate justice into worship throughout the year and into every component of worship
  • Strive for integrity and authenticity in the worship experience
  • Be political
  • Challenge
  • Keep justice rooted in Scripture, proclaiming the whole of Scripture
  • Lament injustice
  • Proclaim the kingdom of God, promoting renewal and restoration
Don’t
  • Be too abstract
  • Let justice become the sole focus of worship
  • Endorse specific political agendas
  • Emphasize “ought” or specific solutions to injustice problems

Resources

A Wee Worship Book, Wild Goose Worship Group. Available from GIA Publications: www.giamusic.com; 1-800-442-1358. From the Iona Community. Contains prayer services for morning and evening as well as weekly worship. Weaves together Scripture and daily experience in poetic and powerful ways.

An Iona Prayer Book, Peter Millar. Available from GIA Publications: www.giamusic.com; 1-800-442-1358. A collection of weekly prayers from Iona. Prayers on Monday are dedicated specifically to justice and peace. Includes prayers and readings from all over the world.

Book of Common Worship. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993. Scripture, prayers, and litanies for worship from the PCUSA. Includes sample services for a variety of occasions as well as prayer and Scripture readings. Several selections explicitly mention issues of justice.

Imaging the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource. Pilgrim Press, 1999. A three-volume set of liturgical resources, including visual art, poetry, songs, and Scripture arranged according to the lectionary. Many of the poems and images as well as Scripture passages deal with themes of justice.

Living Micah’s Call. National Council of Christian Churches USA. A toolkit for congregational renewal based on the three commands given in Micah 6: act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Includes guidelines for Bible study, prayer, worship, and strategic planning.

Love and Anger: Songs of Lively Faith and Social Justice; Psalms of Patience, Protest, and Praise; One is the Body. Available from GIA Publications: www.giamusic.com; 1-800-442-1358. CDs and songbooks from the Iona community that address the theme of justice.

Sacraments and Seasons, Peacemaking Through Worship, III. Available from Presbyterian Distribution Service: www.pcusa.org/peacemaking; 1-800-524-2612. A collection of seasonal worship resources related to justice and peacemaking from the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.

Sing! A New Creation. Available from Faith Alive Christian Resources: www.faithalive
resources.org; 1-800-333-8300. A collection of readings, Psalms, choruses, and hymns from all over the world arranged around the movement of a worship service, with seasonal selections. A significant number of the readings and songs relate to justice.

Stages on the Way: Worship Resources for Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, Wild Goose Worship Group. Available from GIA Publications: www.giamusic.com; 1-800-442-1358. Weaves together Scripture, song, and contemporary life with themes of justice and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.