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Just Worship

Justice + worship = passion. That succinct one-liner was offered by Elise, a college student, in response to two days of exploring the relationship between justice and worship at a recent conference (cosponsors included Reformed Worship and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship) at The King’s University College. Clearly she sensed that seeking and doing justice and offering worship are essential companions in the Christian life.

Justice and worship belong together, yet they are often polarized in the thinking and practice of the church. Advocates of enthusiastic worship are often eager to leave behind the messy business of “earthly politics” and prefer to “turn their eyes upon Jesus . . . so the things of earth may grow strangely dim.” Some think of worship as a time to enter into the “holy of holies,” as if this conceptual space were discontinuous with real life. Many social activists, on the other hand, are impatient with worship—they see it as a self-indulgent aesthetic practice that encourages churchgoers to feel good for one hour a week, distracting them from the more important business of transforming neighborhoods and cultures.

But what God has brought together, let no one tear apart! Justice and worship are two dimensions that belong together in the whole life of Christian disciples; holding them together insistently and intentionally leads to some provocative ideas for worship planners and social activists alike.

1. Justice Is a Condition of Authentic Worship

This is the premise of an excellent essay by Nicholas Wolterstorff in Theology Today (vol. 48, April, 1991, available online at http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu), as well as his article on page 4 in this issue. Wolterstorff argues that worship is pleasing and acceptable to God only if the community that offers it is as committed to seeking and doing justice as it is keen to offer praise and worship. This is, of course, the troubling message of the Hebrew prophets. Isaiah, Amos, Micah, and others warn Israel that her failure to do justice will bring God’s judgment in the exile, and her efforts to hide behind pious acts of worship are futile.

Israel’s worship had become a way of appeasing God, keeping God out of public life, leaving them free to get by in the world as they chose. The prophets reject such worship out of hand. True worship must embrace the things that God loves, and God loves justice.

This raises important questions for worship planners to consider: Does worship empower Christians to get by in the world as it is, or does it motivate a deep longing for the world as it could be, a hunger and thirst for justice? Does worship invite the congregation to love and pursue the things God loves and pursues, especially justice and mercy? Does worship stir up a hopeful agitation for the coming of God’s kingdom?

2. Justice Without Worship Is Unsustainable

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written that we are story-formed creatures. That is, our identity, self-understanding, and convictions are formed by the personal and communal stories that we tell. Christian identity and practice ought to be shaped most profoundly by the biblical story, the grand narrative of God’s renewing of the cosmos and each creature in it. The biblical story paints a hopeful vision of the future as God has made it possible in Jesus Christ. Without this vision, the people perish.

Worship is the time and place where God’s people are immersed in this hopeful vision. We recite the story, celebrate it in song, long for it in prayers, interpret it in sermons, sign it in sacraments, explore its breadth in the lectionary, and practice it in community life. Worship is crucial for shaping the imagination of the congregation—imagination that is necessary for stimulating and sustaining active involvement in the world. Without it, people dry up.

Social activists know about this. I have heard many stories of people who, growing impatient with the church, have left it, only to discover that without regular immersion in the life-giving story, they lose hope and vision. Such people are thirsty for worship that encourages and supports them in the hard work of intervention, advocacy, and protest. Following Jesus as an agent of transformation in a world that resists change is painful, hard, and often lonely. The soul gets rubbed raw in the conflict. Outrage at injustice rends the heart.

Can worship be the occasion where empty wine glasses are filled again, as at Cana? Liturgists have a crucial role to play in keeping the hopeful imagination alive. Again, worship planners can ask some useful questions. Is there as much room for lament as for praise in our worship? Are meaningful prayers offered for the world as well as for the church? Do the songs we sing expand our understanding of God’s renewing purposes? Do our confessions of sin include acknowledgment of our participation in unjust structures and systems? Do we give adequate voice to the voiceless and empower the marginalized?

3. Worship Ought to Be an Occasion for Doing Justice

A third idea we ought to consider is how the worship service itself, as a community practice, can itself be an occasion of justice or of injustice. At the worship conference mentioned above, presenter Pablo Sosa pointed out that, unless we put our

bodies into worship, we will not put our bodies into the struggle for justice. He was illustrating the principle that in worship we are rehearsing the life of God’s kingdom even before it is fully here. If we wish to advocate for inclusivity in public life, then surely worship must be inclusive. If we wish to promote racial healing in our communities, it ought to be modeled in worship. If we want society to recognize the needs of children, then surely we must recognize and respond to their needs in worship.

This suggests still more questions for congregations to ask themselves. Does our worship practice embrace and welcome the stranger, not simply so she will join our ranks but out of regard for her need for hospitality? Are the marginalized in society given a legitimate place in our worship? Do we hear the voiceless? Is participation in our worship limited to a few professionals or do we invite everyone to use their gifts? Is the gathering time limited to worship or do we create occasions for sharing stories and news that build community? Does the church building itself welcome the community or does it create distance? Is yours a “green” church, recycling paper, purchasing fair trade coffee and tea, and avoiding harmful chemical lawn treatment?

This issue of Reformed Worship contains numerous resources to help stimulate congregational thinking about doing justice and offering worship as integrated and mutually necessary responses to the gospel of Jesus. We hope you’ll use some of the resources in this issue to help your church practice just worship, thus keeping together what God will not allow to be torn apart.