On Social Justice and Praise Song Medleys

Q. Our newspapers are full of stories about crime, homelessness, the environment, and other societal problems. Why don’t we hear more about this in worship?

A. My hunch is that these themes are quite prominent in communities that face injustice but less so in more affluent places. It is always a temptation to prefer worship that comforts us without challenging us. But the gospel clearly involves both.

Another reason why we don’t hear about these themes is that they remind us of churches that have focused on social justice in place of a gospel of salvation in Christ. Of course, this is a false choice. Christ offers redemption that transforms individuals, cultures, and the whole creation!

In a recent panel discussion at the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts, John Wynbeek, executive director of Alternative Directions, a nonprofit organization that works with victims and offenders in the prison system, gave some specific insights about crime. “Crime . . . has a significant impact on church members, their communities, and our broader society. But often our worship practices fail to include reference to the personal and societal harm caused by crime and how the church can be an agent of forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. We need to ask, How can our liturgies incorporate the needs of victims, offenders, and those who work in the criminal justice system? How can we incorporate the needs of victims and offenders in our prayers? How can we minister to victims and offenders that are suffering silently because of their pain and shame? Can our preaching expound upon the biblical views of crime, punishment, reconciliation, and forgiveness? What do the parables of Jesus, like the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan, offer us?”

John’s words call attention to a large gap in our public prayer life. The same could be said about other societal concerns.

At your next worship committee meeting, look at your newspaper and evaluate how you are doing in naming and praying for the issues it raises. Consider the balance of songs you are singing. Many songbooks, including Sing! A New Creation, include accessible texts that address the social vision of the gospel without minimizing the theme of personal salvation.

In sum, make sure your worship is strong in asserting that Christ’s redemptive work is for individuals, societies, and all of creation!

Q. We start every service with a medley of three or four praise songs or hymns. It seems that these are usually just the favorites of whomever is choosing them or they are songs in the “right key” (whatever that is). Any advice for making this more meaningful?
—British Columbia

A. Songs, like any act of worship, take on meaning from their context, from what precedes and follows them. Here are some strategies for organizing a set of songs:

  • Choose songs to follow a timeline of redemptive history. Perhaps the first song will be about creation, the second about God’s providence in leading the people of Israel, the third about ministry of Jesus. Perhaps the first will focus on Jesus’ birth, the second on his teaching ministry, the third on his death and resurrection, the fourth, his coming again.
  • Choose songs to celebrate complementary divine attributes. Perhaps one song about God’s holiness, another about God’s power, a third about God’s love. Or celebrate complementary dimensions of salvation in Christ: a song about salvation, a song about the church as a community of God’s people, a song about God’s redemption of society and culture, and a song about the redemption of all creation
  • Choose songs to follow the divine-human dialogue of worship. Perhaps the first can be God’s Word of invitation to the community (“Come, Worship God”), the second a response of praise (“We Praise You, O God”), the third God’s call to service (“Seek Ye First the Kingdom”), the fourth a song of dedication (“Take My Life”).

These strategies are simple, accessible, and get at more significant theological dimensions of worship than whatever key a song is written in. Musicians sometimes like songs in certain keys in order to make for smooth transitions. But I would say the theological ideals of balance, dialogue, and retelling redemptive history each trump the “right key” card in choosing music.


Any questions?

We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you’ll join in the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE Grand Rapids, MI 49560), fax (616-224-0803), or e-mail (info@reformedworship.org). You can also e-mail John directly (jwitvlie@calvin.edu).

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 68 © June 2003, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.