Human Misery and Compelling Causes

Q

What profound needs we face in the world! How few of them we ever hear about in worship, in spite of dozens of remarkable Christian agencies and organizations that are responding to them! How can we change that?

Q

I am a leader of a Christian agency dealing with one of the most profound cultural needs of our time (purposely left blank). Why do so few worship services ever even name the challenges we are struggling with? How can we change that?

A

This pair of questions arose in the context of a student conference on Faith and International Development at Calvin College, with participants who passionately sense a call to address needs related to global hunger and systemic poverty, global public health epidemics, human trafficking, climate change, refugee resettlement, and political corruption. The same pair of questions arose in a set of recent conferences on North American community development, with participants who passionately sense a call to address needs related to anti-racism, affordable housing, mass incarceration, immigration, abortion, pornography, mental health, domestic violence, inclusive approaches to the spectrum of abilities and disabilities, and more.

Each topic here is of vital Christian concern, addressing catastrophic human trauma and misery. Each topic is being addressed by Christian organizations, many of which offer inspiring examples of selfless service and also deep self-awareness about how efforts to meet needs can often end up unwittingly making them worse.

It is essential for us, in a magazine devoted to worship, to insist that it is unacceptable for our worship services to routinely ignore the world’s deepest needs and these kinds of ministries. We may fear having worship become “politicized.” We may resist services where upbeat energy may need to be quieted by the weighty silence and profound prayer these topics require. We may be so overwhelmed by the scale of these problems that we find ourselves at a loss for what to do or say.

Yet, the integrity of Christian witness and the good news of the gospel of Jesus lovingly and insistently demand that we do not settle for saccharine worship services that have no room for engaging these needs.

We name these topics in worship, in their vast and horrific array, to lament before God’s face, to speak our distress, to express solidarity with all who suffer, to announce that the good news of the gospel is—finally—bigger than all of these put together, and to respond joyfully to God’s call to take up our cross and serve God in responding to the world’s profound needs.

When a group of pastors and worship leaders recently met to reflect on this, they noted that this should ideally be done especially in seven ways in worship:

  • in prayers of confession and lament that over time name specific examples of human misery;
  • in sermons that wisely and prophetically name both the travesty of human misery and also testify to astonishing ways that God is at work, responding redemptively, often through the church;
  • in intercessory prayers of the people, which pray specifically for God’s work in the world to respond to human misery as well as for those God calls to participate in that mission;
  • in artworks and songs that take the risk of speaking deeply and redemptively about these topics of great concern;
  • in baptism celebrations that make clear the call of God on our life not simply to receive forgiveness, but also to joyfully embrace a calling to serve God’s mission in the world;
  • in Lord’s Supper celebrations which do not merely look back to Jesus’s death and resurrection but also look ahead to how God is making all things new; and
  • in offerings for specific causes that put the focus not first of all on the agency being supported, but on the mission of meeting the needs of human misery in a redemptive way.

This group also reflected on best practices that can help this passion sink deeply into the life of a congregation:

  • Whenever possible, link these specific references in worship to other aspects of congregational (or denominational) ministries so that what is said in worship resonates deeply with the ongoing prayers of a community over time.
  • Be cautious about using promotional materials from a given agency that are ambiguous about the specific needs being addressed, or where the focus seems more to be on promoting the agency than on promoting the kingdom work the agency is trying to accomplish.
  • Aim for balance in:

    • naming both local and global needs;
    • praying about both immediate crises and long-term underlying systemic issues;
    • responding to concerns that are typically (even if simplistically) associated with different parts of the political spectrum (e.g., praying about both abortion and immigration, both religious persecution and poverty); and
    • naming causes that are widely embraced (e.g., reducing human trafficking) and those that people may not want to engage (e.g., better understanding transgender experiences).
  • Ensure that every group in the church, starting with children’s and youth ministries, are challenged to engage this range of specific concerns in age-appropriate ways.
It is unacceptable for our worship services to routinely ignore the world’s deepest needs. . . . The integrity of Christian witness and the good news of the gospel of Jesus lovingly and insistently demand that we do not settle for saccharine worship services that have no room for engaging these needs.

All of this can seem overwhelming. Yet we have no choice. The gospel calls us to respond. Doing so is profoundly life-giving. It helps us see the remarkable way God is active in the world, often through the church. And it lends an honesty to our worship that our children and religious seekers hunger for.

All of this is far less overwhelming if we can build in concern for human misery and divine response right into the DNA of our church life. Perhaps every deacons’ meeting could start with an intentional prayer for needs deacons are responding to, listing topics of primary concern. Perhaps that list could shape the prayer of every church council or staff meeting, and then be woven a little bit every week into the public prayers of the church. Rather than starting with your music leader (where so many worship-related goals are delegated), why not start with your deacons?

But musicians have a role to play too. A stunning array of recent songs have been written for public worship that address several of these tragedies very candidly and specifically. Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (Faith Alive, 2013) has dozens of songs with texts that express gut-wrenching lament and hopeful petition for everything from Alzheimer’s disease to sexual violence to systemic poverty and much more. Yet tragically these are, all too predictably, the least-sung songs in the book. If you never use a hymnal, there are still many newly-written songs in every style that do the same, though many languish near the bottom of the CCLI copyright license list.

Let me be clear: This is not a call to make worship gloomy and miserable. On the contrary, when Christians respond to trauma and misery, we lament, we keep silence, and we express solidarity. We also reach deeply into the treasures of Scripture for the weightiest and most luminous promises of God—in Genesis, in Isaiah, Luke, Romans, Revelation and more. The death of Jesus on the cross begins to loom large again in our vision of the inexplicably lavish love of God. Simplistic and saccharine songs and artwork no longer tempt us. Consumerist approaches to worship begin to lose their appeal. We find ourselves steadied by a poise that only God’s Spirit can grant us, and a joyful resolve to engage the world that God loves so deeply.

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