Worship and Justice

From the Vault

A few months ago a package arrived in the mail from a friend of RW. Inside was a full set of Liturgy and Music in Reformed Worship newsletters. This RW precursor set the trajectory for providing worship leaders and committees with practical assistance in planning, structuring, and conducting congregational worship in the Reformed tradition. Unlike back issues of Reformed Worship, the jewels in these newsletters are not available online, so we decided to share a few of them with you. Many of the articles are in response to or in anticipation of the Conference on Liturgy and Music (COLAM)—another precursor to many worship conferences both local and bi-national.

“I hate, I despise your Advent and Easter celebrations, and I will not take delight in your worship services. Though you offer me mission collections and your budget envelopes, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace offerings of your building drives. Take away from me the noise of your hymns; I will not listen to the sound of your pipe organs. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” (liberally adapted from Amos 5)

If Amos had spoken these words at the first Conference on Liturgy and Music (or at your church), would he be invited back? Perhaps we would feel that his message does not apply to us, or at least that it is not particularly fitting for a conference on worship.

My borrowing of Amos is not intended as an indictment of liturgical interest or as an intimation that concern with worship distracts us from concern with people’s needs. I recall one speaker at the first Conference on Liturgy and Music who also was an inner-city pastor; presumably he saw no conflict between seeking justice for his parishioners and seeking to worship meaningfully. And one can easily multiply examples of people whose devotion to meaningful liturgy is matched by devotion to justice in the marketplace.

And yet—Amos is relevant to us, and to the pages of Liturgy and Music. The rostrum at our liturgy conferences should be open to him. Worship can become escape, and concern with liturgy can replace our concern for the poor. One need only reflect on the devoutly regular worship habits of South Africa during apartheid, or of the American South during slavery, or of Germany during the holocaust to realize that Genevan psalters, gospel songs, and Lutheran liturgies can be used to cover the stench of unrighteousness.

We should therefore continually urge each other to maintain our sensitivities to hunger, to poverty, to injustice, to illness—especially as worship leaders. We should exhort each other to be involved in the restoring and healing of the broken areas of life, so that the warmth of worship or the beauty of liturgy will not become an escape for us. As worship leaders we should remind ourselves and the congregations we serve that righteousness and justice should not be neglected in favor of our churchly piety.

Are there immediate liturgical implications as well? Perhaps the main avenue of exhortation will come through biblical preaching. But there are also implications for the liturgy. If the sermon were to deal with the justice passage in Amos 5, then the prayers and songs and gifts should express a similar bent. We can also give expression to the problems of the congregation by building a “sharing time” into the liturgy. Such a time of sharing problems, fears, and difficulties (as well as praise and thanksgiving) can meaningfully precede the congregational prayer.

The kind of integration of worship and marketplace is certainly found in Scripture. One example that comes to mind is Psalm 72, which marvelously blends doxology and social concern:

The king will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. . . . He will rescue them from oppression and violence. . . . Praise be to the LORD God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvelous deeds. Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen!

Some months ago I suggested that a principle aim of all liturgists ought to be the promotion of meaningful worship. In such worship we attempt to develop the service as one unified, integrated expression. The same principle holds for our life before the Lord. There ought to be a unity of expression in which our worship service and our life service are integrated. We profess to love God as well as next-door- and around-the-world neighbors. Professing it in church on Sunday should be the prelude to practicing it on Monday.

Doxological singing and sacrificial living should be all of one piece, and ministry of Word and sacraments should give rise to a daily ministry of reconciliation and healing.

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 95 © March 2010, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.