I often enter worship with a desire for some form of comfort or reassurance. Usually this comfort comes in the form of a familiar Scripture verse, an uplifting song, or an encouraging sermon reminding me that in Jesus Christ, I too am a beloved child of God.
Other times, I enter intent on discovering God’s purpose and will in my life. I want to hear a clear affirmation that there is a purpose for my life, that I can contribute to God’s kingdom somehow. It doesn’t have to be too ambitious—just tangible. On those days, the special offerings highlighting a missionary or parachurch ministry, the announcements about service opportunities, and occasionally sermon application points hold more of my attention. Worship affirms my responsibility to contribute to the church’s overall mission of caring for others, particularly those who are facing some sort of crisis or whose quality of life could be improved.
In each of these situations, worship engages my longings for the Spirit to move in me and also through me.
But in reading the prophets recently, I am troubled by some of the ways they speak about worship. For example:
- Isaiah 1:10–17 (NIV) includes God’s admonishment: “Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me,” and “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you” because the people have failed to practice justice. Verse 17 concludes with this powerful corrective: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
- Zechariah 7 records God’s frustration with Israel’s practices of fasting because they are self-centered and have not led Israel to do justice for the oppressed in their land. Zechariah shares this response: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other’” (vs. 9–10, NIV).
- Amos 5:23–24 (NIV) concludes an incisive section of prophetic critique this way: “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
In short, the prophets are declaring that our prayers and worship practices can never be God-honoring if they are detached from living justly. This detachment is particularly evident, say the prophets, in how we relate with those entangled in poverty, with those who face the layered vulnerabilities of being widowed or orphaned, or with people from ethnic communities outside of our own. According to the prophets, faithful worship practices are inextricably intertwined with living justly.
Do Not Pray for This People
Perhaps the passage that disturbs me the most in this regard is Jeremiah 7. There God tells Jeremiah: “So do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you. Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem?” (Jeremiah 7:16–17, NIV).
When reading the whole of Jeremiah 7, we encounter God’s confrontation of the religious and political leaders of Israel who have sought safety in the trappings of religious observance (specifically in their worship at the temple) but have failed to embrace the implications of that worship in their towns and on their streets. God bluntly tells Jeremiah to quit praying for them because they are distorting God’s character through their unjust living while simultaneously claiming personal safety in God’s presence. God’s response is clear: “Do not pray for this people . . . for I will not listen to you.”
This disturbing judgment comes against the backdrop of Israel’s impending exile to Babylon. God’s anger here is directed not toward a foreign king such as Pharaoh, but against Israel, God’s own people. The Israelites have elevated their worship (“This is the temple of the Lord, the temple, . . . the temple,” v. 4) while contributing to and failing to stop the oppression of the poor, fatherless, widows, and immigrants, even to the point of “shedding innocent blood.” Their cultural patterns of oppression reveal that they do not know the God they claim to worship. In so doing, they are making a mockery of God’s character. And God decides that this disconnect between their worship gatherings and their daily living is too much. God will not listen to any more prayers for them.
Lament and Confession
This Jeremiah passage gives me pause as a leader in the church. How often do our prayers include the sorrows of our neighbors? What songs beckon us to act justly (Micah 6:8) and to spend ourselves on behalf of the poor (Isaiah 58:10)? When do we grieve together over the ongoing and amplified forms of racism, sexism, and classism perpetuated in our towns and on our streets, in our schools, our churches, and our homes?
The frequent absence from our worship of biblical passages that directly confront God’s people for their failure to do justice ought to lead us to examine our worship practices. I find myself wondering: Is our worship of God on Sunday and our living before God the rest of the week really any different from that of God’s people during Jeremiah’s time? Are we in danger of God saying about us, “Do not pray for this people, . . . for I will not listen to you”?
These passages challenge me to check myself in ways that prompt uncomfortable questions:
- Am I moving in tandem with God’s character, or am I distorting God’s character by the way I live throughout the week?
- How am I ignoring or refusing to stop the oppression of others? Am I actively contributing to the oppression of others?
- Have I made an idol out of my worship experiences?
- Do I personally know and have a relationship with people who face parallel circumstances to those encountered by the fatherless, widows, and immigrants named in Scripture?
- In what ways has my worship of God on Sunday become disconnected from my living before God throughout the week?
During the recent pandemic, many churches have spent a lot of time and energy trying to maintain and transpose Sunday worship in virtual settings with a deep longing to go back to worship the way it used to be. Many of us have placed a high emphasis on our worship gatherings. But as we see in Jeremiah 7, so did God’s people during Jeremiah’s time—and still their sins reached a point at which God’s love demanded confrontation. Have ours?
Worship that Disturbs
Prophetic Scripture passages like those mentioned above challenge us to regularly examine whether our worship and our living are congruent with God’s character. When read in context, passages like Jeremiah 7 are often the culmination of God’s repeated attempts to correct the community of God’s people. This correction is a matter of discipleship, of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work to form us in the ways of Jesus Christ—not just on Sunday, but on every day of our lives.
It also seems to me that we can make some adjustments to our worship practices to grow our attention to the Holy Spirit and, in doing so, to increase the likelihood that we will put God’s character into practice throughout the week. Here are four suggestions for engaging worship that can disturb our tendencies to disconnect our worship from our living.
Start a worship gathering with a dramatic reading of an imprecatory psalm or a psalm of lament.
When we start each worship gathering with the same type of upbeat songs, Scripture passages, and psalms, we subtly teach ourselves that the most acceptable way to approach God is by putting on a good face. By contrast, a call to worship based on an imprecatory psalm or a psalm of lament extends God’s welcoming character into the uncomfortable spaces of life. These somber, angry, and heavier notes teach us that God is not afraid of the injustices in the world or our entanglements within them. Hearing these less pleasant-sounding psalms in worship, especially as a call to worship, trains us to see that God is deeply concerned with the injustices we witness and experience throughout the week.
Include ample silence in our worship gatherings.
Dead space within worship often raises anxiety levels among worship leaders and congregants alike, so we tend to fill every moment in worship with busyness, choosing efficiency and constant noise over cultivating attentiveness. This busyness in worship feels familiar, safe, and enjoyable to those of us who live in a culture designed to entertain us as a way of masking our vulnerabilities and fears. Worship in this format carries a very present danger of leading us to see worship as an escape or distraction from real life. We need intentional space within our worship gatherings where the worship leaders (including the pastors) are silent, so that together we can communally remember and believe that God is speaking with us. Incorporating deliberate practices of silence throughout worship creates opportunities for all worshipers to become more attentive to the Spirit. Worship that encourages and trains us to actively listen to the Spirit can lead us toward greater faithfulness in our living throughout the week.
Encourage participatory prayers of confession, lament, and intercession.
Too often the congregation only hears prayers in the pastor’s voice. Creating space for worshipers to offer prayers with all the diversity of their particular stories—including experiences of violence and suffering due to the actions and silence of other Christians—and the peculiarities of their ways of praying enriches the life of God’s people. Hearing prayers not only from those who are eloquent but also from those who struggle to find the right words, from those who pray with great range of emotion and those who pray with quiet solemnity, or from those who pray in their preferred languages reassures and teaches all those who are gathered that God is indeed the One who sees, hears, and welcomes each person just as they are. As we hear prayers from the whole community of God’s people, we also hear how different people are longing for God to intervene in the world around us, a practice that over time can help us see injustices—and our complicity in them—in ways we had not previously recognized.
Integrate stories from the week within worship.
Another way of keeping worship and just living more closely connected is to make room within our worship gatherings for storytelling about what we have encountered throughout the week. Taking time at the end of a worship service to encourage people to watch for signs of God’s faithfulness—or for situations in which God’s faithfulness is hard to see—can heighten the congregation’s attentiveness to the Spirit throughout the week. Inviting people to share these stories at the start of the next worship gathering deepens everyone’s awareness that worship and daily living are integrated with each other.
In some sense each of these small steps disrupts the normal ways we approach and experience worship. They disturb our ordinary rhythms. While none of these steps guarantees that we will integrate our worship and living, they can make us more attentive to the ways that the Holy Spirit is forming us in the image and character of Jesus Christ. That attentiveness will leave us more inclined to address injustice wherever we encounter it, especially within ourselves.