Honest Worship in 2020 and Beyond

The global COVID-19 pandemic has exposed centuries-old, unresolved racial disparities and injustices that are groaning for the reconciling grace of the gospel. Amidst this reality, what is the shape of honest worship in your context? 

Years ago a pastor told me his congregation’s birth story: “In 1968, the dominating reality of life was the war in Vietnam. Young men were dying, students were protesting, soldiers were coming back wounded physically and mentally, patriotism was under significant stress. But the churches in this city that were part of my denomination worshipped every Sunday as if the war did not exist. Finally, a group who couldn’t stomach this dishonesty anymore got together and founded the church I now serve.”

That group recognized that Christian worship is honest worship.

During the years when I taught at Dordt University in Iowa and Redeemer University in Ontario, Canada, I took great delight in emphasizing how honest the Scriptures are. The Old Testament “heroes” of faith whom we meet are, for the most part, presented as deeply flawed and struggling human beings. There are more Psalms of lament than any other kind of Psalm, and these laments wonder why God is absent, complain that the bad guys are getting away with murder (literally), express confusion about trusting in God, and pointedly refuse to arrive at happy, spiritualized conclusions. The four gospels frequently portray Jesus’ disciples as egocentric, power-hungry, and gospel bumblers; after Pentecost, we meet two of the church’s leading evangelists—Peter and Paul—in bitter conflict with each other.

The Bible consistently names reality the way it is. 

And so should Christian worship.

What does an honest faith expressed through honest worship in 2020 look like?

The global COVID-19 pandemic has exposed centuries-old, unresolved racial disparities and injustices that are groaning for the reconciling grace of the gospel. I dare say it is impossible to lead authentic worship in 2020 without weaving these groans in some way through our worship—not just for a week or two, but consistently for the long term.

What shape might these groanings take in our worship? I realize this depends on our own community’s racial composition and history.

As a white male in an almost entirely Caucasian (Canadian) congregation, I wonder if one of the ideas below might be appropriate for encouraging my congregation to grow in honesty.

  1. Perhaps I am called to acknowledge my ignorance in worship. What we don’t know is always greater than what we know. After the Lord appeared to Job out of the whirlwind (Job 38–41), Job confessed that he had been responding out of ignorance (Job 42:3). Racial issues are very complex; we often feel compelled to respond to them quickly. Worship can give us permission to push “pause,” confess our ignorance, and recommit to open-hearted listening and learning.
  2. Perhaps I am called to confess my reactive defensiveness and/or accusatory postures in worship. My anxiety levels rise quickly during racially charged conversations. There are times when I know I am called to push “pause,” but I don’t. Worship can give us permission to name those times, surrender them at the foot of the cross, and recommit to sturdier, “fruit-of-the Spirit-shaped” responses.
  3. Perhaps I am called to celebrate the grand Revelation 7 vision and the tiny appetizers that anticipate it now. In Revelation 7 we read, “before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (v. 9). My community contains many, many seedlings of reconciliation, learning, deep hospitality, repentant “aha” moments, and more. Each one is a “new creation signpost” anticipating the Revelation 7:9 vision. Honest worship names and celebrates these with gratitude. 
  4. Perhaps I am called to allow worship to name my blind spots as I read Scripture and as I preach. I once heard an African-American preacher walk through much of the gospel of Luke, highlighting how pericope after pericope revealed Jesus breaking down racial barriers, gender barriers, cleanliness barriers, and more. Since then, I have begun to read and preach the entire Scriptures with that set of glasses on. I know I have more blind spots, and until that day when I no longer see through a glass darkly, those blind spots will need to be named and ministered to. Worship is able to provide such ministry.

Perhaps you, dear reader, are part of a congregation whose make-up is very different from mine, and honest worship in your context will name very different manners of engagement. What is the shape of honest worship in your context? The manners are secondary; honesty is primary.

Karl Barth is reputed to have said that we always read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. These two hands together invite the community to worship honestly, or, as Jesus said, “Worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).