Just Worship

Photo by Edward Cisneros

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! —Amos 5:23-24

Earlier this year I read about a white upper middle-class Baptist woman from Texas who unwittingly became a youth worker—the kind of youth worker who’s fighting to end current-day slavery. Her church had hosted a boys’ youth choir from Zambia, all of whom were supposedly receiving education and financial support in return for their participation.  In fact, these boys were being used as slaves by—of all people—a worship leader who would make them sing up to seven one-hour concerts a day.  He denied them access to health care, and pocketed their $1 million annual profit with no provisions for their education or their home community.  Meanwhile their African village continued to believe in the leader and send their boys away with him.

When Sandy Shepherd and others from her church discovered what was going on, they attempted to expose the scheme and free the boys from this leader’s grip.  Unfortunately, Sandy and her church were unable to bring justice to the situation and eventually gave up.  This helplessness is easy to understand, especially when we think of the 27 million slaves in the world today, 17,000 of whom are trafficked into the U.S. each year.

Several years later, Sandy received a phone call explaining that seven of the boys had escaped from the choir and were now being held by the I.N.S.  Though she resisted getting involved, a song Sandy had sung in her Baptist choir echoed in her head and moved her to act with justice: “Yes, Lord, yes, I will answer the call.”  She took the boys in, eventually adopting one who was an orphan as her own way to right the wrongs done against the boys’ community in Zambia. 1

Sandy had learned a lesson that the Hebrew prophet Amos would be proud of: Lifting our hands to God in worship is inseparable from opening our hands to the oppressed and to one another in justice.

The Great Disconnect

Amos wasn’t exactly what we would consider an inspiring motivational speaker.  He was a 7th-century gloom-and-doom prophet.  He gave promises of hope, but the big picture for Amos’ audience was bleak: impending exile for the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

A sheep-breeder and fig tree tender from Tekoa in Judah, God called the unsuspecting Amos to go north and speak a hard message to Israel’s leaders.  This was during the period of Israel’s greatest prosperity, thanks to both agricultural and trade success.  The people’s excessive wealth created a class division like never before, in which the wealthy were extremely wealthy, at the expense of the extremely poor (a reality that hauntingly echoes our own today).

Amos openly denounced this dIrene Chotomy.  Oppression cannot coexist with fervent worship of God.  By external standards, the Israelites were doing everything right in worship—their worship was elaborate and well-done.  But the wealthy believed that all they needed to do was multiply their sacrifices; the more they sinned, the more sacrifices they brought.  In contrast, those who were poor could not afford the sacrifices.  They literally could not afford to sin.  Amos teaches that rather than an abundance of sacrifices, God wants an abundance of justice.  Thus Amos declares, “Let justice roll down like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” The message is clear: there must be justice alongside sacrifice—worship must flow out of and flow back into right living.

When Amos Shows Up on Sunday

As a worship leader, Amos hits home.  I am among those responsible for guiding kids and adults in songs and other acts as a community proclaiming faith in Christ.  Not only that, but I am part of a church that is predominantly middle-class, and while we are moving towards becoming a community actively seeking justice, many of the features of our lifestyles (the clothes we buy, the cars we drive, the coffee we drink) still contribute to the systemic oppression of the poor.  Recently the words of Amos came alive for me as I had an opportunity to live out the connection between our worship and our ethics—our praise and our justice.

One Saturday my family drove through the Los Angeles community of Compton—a neighborhood infamous for its violence and racial conflict.  We were going to visit some friends there for their son’s birthday party.  Our friends in Compton hired their neighbor to watch cars during the party.  Car-jacking happens regularly, the neighbor tells me as he convinces me to entrust my minivan to his watch for an extra dollar.  It’s easy to see why fear is the rule in these streets where so many kids see their worst nightmares come true.  Naturally my own fears rise when I spend time in Compton, too.  But our commitment to being the community of God with these dear friends is what motivates us to join them in their neighborhood, and ultimately what abates our fears.

Yet I couldn’t help but wonder, what do the words of Amos 5 sound like to our friends?  How do they see justice and righteousness flow into their neighborhood from people like us, or churches like ours?  Or rather, how do they interpret the abandonment of their neighborhood by the city and its churches?  As Latino immigrants, how do they live day to day with the rejection of the alien that most churches in the United States perpetuate?  Should I be able to stomach the reality that the kids from their neighborhood can play alongside my kids now, but within a few years their futures are going to look strikingly different (particularly those who are undocumented)?  Should I be okay with the education and job prospects for the little boy whose birthday we celebrated that night?  And if not, how on earth can I make any difference?

Feeling a bit overwhelmed and helpless after Saturday night, Sunday morning worship at our suburban middle-class church brought me face to face with Amos again, this time through the words of his contemporary, Micah.  As one of the worship leaders for that morning, I sang the words of Micah 6:8—“I will act justly, and I will love mercy, and I will walk humbly with my God.”  Micah’s description of God’s requirements in worship ring out an irony.  Despite the Israelite’s complaints, God does not require something overwhelming in order for us to authentically worship.  In contrast, God has only required that God’s people love covenant faithfulness, act out justice, and walk humbly or reflectively before God—to have a clear concept of who God is and who we are.  Singing that song on Sunday, I had to wonder whether our friends from Saturday night would agree with our self-declaration of justice, mercy, and humility.  And I had to wonder whether it really rings true in the way we worship in our youth ministries.

Jesus, the Worship Radical

When we look to the life of our Lord for more insight into the connection between worship and justice, we see that Jesus himself was a true worship radical.  Jesus brought worship fanaticism face to face with worship justice—a worship that values teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath as much as healing a broken body on that same Sabbath.  Worship that declares the year of the Lord’s favor and the release of prisoners, as Jesus did when he read from Isaiah in the midst of a worship service (Luke 4:18-21).  The Gospels record Jesus running the extortionists and salesmen out of the temple on the basis of worship ethics: God’s house is to be a house of prayer for all nations, not a place for profit and exploitation (Mark 11:15-17, Lk 19:45-46, quoting both Isaiah and Jeremiah).  And at his final meal, Jesus is found in a scandalous act of worship ethics, washing his followers’ feet during the Passover meal and reassigning the significance of servanthood in God’s kingdom (John 13).

John 4:1-42 records Jesus’ interaction with a Samaritan woman in which he discusses true worship as that enacted “in spirit and truth.”  His encounter was directly related to justice for this woman, both in her immediate community (restoring her identity from that of outcast to that of evangelist) and in the broader context of her identity as a Samaritan, a people group excluded from worship by the Jews of the first century (an ongoing exclusion since the return from exile over 500 years earlier).  Jesus’ statement was a powerful indictment of the Jewish refusal to honor the Samaritans’ faith and identity as part of the “people of God.”  By connecting this woman with true worship, Jesus models a worship ethic that blasts the Jewish concept of identity out of the water.

Singing of Love AND Justice

So how can we live out God’s command for just worship in our youth ministries and congregations?  Here are a few thoughts to get us started:

1. Welcome the marginalized—literally. Theologian Miguel De La Torre notes that the prophets were straightforward about God’s view of worship.  He writes, “God was not interested in church services devoid of praxis toward the marginalized… Instead, the prophets proclaimed justice for society’s most vulnerable members as true worship, a testimony of one’s love for God and neighbor.” 2 De La Torre argues that those who experience the power and privilege of dominant culture cannot live out a truly liberating worship without hearing the marginalized and bringing them to the center of justice-seeking action. 3 If this is the case, what do our isolation and the power-race-class divisions evident in our worship say about our capacity for worshiping ethically?  In other words, one way to bring about justice is to welcome those who are marginalized, poor, and oppressed into the midst of our worship and action as a community of faith.

I used to work in a “downtown church” where we continually wrestled with the tension of wanting to create space for the rough kids and adults who were right on our doorstep while also trying not to alienate the folks who paid to keep the doors open and our salaries paid.  This past summer, that church took a new bold step towards the community by offering free meals to kids during the summer weeks when they would normally have access to a free meal at school during the academic year.  This church is discovering that as they literally welcome the poor, they find the heart of God in these acts of worship.

2. Evaluate our worship with an eye to the whole message of God. In addition to bringing the marginalized into our midst, we can begin to be more aware of the songs and texts we use in worship and what they communicate.  I was shocked to recently notice the words of Psalm 101:1, which declares, “I will sing of your love and justice.  To you, Oh Lord, I will sing.” As a church worship leader for over ten years in settings that run the continuum from more traditional to more progressive styles, I find it strange that I have never come across a song or hymn echoing this line.  The popularity of such songs as “I could sing of your love forever” exemplify our obsession with the love of God for me, individually—not in itself a bad thing—yet to the tragic exclusion of God’s justice for the community and the world (which implies that we hold a short-sighted view of God’s love as well).

This was not so with the biblical writers.  In fact, at 421 mentions, justice (or righteousness, Hebrew mishpat) actually gets more airplay in the Old Testament than God’s love (or covenant faithfulness, Hebrew hesed).  Justice is named as one of the primary characteristics of God.  This is not to say that songs about justice don’t exist today, but singing of God’s love is by far the more popular alternative, particularly in the mainstream worship cult of contemporary evangelicalism and youth ministry.

3. Reinforce the connection between reaching up and reaching out. As leaders who work with students, we must both live into and teach this important connection between justice and worship.  Isaiah petitions, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers…Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice…to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:3, 6-7).  In other words, raising our hands to God is directly linked to stretching out our hands to the poor, to our neighbors, and to one another.  These actions cannot be understood apart from each other.  Our worship in youth ministry must urge—and model—both.

This will likely mean confronting our wealth and our consumerist culture with the reality of desperate poverty around the world, and showing kids that these two realities are not disconnected.  It may even mean stirring the hearts of folks like Sandy—and her teenage kids—to get involved in freeing slaves.  Some practical ways you might approach this could include taking your group to a home for mentally disabled people and serving them the Lord’s Supper, or connecting with a local home for foster kids and discovering ways your youth ministry can be involved in the lives of very real orphans in your midst, like having worship services at the group home or intentionally welcoming them to worship in your youth ministry.

Amos draws upon imagery of a desert stream that is a dry bed much of the year, but in the rainy season becomes a torrential flood.  God’s desire is that justice and righteousness be streams that never stop flowing, bringing life and thriving to the desert in which God’s people find themselves.  When we begin to worship more thoughtfully in light of God’s love and justice, we begin to make our faith come alive for kids and for adults in our ministries—in essence, becoming catalysts for life in a barren land.  May it be true for Sandy in Texas, for the village singers in Zambia, for my friends in Compton, for my suburban church, and for each of us who worship in the overflow of those waters.

Action Points: New Avenues toward Just Worship

  • Take stock of your worship songs, words, prayers, actions and write down all the different metaphors you find for God and for the Christian life.  What metaphors are most prevalent in our worship language, and how do they draw on the metaphors of scripture?  Do we tend to carefully choose our metaphors such that we offer a limited view of God and the Christian life, or do our metaphors call followers to a robust faith journey?  How do these metaphors shape the ethical choices we make in light of who we’re becoming as we rehearse the metaphors in worship?  You could do this either with your leadership team or with students themselves.
  • Consider incorporating more scripture texts about God’s justice into your worship and Bible study with kids and adults.  For starters, try “The Lord loves justice…” (Ps 37:28) or “Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.  Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep…” (Psalm 36:5-6).
  • Spiritual disciplines are often taught as ways to help us develop our internal spiritual life.  But disciplines can actually be ways of helping kids move beyond themselves to be free to serve others.  If spiritual disciplines can lead us OUTWARD, not just INWARD, then they can be a new road for turning kids inside out towards others in acts of compassion.  Consider teaching differently about what spiritual disciplines transform us to be and do for the kingdom of God, and consider treating acts of service and justice as spiritual disciplines in and of themselves.

For more resources related to living out justice in youth ministry, including several free downloadable curriculum series for your youth ministry or small groups, please visit https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/deep-justice/.

Footnotes
  • 1. ^ From Deann Alford, “Free at Last: How Christians Worldwide are Sabotaging the Modern Slave Trade,” Christianity Today (March 2007). (1 instances in the document)
  • 2. ^ Miguel A. De La Torre, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 8. (1 instances in the document)
  • 3. ^ Ibid, 8. (1 instances in the document)