By Mark Labberton
“It cannot be denied that too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and the powerful and against the weak and oppressed—this, despite the gospel.” – Howard Thurman
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” – Isaiah 58:6-7
The peaceful and the violent demonstrations roiling across America reveal an urgent crisis of worship. This connection is not drawn by Fox or CNN, by NPR or MSNBC. It’s drawn from the Bible, and Isaiah 58 could be an example. The prophet underscores that God’s people are not just those who act out worship “as if” they meant it, but those called to seek and actually reflect the God they worship by how they live in public, and especially in relation to the poor and vulnerable. The evidence of true and faithful worship is that as disciples we allow God’s expressions of loving and just power to define and direct our own and seek to build systems that do likewise.
In a broader sense, Christian worship is about rightly-ordering power through the love, mercy, and justice of God in Jesus Christ so God’s people live as faithful worshipers, bearing light in dark places and spreading salt in dying places. We show God glory by reflecting His character in action, not just by saying or singing the Word. If voices in the streets shine light on personal and systemic injustice, it should raise some serious questions for Christian worshipers about uses and abuses of power. We do not live in a theocracy, but in so far as it is possible for God’s people to reflect God’s just and righteous character in the world, it serves as a manifestation of our worship.
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty is not an incantation of religious imperialism, but a reorienting reminder of Who creates and holds all other realities and powers. Singing, “There is power in the name of Jesus, so break every chain, break every chain,” is not a tribal chant, but a cry to realign all of life in relation to the One Who can and does set us free. Our worship is meant to continuously re-order who and what power is primary in our lives, who redefines and recalibrates our understanding and engagement with any and all other forms of power, and how God’s people should move into those places committed to pursue the honest, just, and hopeful use of power. This is all part of living into joy, not just hoarding personal happiness.
A God’s-eye View of Worship…and Power
Worship involves living out in our own lives, and in our complex, pluralist, power-abusive contexts, how in Christ we perceive and act in relation to all manifestations or claims of power. We don’t seek God as a justification for protecting our personal power, defending our social tribe, or turning a blind-eye to systemic power issues that prejudice some and privilege others. Even in small ways, we can easily delude ourselves just here. The God Who seeks our passionate worship passionately wants it to show by seeking justice. I recall once a co-leader in worship stepping all over my feet throughout our singing—hands raised in glory, feet unfetteredly tromping on mine. I confess wondering, “If you do not love the neighbor you do see, how can you love the God you cannot see (1 Jn 4:20)? When the people of God step on our brothers and sisters in Christ, or systemically do so on our neighbors, our worship is bankrupt.
In this frame, “I can’t breathe” should resound to us as a call to worship: The Lord, high and lifted up, hears our cries. Seamlessly, we as worshipers of that God then ask, “Who is crying out and why? Who is the source and sustainer of life? Who has human power to put life itself in jeopardy, let alone put it to an end? What power is being exercised? In light of what history, jurisdiction, or social structures? What assignment of power has been given and justified? What are the vulnerabilities, assumptions, traps, and distortions of such power? When breathing has been ended, what has power done? By what measure will it be judged to have been just: a right ordering of power for the thriving of all? How is such power measured, examined, and able to be called unjust? By what power will it be made right?” These are worship questions requiring worshipful answers.
Worship is the essential awakening of people to God and to God’s love for the world. This means that in worship we are called again and again to admit and repent of the ways we have both offered ourselves and been taken hostage by lesser powers. Our necessary admission is that we bow our knees before a plethora of powers: time, money, status, education, beauty, influence, health, relationships, access. And we do so before the gods of safety, social identity, and tribe. “Only God is God,” we say. But the worship our lives enact exposes that we actually revel in other kinds of lords. Faithful worship clarifies the distortions, purges competing deities, celebrates the gifts, reorients us in community with others, and moves us towards living first in light of the reign of God in which “Jesus is Lord.” Only the One before whom “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”1 knows in the most intimate detail how trusting you and me with power and freedom may be a gift, even as it can be such a problem.
The anguish, rage, peaceful demonstrations, and violent acts on our streets embody our collective and individual suffering. Power is never neutral. Sometimes power is wonderfully used to build up, and this happens in countless ways. But too often the uses of power subvert and destroy lives made in the image of God. Systems of power can do so repetitively and destructively, calling it “normal” as a euphemism cruelly masking a multitude of sins. In our worship procession or opening singing, we lift up the Name above all names. As we do so, we must come too to confess and lament before God that other forms of power often violently and brutally undermine the lives and welfare of those, like us, who are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” We admit that Evil is deeply woven into this devastation. We pray knowing that our foe is not only flesh and blood, but a lion crouching at the door seeking someone to devour. Does our worship evoke doing serious business against these forces with a God who suffers over the suffering of those bearing God’s image?
The litmus test of faithful worship is not its orderliness but its integrity. As Isaiah 58 makes so clear, it is not an integrity measured only by what happens in the sanctuary, but by what we do or fail to do in the streets. Just consider this: worship framed the Middle Passage. In Ghana, the slave fortresses were holding tanks for brutally stolen and manacled men, women, and children, on their way to the Middle Passage, and, if they survived, to the suffering that lay beyond. Since slave traders were people who represented Christian countries, chapels were not uncommon in these slave fortresses. In at least one case, an especially elegant chapel was intentionally built astride the very gangplank across which the slaves would be loaded and imprisoned for the sake of their awaiting owners.
Let’s get this in our minds: those in charge of the slaves, and those sailing the ships, would gather for worship—singing, praying, reading, hearing God’s Word, asking for safe passage, receiving the Eucharist—before setting sail with enslaved human cargo. Probably relying on a prayer book, on a lectionary of Bible readings, on a psalter for their singing, they turned to the same God you and I turn to as we lead others into the presence of God. Clearly, despite all of this, the worship in their chapel did not threaten, and probably justified, their abuse of power against the people manacled in their holds.
We may be amidst, or looking at, the thousands on our streets across the U.S. this summer, the throngs crying out for justice with peace, some full of rage. Men and women who take worship seriously need to reconsider how our worship enables or hampers us in our listening, discernment, engagement, and sacrifice, and our refusal to deny, avoid, deflect, or justify. How many times do the Scriptures call us to attend to those whose power is most vulnerable, who are most oppressed? This is not the “democratic” parts of the Bible versus the “republican” parts of the Bible. This is the Scripture that calls all of us into account for our individual and systemic uses of power.
Knowing that millions of people who confess “Jesus is Lord” are everywhere in America, and that the besetting sins of America are intertwined with the building of this great nation, we have to ask what God wants to say to any of us claiming to be disciples about our use or abuse of power. Native Americans, Africans, Latinos, Asians, women, the poor, the imprisoned, children—victims without sufficient power—are oppressed in the name of our Lord by the brutalities meted out through the Doctrine of Discovery and the Doctrine of Manifest Destiny. These horrors should remind us daily how easily we can be and may be deceived by dominant power. True worship pulls back the lies and offers freedom and joy in their place. As a seasoned African brother I know once said to a mature group of white Christians, “It’s true, African Christians may lack the spiritual depth we need, but what is more remarkable is that we know what it means to find joy in the midst of suffering and pain. We worship in spirit and in truth.”
The Bible speaks to us in this real world in this real time. Hearing the Scriptures in worship is part of the community listening not only for what we can readily hear, but listening for how God’s Spirit will speak far deeper into what we know is beneath the surface of our lives. This means that as worshipers, we know that underlying the disorder we can see are disorders we can’t see. So the demonstrations and riots are only the surface of need, and God wants to address the underlying conditions. For some, this means the answer to injustice is a call to deeper piety. But that can be an easy hiding place from acknowledging that the underlying condition is not only answered by pursuing piety but by seeking justice. Or better yet, pursuing piety includes pursuing justice. David wrote some great songs, but some of those were written while he was still blind to and arrogant about his own abuse of power. It is what lies beneath, behind, under, and intertwined that brings us to the real issues—in us and among us. That’s just where authentic, faithful, biblical worship must lead us.
Return, rest, reorder
So let’s first take a deep breath—starting where we are meant to start, with Sabbath rest. Our vocation as worshipers does not start with us or with busying ourselves, but with the fundamental acknowledgement that God alone is God. All glory and all pain are held in God’s arms of love and justice. Sabbath-keeping reminds us to never let ourselves be more than six days out from laying down all the implements and signs of our labor, to remember the One Who made and rests, to remember we are to be caretakers of what does not belong to us, and to remember that God is the One Who alone holds all reality and power. This is essential for our worship together to be able to recalibrate the worship we go out to live through the week. In the deeply enervating and overwhelming time we are now in, Sabbath rest is all the more important.
As worship leaders, we know deeply just how difficult it is to shape services that meet God and converge with the immediate needs of our congregation, whether in-person or online. Forming services that organically integrate the conscious and intrinsic re-ordering of power—private and public—in our corporate worship is both an urgent and a long-term process. Just to be clear: this is not about importing partisanship. It is about realizing that for people of Christian faith, “just” names God, not a social or a political agenda. It points to the right ordering of power for God’s world to thrive. So the journey in worship that focuses issues of power is going to be exceptionally centered on God, not on us. Any other center needs to die as an idol. We cultivate now and over time an appetite in our congregations to receive and live out the fullness of life filled with God’s loving, healing, just power—to live out a life that seeks justice in the world of which we are a critical part. The richest piety should—and will—feed our risk-taking faithfulness towards vulnerable brothers, sisters, and neighbors, and towards the kinds of systemic change so urgently needed. These are links we as worship leaders need to enact in our own lives and nurture in the lives of others. We have often named the right words, but failed to allow them to make the mark they are meant to produce.
In the prayers we offer, in the lyrics we select, in the intro’s and outro’s we use, in the images we project, in the voices we lift up, in the stories we invite, in the names we cite, in the needs we lift up, change may be called for. Note, this is not “redecorating” our service to be more “diverse” but attuning ourselves to God’s private and public agenda for our worship. It starts with us taking prayer walks in our neighborhood and city, attuning ourselves instead to what God sees and hears. It includes desperate prayers for God to open our hearts beyond our limited compassion and courage in order to live a worship that authenticates God to our neighbor, town or city. It means hearing firsthand and learning to name the suffering and injustice around us, standing in the capacious love and justice of God.
Whose reality makes the most encompassing claim on us? Whose cries get—and don’t get—our attention? When God asks through Isaiah 58, “Is not this the fast I choose?” we are pointed away from ourselves, and towards those unseen or underseen, towards the people and the systems that crush people bearing the image of God. Our true worship, the fast that God chooses, appears where and when we lead ourselves and others to show forth the glory of God’s mighty power in a world of pain and suffering, the power of a just God Who wants worshipers to show Who He is by seeking justice in a world of disordered power. Let the people sing and show, “Waymaker, miracle-worker, promise-keeper, that is Who you are.”
Questions for Reflection
How do we reflect God’s just and righteous character in the world?
How can we build systems that allow God’s expressions of loving and just power to define and direct our own?
Who and what power is primary in our lives?
Who redefines and recalibrates our understanding and engagement with any and all other forms of power?
How can we pursue the honest, just, and hopeful use of power?
Where have we juxtaposed Christian symbol and practice with injustice and self-interest?
What powers and gods do we worship: time, money, status, education, beauty, influence, health, relationships, access…safety, social identity, and tribe? And what would our repentance look like?
Do I pray to justify myself and protect my (or my tribe’s) personal power, or do I intercede for the world (and individuals) whom “God so loved?”
Which kingdom are we investing in with our words, actions, and expenditures of time and money?
If we do not hear the cries of the poor, will God listen to our cries for rescue?
Does Scripture shape our response to injustice or have we created an alternate gospel and god based on our own preferences?
What is God speaking at this kairos moment to you and His Church about the use of power? Whose reality makes the most claim on us? Whose cries get—and don’t get—our attention?