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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Poor Worship

While in seminary, some friends and I did a collective independent study (is that an oxymoron?) on faith and wealth. Though there is much more to the paper I wrote for this class, (especially regarding further explanation of my conclusions which deal with worship practice, especially through music - I'd be happy to pass the full paper along to anyone who desires to read it), I wanted to post some of the conclusions I reached regarding a focus on the poor, and lack thereof, in worship:

As the Christian message becomes more and more domesticated, we begin to remove Christian obligation to do acts of compassion for our neighbor out of the context of a concern for the dispossessed and the oppressed. Whenever Christians have tried to shut out the world and its needs in worship, justice and any sense of care for the poor gets omitted from worship and worship music.

It is at this point that many congregations and pastors begin asking such questions as: Why is a focus on poverty such a big deal? Why spend time in worship concerned about the poor? When we come to worship, God just wants us to focus on Him, right? The answer to these questions is quite frightening, based upon observations from the book of Amos.

In Amos 5, the worship of Israel is condemned not because it mimics the popular music styles of the surrounding culture or because it confuses entertainment with worship; God condemns Israel’s worship due to the lack of focus on justice and righteousness. Put another way, God condemned their lifestyle, which included a lack of focus on justice and righteousness. Thus, their worship was not accepted. According to Amos 5 then, worship is unacceptable to God when the lifestyle of the worshippers does not follow His commands.

At this point, it is important to change the question being asked: What are God’s commands regarding the poor? The Bible is full of explicit commands by God to his people concerning the poor among them. Here is a small sampling:

There should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, (Deuteronomy 15:4).

If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother, (Deuteronomy 15:7).

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land, (Deuteronomy 15:11).

If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday, (Isaiah 58:10).

Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other, (Zechariah 7:10).

Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,’ (Matthew 19:21).

‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you, or thirsty, and give you something to drink? And when did we see you a stranger, and invite you in, or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me,’ (Matthew 25:35-40).

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, (Luke 14:13).

God’s people are called to care for the poor, yet congregations today choose to ignore this in worship practices. It is acceptable to praise God, loving Him with full heart, mind, body and soul, but love for neighbor in this sense is forgotten. If, through song and sermon, awareness of the poor is not being raised, if people are not being encouraged to go out to relieve the poor, then maybe we must ask this very difficult question: Does God accept our worship?

It is difficult to place the blame on the members of congregations. Many of them simply follow the leadership by which they are being led. Yet this is a dangerous ignorance in which they live their Christian lives, and it provides a crucial reason and responsibility for pastors and worship leaders to begin implementing elements focusing upon the poor and social justice within worship services.


  1. well said JP.
    thanks for sharing this.
    will pass along and use in various discussions~

  2. Appreciate your words, Jonathan, as one who is increasingly aware that perhaps the church is also not doing so well with widows and orphans and as one wondering if God would lift up in American society others who need the church to come alongside them as the poor and others did in biblical times and societies.

    A couple questions, not hostile, just inquiring...
    1) How much of biblical instruction toward the poor is directed to the poor among God's people rather than the poor in general? That may not change our need for more emphasis in worship, but clearly if we're not caring for the poor among God's covenant people, that's an obvious problem for acceptable worship.

    2) What would this shift in practice look like in a worship service - more mention in song, prayer, preaching or something else?

  3. Thanks everyone for your comments!

    Rob - great questions. The group I was in the study with discussed these same issues. To answer your first question, I do believe there is a very specific instruction to care for the poor within the community. We see a priority places here for God's covenantal people in both the Old and New Testaments (Paul's collection for the churches, believers sharing everything in common). As you said, it doesn't change the emphasis needed in worship, but I think it should change how we prioritize our church budgets, what we do with out tithes, etc. If we don't set an example within, why would anyone believe us on the outside?

    Related to that thought, as I begin to think of bringing new people into the church, a specific outreach to the poor is important. In my experience, we often overlook the poor in our evangelistic methods unless we're on a mission trip where we can come in a care for them for only a limited time. Many of our evangelistic methods target a very middle-class audience. I have even heard people say in church meetings that our church budget will grow as we bring in more middle-class families. If we are serious about witness, this means going to the places that Jesus did - to the poor as well as the outcasts of society - bringing them into the church. If we really wanted to spend time on evangelistic methods, I would argue the fact that most the time we simply take people away from other churches and don't truly win over large groups of new converts. Perhaps a better concern for the poor would see a difference here. So, I do believe that we do have responsibility for solidarity with the poor outside the church as well. (I know you don't disagree with any of this. I'm just making these statements for clarity purposes.)

    Regarding your second statement, I really wish I could have posted the entire paper I wrote on this subject. It was 15 pages long, which doesn't make for a good blog entry! I do have a few pages written answering your question, and will be happy to pass that along to you. Great question to ask though. Maybe in my next blog post I will specifically address that!

  4. I give you kudos for your efforts, Jonathan, in this challenging narrative and I want to encourage you with a quote that I love to think about when I feel that I am being a pioneer of thought and actions:
    "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Thos who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power conceded nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. --Mr. Frederick Douglass, 1857

    Sometimes I feel weary for my children's and grandchildren's futures. Many Black children are disproportionately denied a fair chance and are disproportionately poor. An unlevel playing field from birth contributes to many poor children getting pulled in to a cridle-to-prison-to-death pipeline that we must dismanatle if the clock of justice and social progress is to not turn backwards.

    The United States--the most militarily powerful and materially rich nation in the world--is so spiritually poor it chooses to let children be the poorest age group and to suffer multiple preventable deprivations. Millions of children lack healthcare when they are sick, lack enough food to stave off hunger, are homeless when their parents cannot find or afford housing, and lack safe and quality childcare and after-school programs when parents have to work. Millions of poor children in our schools cannot read or write and are dropping out or being pushed out of school, enroute to juvenile detention and adult jail rather than to jobs and to college. And millions of children are struggling to grow up in working poor families who are playing by the rules but still cannot earn fair wages from their employers and get enough support from their govenment to escape poverty or better themselves.

    We can and we must do better.

    The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. --Terry Tempest Williams