Reflections on Worship and Justice
By Tim Dearborn on August 13, 2015

Micah Groups
Between Ferguson, “Black Lives Matter,” immigration, income disparity, racial profiling, and the beginning of Presidential campaign debates—discussions of justice have captured our national attention. This is a prime time for our churches and our Micah Groups to take the lead in the conversation. As we prepare for fall preaching and worship plans, now is the time to consider how we will bring this conversation into worship.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, in Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World, says, “the authenticity of the community’s liturgy [worship] is conditioned by whether or not it practices and struggles for justice…liturgy practiced in the absence of justice is so seriously malformed that God finds it disgusting" (2011, p.46).
Sometimes it seems so easy to leave issues of justice outside the doors of our sanctuaries. The dungeons of the Goree Island, Senegal slave fort led to the “door of no return”—a narrow passageway to the waiting ships, through which passed 100,000s of the 15 million African men, women and children who were sold as slaves from 1502-1860s. Above the dungeons, the slave traders had built their chapel. I sat in that chapel, doubting that their organ music and hymns of praise to Jesus could drown out the cries of the captives below. Somehow their faith permitted them to be blind to the hideous purposes that shaped their entire business, and indeed built much of our Western economy.
Ever since sitting in that chapel and that dungeon, I’ve reflected on some troubling questions:
  • Are there the equivalent of “slave dungeons” over which I’m worshipping today?
  • In what ways am I blinded to or complicit in the injustices around me?
  • Am I fleeing to worship in order to hide from these issues or to seek forgiveness without being willing to change my behavior? 
Worship is an integral act of justice. Worship isn’t simply a means to provoke people to engage in acts of justice. We desire rightly ordered relationships and power to seamlessly lead from worship into the world and from the world into worship. Anne Koester comments in Liturgy and Justice: To Worship God in Spirit and Truth, “The intrinsic relationship between liturgy [worship] and justice is critical to the ongoing renewal of Church life and the created world” (2002, p. ix). This can occur naturally in every dimension of our corporate worship. Consider the following: 
  • The call to worship and opening adoration are acts of justice. Amidst the distance, alienation, and divisions that drive us apart and make us feel unworthy, the Spirit welcomes us and draws us together in Christ. We are invited to join with Christ through the Spirit before God on behalf of all. We offer our praise on behalf of all people to the God who hears the cries of the poor and afflicted, and the groaning of all creation. We worship on behalf of all who are excluded from worship because of prejudice, persecution, physical limitations, or simply because they’ve never heard the good news of God’s grace in Christ. And as an act of worship we commit ourselves to see this change.


  • Confession is an act of justice. We agree in our own voices with Christ’s repentance on our behalf. We grieve and lament our own and all people’s sinful selfishness. We cry out to God on behalf of those who have no human advocate for justice. We repent of being more concerned with our own well-being than with the well-being of others. We lament over disordered power and corrupted relationships. We affirm God’s reconciling, right-making love that restores relationships and power so that all people will flourish. And in this confession we give ourselves to God to work through us for change.


  • Baptism is an act of justice. We are baptized into Christ, who is in solidarity with all people as the New Adam. Justice is done as we are crucified and buried with Christ. Relationships are restored as we share in Christ’s resurrection, clothed in his life. We reject all that divides and dehumanizes us. In receiving our own deliverance from captivity, we commit ourselves to the God who promises that one day no one will be held captive. The walls of race, class, gender, social location, and power are overcome as we are baptized into the One Body of Jesus Christ (Rom 6:4, 1 Cor 15:29, Eph 4:5, Col 2:12).


  • Prayer is an act of justice. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are engaging in God’s rebellion against the status quo. We cry out for God’s will to be done on earth, here, now, among us, and among others. We pray with bold confidence to the One who has authority over all things in heaven and on earth, and who promises to be with us always (Matt 28). In prayer, we participate in the Spirit and Son’s intercession on behalf of our own, others’, and all of creation’s longing for redemption (Romans 8). We pray not only for individual healing, but also for our healthcare systems to be healed. We pray not only for estranged relationships in our midst, but for the right ordering of power in our police and judicial systems, for discriminated minority ethnic groups, and for victims of domestic violence and sexual exploitation. We pray for people who are seeking work, as well as for the flourishing of just businesses, even as we pray for those unable to afford decent housing, without access to meaningful employment, and held captive in extreme poverty.


  • The offering is an act of justice. If it were feasible, the most appropriate offertory act would be to place our entire body in the plate as it passes. For in the offering, we agree with God’s right ordering of our relationships and our approach to power. We are agreeing that we belong to God. All that we have belongs to God. We recognize that our offering is empty if our relationships are corrupted by estranged relationships or the misuse of power (Matt 5:23-24). We ask God to deliver us all from the idolatry of money. We contribute this offering to the “fair balance” Scripture commands (2 Cor 8:1-15).


  • The reading and proclaiming of Scripture are acts of justice. When we publicly read and proclaim the Scriptures, we are affirming our desire for the Voice of God to be more constitutive of our lives and our world than all the other voices in society that clamor for our attention. Every biblical sermon is about justice. It proclaims and participates in God’s right ordering of power, freeing listeners from the seductive voices that lure us into bondage to fear, self-interest, greed, and alienation. In Scripture and sermon we claim and proclaim that the world rests on the steadfast love and power of God.


  • The Lord’s Supper is an act of justice. Regardless of our position or power, we are all utterly dependent on the life of Christ poured into us by the indwelling Spirit. Relationships are reconciled in the One Body. Power is set right in this Table of Justice (Jn 6:53). We partake in anticipation of the day when all divisions of rich and poor, esteemed and despised, powerful and powerless will disappear. We renounce all injustices, and recommit ourselves to live as citizens of both the present and coming kingdom.


  • Passing the Peace is an act of justice. Through the simple act of a handshake, exchange of names, or even a “holy kiss,” we participate in God’s right ordering of relationships and power. God bids us all welcome. We are most ourselves when we are most together. If someone feels excluded from our worship, then our worship is diminished. A person’s education, ethnicity, economic or social status doesn’t determine our welcome. We extend to one another the shalom of God, which we will only know fully when all know it.


  • The benediction is an act of justice. The final “good word” sends us into the world (Jn 20:21). We affirm that God has rightly ordered our relationships in Christ, and that we’ve been liberated from our own, and from others’, abuse of power. We are sent into the world in the peace and power of the Spirit to bear witness to the Kingdom of God in all aspects of life.


People around the world have recently been both horrified by the massacre of 9 people during a Bible study and prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston--and inspired by the grace demonstrated by the survivors. That tragic evening, worshipers gladly extended hospitality to the stranger who showed up at their prayer meeting. The survivors of those he killed immediately extended pain-filled forgiveness to him and his family. Hatred and claims of white supremacy were met with compassion and dignity.

Such is the faithful courage among so many victims of racial prejudice. Emanuel Church was founded amidst injustice. The oldest church of its kind in the South, it is a community sustained and emboldened in worship. It has been burned to the ground. Parishioners have had to meet in secret to evade laws that banned all African-American meetings. Central in the Civil Rights Movement, for nearly 200 years it has been a center of worship and advocacy for justice.
Rev. Clementa Pickney, the murdered pastor, embodied the integration of worship and justice. Serving as a pastor, prominent civil rights leader, and as a representative in the South Carolina legislature, he brought jobs to the region, advocated for justice in schools and the courts, encouraged the use of police body cameras, and led his congregation in their service of the Lord of all creation. Pickney's family embodied that tradition. A fourth generation pastor, his pastor uncle sued the South Carolina governor over voting rights, and his pastor great grandfather sued to end whites-only primaries.
The Bible study resumed in the same room at Mother Emanuel the week after the murders. The theme was appropriately, "The power of love." A string trio from the Charleston Symphony led out with "Be Thou My Vision." The interim pastor called on people not to run from trouble, but to "run to God." Later that week, at the memorial service for Rev. Pickney, President Obama led the nation singing "Amazing Grace." The US Head of State also served as the Worshiper in Chief.
One commentator said of Mother Emanuel AME, "It's not just a church. It's a symbol of the struggle for Black freedom."
My prayer for all the ministries linked together in our Micah Group movement is that we too will be respected symbols of the integration of justice and worship, emboldened by the amazing grace of God.

Tim Dearborn 
Director, Ogilvie Institute of Preaching


For further theological reflections on worship I recommend James Torrance, Worship, Communion, and the Triune God of Grace.

For examples of concrete liturgical actions in which congregations can engage, read Mark Labberton’s, The Dangerous Act of Worship, and consult the “Worship Resources” section of the Ogilvie Institute web pages.



Thanks to & Rudolph Bostic for above use of imagery.
About the Author: Tim Dearborn

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