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Reconciling with the Church through Worship

Editor's note: Thank you for journeying with us through Lent. This week, we rejoice as Easter people, people who get to join in Jesus' ministry of reconciliation. On both sides of the border, the need for that reconciliation is especially evident this week--in the tragic death of Walter Scott, and in the lead-up to the final events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For those of you who joined us this Lent through the Ash and Oil series, let me introduce you to Do Justice. We hope this blog can be a conversation space for justice issues in the Christian Reformed Church and beyond. This is a place of wrestling and wondering what it means to "do justice", in this time, in the neighborhoods and countries in which we're planted. We hope you'll join the conversation!

Pope Francis recently said, "Christians are not made in a laboratory, but in a community called the church." But what about those people for whom the church has been a source of pain? There are many of us with stories about being hurt by the church—whether because of race, sexual identity, ability, age, gender, or something else. Like many, I am a Christian both in spite of the church and because of the church. So how can we show people Christ or disciple them when the church is keeping them away from Christ? I would like to suggest that there are eight ways that congregations can cultivate worship practices that embrace those who bear scars inflicted by Christians.

Reconciling worship embraces and celebrates the diversity of God’s people.
Reconciling worship reflects both the congregation and the Kingdom. This means not only do the images used in worship represent people “like me”, but that everyone is represented and reflected before God in worship. Reconciling worship also goes out of its way to seek participation from members representing every walk of life, not merely making room for diverse expression and participation, but actively pursuing it. Reconciling worship recognizes that diversity in leadership doesn’t just happen, but needs to be pursued with intentionality, and often, courage.

Reconciling worship remembers the causes of the hurting and oppressed.

If there is any sin of which the North American church needs to repent together, it is our apathy. Oftentimes, the hurt caused by the church is not a result of what the church does as much as what it does not do. Great pain is caused when the church is silent. When people are devastated and dumbfounded and at a loss for words, that is where the Church should be—offering comfort, lamenting injustice, remembering, and speaking hope.

Reconciling worship recognizes and addresses the need for community.

Much of our worship music implies a “me and Jesus” understanding of our relationship to God. But in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 we read that it is not my body that is a temple of the Holy Spirit but the body, us. Reconciling worship has both vertical and horizontal aspects because worship, at its heart, is about communing with God and one another. This is what later made Paul so frustrated with the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). In their practice of the Lord’s Supper they were drawing cultural lines that broke down the very purpose of the Supper. Paul makes clear that “I” not the body of Christ, but we are, together. God intends for worship to bring people together before the throne of heaven.

Reconciling worship fosters space for lament and grief.

Reconciling worship leaves room for grief, speaking to the hearts of the many who come to worship with emptiness over the loss of someone they love, particularly around holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. It is mindful on Sanctity of Human Life Sunday of the women in the pews who have had abortions, on Thanksgiving of those who have recently gone through a painful divorce, and on Mother’s Day of those whose mothers abused them. Reconciling worship creates space that leaves room for diverse expressions of lament, expressions that are not forced, but Spirit-led.

Reconciling worship nurtures repentance.

There is immense power in confession, particularly when we do it as a community. Worship can only offer us comfort when it speaks to our very real pain, often as the result of sin. It is in turning and returning to God that the broken, all of us, can meet the God of heaven and earth face to face. Experiencing forgiveness is all the more sweet when it follows the bitterness of sin. Worship is a place where we come face to face with a holy God, where we are reminded that it is only in him that we live and move and have our being, where we recognize our own sorry state, and are presented with the opportunity to return to God. Reconciling worship makes us fall on our knees, metaphorically and literally, to ask God for forgiveness for our losing sight of him.

Reconciling worship uses language with care.

Our hearts are revealed in our language, both verbal and nonverbal. And all too frequently, so are our biases. Reconciling worship avoids “us” versus “them” language, like “believers” and “nonbelievers”. It recognizes the diversity of the people in the pews, and of the people that they love. This can be difficult for us to do. We cannot completely avoid being exclusive in our language, but we can at least recognize when we are. This is not about being duplicitous, about speaking one way in private and another before the church, but about not allowing our biases to speak when leading worship. It’s about asking ourselves: how do my biases come through here? If person X were in the crowd, how would she or he hear this?

Reconciling worship cultivates restoration and hope.

Reconciling worship turns our lens from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to the Tree of Life. It is for both the wounded and the one who has done the wounding. Our hope in Christ is the source of our unity in our diversity. When the focus is on God, not on us, it is much easier to find hope. That is when we can look at the ugliness of sin in the world and still say like the Psalmists, “yet I will trust in you” (Psalm 13:5).

Reconciling worship worships God alone.

A study conducted by a trio of researchers from the University of Connecticut, Duke University, and the University of New Mexico was recently published in the American Sociological Review. In it, the researchers write about the power of prayer as a “bridging cultural practice” in faith communities often divided by ethnicity. Their study found that the practice of prayer increased the cohesion of diverse groups. This finding should not surprise us as followers of Christ, as unity in diversity was the bedrock of the Church we read of in Acts. Reconciling worship knows the pitfalls of idolizing human things because reconciling worship is not about us, but about God alone.

Reconciling worship

Reconciling worship can be characterized by what happens outside of worship as much as anything that happens within it. It is not about a sermon series or carefully crafting congregational prayers. This is a DNA issue. It is one thing for the church to be heartbroken over injustice; it is another for the church to practice justice—in the decisions of those with power and in the life of the congregation. It is about us, all of us, being the church, together.

As followers of Christ we are ambassadors of reconciliation. It is an overwhelming task that we have the privilege of participating in through the power of the Holy Spirit. God does the work—changing us, shaping us, restoring us into the people we were created to be. We are no longer those who keep a tally of wrongs, but who actively practice forgiveness. May God grant each of us the grace to live into this calling. 

[Image: Flickr user Kelly Criscuolo-DeButts]

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