Soon after encountering Christ for the first time as a young teenager, I eagerly began telling everyone who would listen about my newfound faith. In one conversation as I tried to convince a friend of my brother that Jesus would make a huge positive difference in his life, he gently expressed his doubt about my words. As far as he was concerned, Jesus made no difference at all.
“How can you say that?” I cried in my shock.
“Well,” he replied, “I used to hitchhike outside a church every Sunday morning waiting for someone to give me a lift to work. My family needed the money very much and I couldn’t afford to ride a bus. But, in the end I had to walk the long distance, because each week, after the service, people would come out of church and just drive on by. I can’t see any difference that Jesus made to them.”
While my mind offered all sorts of justifications to answer him – and still does – over the years I have thought back on his words many times. Now, as a minister and worship leader, I find myself wrestling with a basic, but essential, question – what difference does worship make?
Each week churches around the country, around the world, are filled with worshippers singing and praying their love for God, and hearing the Scriptures read and taught. But, in spite of this, war and violence between people of faith remains a disturbing reality. Xenophobic attacks have broken out in a country where a significant majority of people, according to the last census, claim to be Christian, and the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen even in countries where the teachings of Christ are claimed as foundational. Am I the only one who believes that there is something wrong with this picture?
As I have studied the Scriptures, I find myself drawn to a vision of worship that changes society. In the nation of Israel at a time when the music of the temple was so elaborate and magnificent that dignitaries would travel from around the ancient world to come and witness it, God speaks through the prophet Amos:
Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living. (Amos 5:23,24 New Living Translation)
From God’s perspective, it seems, worship is not separate from justice and compassion, from engagement with the social issues of our day. Rather, worship is – or should be – the fuel that inspires and drives God’s people to address the problems of the world.
The challenge that Jesus offers throughout the Gospels is to live our worship in every situation, every relationship and every moment. The time we spend in church on Sunday, then, should equip God’s people to do just this. Rather than just a weekly escape from the world’s struggles, or a regular “fix” of joy and adrenaline, the worship service can offer us God’s perspective on the world, and motivate and guide us into living from this vision.
What might this mean, in practical terms? It means that worship leaders need to move beyond a simple repertoire of songs and prayers that focus on what God has done for us, and begin to include those that challenge us with what God has called us to. It means that preachers need to wrestle, from the pulpit, with the tough teachings of the Scriptures, and seek to offer a new vision of what the world can be. It means that worshippers need to make a shift from being ‘consumers’ of well-rehearsed worship experiences, to being collaborators in discovering and implementing God’s strategies for healing our nation and our world.
There is much more than can be said about this, but a surprisingly powerful beginning is to start thinking about and entering worship differently. Rather than just seeking God’s blessing, rather than focusing on just our own individual experience in worship, rather than using worship as an escape from the world’s woes, if we can begin to carry the world into the church building through prayer and music, and if we can begin to carry our encounter with God’s grace, mercy, compassion and salvation into the world – our workplaces and homes, our schools and communities – we may just begin to see that worship makes all the difference. At its best and most biblical, lives are changed by worship, and then the world is changed by worshippers. I pray that we can begin to see this vision becoming a reality throughout our land and beyond.