Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Worship vs. Social Justice?

When I arrived at seminary and my classmates started to ask me about my interests, they were surprised when I mentioned both social justice and liturgical arts. I wondered why, until I attended a church with a very strong social justice emphasis. This church wrote its own liturgy to meet its unique needs, but it eschewed more formal elements of standard UMC services like processionals/ recessionals, always saying the same words during communion (it liked improvisation), and even the usual expectation that everyone stay quiet during worship. It was a church that reached out to people who were homeless, mentally ill, had developmental disabilities, were deaf/blind, and who had been assaulted. The church was proud to welcome others just as they are, including any distractions that might come along with these guests.

I enjoyed my time at the church, but I missed some of the elements of liturgy that this church left out. Surely, I thought, United Methodists can conduct a church service that is beautiful and meaningful while still warmly welcoming those who are different. But some of my classmates seemed to think that embracing formal liturgy means a church has a cold atmosphere and strict behavioral guidelines.

A church doesn't have to have a formal liturgical style to decide that "outsiders" are too much trouble to tolerate, as Rachel Held Evans remarks in a recent blog post. It makes me so sad to read her story of a young man asked to leave worship because he has Cerebral Palsy. Rachel acknowledges how hard it is to welcome others, especially because they don't only disturb the decorum of services- they disturb our sense of self:

We have one place for the un-cool people (our ministries) and another place for the cool people (our church services). When we actually bump into one another, things can get awkward, so we try to avoid it... The truth is we’re all guilty of thinking we’re too cool for the least of these. Our elitism shows up when we forbid others from contributing art and music because we deem it unworthy of glorifying God, or when we scoot our family an extra foot or two down the pew when the guy with Aspergers sits down. Having helped start a church, I remember hoping that our hip guests wouldn’t be turned off by our less-than-hip guests.  For a second I forgot that in church, of all places, those distinctions should disappear. Some of us wear our brokenness on the inside, others on the outside. But we’re all broken. We’re all un-cool. We’re all in need of a Savior.

I wonder if perhaps the sense of decorum projected in formal liturgical church services has come to signify more than "the work of the people" (leitourgia). Perhaps it represents the way we like to view ourselves: proper, put-together, acceptable to others. But as Rachel points out, even if we're put-together on the outside, we might be a complete mess on the inside. We need to remember that liturgy does not exist to make us look good, or to make us acceptable to God. God already accepts us just the way we are.

Liturgy, as "the work of the people," is our communal response to God. In a word, it's worship. We are not truly worshiping God when we try to put up an attractive front for others. We are freed for true worship when we stop trying to keep up appearances (including "decorum" in church) and come to God just as we are. When we are fully present in worship- in all that we are, good and bad- we are better able to experience God's love and show God's love to newcomers.

However we worship, we have the opportunity to shed our pretenses and be open to God and to others. Here in Boston, the Paulist Center is a Roman Catholic parish that does a great job of doing formal worship well, and also being a warm and welcoming community. Even though the words spoken and the symbols used are in "High" liturgical style, they are spoken with a warm tone of voice and signified with an open posture. I felt so welcome when I visited, even though as a Protestant I could not fully participate in the service. My experience at the Paulist Center helped me realize that social justice and hospitality do not need to be sacrificed for a beautiful worship service.

Both social justice work and well-executed liturgy are responses to God's love for us. God reaches out to us in so many ways in our everyday lives, and we can respond to God in many ways. The fluid, dignified movements of a pastor in worship and the simple movement of sharing a sandwich or a handshake are really the same movement on the inside: our hearts are moving toward God. And in turn, we are called to show God to others- through our actions in worship and through our service to the community.

Have you ever found it difficult to welcome someone in church who is somehow different? How do different worship styles help you feel close to God?

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