a look back at the history of worship and justice

Posted by Malcolm du Plessis on 1 April 2013

In the Bible, whenever people find themselves standing face to face before God Himself, He almost always speaks, commissioning them to some kind of activity that advances the kingdom. True worship of God is a catalytic activity that is inextricably intertwined with mission.
The first ever worship song mentioned in the Bible was the Song of Moses. It was such a significant song of worship that it is recorded in the book of Revelation as still being sung in eternity. However, for Moses, worship was not just about singing songs. It was a dynamic interchange. During a major encounter with God at the burning bush, God spoke to him and sent him to free Israel from their unjust circumstances. In his life, worship, mission and justice were inextricably intertwined.
When Joshua encountered God just before crossing the Jordan he had a similar experience to Moses. He realized he was standing on holy ground and took off his shoes in worship. God have him a strategy to destroy Jericho. Once again, an encounter in the presence of God resulted in action.
When Elijah encountered God in the entrance of the cave and he heard God speaking to him in a gentle whisper, he was sent on a bunch of holy errands.
When Isaiah saw the Lord ‘high and lifted up’, he, too, heard God’s voice. In this situation, God asked for volunteers and the prophet had no option but to raise his hand and say: “Here am I, send me.”
When David was out in the pastures tending his father’s sheep and developing his skill as a worship songwriter, a prophet was sent to communicate God’s call on his life. Once again, a worshiper got thrust into the frontlines of God’s mission.
This pattern exists throughout the scriptures and culminates in the great commission in Matthew 28. When Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, they fell down and worshiped him and, in this setting, He spoke to them and sent them out to disciple the nations.
When a group of leaders in the church in Antioch were worshiping the Lord, the Holy Spirit spoke to them, sending Paul and Barnabus out as one of the first apostolic church planting teams.
In fact, Jesus simplified the commandments to ‘loving God and loving people’. The apostle John added an extra twist when he asked the question: “How are we supposed to believe that you are truly a lover of God if you are not actively loving people? If you have difficulty loving those you can see, how are you ever going to be able to love someone you cannot see?”
Encountering God in true worship will always result in God tenderizing our hearts for the world around us and sending us out to make a difference. It is in worship that He does His commissioning. 
What’s more, it is impossible to reach out to our world without encountering injustices that make it hard for people to believe there is a God of love. The beauty of social justice is that it is our opportunity to remove obstacles that are stumbling blocks for people to come to faith.
A sobering reality is that our modern praise has been made possible through a history of ‘obstacle removing’ and campaigning for justice in the history of the church. Remember, the word ‘protestant’ comes from the word ‘protest’!
The first pre-reformation expressions of Christianity can be traced back to the 14th Century when John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English so that everyone could read it - not just the priests. Because of his protestations against the injustices of the Catholic Church he was burned at the stake 70 years before Martin Luther was born.
John Wycliffe greatly influenced Jan Hus, the pioneer of the (pre-reformation) Bohemian Brethren. They were persecuted because they took Wycliffe’s logic one step further and protested that every believer should be able to sing in worship and not just the priests. In 1501, 20 years before Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church, the Bohemians created the first-ever hymnal, comprising 89 songs. Eventually Jan Hus was burned at the stake for his innovations. We are where we are today in corporate worship because courageous people like Hus campaigned for the priesthood to be broadened to include all believers. Or, to put it another way, our worship genre has its roots in radical service and transformative protestations. In fact, the story of the restoration of worship throughout the reformation is linked to justice at every juncture.
Martin Luther, the father of the reformation, was not only a theological pioneer, but he also followed on in the tradition of the Bohemian Brethren and wrote songs for worshippers, including the ever-popular ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’. But, he was not just a man of faith; he was an outspoken activist. His revelation of God also caused him to get involved in the transformation of society, protesting materialism and feudalism and championing the cause for education.
John Calvin also campaigned for the song of faith. Just like Hus and Luther, he lobbied passionately for every believer to be able to participate in the worship experience. Therefore, he served as one of the compilers of the Genevan Psalter in 1539, translating new songs that had migrated across borders. He was, however, very protective about the new worship culture that was developing and was quick to protest what he saw as carnal indulgence in the musical instrumentation and harmony singing of the reformation. Not only was he a spiritual agitator, but he also served as a social activist. He pioneered programs for public health, employment and the care of refugees.
The Pilgrims, Puritans and Quakers that crossed the Atlantic in the 17th Century did so for refuge from the persecution they were experiencing in Europe. They fled because their vocal opposition to the corruption within the Church of England made them clear targets. As we know, they brought music with them, including songs by Isaac Watts and other British and European hymnwriters. Isaac Watts grew up in an activist household and his dad was in prison for much of his upbringing due to his protests. Once again, one of the great contributors toward the song of faith grew up with a life experience where worship and activism were closely connected.
In 1720 a remarkable revival began in a town in Moravia. The Jesuits opposed it, and the meetings were prohibited. Those who assembled were seized and imprisoned. At one of these meetings the police broke in and seized the hymn books. Unperturbed, the congregation started singing A Mighty Fortress: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo it; we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.”
Count von Zinzendorf gave refuge to these persecuted descendants of the Bohemian Brethren, opening up his land to them. God began a powerful move among the people, and a hundred-year, 24/7-prayer-meeting was born - and with it the Moravian missionary movement. 
The Moravians were great hymn-writers, and John Wesley was converted through exposure to their songs. However, Charles was the first of the Wesley brothers to find faith. The first Bible verse he read was Psalm 40:3: ‘He hath put a new song in my mouth; many will see and fear and will trust in the Lord.’ His ministry was marked by a deep belief in the relationship between musical worship and mission.
After John Wesley’s conversion he visited the Moravians in Hernhut, Germany and started translating their hymns into English. This triggered his brother, Charles, to start writing original songs of his own, eventually writing more than 6,000.
Like his predecessors, John Wesley’s encounters with God in worship resulted in him involving himself in the transformation of society. He took issue with the fact that the English medical profession was only affordable to the rich. He made a trip to the US to study native Indian medicine in his quest to find economical health alternatives for the poor. One of the queen’s physicians ridiculed the book he wrote after his visit to the US and he thanked her, in a sarcastic open letter, for publicizing his book through her criticisms. He was a worshiper – but he was unafraid of protest.
John Wesley protested against corruption, the liquor traffic and poor wages. He campaigned for community services and changes in housing. He ministered to all classes in a class-ridden age, and he expected his followers to do the same, feeding the poor and visiting inmates. He was a lifelong opponent of slavery and wrote a protest book - 20 years before slavery was abolished - entitled ‘Thoughts Upon Slavery’. William Wilberforce was converted under his ministry, and the last letter that Wesley wrote six days before he died was an encouragement to Wilberforce to continue his social justice work.
John Newton’s life is fascinating: he captained slave boats, and on one of his trans-Atlantic runs he encountered a violent and terrifying storm at sea. He met with God and in time he became an Anglican priest and a prolific writer for corporate worship. Yet his relationship with the Lord Jesus caused him to carry a deep burden for the kingdom of God to be extended. He is famously known for counseling William Wilberforce not to leave political office when he was converted - in order that he might be able to campaign from a place of influence to see slavery abolished.
Then there was James Montgomery: born into a Moravian missionary family. His parents had given their lives for the gospel in the West Indies. As such, he carried that unique Moravian DNA for worship and mission. He used his flair for words not only to pen hymns but gain work as a newspaper editor lobbying for the abolition of slavery. He championed foreign missions and Bible distribution, and his radical views earned him fines and imprisonment. In 1797 he published a collection of poems written behind bars entitled ‘Prison Amusements’. He helped abolish the state lotteries of England.
And how can we not mention the Salvation Army? They continued this tradition into the 19th century as William and Catherine Booth became the pioneers of the contemporary worship of their day, replacing the church organ with hip brass-band arrangements. “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?” they once asked. Once again, their experiences in the presence of God resulted in them becoming impassioned evangelists and activists for justice. They fed the poor, rescued young women from prostitution, lobbied for a raise in the age of consent and provided refuge for the illegitimate children of prostitutes. They protested the ‘sweated labor’ of women and children, and lobbied for wage increases. They protested toxicity in the matchmaking factories and started their own eco-friendly factories, paying their employees twice as much as their competitors.
In the US, the prolific hymn writer Fanny Crosby met with the Lord Jesus at an early age. Blinded shortly after birth, she lobbied Congress in support of education for the blind. She strongly championed the abolition of slavery and was the first woman to speak in the United States Senate. Possibly more than anything else in her life, she was passionate about rescue missions. Her hymn, ‘Rescue the Perishing’ became the theme song of the home missions movement, and was perhaps the most popular city mission song, with its wedding of personal piety and compassion for humanity. She lived for much of her life in the most needy areas of New York and was passionate to help immigrants and the urban poor through urban rescue missions and other compassionate ministry organizations. Crosby indicated "from the time I received my first check for my poems, I made up my mind to open my hand wide to those who needed assistance". Throughout her life Crosby was described as having ‘a horror of wealth’ and as a result never charged for public speaking, often refused honoraria and what little she did accept she gave away almost as soon as she got it.
In the 20th century this tradition continued, but mostly in the developing world. From the voices of those oppressed came the cry to God for justice in their worship. But what of the rest of us, both our parents generation and our own? We have known freedom from oppression, a rise in standards of living and the rise and rise of the modern worship movement.
Unfortunately - until very recently - the marriage between worship and justice had been almost totally severed. Even though God initiated revivals of worship and justice in the sixties, we got out of the habit. Unfortunately, the affluent church had, by this time, compartmentalized spiritual pursuit and action. The worship and civil rights movements ran on two different tracks when they could have been intertwined.
For perhaps the first time in history, the modern worship movement over the last five decades has seen worship and social action divided and separated from each other. Consumerism has so overtaken our first world Christianity that the believer has become more of a customer than a sacrificial worshiper, and for some it appears even that worship is losing its meaning. 
It is in times like these that the prophet Amos’ words appear startlingly relevant: Why would God be impressed with our five-star music presentations when they are predominantly for our own benefit?
But things have begun to change. In recent years - even recent months - we have seen worship leaders put their resources behind great pushes to overcome social injustices. Could we be at a turning point? As in Amos’ day, is this the time when God begins to turn our gaze outward again and ask us to “let justice flow like rivers and righteousness like a never failing stream?” As we sing our songs about our God being high and lifted up, could He be posing the question once more to each of us: “Who will go? Who shall I send for me?

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