Worship is one of the most important parts of the spiritual life of a follower of Jesus. Worship entails coming before God, praising His name, giving sacrifices of praise to Him, being enriched by the hearing of His word, and participating in the sacraments. Good stuff. Good stuff.
But does the worship you participate in empower you or others? Maybe. Maybe not.
Back in January, I had the opportunity to attend the Symposium on Worship put on the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, MI (the best place to be in winter, in January). It was an awesome time of learning filled with presenters and speakers across the wide spectrum of worship with attendees who were also from a wide spectrum.
One presenter caught my attention. Dr. Justo Gonzalez spoke for 10 minutes. He impressed me. I think tt was how he talked about privilege, worship, and the vernacular in regards to the catholicity (universality) of the Church as a whole. Heady nerdy stuff for sure.
Dr. Gonzalez stated that the Reformation started in 1517 wasn’t started by the underclass proletariat (my words, not his) rising up against the oppressive church. Not in the least. It was the scholar and person of privilege, Martin Luther, who did so. His 99 theses which he nailed to the church door were written in Latin, not German. Luther wanted scholarly debate, not an uprising. Yet it happened. But if it wasn’t for the privilege he had as a man from a wealthy family, earning a solid degree from a good school, knowing Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, and studying theology, he wouldn’t have been able to stand up against the Catholic church. Because he was a monk, a professor, and a respected one at that, he wouldn’t have been listened to by others. If it wasn’t for his connections to Frederick III, Luther wouldn’t have been kept safe from attempts to have him killed. If it wasn’t for Luther’s knowledge of Biblical languages and being in hiding and protected by Frederick III, he wouldn’t have been able to translate the Bible into German, the common language of the people. From his place of privilege, he empowered the people who had no privilege.
Dr. Gonzalez said the same about John Calvin. Calvin was born in France, to a well to do family. He studied Law, Latin, Hebrew, Greek. He studied theology. If it wasn’t for his discussions with other scholars of both the Catholic church and the Protestant Reformation (almost all in Latin), much of Calvin’s influence on every day people wouldn’t have been felt. Calvin emphasized that it was the every day lay person who was responsible for being part of worship. The very word liturgy means the work of the people. Calvin’s goal was to empower and lead the people in the church to being able to take ownership of their faith and to live it, to read the Bible in their own language and understand it.
Dr. Gonzalez said that if it wasn’t for their privilege the Reformation wouldn’t have happened as it did. As it needed to have been done.
What I found interesting is that Dr. Gonzalez took things a step further. He stated that most people in the church today, especially pastors, are in a place of privilege. And from this place of privilege, we can help empower others, bring them into community, and them to be restored into the dignity of and the identity of Jesus.
Many decry privilege. Many want to knock the privileged down a peg or two. May tell those whom they believe to be of privilege to check their privilege when they make a statement.
Take a moment and step back.
If you are reading this right, you are one of the privileged in this world. You have internet access to read this blog post. This means you have access to affordable electricity somewhere, somehow which means you are in a place and position to afford both internet access and electricity. Oh, and also you are reading this which means you are literate, which also means you have something of an education, which is better than most.
This is the privilege paradox: Even being able to cry and protest against those whom you think are the privileged places you in a position of privilege to speak out against such privilege. The very ability to have freedom of expression, to have the means to do so on the internet, to be able to do so in such a position that people listen to you about the privilege, places you in a place of privilege. Hence the paradox.
Yet we can use this paradox to empower people in worship.
In the church today, Dr. Gonzalez said, we want people to come in who have no concept of the church, its culture, its teachings, its customs, its songs, nor the language. Yet we expect them to conform right away to what we do. When visitors come in through the church doors, those who have been attendees, even members, for a while are in a position of power over those who come in. In essence, they are the privileged of that location.
And how do we respond. In many churches, we stand up to sing from books with squiggles over the words, and paragraphs broken up in an odd way. Sometimes we put the words to the songs up on a screen with those weird squiggles on them. We sing verses 1, 2, and 4 and for some reason skip 3 (why 3, I don’t know…but it seems like we always do). To one who is not musically literate nor familiar to how a hymnal works, this can be confusing, frustrating, and embarrassing (and I speak of this from first hand experience). But in most cases, we in the privileged position exercise our power to enforce those who do not understand the way to worship to worship as we see fit. With out own special language, our own way of doing things. Either you’re in or you’re out.
Instead, worship should be empowering. It should help others grow and know Jesus. It should help bring people from outside the family of God into the family of God. Luther used what he knew to help others learn about God. He wrote in both Latin and German. So did Calvin. Calvin’s Institutes were published simultaneously in both Latin (for the scholars) and French (for the everyday person). Their desire was to empower the people to make their faith their own.
When those with no church background have worked up the nerve to walk through our doors, how can we help them feel welcomed. How can our way of worshiping empower them and help them grow? How can we use what we know and understand to help empower through worship and praise to God to bring them into community? (yes, even using “us” and “them” terminology might be seen as a stance of privilege… deal with it).
In Jesus, the way to God has been made cut clean, literally. All the barriers between us and God have been broken down through Jesus. Yet we can stand in the way as a barrier using the privilege we have as being part of a church not willing to speak the vernacular of the day, not willing to help translate what we know into the cultural language of those who don’t know or understand.
how have you been a barrier in worship to others? How can you instead empower others in worship?
There’s a privilege paradox going on, and we can use this to empower the world in Jesus’ name.