Worship and Spiritual LifeWorship Blog

Worship as Spiritual Care vs. Worship as Social Justice

aka Pastoral vs. Prophetic
aka Comforting the Afflicted vs. Afflicting the Comfortable

by Dr. Sharon Fennema

This fall, the Office of Worship Life initiated a survey to assess the hopes, needs, desires, and experiences of the PSR community in our community worship services.  As you might expect, there were as many opinions about what worship is and should be as there were people responding to the survey.  But a few common themes emerged as connective threads in this tapestry of diverse ideas and analyses.  One of those threads was the contrast between worship that nourishes our spirits and worship that challenges our commitments.  In describing how our community worship services were meaningful and memorable (or not), many respondents juxtaposed worship as spiritual care with worship as social justice.  We can hear echoes in this tension of the debates around “pastoral” vs. “prophetic” styles of spiritual leadership, or Martin Marty’s articulation of the distinct roles of the church in “comforting the afflicted” or “afflicting the comfortable.”

According to the survey responses, for some members of the community, our worship is so social-justice oriented, so focused on current issues and our responses to them through ritual practice, theological reflection, and scriptural interpretation, that it is not spiritually-nourishing.  They highlight a need for more meditation, contemplation, and spirit-filled sermons, prayer and singing aimed at inspiration and uplift.  For others, our worship is so focused on personal spiritual growth and rituals of comfort, care, and concern that it seems disconnected from the world and our callings to be agents of social transformation.  They underscore a need for more civic engagement, more permeability between the walls of our sanctuary and the world that surrounds it, and more tools for engaging what is happening off of “Holy Hill.” While I take to heart the needs and desires expressed in these responses to our survey, I find myself wondering about the binary thinking that undergirds this common thread, this way of interpreting what happens in the context of our community worship.

My training in ritual, feminist, queer and postcolonial theory has taught me to be suspicious of binary thinking.  These theoretical traditions demonstrate some of the dangers of binary thinking, in fact, the ways in which binary thinking does violence to us and our engagement with the world.  In simplified terms, these theories suggest that thinking in binaries:

  • tends to privilege one side over the other – one side of the binary is valued more, seen as superior or desired;
  • sees the two sides as contradictory to one another, and, in fact, defined in opposition to one another (e.g. worship is pastoral because it is not being prophetic);
  • misses (and even erases) the complexities that exist in and around those polarities;
  • allows us to label or classify an event or idea as belonging to one side of the binary without actually listening to or experiencing it in all its complexities;
  • encourages people to experience a tension or conflict between the two sides and to desire a resolution to that tension (usually by choosing one side over the other).

“…We distort things…because we are trained neither to voice both sides of an issue nor to listen with both ears, or what’s more, to voice or listen for the third way…. It is rooted in the fact that we look at the world through analytical lenses. We see everything as this or that, plus or minus, on or off, black or white; and we fragment reality into an endless series of either-ors. In a phrase, we think the world apart.”
~ Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach

The kind of binary thinking that drives us to oppose worship as spiritual care and worship as social justice belies the ways in which these modes of worship are part of a complex web of goals and meanings that undergird our community worship services. It also moves us into valuing one way over another or desiring a resolution of the perceived tension between them by choosing one mode over the other.  What would happen to our experiences of worship as meaningful and memorable if we approached these ideas not as polar opposites, but in mutually-informing dynamic interplay?  Can we imagine experiencing prophetic messages calling for social justice as spiritual nourishment?  Can we witness the justice-doing embedded in practices of contemplation and spiritual care?  What if sustaining our spirits is the work of justice? What if bending the long arc of the moral universe toward justice, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, happens through cultivating care and compassion within ourselves and toward each other?  What other complexities can we imagine coming into view outside of these binaries? Worship may be spiritual care.  It may also be social justice.  It may also be encounter with the Holy.  It may also be building beloved community.  It may also be a pathway toward transformation.  It may also be proclamation of good news.  It may also be…

This fall, our community worship planning team chose to take as a specific goal and focus “fostering both/and values in an either/or world” and “seeking to understand our response-ability to bursting bubbles of isolation, insularity, and prejudice.”  These goals were especially evident in several worship services in the fall that explored the insight offered us by the convergence of major observances and celebrations of different faith traditions. I am encouraged by the reflections offered by PSR community members in our fall survey to continue this “both/and” endeavor as we think creatively about how our worship together can engage us in challenging the binary thinking that pits spiritual care against social justice and vice-versa.  It is important work not only for this community, but for so many progressive religious communities who seek to cultivate spiritually nourished disciples working to create a more just and compassionate world.  Making the connections between spirituality and social change and seeing the vibrant mutually-informing relationship between them is a key task of spiritual leadership for such a time as this (Esther 4:14), a time when our lives seem more bifurcated than ever.  I hope both here at PSR and wherever you find yourself ministering, you’ll join in this endeavor.

Gathering Words

(by Sharon Fennema, based on a reflection by Ann Voskamp and the poetry of Rumi)

One:           What in the world are we doing for such a time as this?

Many:       Let the beauty of what we love be what we do. 

One:           Here in this place, we gather together

Many:       as those who sit in sackcloth outside the palace gate
                   and those who sit in royal array inside.
                   Love is the bridge between us and everything.

One:           Here in this place, we gather together

Many:       as those telling truth to power from the margins
                   and those who witness that truth-telling and take action.
                   Love is the bridge between us and everything.

One:           We are where we are for such a time as this

Many:       not to gain anything, but to risk everything.

One:           We are where we are for such a time as this

Many:       not to make an impression, but to make a difference.

One:           What in the world are we doing for such a time as this?

Many:       The power of love comes into us
                   and we become fierce like a lion
                   and tender like the evening star.