UrbanFaith had the opportunity to sit down with artist Otis Kemp to talk about how he is able honor God while sharing His musical gifts. His hit single “The Reason” has gone viral and his music is being played all across the Southern United States. But his impact on his community and his journey to success have been anything but overnight. Otis Kemp shared a few key nuggets of authentic wisdom for people trying to be a blessing while being blessed.
Our Gifts Should Honor God
You want to share your gift. You want to share the message that God has given you. The music that I represent is lifemusic. I don’t look at a particular genre, like gospel or anything, because anybody can say they are gospel and live like whatever. I believe lifemusic is a testimony of who you are. When you when you see me, you should see some residue or some characteristics of the one Savior.
What Inspires You to Share Your Gift
I mean, to be honest [The Reason] was a song God gave me a couple of years ago, and it was at a dark time in my life. I began to prophesy over my life. I began to declare things that I was taught [since I was] a little boy. The God that my father taught me about [is why I live the way I do] even though at the time I didn’t understand what he was instilling in me. I’m a preacher’s kid and my family prayed.
You know, the Bible says you train up a child in the way they should go, and when they get older, they won’t depart from it. That is a true scripture. I’m evidence of that. I wanted to share with people when I say the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jabez [in my song] I’m talking the one and only true God. I’m talking about the God that you can actually talk to that you can have a relationship with. This ain’t no fake. It’s a real thing that he saved me. Like, I come from the streets. I’m from Miami, Florida, it’s rough. And down here, only the strong survive. God snatched me out of the darkness, snatched me out of the enemy’s camp, and brought me to his side.
How Can You Use Your Gift to Bless Others?
I would say the first thing that they should do is build a relationship with the Most High. I know it sounds cliche, but it’s not. I’m a living testimony. I got kicked out of every school in Miami and South Florida. And now I own three private schools within two and a half years. [It doesn’t] take 30 years; God judges you and he positions you by your heart. If your heart posture is correct, whatever passion you have, he will lead and guide you into all truth. The word of God is true.
If you want success, the only success you will have is with the Lord and in His Kingdom. Anything else is going to tear you down, going to destroy you, going to suck you dry. You become successful when it’s benefiting other people. Everything you do [with your gifts] should benefit someone else. That’s how you know it is from the Most High God. Jesus never did anything for Himself. Everything He did was for someone else. Now [He has] the highest name in the heavens, on earth, and under the earth. When you begin to lay down your life for the kingdom, your desires, your passion, or whatever it is, you can find out what God has already planned out for you. When you follow with Him you will have success. It’s just going to come with obedience.
Kanye West is an internationally known Grammy award winning artist. His politics, public life, and his self-promotion have stirred up controversy and interest in many circles.
His recent return to Christian themes in his music and beyond leaves his audience inside and outside of the church consistently confused and curious. Kanye West’s tenth album “Donda” honors his late mother Donda West, who was chair of the English Department at Chicago State University. It debuted in late August to mixed reviews, some celebrating the album as a show of Kanye’s continued musical genius and others hearing the 27-track album as an incoherent and exhausting tribute that actually focuses on Kanye himself.
“Donda” is now one of the highest-grossing albums of all time in the gospel/Christian category, and the most-streamed album ever in both categories, according to Billboard. In response to its success, some Christian public figures gave kudos acknowledging their work with or appreciation for West. Others expressed disdain at his dominance in Christian art spaces when his music is still deeply secular. The album features some very popular secular artists, accused criminals, gang members, and even a known atheist alongside choirs and Christian artist writers. But many believers are still asking: is Kanye West’s “Donda” album a gospel album? To answer, we have to consider several other factors.
Is it a commercial genre question?
If what makes music “gospel” is what the most established and profitable record labels, music hosting sites, and awards say, then “Donda” is gospel music and Kanye West is now a gospel artist. In one sense, this would be brilliant and expected on Kanye’s part. He has claimed that he is the greatest artist of all time, period, and he has been breaking and bending genres throughout his musical career. He has sampled, collaborated, and made music that fits comfortably in multiple genres, gaining fans from pop, electronic, dance, hip hop, R&B, rock, and now gospel circles. Kanye West now has won Grammys in the rap, contemporary Christian, R&B, and “Song of the Year” categories, which means he is recognized as one of the best artists and producers in several genres. But many Christians don’t take the music industry’s word as gospel on the subject.
Is it a format question?
Kanye West did not use curse words or explicit content in “Donda.” He even censored his guest artists. The album is “clean” for that reason–it doesn’t have any content that has solicited a parental advisory warning as his past albums have. But is the lack of explicit content what makes an album “gospel?” Most people would answer this question with a resounding no.
Is it a thematic content question?
This is where the rubber meets the road. What makes an album “gospel” should have something to do with its content. And Kanye surely titles tracks with references to God, the Lord, and Jesus on the album. He uses Christian language of forgiveness, mercy, grace, Holy Spirit, miracle, Lord, pray, sin, angels, demons, heaven, and hell. He talks about Christian themes such as redemption, grace, love, and judgment. But he also talks a lot about himself: his struggles, his success, his opponents, his view of the world, and his life in general. These themes could be labeled “inspirational” and not Christian if it weren’t for the mentions of Jesus. It could be said that not much has changed in that regard. He always talked about those same themes, but his previous albums were labeled rap or hip-hop. Music fans remember “Jesus Walks” from his first album “The College Dropout,” which won him a Grammy and stirred the secular/gospel conversation then. Was Kanye always a gospel artist? Was he a gospel artist when he did wrote “Jesus Walks” but not when he did wrote “Yeezus” or “Father I Stretch My Hands?” Is he on a long faith journey, or did he just have a recent conversion experience? If theology matters, a gospel album should share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
A Gospel album should lead people to Jesus. “Donda” is not focused on that. Jesus is clearly present, but as a savior from Kanye’s problems, not necessarily as the Lord trying to reach all people.
So why is Donda not categorized with Hip-Hop or Rap albums as all his previous albums were? The question is hard to answer. Christian Hip-Hop artists from Lecrae to Andy Mineo, Verbal Kwest to Cross Movement, KB to Da’Truth, Canton Jones to others have also found themselves categorized with Gospel and Contemporary Christian instead of Hip Hop. But their music is usually Biblically grounded or an effort to talk about Christian life. Is Kanye West in the same category? If we compare what Kanye has done on Donda with late 1990s or early 2000s Christian Rap we could easily say no. Many Christian Rap albums during that period were explicitly quoting scripture, referencing theology, and focused on sharing faith in Christ through Hip-Hop. But in recent years, Christian rappers have had more songs about life that pivot back to faith than songs about their faith, and Kanye is doing something closer to that with Donda.
Is it a theological question?
“Donda” has no clear biblical narratives shared, even though the Bible is referenced multiple times and tracks are named after biblical figures. In almost every instance where God is mentioned on the album, it is a prayer for saving Kanye, or an affirmation that God helps Kanye beat sin and the devil. But Kanye also spends much of the time talking about his own greatness. It is hard to tell what is irony, what is genuine, and what is an artistic tool. That is what gives me pause on whether this is a gospel album. But as a modern complex personal narrative of redemption by God, I think Kanye’s album works.
It is as hard to tell if Kanye West’s “Donda ” is gospel album as it is to determine if Kanye West’s desire to share his Christian faith is genuine. But he has been authentic although conflicted while sharing his thoughts throughout his career. When he spoke at Lakewood Church in Houston in 2019 alongside the pastor Joel Osteen, he said “I know that God’s been calling me for a long time and the devil has been distracting me for a long time. When I was at my lowest points, God was there with me. Inspiring me and sending me visions.” He followed that with, “Following the Bible can free us all. Jesus can set you free.” This seems to be a fair encapsulation of his theology at this point in his Christian walk. Kanye knows Jesus as a Savior but seems to be unsure or unaware of what it means to follow Him, even though he knows it’s in the Bible.
What makes sharing the Gospel authentic?
So what makes sharing the Gospel authentic? Those questions have plagued Christians for centuries. We read the leaders of the early Church warning against false preachers, prophets, and teachers in the scriptures. We hear them clarifying doctrine that defines authentic Christianity. Were the false teachers in the early church Christians or just self-promoters? We get clear answers in scripture for that.
But after biblical times, things get fuzzier. What about Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor? Were the people who were subjected to Christianity by their rulers really Christians? What about the slave owners? Traders who colonized Africa and Asia? What about people who are racist or bigoted? People who have theologies built on fear? People who commit crimes? Are people who say they are Christian but don’t engage in Christian behavior actually Christians? Does anyone get to decide the truth of someone else’s faith? Is sharing a personal testimony of redemption by Jesus the same as sharing the Gospel?
Kanye West offers a message of redemption from sin answer in the song “Jail,” one of the most compelling on the album. He says:
In conclusion, is “Donda” a true “gospel” album? Although the commercial genre labels say yes, from a theological standpoint, I have to say no. It is not an album about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, nor His ministry.
But that doesn’t keep it from being a “Christian” album. Kanye West certainly presents himself as a Christian struggling with life and faith throughout the album. He tells the story of his redemption and even His ongoing dependence on God’s help. Can we call Kanye West a Christian artist? We may have to answer for ourselves individually, but in reality, only the Lord may know.
RESPECT is the film adaptation of the life story of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. Aretha Franklin is known by many as the one of the greatest singers and artists who ever lived. Her career spanned decades, crossed and dominated multiple genres, and garnered the most prestigious awards and honors. Her personal life was deeply complex, but her ability to articulate the depth of human experiences through music could not be clearer. RESPECT tells the story of Aretha Franklin’s journey of faith and finding her voice. UrbanFaith sat down with Jennifer Hudson, the star of the film who portrays Ms. Franklin to discuss the themes of faith, Gospel, and how to find our voices from the film. Full audio interview is linked above, the text of the interview below has been edited for clarity.
My first question for you after seeing the movie is about faith. Of course, it has so much faith in it. And a lot of the movie is about Aretha’s faith. What role did you see faith playing in that movie, and in your work with it?
Oh, it was mandatory. So that was the main thing, I was determined to make sure this was present. If my executive producer credit counts for anything, if I could add one thing, it was the Gospel. and I was like, we got to have a Gospel, you gotta have a thing. You gotta have faith. I don’t care what she’s singing or what’s happened in her life, THAT has always got to be present. It’s the same for me as well. For Aretha as well as for me.
And it seemed like it was really well presented as a story of redemption, you know? And why do you think that’s important for people to see, especially in a time like this, where there’s so much chaos, to hear these stories of hope out of that?
I think it’s even more impactful and powerful when it comes from someone like a legend and icon. But people don’t think that they go through real life things. And I look at it almost as if this is kind of like her testimony in a way; to see her struggle, go through life, be human, and still prevail. That’s a testimony. You know what I mean? And it inspired me. Yeah. And I think it would inspire so many others, because it’s to me misleading to let people think you just get what you want, or nothing’s going to happen, you’re not going to face anything. So when you get to see the life, the human, the person, you know, it kind of puts it in perspective, you know, and I don’t know how anyone would not find that inspiring.
(ctr) Marlon Wayans stars as Ted White and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in RESPECT A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert
Yeah, I really appreciated how complex all the characters were. I mean, you did a phenomenal job bringing Aretha and all her complexity out. But I thought that was the case across the board for the cast, how did you prepare to try to embody all that complexity over years?
That was another challenge, because it’s kind of overwhelming. When you think of Aretha, like she has decades and decades of a career. And it’s like, just trying to condense the music alone, eight albums before a hit. Okay? That’s one thing. Then you think of the life. Then you think of the people that were in her life. Then you think about what was going on in her life. What part of the story do you tell? But I think that was more of a challenge for Tracy, and the writer, I’m like, how are they gonna be able to… I don’t want to say condense…but get it all in? Because it’s such a powerful story in every capacity.
And it did tell this story that ended with Gospel that began with Gospel and her relationship with the church. What is some good news that you feel like the world needs from this film?
Um, I would say… my God, there are so many things. If I had to narrow it down to one, what would it be? I was gonna go to the base of her trusting her voice, and finding your own [voice], because it wasn’t until she owned hers, that we got our Queen of Soul. You know, to me, if we all took the time to do that within ourselves; what’s in there? [What’s] here to share with the world as our gifts? You know what I mean? So it makes you kind of want to relook at yourself. At least for me, it did. And encouraged me to want to…trust my own voice, path, experiences, and it shows things will prepare you for [what’s] next. But I kind of see things differently from everyone else. But I do think there’s something in [the movie] for whoever the viewer is, it’s just a matter of what you need, what you’re looking for.
Finding Her voice was something that really stood out to me as she had to deal with so many people trying to control her voice. And I want to know, what advice would you give to a young person young woman or a young adult about how to find their voice?
Wow. One, not to give it away. Because that can happen. And I think we take our voice for granted. And what I mean by that, is you may have a voice, but are you using it?
You know? And to me, that’s the trickiest part. Because yes, I have a voice. But is it telling my story? It should tell your story. It’s should speak of your experiences. We all have a story to tell. And we can only tell that story through our voice. So that’s what I mean by don’t give it away. Because it can happen unconsciously. It’s like, when I speak what am I speaking for myself? Am I speaking from my truth? Am I speaking from my experiences? Or am I going through the motions of what someone else would have me to do? And you could get confused by that by using your… the sound of your voice. But are you speaking for yourself? That’s when it gets tricky.
Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker as her father C.L. Franklin in RESPECT A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert
It does. One of the things that I appreciate, though, is that she had to figure out that people were for her. I want to know, how is it that the community has helped shape you, as you’ve taken this on?
Oh, my God…wow, that’s a good question. It’s been a… it’s been what is needed to be when it’s needed to be that. You know what I mean? When I need a push it’s there, like right now [there’s] so much love. So much support even when I don’t see things the way…it appears? That encouragement is there. That support is there, that I love is there, which is needed right now. Or when times are down. There are people are like, come on, keep going, keep pushing. So it varies depending on the situation. But [there are things that are there ] to teach you tough lessons, too. So again, it varies.
Absolutely. And so again, a last word for any young adult, especially young adult faith, trying to figure out how can they get to success. You’ve accomplished so much. What is the advice that you would give trying to figure out how to be successful?
Well, one, no one knows your potential the way you do. And if people don’t see your dream and your vision, it’s only because they don’t dream as big as you do. And nothing is JUST that. [People say] “oh, that’s just this, this just that.” Well, honey, just singing the tribute got me right here today. You know what I’m saying? So I’m trusting that. And if you keep at something, it has no choice but to give. And NEVER…this is what I told myself after Idol before Dreamgirls. After I was eliminated from American Idol…and I really want to share this with this community. When I started out, I was like “I’m gonna win.” And people were like, “Well, what if you don’t? What if you don’t win?” So I started believing them.
And that’s when I started to say, “I’m gonna do it for the experience.” And I let them talk me out of my faith. I let them interrupt that faith. So when Dreamgirls comes around and someone wants to say something that wasn’t in my train of thought I said, “No, I will not interrupt my faith. This is mine and I’m sticking with it.” And I learned that lesson. That’s what I mean by nothing is “just.” So even when it’s an experience that didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to [turn out]…it can still prepare you for the next thing. Because by the time the Dreamgirls opportunity rolled around, I learned from that experience. Allowing people to interrupt my faith? No, no. That’s what went wrong the last time! [Instead I said] I’m ready God, I believe it, I accept it. I’m not concerned with what [anyone else] got to say and [they] will not interrupt my faith. Don’t allow someone to interrupt your faith. I want to leave it with that.
The soundtrack of the 1970s still speaks to us. Life, as many had known it, was rapidly changing back then. A generation had found its revolutionary voice and was confronting oppression domestically and abroad. Disenchantment with status quo Americanism had sparked the nation’s social consciousness. And from the center of this whirlwind emerged a cry for deep justice.
A singer captured the ethos of the age: “What’s going on?” he asked.
War, social decay, and racial unrest conspired against a generation. Too many mothers were crying, too many brothers dying. “We don’t need to escalate,” he urged. Please stop judging and punishing picket signs with brutality. “We’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”
Fast-forward almost 40 years and Marvin Gaye’s music feels as timely as ever.
Where’s the “Lovin’ Here Today”?
At its core, the Gospel is a story about a loving God who reconciles humanity into loving relationships with Himself, themselves, and each other. Justice fits into the story as Christ rights the wrongs that prevent those relationships. Worship as both music and lifestyle should reflect this. But does it?
In a world marked by wars, genocide, street gangs and terror thugs, ethnocentrism, generational poverty, famine, AIDS, substandard housing and education, rampant materialism, religious hatred, and environmental degradation, where’s the lovin’ in our church music? The kind of lovin’ that rights wrongs and reconciles relationships?
The songs that typically rank as the “most popular” in mainstream evangelical churches today are filled with beautiful expressions of God’s holiness and love. But they seem to lack a consistent emphasis on worship that moves beyond a personal experience to include a clear declaration of the social-justice dimension of God’s activity in the world.
Sadly, too often our church music is directed inward as a distorted, selfish facsimile of worship. We long for God to meet personal needs and mediate justice on our own behalf, radically reducing our songs to individualized laundry lists of wants. Consider these popular contemporary worship song lyrics:
• “Every time I turn around there will be blessings on blessings, blessings on blessings / The favor of the Lord rests upon me, in my hands I have more than enough” (from Blessings on Blessings from Anthony Brown & group therAPy)
• “I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone / When the praises go up, the blessings come down / It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap” (from “Blessings,” by Chance the Rapper featuring Jamila Woods)
• “I can feel [the ‘presence,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘power’ of the Lord] / And
I’m gonna get my blessing right now” (from “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” by Byron Cage).
• “I can feel [the ‘presence,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘power’ of the Lord] / And
I’m gonna get my blessing right now” (from “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” by Byron Cage).
•“In my life I’m soaked in blessing / And in heaven there’s a great
reward / … I’ve got Jesus, Jesus / He calls me for His own / And He lifts me, lifts me / Above the world I know” (from “God Is in the House,” by Hillsong United).
•“(I got the) anointing / (Got God’s) favor / (And we’re still)
standing / I want it all back / Man give me my stuff back / Give me my stuff back / … I want it all / … I want that” (from “I Want it All Back,” by Tye Tribbett).
Contrast those with the three recorded songs that accompanied Jesus’ birth. While the melodies have been lost to time, the lyrics reverberate through history.
The first, a spontaneous soulful utterance by a pregnant virgin, marveled about the Mighty One who miraculously conceived His child within her. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). What of the Rolls Royce-driving, private jet-flying, multiple mansion-dwelling, high fashion-wearing preachers and modern Christian subculture profiteers? What about the good life to which their songs and sermons aspire? What fills them?
The second, a choir song performed by heaven’s finest angels for an audience of outcast shepherds, proclaimed: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). The peace of which they sang is shalom, and favor refers to “the year of the Lord’s favor” embraced within Christ’s mission (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61). More than the absence of strife, shalom is what the Prince of Peace came to reestablish: The interdependency of vibrant communities; the vitality of healthy bodies; the manifold mysteries of parental love; and the majesty of the cosmos. The condition of sin robs shalom, but Jesus’ justice restores it. When the most affluent people in recorded history attempt to co-opt Jesus’ favor as a rationale to get more stuff, we cheapen everything the gospel represents.
The third song, by an old man long past his prime, declared Jesus, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” He then explained the lyrics to Jesus’ parents: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:32, 34-35). Not much touchy feely hoopla here either.
Not one of these songs celebrates the themes that predominate our weekly worship services. No mention of “me,” except in the context of calling and responsibility beyond oneself. No focus on “blessing,” except as it relates to our ability, empowered by God, to bless others. No pursuit of personal comfort; rather, the promise of a sword to pierce one’s soul.
Indeed, the soundtrack that accompanied heaven’s lyric — the Word made flesh and dwelling among us — bears little resemblance to popular songs we sing in our churches. When that timeless Word “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message) his manner of doing so invited shame and ridicule, not material bounty. He lived among us as a child of poverty (born in a barn); political refugee (in Egypt); social pariah (survivor of unmarried pregnancy, a capital crime); ghetto immigrant (“What good comes from Nazareth?”); and blue-collar subject (carpenter) of an imperialistic colonizer (Rome). He was a friend of prostitutes (such as the woman who anointed his feet with perfume), crooked bureaucrats (tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus), and terrorists (including his disciple Simon, the Zealot, a card-carrying member of a first-century Palestinian terror organization).
If He actually showed up to one of our stylized worship experiences, He may well sing a different tune, one that sounds more like the warning He gave through the Old Testament prophet Amos:
“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice — oceans of it. I want fairness — rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want” (Amos 5:21-24, The Message).
Taking Amos at his word, if all God wants is oceans of justice rather than egocentric noise, then the needs of a broken world must reclaim center stage from personal blessings during corporate worship experiences. Notwithstanding the public repentance for neglecting the poor by high-profile leaders like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, many churches remain mute on such issues and have abandoned prophetic moments in lieu of religious protocol.
What to Do?
How can worship leaders help navigate oceans of justice within congregational gatherings? First, in the music and expressions of worship we embrace; and second, by facilitating worship as lifestyle, not just musical ritual.
Marvin Gaye’s opus reminds us that music ennobles ideas, emotes passion, and defines eras. Because we feel it, music penetrates hearts and stimulates a response. Combine inspired notes with well-crafted lyrics and the results can be liberating. Or lethal.
In Call and Response, a 2008 documentary about sex trafficking, Dr. Cornel West describes music’s power to accentuate and ultimately eradicate injustice:
“Music is about helping folk … by getting them to dance. Getting them to move. Getting them to think. Getting them to reflect. Getting them to be themselves, to somehow break out of the conventional self that they are.”
As musicians use that power to draw attention to injustices, people cannot help but get involved, West contends, because “justice is what love looks like in public.”
Historically, some denominational traditions have embraced justice-oriented hymns and music (e.g., Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and “O Healing River“), and Native Peoples have more than most (e.g., “Every Part of this Earth,” words by Chief Seattle). CCM pioneer Keith Green was an anomaly among evangelicals through the ’70s and early ’80s with songs like “Asleep in the Light,” which challenged: “Open up, and give yourself away / You’ve seen the need, you hear the cry, so how can you delay.” But increasingly music ministers across traditions are giving voice to justice within worship services (e.g., Jason Upton’s “Poverty,” Brian McLaren’s “A Revolution of Hope,” and Aaron Niequist‘s “Love Can Change the World”).
Jesus’ mission — Good News for the poor, sight for the blind, and liberty for the oppressed — requires the courage to break free from convention, perceive the new things God is doing in our midst, and zealously pursue them.
How We Get There
1. Refocus. Reductionist Western worship is possible because we have lost a sense of awe and reverence for Who God is, fashioning instead a God in our own image. Mark Labberton in his book, The Dangerous Act of Worship, writes:
The God we seek is the God we want, not the God who is. We fashion a god who blesses without obligation, who lets us feel his presence without living his life, who stands with us and never against us, who gives us what we want, when we want it.
Rather than appealing to God on account of his character — a holy, righteous, just, and mighty God — we have become gods unto ourselves, presupposing long before we encounter His presence what He needs to do on our behalf and prejudging what matters most. Let’s refocus on Who really matters.
2. Repent. The failure to incorporate laments for justice into corporate worship underscores a much deeper problem. Fundamentally we misunderstand what worship really is. Worship is neither the rhythmic pursuit of a euphoric high nor the somber embrace of silent reflection. Such either/or myopia forgets that Jesus describes true worshipers as those who worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).
Paul elaborates that “our spiritual act of worship” requires offering our very selves as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1-2). First century Romans familiar with ritual sacrifices understood that phrase to be a contradiction. One did not sacrifice living bulls, for example. The peril of potential impaling demanded that sacrifices be dead first. Yet God invites worshipers to voluntarily self-sacrifice. Paul continues: “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world” — white picket fences, trendy fashions, and such — “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Where our will conforms to the world’s patterns and trumps God’s will, let’s repent for rejecting true worship.
3. Remember. The holy God we revere is also our righteous king who exacts justice on behalf of his people. Moses and Miriam remembered in Exodus 15 when they praised Yahweh for demonstrating justice in his dealings with Pharaoh and liberating his people. Hannah remembered when she thanked God for his justice on her behalf (1 Samuel 2). King David remembered when he declared, “The Lord reigns!” and embraced a heavenly King who ruled above him and all other powers, whose eternal justice and righteousness are irrevocable. Let’s also remember that our “Lord loves justice” (Isaiah 61:8).
4. Reconnect. No longer should worship gatherings embrace the first part of the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” at the expense of the second part, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Let’s reconnect His love in a coherent whole.
5. Realign. Justice and worship at their core both deal with power and the abuses of power. By emphasizing God’s kingship, his rule over all creation, and his impeccable character, we intentionally create space for the Most High to address the fallen powers in our churches, states, nation, and world. Let’s realign our congregations under God’s power as work within us rather than the abusive power structures dominating the world.
6. Rediscover. As we identify and proclaim the laments of the marginalized with a deep understanding that their cries are our cries, we will begin to see our perspectives shift and the power of God move in ways that we never would have imagined.
Let’s rediscover the unleashed, all-powerful God, not our tempered and tame God in a box. Like Aslan of Narnia, He may not be safe, but “He is good.”
Clergy and faith leaders march to counter protest the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. RNS photo by Jordy Yager
An old question has recently found new energy among Christians.
“What does the gospel have to do with justice, particularly social justice?”
Justice has been a frequent topic these days — in the face of a stream of cellphone videos capturing instances of police brutality, conflict over the presence and future of Confederate monuments and racially charged responses to the nation’s changing demographics.
Christians, both as people of faith and citizens of this country, have pondered what to do in this current social climate. They have called for Christians to join or start movements for change as an explicit expression of discipleship and obedience to the prayer that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).
And they have called for the church to make amends for the racial divisions of the past and present.
Others take a different view.
Where some see calls for biblical justice, they see heresy.
This week a group of Christians published “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel,” a response to what they call “questionable sociological, psychological, and political theories presently permeating our culture and making inroads into Christ’s church.”
The statement comes just after a short blog series posted by well-known Christian preacher and teacher John MacArthur, warning of the dangers of social justice.
MacArthur calls social justice a distraction from the gospel.
“Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of ‘social justice’ is a significant shift — and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before, always with spiritually disastrous results,” he wrote.
MacArthur is one of the initial signatories of The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, which echoes his blog posts.
While Christians from many traditions, races and ethnicities have displayed a concern for social justice, it is a topic that particularly concerns black and brown folks. We have endured a long history of race-based discrimination that did not simply disappear after the March on Washington, the passage of the Civil Rights Act or the election of the nation’s first black president.
The Rev. Pamela Lightsey, center, leads advocates from the Black Lives Matter movement as they disrupt proceedings of the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. The demonstrators marched into the plenary session chanting slogans and gathered around the central Communion table. Photo by Maile Bradfield, courtesy of UMNS
Statements that dismiss social justice send a message that the ongoing marginalization many minorities still experience and struggle against is of no concern to their fellow Christians.
Or to God.
Or to the Bible — despite ample scriptural evidence that demonstrates God’s concern for the poor and the powerless and anger toward those who create oppressive conditions (Amos 5:24, Micah 6:8, Psalm 103:6, Isaiah 10:1, Luke 1:52-53, Luke 4:18).
Although much about this statement needs discussion, I will highlight one section in particular.
It reads: “We affirm that some cultures operate on assumptions that are inherently better than those of other cultures because of the biblical truths that inform those worldviews that have produced these distinct assumptions.”
The best word to describe the assertion above is “ethnocentric.”
Who gets to decide which cultures and which assumptions are closer to biblical truth? For most of American history, white Christians have claimed that privilege. That privilege is now being challenged.
I’m tempted to refute the recent statement on the gospel and social justice point-by-point — showing how it falls short of the Bible’s call for justice. But I think our time would be better spent on other pursuits. There’s too much work to be done — work that will be delayed by endless debates.
Here’s my advice.
Many of the people who authored and signed this statement have large ministries and platforms.
Find other authors, preachers and teachers from whom you can learn. People like Austin Channing Brown or the podcasters and bloggers at Truth’s Table or The Witness, where I am a contributor. Or read Howard Thurman, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bryan Stevenson, James Baldwin or the other writers who have explored issues of justice.
If the supporters of statements that dismiss social justice as a distraction from the gospel headline a major conference, state your concerns to the organizers. If nothing changes, then don’t go.
If they do an interview on a podcast, find another episode to listen to. If they write more blogs to state their case, share other ones instead.
Statements like these are a distraction. They siphon off energy and attention that could be used to create new organizations and initiatives that help bring about justice and equality.
Instead of writing a rebuttal to the statement on social justice, why not write a proposal for a new scholarship to help underrepresented groups go to college and stay out of debt? Why not donate money to support ministries run by and geared toward racial and ethnic minorities? Why not research a cause and find out how you can get involved?
Refusing to give more attention to the people who oppose social justice is not a statement on their standing with God. This does not mean they are not sincerely attempting to follow Christ. It does not mean that they have not said helpful things on other topics in the past.
It simply means that in this case, they have made statements so troublesome that we must register our objections in visible ways.
Christians should never give up hope that people can change. Yet going back and forth, especially online, about social justice with those who see it as a dangerous intrusion into the church often does not alter anyone’s opinions and may lead to more frustration.
In the end, I think more people will be persuaded to change their minds about social justice by looking at the fruit of the people who engage in it rather than by arguing on social media about the validity of doing so.
Half a century after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, it’s easy for people to claim that they would have been among the protesters and marchers and those who risked it all for the cause of justice. Well, the struggle for civil rights never ended. Now is your chance to get involved for love of God and love of neighbor.