(It isn’t often that the Bible provides the perfect click-bait title for a blog but Amos 5:21 was hard to ignore. I actually quite enjoy the odd festival. This isn’t about festivals at all, the verses just exist on the same page.)
I have just been reading Amos. I always imagine the prophet Amos to be a bit of a troubled poet; blessed with this incredible ability with language but burning with a holy rage that pushes the words out with more aggression than he had planned. The type of guy you politely nod at in a pub who opens the conversation with a key note speech about the arms trade and the horrors it causes (a noble topic). Always serious. In Chapter 5 of his short book there is a tidal wave of rebuke, mainly focussed on the nation’s treatment of the vulnerable and calling upon them to change their ways.
This wave breaks with the line: ‘Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll like a river. Righteousness like an ever failing stream.’ Strong words.
The book is a quite a challenge to our modern day expression of Christian faith. Music and singing have become more central to our expression than ever before. In the past few decades people have, probably for the first time in history, begun to choose the local church community they want to be a part of based solely on the style of music. We have seen the initial rise of the worship song, then the worship leader, then the worship concert, then the worship tour and eventually the worship chart cataloguing the most successful worship song of the month. Worship music is king; a multi-million pound industry.
I think in general this has been something to celebrate as it has been life giving to so many people. People seem to be connecting with God in new ways that perhaps they were not before the modern worship style appeared. There have however been a few moments when I have found myself wondering if I was in danger of requiring an Amos 5 rebuke.
I was leading worship (a phrase that I still struggle with – perhaps I was leading the worship music in a service is more appropriate despite being more clunky) in a church and during one of the more upbeat songs a man whom I knew to be regularly sleeping on the streets came to the front of the church and started to dance. He looked really happy, enjoying the band’s efforts as best he could. I however was really distracted and got the words wrong to one of the verses (the shame!) After the service I had more than a few members of the church come and tell me how distracting they had found it and that they had not been able to worship because of it. Some of them were quite angry that he had been allowed in at all,
“He was obviously not in a fit state to be in church,” one seemingly well informed gentleman protested. “I am not sure we should be allowing people like him into the service. Perhaps we could create an area in the foyer,” was the lowest point in the post-service post-mortem.
I went home with a strange feeling of sadness that I haven’t really processed until recently despite that event being the guts of ten years ago. I think this verse in Amos sums it up. Somewhere along the line, I and the many who were angered by this gentleman’s dancing, had gotten things backwards. We had begun to use words like anointed, sacred and Spirit-filled about songs and liturgy. We had begun to narrow our worship to that 20-30 minutes of corporate singing during which we had come to ‘meet with God,’ and ‘experience His presence.’ It hadn’t dawned upon us that the man who we deemed a distraction to our worship was in fact the most sacred thing the room. I had allowed myself to judge his dancing as inappropriate betraying my prejudicial idea that he couldn’t have been here for the right reasons; his dance could never be honouring to God.
Had we allowed ourselves to consecrate our songs to such a point that the sacred, image-bearer dancing in our midst became the enemy of our worship rather than our welcome towards him being a sign of a true worshipful heart. Perhaps God was more interested in seeing me respond with kindness and generosity to a man He made as well as He made me, than He was in the well delivered third verse of In Christ Alone. My true act of worship that evening would have been to show love, care and acceptance to a man who’s struggle was more visible than mine. I failed with flying colours to engage with that act at all.
May we always be welcoming communities that put our welcome of strangers above our joy of singing together. How we treat one another is a greater act of worship than how ‘rocking’ the bands set is.