Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Worship and Commitment
distributed 3/22/13 - ©2013

Through Lent this year, Eco-Justice Notes will be exploring several qualities of worship that is richly ecological and transformational.

What does it take to have worship that is profoundly relevant in this time of global emergency? Do we need to throw out centuries of theology and spiritual practice and create something entirely new?

In the often-spoken and rarely-practiced words of scripture, let me say "Fear not!" Through the last five weeks, I've been spelling out ways that churches today need to deepen and focus our worship, but none of the themes that I've outlined are foreign to traditional patterns of liturgy. Awe, listening, lament, confession, and imagination have always been essential elements of worship that is faithful, engaging and transformative.

So, too, the sixth quality -- commitment -- is both very familiar and sorely lacking. In most churches, we need to be far more intentional and challenging with this central aspect of religious life.

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In the theology of my "free church" religious tradition, the flow of a service of worship is often based on the Bible's story of the call of the prophet Isaiah. As told in Is. 6, he had a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the Jerusalem temple. The story begins with awe and praise, moves into lament and confession, both personal and collective ("Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips."), and then culminates in the prophet's response. God asks, "Whom shall I send?" and Isaiah blurts, "Here am I; send me!"

Unlike so many of the biblical stories of call, which are filled with hesitation, resistance, deflection and reluctance, Isaiah seems eager to take on the prophetic mantle. He is a good model for enthusiastic commitment as a response to God's forgiveness and the imagination of a renewed creation.

In my staid Congregational heritage, the weekly ritual of commitment, which is supposed to echo Isaiah's "Send me!", comes toward the end of the service, and involves the passing of an offering plate. That's a decent symbol and reminder of our faith commitment, but for most of us, dropping a few dollars in the plate is not a reflection of ecstatic or life-changing commitment.

A more profound liturgical expression can be seen in Evangelical churches which usually have an "altar call", an invitation for people to make a public declaration of faith and commitment. This does not have to be a one-time-only expression. It can express a new and heartfelt confession, a reaffirmation and renewal of faith, or a fresh act of dedication.

I've seen many other ways that churches have developed rituals of commitment. In the "stewardship" (or more accurately, "fund raising") season, the presentation of pledges and offerings is more challenging and intentional than the routine Sunday collection. Churches will often commission members for a special project or task -- blessing those heading off for a mission trip or work camp, or installing this year's crop of teachers and church officers. Through long experience, we know that church members do make choices about how and where to serve God with intentional commitments, and we know that it is valuable to make those commitments in the context of worship where they can be affirmed by the gathered community.

Worship always provides an opportunity to declare and renew our commitments of faith. In this time of great eco-justice crisis -- when "business as usual" is rushing our planet toward catastrophic depletion and destabilization -- churches must find new liturgical ways to invite and affirm commitments that are proportional to our deep lament and prophetic imagination.

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For several years, Eco-Justice Ministries has stressed that there are three very different ways the churches can call their members and communities to environmental responsibility. We've given those approaches the shorthand names of "doing the basics", "leadership and action", and "transformational ministry." Because they express varying ideas about the source and depth of our environmental problems (from "we need to be responsible consumers" to "we need to change the values and institutions of our society"), the sort of commitment that is called for changes across the three approaches.

This Lent, I'll be clear about my bias in those three style of change. In keeping with the other qualities of appropriate worship for these times, churches must frequently and significantly challenge us toward transformational change, and call on us to make the commitments necessary to live into that vision.

In this year's Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast, a proposal was made for churches to affirm their members who have lived out a commitment for political action.

Every time your congregation gathers to worship, consider making the first announcement something like this:  As we do every week, I'd like to ask those who contacted either their congress-person or the White House this past week to advocate for new laws that will make our earth sustainable to please rise - as you are able - and receive our applause. Thank you, and I hope to see all of you rise next week.

There is no end to creative possibilities. Can we develop rituals where church members stand before the congregation and vow to adopt (or even move toward) a vegetarian diet as an act of faithful creation care? Can we have special house blessing ceremonies for those who down-size their homes, or who move to a location that reduces their commuting? How about an annual "blessing of the sweaters" in the fall, as a symbol of lowered thermostats? We can commission those who are willing to engage in civil disobedience, or who are in careers (paid or volunteer) that are intentionally chosen based on eco-justice values.

In the weekly liturgy, it is important to make the connections between our common symbols and the depth of commitment that is required in these days. The invitation to the offering can stress the point I made above, that the donation dropped in the plate is a sign and a symbol of our much deeper commitment to live lives transformed by God's grace and dedicated to God's realm of shalom.

Evangelical ethicist Ron Sider admits that our weak action on environmental causes is directly tied to a weak religious commitment.

Obviously, God's Word compels us to become more concerned with the environment, so that means we must change. ... We need to repent of our unspoken belief that more is better ... I'm afraid that one reason Christians fail to live more simply for the sake of the poor and the environment ... is that we don't really love Jesus very much. We substitute lukewarm faith and mere tradition for a passionate love for the Lord and a radical commitment to worship and to obey [God] at any cost.

The genuine experience of worship and praise -- which is often different from the Sunday morning liturgy -- is always an act of commitment. When we worship God, we are dedicating ourselves to God's purposes. We are pledging ourselves to live and act in faith, and to embody love and care in our relationships with all of creation.

Commitment as an essential element of worship is nothing new. In this time of great emergency, though, Christian churches must be far more bold and creative in calling people toward deep and transformational commitments in their lives.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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