TMF Blog

Inconvenient Questions and “Woke” Answers

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September 26, 2018

by John Thornburg, TMF V.P. of Area Staff

Inconvenient Questions and “Woke” Answers

Jesus frequently asked inconvenient questions. “Why do you notice the splinter in someone else’s eye and fail to notice the log in your own?” (Matthew 7:2). “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Matthew 20:22). “Could you not watch with me one brief hour?” (Matthew 26:40). If I’m honest, the answers are, “I don’t know,” “No,” and “But I was so sleepy.” 

Come on, Jesus, throw us a softball like, “Aren’t I the nicest guy you’ve ever known?”

There are some questions that we ask in our strategic discernment work at TMF that people often find inconvenient. One on the list is, “Who is your ministry intended to reach?” Another is, “What do the first-time visitors to your congregation look like?” The most frequent answers given by the discernment teams are, “us” and “us.”  

When a team is this honest, we then move on to ask why the ministry of the church has become so inwardly focused and so centered on those who are already there. This is courageous work, and I thank God for clergy and laity in our churches who are engaging in the work of deep change.

But recently, I had the tables turned on me. Instead of asking the questions, I was the recipient of the deeply inconvenient question. 

It came from Rev. David Bailey, head of an extraordinary non-profit called Arrabon, devoted to racial reconciliation using vital worship as the means to a beautiful end. 

He was addressing a group of 300 “church music” geeks that I hang out with called The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. During the 60-minute conversation he had with us, he told the story of being in a church one Sunday and noticing that two men had entered the sanctuary at about the same time. It turned out that they had the same first name. Let’s call them Jim. That’s where the similarity ended.

The first Jim was a man of privilege. He had a college education and a job. He didn’t worry about where his next meal was coming from. The second Jim was homeless and suffered from multiple addictions. He was living the same day, day after day.

In a gentle, insistent tone, Rev. Bailey asked, “Which Jim do you have in mind when you plan worship?” 

The room was silent, except for a few sighs too deep for words. The privileged people in the room (almost everyone) know who we have in mind when we plan worship and, in this case, when we choose hymns, song and choruses. Bailey continued, “It’s time to be woke when we plan worship.”

I had heard people use the word ‘woke,’ meaning the moment you find out you were wrong about much of what you understood to be truth. But Rev. Bailey’s use of the term “woke worship” stopped me in my tracks.

I’ve spent most of my ministerial career planning worship for people like me. I’m not regretful about the worship I’ve planned and led, but I can’t ignore what God said through David Bailey. I’ve been inviting privileged people to step far enough back to see the traps and temptations of privilege and to step into a new place of solidarity. What I haven’t been doing is finding out what God is doing in the rest of the world and coming up alongside that.

I wonder what our churches would be like if our answer to the question, “Who is your worship for?” was “It’s for people we haven’t met yet. It’s for people who may not have a permanent address, but they do have a permanent hunger for the freedom only God can give. It’s for people who have songs in their hearts that may or may not have ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ in the title, but whose songs look toward the beautiful future we simply refer to as the realm of God.”

I’m not woke yet. I’m living in the lie that worship has to be the same 12 items in the same order every Sunday, rather than in the truth that worship is about mutual adoration of the One who made us all, no matter how that is expressed.

There’s no switch you can flip to make your worship planning woke. What I do know is that it all starts with asking the courageous question, “Who is our worship for?” 

Contact your Area Representative for your conference or V.P. of Area Staff John Thornburg to learn about our process for facilitating conversation around worship planning and how it can lead your congregation to faithful, purposeful discernment and change.


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