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How worship moves us from compassion to justice

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In this article:

  • The difference between compassion and justice
  • Justice is social
  • How worship reorients our perspectives towards justice

Why do we do some of the weird things we do in Christian worship services? In many cases, they become models of compassion that move us towards justice.

There is a difference between compassion and justice. Compassion is important. Compassion is necessary.

But a majority of the time, compassion doesn’t solve anything. Compassion addresses the surface things; kind of like putting a bandage on a wound that needs a deeper medical attention.

Compassion or justice?

A majority of our churches are engaged in compassion ministries, not justice ministries. We engage in food pantries — which, please don’t get me wrong: they are very important. But it doesn’t solve the hunger issue in our communities. As Malcolm X noted, in order to heal the wound, we have to remove the knife causing the wound.

A lot of our churches send work teams to help rebuild homes and meet a few needs of that community. But that community’s deeper needs still exist after we leave. In fact, a lot of times we actually disrupt their way of life for the sake of having us feel good we did some “good.”

Justice tries to focus on the cause of the situation. It goes beyond feeding the hungry, asking why are they hungry? It goes beyond taking collections for the houseless in our community, asking why are the houseless?

Perhaps compassion is incomplete without justice. Justice removes the cause of the wound.

Acts and ministries of compassion are vital. We should never overlook doing things for others, particularly for those who may be vulnerable.

We need to feed them. We need  to clothe them. We need people to know that they are cared for and loved. And we need to teach people of our community the importance of compassion, servanthood, and generosity.

When justice goes social

It’s just that some churches are content stopping right there and not going deeper. Some of those churches shy away from the word “justice” particularly when it’s preceded by the word “social.” I remember in the early 2010’s, a very popular news pundit, told his listeners that if your church engages/talks about “social justice” run fast and run far away. I remember fielding one too many calls about why our church talks about “social justice” and how the callers were concerned we were perverting the words of Jesus and the Bible. They weren’t too thrilled with me when I preached John the Baptist’s exhortation of sharing your coats if you have two and your neighbor has one.

The Gospel of Matthew has been called “the Gospel of Justice” because justice is such a prominent theme. While states that Social justice refers to a fair and equitable division of resources, opportunities, and privileges in society, Anna Case Winters, in her commentary on Matthew, writes: Justice includes a (re)ordering of relationships with God, with one another, and in the social/political arena. A right ordering will adjust towards equality and reciprocity and a general sharing of resources.

She writes how the Sermon on the Mount is a blueprint of “creating a new kind of community where justice prevails.”

How are we working on (re)ordering relationships with God and with one another?

Worship and justice

For my church community, we get a reminder of ordering and reordering relationships during our liturgy every Sunday. We recite the Lord’s Prayer that begins with the phrase “Our Father.”

That phrase might be off-putting and maybe even serve as a reminder how many of our churches are steeped in patriarchy. But for the listeners of Jesus, it was a radical notion because status in the community was based upon who your father was. Here Jesus said that God is father of all of us, thereby putting all on equal and level ground. We are all children of the one and true God.

Right after the corporate reciting of the Lord’s Prayer, we move to the Eucharist. Anna Case Winters writes that “sharing bread at table is a fundamental practice of communion and justice.” It’s a gentle reminder that this table is not our’s and that everyone has a seat and is able to partake in communion. The hope is that we carry that same energy when we leave the comfort of our church walls and into the world.

Don’t run from churches that engage in conversations and ministries of social justice. Lean into the work. Engage in the work of creating a community where God’s justice (not our sense of justice) prevails.

Let the compassion the Holy Spirit planted in your heart and soul lead you to the work of justice. 

Joseph Yoo is the author When the Saints Go Flying in. He is a West Coaster at heart contently living in Houston, Texas with his wife and son. He serves at Mosaic Church in Houston. Find more of his writing at

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