Learn & Serve: Summer 2012 Worship, from Abstract to Concrete
Many of the words that are used in singing/teaching/talking about faith tend to be abstract and make it difficult for youth to connect. There is no more lack of desire or devotion for them than anyone else, but a lack of concrete example when it comes to living out the faith that they sing about/learn about/profess. Perhaps connecting the ideas of faith with reality is not a struggle for youth alone, but abstract concepts like love, justice, and following Christ, when only spoken about and not experienced or lived out, make it hard for youth to really learn, practice, or live out those things that they affirm, or have been taught in word to do as Christians.
By abstract, I mean something existing in words or thoughts, but not in reality. By concrete, I mean something that is in a real or physical form. When a student sings about wanting to love all of the people that God loves, that is abstract. When a student goes into a global village and feels the smoke in their eyes from cooking their food over an open fire, sleeps on the floor of a house from the Philippines, works all day making bricks, feels hunger possibly for the first time in their life, tastes food native to Uganda and experiences life differently for the sake of understanding their brothers and sisters around the world, that is concrete.
When a student sings about giving their life to glorify God, that is abstract. When a student goes to listen to and spend time with someone who is lonely in a nursing home in order to glorify God by sharing his love in a practical way with their presence, that is concrete.
This Summer, students at Learn & Serve (L&S) got to meet Pastor Pam Dagwom of Nigeria. They heard him speak about the great persecution going on in Nigeria right now. Pastor Pam checked the news one week this Summer to find out that more than one hundred Christians had been killed in Nigeria. Every week, students got to hear from Pastor Pam and he would stop in the middle of sharing to get students to pray for Nigeria. He stood with his arms around students as they prayed for those persecuting the church in Nigeria, as well as Christians being persecuted there.
We sang a song by Amos Lee called “Cup of Sorrow” every week this Summer at L&S. Pastor Pam expressed the depth with which this song spoke to him when it said, “I want to drink from Your cup of sorrow/I want to bathe in Your holy blood/I want to sleep with the promise of tomorrow/I know tomorrow may never come.” He said it meant so much to him because of the persecution of Christians in his country. When the students sang this song each week after hearing from Pastor Pam, the abstract words of this song became very real or concrete when they sang this verse of the song together: “I’ll send a prayer out across the ocean/To a man been forced out of his home/ I’ll send a prayer out across the ocean/That he may not suffer there alone.” Students got the opportunity to sing that song about the people in Nigeria after hearing from Pastor Pam. Students are usually aware of the suffering in the world intellectually because of a constant flow of information coming from various forms of media, but being able to see, hear, speak to and shake hands with a man whose faith brings him persecution is an opportunity for students to know a brother from Nigeria personally who experiences persecution, and pray for him specifically instead of praying for general persecution. There is an opportunity there for a meaningful connection between the Learn & Serve students and their brothers and sisters who live differently from them, that would not happen for most of these students, otherwise.
Singing in worship should be prayerful and should connect with the concrete world. Students at SIFAT get a great opportunity to connect the abstract ideas of faith (loving one’s neighbor, justice, compassion, following Christ, contentment in all circumstances, sacrifice, etc.) with the concrete in the global village, slum experience, and experience volunteering in the community around SIFAT, which can be life- changing. For many students, that shift is crucial in developing an authentic lifestyle of faith.
The abstract words of worship are not a bad thing. It is when there is no reality behind the words/teaching/reading/singing, that the abstract becomes empty. The abstract must have the concrete in order for worship to exist. Otherwise, we are just singing, reading, or talking.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites gave offering of incense in repentance and to represent their devotion to the LORD. However, later in the Old Testament, the incense was still being burned, but the devotion was not there, on top of that, the Israelites were not living in line with the nature and characteristics of the LORD. Isaiah 1: “Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me! As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath and your special days for fasting— they are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings. I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims. Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.”
The Israelites were still using symbols and words to worship God–their assemblies/meetings, their celebrations, and even their prayers, but their lives were not in line with the desires of God–giving up evil ways, helping the oppressed, seeking justice, etc. Their words and practices were meaningless because they did not represent a reality in their lives.
Before working at SIFAT, I was a youth pastor at Christ UMC in Mobile, AL. Our students would come back from SIFAT with the desire and confidence to follow Christ by knowing that they could “share God’s love in practical ways,” as SIFAT’s motto states. We had students who put loving their neighbor into practice by raising money for a classmate’s family to have Christmas presents after their mother died (Blake, below, in the Slum Experience). One student, Alissa, began a fundraiser for an international organization that works to combat sex trafficking around the world (International Justice Mission). Another started an online store, selling jewelry to sponsor a child with Compassion International (see Alissa, below, in the SIFAT Global Village). Others began recycling, volunteering, etc. The experiences at SIFAT are things that students feel physically, and the people that youth are able to come in contact with and learn from at SIFAT give a concrete launching point for practicing faith when they leave.
Based on my experience, the songs, then, that students sing in worship after their experience at SIFAT become a prayer for help from God to be able to continue following Him with concrete choices that they have to make each day. The songs become celebrations of the joys that come with obedience and cries for help. This creates an all-around more honest faith that comes from connecting one’s daily life with what can often become simply occasional worship. This might be able to be called sustainable worship–the coming together of abstract and concrete–which transfers into the everyday decision-making and thought processes of students, resulting in a lasting faith. SIFAT is not simply sharing God’s love in practical ways around the world, by teaching people how to have clean drinking water, have smoke-free stoves, and more nutrition. SIFAT is sharing God’s love in practical ways through Learn & Serve by helping youth connect the idea of God’s love with concrete examples and opportunities to see, experience, and share God’s love, as well.
It’s impossible to speak about everything that SIFAT teaches youth and to say just how good it is for them, but it needs to be said that they really do love the students who come to Learn & Serve. The students can tell that the staff loves them, too, and that, what I believe, is only a God-given love and what makes the Learn & Serven program as effective as it is!