Without doubt Christians in Malaysia are filled with a sense of foreboding as Islamic authorities seized the Alkitab, the Courts through unreasonable judgments effective curtailed their freedom of religion and the Prime Minister failed to censure aggressive Islamic NGOs for their slander and threats against the Malaysian Church.
It is heartening to see many Christians turning to the Lord in times of social crisis, seen in their fervent prayers in revival meetings. Crisis however brings up the best or the worst from us. Christian worship and revival meetings can become either an avenue of psychological escapism or a platform for spiritual renewal and social engagement.
Middle class Christians may be tempted to compensate their sense of social impotence by turning to other-worldly spirituality. Hence, a surreal emphasis on spiritual power in some revival meetings and a tendency to rally around men of charisma or self-styled apostles and prophets, if only that anxious believers may have a ‘touch’ of omnipotence mediated to them. Unfortunately, such focus on ‘touching’ spiritual power can distract believers from building genuine relationships based on shared lives to ensure the members of the community of faith will stand in solidarity with one another in the face of hostilities.
Spirituality then becomes a form of social-psychological pathology as distressed Christians seek consolation in the pie in the sky, resulting in personal resignation, passivity and indifference towards social engagement. Some find solace in cloistered personal piety; others delight in claiming victories in the heavenlies; and still others yearn for abundant material blessings – all without requirements of mutual accountability within the community of faith. Pre-occupation with revival meetings provides convenient excuses to the Church as it retreats from its holistic mission of witness and responsible engagement with an unbelieving, if not hostile world.
These observations are not meant to disparage current revival meetings but to challenge Malaysian Christians to recover the full dimensions of holistic worship adequate for strengthening personal spiritual formation and building community relationships and forging shared vision for social engagement. Given the present crisis I shall focus on holistic worship and social engagement with an unbelieving world.
Holistic worship should not lead to denigration of this world since the world is given by God as a sacrament and anticipation of the final blessings God has for man. Indeed, it is by engaging this world that the Church affirms the presence of God in the world. Holistic worship enables Christians to engage the world in quiet confidence as they are assured of God’s sovereignty regardless of the difficulties they are facing. Nicholas Wolterstoff explains, “Central to the character of Christian worship is the fact that the God worshipped is apprehended as engaged in a history that is both his and ours, but a history of which he is the Lord and we are not. In this fundamental aspect, Christian worship is revealed to be a descendent of the worship of old Israel.” [Nicholas Wolterstoff, Until Peace and Justice Embrace (Eerdmans, 1983), pp. 151-152]
First, holistic worship frees the Christian from tyranny of present social arrangements, which are often set up as beyond question. The latent function of rituals (R.K. Merton) goes beyond legitimizing existing social order since the world at best is never more than penultimate. Indeed, worship itself may function as a source of social ‘subversion’ of present social orders by keeping open the vision of a divine kingdom which transcends anything yet achieved.
Second, holistic worship is necessary to ensure that Christian social engagement be not reduced to its utilitarian value. It must be humbly admitted that many of the goals for social engagement are no longer uniquely Christian, since there are also other social movements which share the same social goals today. At the same time, it is precisely because the goals of social action groups are similar that Christians often have to justify their actions on the same grounds as these others social movements. As such, Christians must be alert to the possibility that in trying to be relevant they may allow others to determine their values and priorities.
It is therefore important that the Christian social activist be sustained by a worship which highlights God as the Lord who is sovereign over the flux of history. This vital insight must be preserved if the Christian activist is to be spared from taking himself too seriously. Otherwise, his social activism unwittingly lapses to serve an egoistic agenda. Christian worship also frees the Christian from falling into a utilitarian vision of human existence. In contrast to utilitarian politics, Christian worship highlights God as the source of transcendence and reminds society that the worth and dignity of human beings are not exhaustively defined by their social roles. This makes it possible for Christians to maintain a critical detachment and resist domineering authorities who demand unconditional submission.
Third, Christian worship is necessary to sustain the unity of the Christian community by re-presenting the common experiences of salvation and mutual commitment in the Lord that transcend different expectations of means and ends of social-political engagements. In this regard, worship unites and galvanizes the community for collective action that is credible.
The centrality of worship in sustaining relationships within the Christian community and its social engagement means the focal points of Jesus life and work, such as the cross, the resurrection and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, are re-presented and re-enacted in the life of the community. In other words, the message of Jesus’ work of salvation and social reconciliation must go beyond the level of theoretical constructs and mystical spiritual ideals; it must be embedded in the worship, proclamation and ministry of the Christian community. That is to say, worship reminds the Christian community of its historic mission to mediate the story of Christ, with its liberating consequences and reconciliation to a world increasingly fraught with tensions and conflicts, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5: 9).