Worship and Lament: Risking it all for Uncertainty

As we continue to look at the topic of Lament,  I’ve asked Dr Jehan Loza if she will share her thoughts on ‘Worship and Lament’.  This is just a small part of her research but it a fascinating and informed article.  I will be posting more from Jehan in the coming weeks.

Dr. Jehan Loza – Director Research

lozaJehan is the Research Director of Social Compass and its original Founder. She holds a PhD in Sociology (Deakin University),  a Masters of Vocational Practice – Church Practice at Tabor and has nearly 25 years experience undertaking qualitative evaluation and research with a range of stakeholders both in Australia and internationally.

Jehan has worked across diverse cultural and geographical contexts including with Indigenous communities. She has intimate knowledge of community and organisational capacity building processes and has applied this knowledge both practically and theoretically in her work.


It has been argued that within the Western church, lament in worship has become virtually non-existent. However, lament is fundamental to deepening and maintaining one’s relationship with God. The question emerges, therefore, If lament has been stripped from church worship, how are members to express an authentic relationship with God; being, the genuine covenant interaction of people and God as seen in the Old Testament? Important too, is that research notes that the expression of lament is linked to emotional and psychological well being and, in the Church context, its expression or not can potentially make the difference between staying in church or leaving it; holding onto ones faith or losing it.

Lament has been systematically removed from most forms of worship within the Western Church, specifically the Western Pentecostal Church, to the point that it is no longer legitimate to offer a challenge, protest or complaint to God in worship.

When lament is lost from the church, the church either falls into the trap of behaving like Job’s friends, arguing that if God allows us to suffer then it must be the result of our own sins or, it accepts uncritically – I would argue – the distorted teachings often found in the Pentecostal church, which implies that our unanswered prayers are due to a lack of faith.

The essential problem in the loss of lamentations, of course, is that although it does not generally exist with the church, pain, grief, crises and suffering all exist in the individual lives of church members. The contradiction of this is almost laughable. Forgetting that lament is such a foundational aspect of the Old Testament, and only drawing on the gospel, the Church as a community of followers of Christ should surely be characterised by lament since lament was such a salient part of the life and works of Christ?

To truly fulfil its role the Pentecostal church must provide the platform for the flourishing of an authentic relationship between God and his people. This can only occur when lament is integrated into church life and among the people. However, the challenge is mammoth – particularly for a Church that is famous for its expressions of prosperity and blessings, where currently the focus is on performance and program and theological nuances such as ‘being in the presence of God’, ‘encountering God’, ‘the supernatural God’, ‘the healing God’, ‘the good God’ and dare I suggest, a whole heap of other catch-cries, which I call, ‘pop theology’ or to give it another name; ‘self-help theology’.

Worship and Lament: A Seeming Contradiction

Worship (based on the old English word – weorthscipe) means the quality of having worth or of being worthy. To worship means to “attribute worth, to value or to respect someone” (Hestenes 1999:3).

This highlights the fact that worship is a relationship between a person and an Other – whether a thing or being. Ultimately worship is the “act of expressing profound love, appreciation, reverence and devotion to a thing, person or God” (Collins cited in Hestenes 1999:2) and in this respect, worship is a verb (Webber 1985).

In Hebrew and Greek, there are two major words for worship. The first means to bow down, to kneel, to put one’s face down as an act of respect and submission. The other means to serve. Roughly half the time these words are translated as worship, and the other half as serve. Worship carries the idea of doing something for God — making a sacrifice or carrying out his instructions. To elaborate on this: consider the word liturgy (meaning the set of forms for Christian public worship). Liturgy has secular roots and historically signified ‘work done in the interest of the people’ or ‘the work of the people’. Therefore if we call a service liturgical we are saying that everyone present takes an active part in it (Hestenes 1999; White 2000).

According to Webber (1985) the primary work of church is worship. That is, the church is first and foremost a worshipping community. Worship is a central source of spiritual formation and renewal. In fact, worship is the source for spiritual renewal. In worship God is speaking and acting, bringing one into the benefits of redemption. Through worship God works on our behalf, repairing and renewing our relationship with Him. Yet worship is an active experience. It is participatory. For Webber (1985), the God who acted acts and in worship He is present. This calls for a response to Him and others from the worshipper. However, Webber is clear that worship also calls for a balance between the Word of God and the Table of the Lord that is; between belief and experience, word and symbol, head and heart.

For Hestenes (1999:3) celebration is an essential part of worship. It means to go to a place in large numbers but it also has to do with the mood of the service of worship. It is the activity of God’s people “when they assemble to celebrate God’s self giving to the world”. Celebration occurs in all “the activities and occasions that proclaim or express the Christian faith” and we assume that this is at the exclusion of any other type of emotion. More importantly, argues Hestenes (1999), we assume that if we bring other emotions to God, then we are demonstrating little or no faith.

What happens then during times of grief, suffering, pain and crises – how are we meant to express our lamentations during these times? And what role does/should the Church play in this?

What is Lament?

First, a definition of lament: Lament means ‘to feel or express sorrow or regret for: to lament his absence; to mourn for or over; to feel, show, or express grief, sorrow, or regret; to mourn deeply; an expression of grief or sorrow; a formal expression of sorrow or mourning, especially in verse or song; an elegy or dirge.

Both the Old and New Testaments demonstrate the importance of lament to and for God’s people – individuals and the nation of Israel – and therefore for God himself. The most profound lament of David is found in Psalm 13 and what Christian has not also called out privately to God asking how long will they be forgotten by God. Hard to imagine any song for the Director of Music in the modern church commencing with:

How long, O Lord, Will you forget me forever, How long will you hide your face from me, How long must I wrestle with my thoughts, How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Psalm 13: 1-2, NIV)

Indeed, the Psalms present with emotions and ‘conversations’ with God that deal with isolation, shame, despair, danger, physical impairment and death as causes for lament (Witvliet 1997).

Jeremiah – the weeping prophet – also hardly provides inspiration for modern church worship with “Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed, cursed be the man who brought my father news…”. And surely if Jesus can call out to the Father feeling forsaken, should there not be a place within our corporate expression for lament?

Praying Hands

Webber (2008) claims that the modern church is market-driven and argues that in many of our churches today, a shift has taken place toward a focus on therapeutic or inspirational preaching and to the rise of entertainment or presentational style workshops.

Worship, he asserts has become a program.

Webber is most concerned with this model of worship and asserts that contemporary churches claim that worship does not need to present the whole gospel (since the purpose of worship is to get people through the door) and while this might be an effective marketing strategy, it fails to understand the Biblical purpose of worship. Biblical worship claims Webber, “gathers to sing, tell, and enact God’s story of the world from its beginning to its end” (Webber 2008:40). Indeed, as Trueman (2013) notes, the problem with the Pentecostal Church lies not in its focus on entertainment (characterised by beautiful people, stand-up comedy and upbeat rock music) but for its neglect of the classic form of entertainment that tells us that “in the midst of life we are in death”. The Pentecostal church neglects tragedy and death, yet death and tragedy are central to true Christian worship. He claims:

Christian worship should immerse people in the reality of the tragedy of the human fall and of all subsequent human life. It should provide us with a language that allows us to praise the God of resurrection while lamenting the suffering and agony that is our lot in a world alienated from its creator (Trueman 2013:19).

In early Pentecostalism lament took the form of ‘praying through’ and ‘tarrying’. McQueen argues that this form of lament refers to seeking for salvation and has largely disappeared from the Pentecostal Church. According to Brueggeman (1995) Pentecostalism has an experience-based theology but, ironically, it has increasingly denied an important set of experiences of God – being the experiences of God as silent and hidden during times of need (and of which the Old Testament is very familiar). In fact, the argument made here is that lament has been systematically suppressed and removed in the prayer language and worship of the church to the point that it is no longer legitimate to offer a challenge, protest or complaint to God in prayer and worship (Ellington 2000).

In the midst of suffering and unanswered prayer, such suppression can make it virtually impossible to express anger toward God, to protest his silence or to question his justice (Ellington 2000). In Ellington’s (2000:52) words:

“The prayer of lament becomes scandalous for a theology that guarantees God’s presence and any experience that does not affirm such a theology can become unwelcome in the language of the church”.

For McQueen (1995) the loss of lament in the Pentecostal church is a result of the loss of eschatological focus, replaced with a consumerist ideology which drives the Church’s proclamation. It is also a result of the increased effects of institutionalisation upon the Pentecostal church which reflects its seduction by modernism. The result is that prayer and dialogue has been replaced by pragmatism and expediency and the communal counter-cultural identity of early Pentecostalism has been replaced by political control (McQueen 1995:94). Furthermore, argues McQueen, charisma has been routinised by the focus on priestly leadership rather than a prophetic pastoral leadership which fosters freedom of spiritual experience and is more inclined toward tension and ambiguity.

Lament is also absent from the majority of public testimonies within the Pentecostal church, where they tend to end with a ‘happy ending’. Ellington (2008:129) concludes that “any speech that attempts to bracket out the experience of suffering in the name of objectivity and dispassion is false speech”.

It is indeed strange that the modern church would find lament so difficult, and would unwittingly deny the space for its people to dialogue in relationship with God. This is particularly so when one considers how integral as an expression lament was to the worship of Israel and indeed how characteristic it was of much of Jesus’ own life and ministry. The notion, therefore, that the alter or throne is only a place of praise is not aligned with the worship of Israel or even the early Pentecostal movement.


Featured Image by Matt Lawson Photographer

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2 Comments on “Worship and Lament by Dr Jehan Loza

  1. Oh gosh….LOVED this article. So many great insights. As a latecomer to Pentecostalism (50 years into my spiritual journey) I struggle with this one-dimensional God syndrome (although, mercifully, there are some leaders/teachers who address this imbalanced view). Currently reading a novel that touches on death and mourning in a modern Jewish context. Lament seems such a vital step in the grief journey.


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