Worship Discipleship: The Art of Christian Peacemaking

It is an unlikely list of cities now linked by random acts of religious hate: Colombo, Sri Lanka; Christchurch, New Zealand; Manchester, U.K.; Charleston, South Carolina; Berlin, Germany; Melbourne, Australia. As our world becomes more visually connected, we can now watch it polarise over issues of religion. The question often asked in the public square is “can religion truly help people love their neighbour better?” Equally, Christians might ask ourselves, is it possible that contemporary Christianity can contribute to peacemaking? Furthermore, if so, how might Christians working in the Arts contribute to resisting violence in our polarised world today?

The artist has always played a significant role in the church’s witness. Throughout time icons and images, symphonies and overtures have inspired and edified Christians. This article explores how art in worship may be used today to move pentecostal/charismatic worshippers towards right Christian belief, but also right emotion, and finally, right action concerning their religious “others.” To do this, it investigates whether more affective or emotional forms of worship may develop or train Christians to undertake peacemaking and resist violence by encouraging compassion and love for their religious “other”.[1] It examines the role of what may be called the worship arts, or, arts used in the congregational space, for a particular type of Christian formation.[2]

How Contemporary Worship Has Changed Things

Before investigating how the church forms Christians today in a world of disagreement, conflict and violence, it is also worth noting how and why things changed, with regards to the landscape of Christian worship. Any emphasis on the Arts in Christian worship is not new. From early church times to Handel’s “Messiah” and the Sistine Chapel, art has featured powerfully in Christian devotion. The English word “liturgy” derived from the Greek word leitourgia, meaning “work of the people.” It was adapted to refer to the Sunday worship service and the participation of God’s people. The liturgy of the contemporary church now takes a particular shape. Art used in the church space is created and shared via technology, making it highly accessible, or, portable. It is replicated in many different local environments. Therefore, worship music, for example, has even been described as a Christian consumable, or “lifestyle product.”[3] The global reach of digital platforms to create and share art is unprecedented.

During the last century, the geographical centre of the Christian faith famously shifted to the global south.[4] However, the church’s demographics changed too. In what scholars sometimes call the “pentecostalization of Christianity,” globally many churches adopted new beliefs and practices.[5] The charismatic movement marked the adoption of Pentecostalism’s theological emphases in mainline denominations from the 1960s onwards. Within these congregations (sometimes called “renewal” churches) open room was created for the experiential and transcendent, or, for engaging God’s Spirit through aesthetic form and art.[6]

Today, Pentecostal spirituality is highly influential across the world. It is an oral rather than written culture, and therefore its theology is often transmitted by song and the preached word. Pentecostal Christians emphasize the experience of the Spirit within the gathered believers, drawing on the biblical passage of Acts 2. But although it may look entirely spontaneous, Pentecostal scholar James K. A. Smith says,

A Pentecostal social imaginary takes practice; it is practice. In other words, a Pentecostal worldview is first embedded in a constellation of spiritual practices that carry within them an implicit understanding. Pentecostal worship performs the faith.[7]

Worship within these churches facilitates an encounter with the Spirit which results in transformation, as summarised in a passage written by my co-author Ed Phillips in a review of Pentecostal Arts for the journal Liturgy,

This experience is not just a mere awareness of the presence of the numinous as in some other patterns of liturgical reform. For Pentecostals, worship is a full-body, participatory engagement with God. The common hallmarks of Pentecostalism (speaking in tongues, spiritual healing, divine prophecy, miraculous signs) manifest God’s presence. Thus, worship is an embodied, participatory, ecstatic encounter with the Holy Spirit.[8]

Pentecostal churches are said to share a “family resemblance”, with their continuing focus on the Spirit’s involvement in worship a feature in the dances, music, and visual elements of the worship service.[9]

However, churches across various denominations often now widely share similar artistic strategies for evangelism, many of them drawn from Pentecostal origins. While congregations may differ in official doctrine and may stylize things differently, their worship teams often sing the same songs, share similar graphic design images and visuals, and may even screen the same videos; all sourced online. This has intensified the sense of what is “in vogue” aesthetically for churches, as new products hit the market – but this is especially true for Christian worship music.

Nowadays, recording artists (and church groups) distribute professionally produced congregational songs to be sung all around the world. Although local artists still create and share their creations, the global distribution power of a few Christian publishers is unprecedented due to their longevity and output. Song sharing websites have now largely replaced the more centralized denominational hymnals, with worship resources obtained online – such as CCLI, SongSelect, www.worshiphousemedia (and countless others).

Arguably, the desire to use artistic forms that enhanced Spirit encounter encouraged the movement away from denominational liturgical programming towards freer liturgical styles. In some traditional churches, conflict arose when contemporary praise bands and informal language replaced the denomination’s liturgy. Theologian Marva Dawn describes these differences in stylistic preferences as “the worship wars.[10]” Today, however, many congregations who worship with a variety of traditional and contemporary worship arts may describe themselves as having “blended” worship.

While the Pentecostal world has influenced Evangelicalism, there are also clear borrowings the other way. Perhaps we could even view Pentecostal song repertoire, particularly its evangelical focus, as a progression from Evangelicalism’s history, as will be explored here. These songs could be considered profoundly evangelical. Like Pentecostal churches, evangelical churches have always been culturally and theologically diverse. Therefore, in search of common or core commitments, Bebbington designed a quadrilateral to identify four pillars of evangelical belief: commitment to the Bible, to the cross, to individual conversion, and active evangelism. All these are features of Pentecostal theology and are adopted into their art forms. Megachurches are considered particularly evangelical in theology,[11] and most would adhere to The Lausanne Covenant,[12] whether or not they are formal signatories to the statement. So, despite Evangelical attempts to distance from other characteristics of Pentecostalism (such as glossolalia or “speaking in tongues”), there is a blurry line.

The desire to evangelize the whole earth led to what historian Kenneth Latourette called “the Great Century” of Christianity.[13] During this era, thousands of evangelical student volunteers were inspired and mobilized for a global mission movement of epic proportions, whose legacy continues today. The missions produced numerous positive outcomes, outlined in excellent detail by Robert Woodberry.[14] Regularly engaging peoples of other faiths, Christians often undertook humanitarian works and dialogued with the receiving cultures respectfully. Nowadays, the compassion of Christ is not often the first association with Christian mission today. At least, not for other religious groups, or the non-religious.[15] In their zealousness to share the story of Christ, missionaries also performed questionable activities, particularly amongst indigenous peoples practicing “traditional” religions. For example, in Australia, the missions were complicit in what is now called “The Stolen Generation” by accepting the mixed-race children removed from their parents by the government. In Canada, they built residential schools which were known for systemic abuse.

More recently, missionary John Chau (according to media reports) ignored all warnings to the contrary and deceptively hid his intention to evangelise under the guise of a fishing trip.[16] His actions led to his death, but also punishments for the crew who assisted him. Within the United States, much of Donald Trump’s vocal support has been white Evangelicals, and one of the key supported policies was the “Muslim ban.” Internationally, intelligence agencies are now even monitoring alt-right groups who now cite Christianity as a motivation for their extremism.

The above all paints a complex picture of how Christians see interfaith relations today, which needs to be further investigated. So, what can we learn from Christian worship arts today, and what they tell us about how we view our religious “other”?

Theology and the Arts: Discipling Us Toward Love

For many Christians, the idea of opposing other religious groups seems consistent with their faith. However, Jesus’ life and ministry on earth were characterized by extraordinary sacrifice, not political overthrow or violent force. Passages that foretold the arrival of Jesus in the Old Testament use the title “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9: 6-7), repeated in the book of Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount challenged individual Christians; to “turn the other cheek” rather than retaliating in the face of violence (Matt 5:39); extreme generosity (Matt 5:40, 5:42); and to “walk the extra mile” in oppressive circumstances (Matt 5:41). These verses lead to the penultimate Scripture concerning conflict with other faiths; famously in Matt 5: 43-48 Jesus states,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.[17]

Any evaluation of the Arts in discipling Christians today towards peacemaking clearly needs to take into account this biblical text.

However, text is always read within tradition, and therefore it is important to note the views of some leading thinkers, here applied to worship. Most theologians agree wholeheartedly; the verse is normative and should be applied by Christians today. American Reformed theologian John Piper relates it to the love that individual Christians are challenged to demonstrate in the Beatitudes as spoken earlier in Matthew. He states,

When Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God,” he is not telling us how to become a son of God. Rather, Jesus is simply saying that sons of God are, in fact, peacemakers. People who are peacemakers will be recognized as the sons of God at the judgment and welcomed into the Father’s house.[18]

For Piper, however, it is essential to note the difference between peace-making, and peace achieving. He emphasizes that while Christians are to work towards peace and the coming of the new kingdom, it is inevitable that disagreement and conflict will continue on earth. Therefore, the purpose of Jesus’ teaching is to focus Christians upon the ‘heart issues,’ or individual response. Moreover, we must pray for the conversion and sanctification of those of other faiths.

Methodist theologian Walter Wink, however, emphasizes conflict as a systemic rather than an individual issue. Within his book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination he states,

Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It has been accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to death. Its followers are not aware, however, that the devotion they pay to violence is a form of religious piety… violence simply appears to be the nature of things.[19]

By locating ourselves as opposed to our enemy, Wink asserts, we allow ourselves to be defined by them. He believes this causes us to project our fears upon our enemies, which in turn leads to conflict and violence. Therefore, he argues, only an all-inclusive love offers resistance by providing an alternative to the current status quo. He rejects any idea that Matthew 5 encourages us to pursue perfection as Western readers might interpret it, i.e. “perfectionism.” Instead, we are to surrender to the in-breaking rule and reign of God, which allows us to “embrace everyone.”[20]

While this is by no means an exhaustive review of the theological approaches to interfaith dialogue, these two views above offer two meaningful ways artists can peace build. The Arts can help Christians pray for the other and also move the community to practice all-inclusive love that embraces their enemy. These are the ideals espoused by theologians; but what theologies can be observed in our contemporary worship practices?

Sung Theology: Is it leading us to Christian Orthodoxy?

Undoubtedly, the most noteworthy contemporary Christian art form today is the worship chorus. Songs are the most widely shared global repertoire of renewal Christians. So, this seemed the best starting place in order to review the role of Christian worship art and ways it may move us towards better loving our neighbour. To review our theology as it is in the service is what Gerardo Marti calls “found theology”[21]—it represents the theology we do hold, rather than the theology that we want to hold. He states, “a site’s found theology is … what the field reveals empirically regarding the theology found in a place.” Marti also provides some thoughts on how this data can be analyzed, which was followed below.

Here I sought to research how contemporary Christian worship song might move us towards peacemaking, or the challenge of the biblical text to “love your enemies,” recognizing the different interpretations such as those highlighted by Piper and Wink. The challenge was to identify how the content of the songs we sing move us towards orthodoxy, or right belief. To do this, I posted on social media asking my friends from around the world to identify the Hillsong songs that had increased their love for people who are unlike them, specifically those practicing other faiths. Many people who responded were worship pastors or musicians with excellent working knowledge of the published catalogue.

Hillsong was chosen as a community of artists creating songs (or a church creating for the global church). It also represents one of the most widely shared repertoires; the use of Hillsong music is almost universal. However, this also offered additional benefits. As a megachurch, no one writer or pastor’s voice predominates in the texts – each Hillsong album has many diverse songwriters and performers. Therefore, in terms of theological content, these findings could be seen as reflective of a whole community (otherwise it may uncover one person’s distinct point of view; such as that of a teaching pastor or recording artist).

At first, there was some confusion as to what I was asking for, as Christians queried whether peacemaking was an appropriate function of worship. The respondents pointed out that a congregational worship song is for singing praises to God. Nevertheless, as musicologist Mark Evans reminds us, worship plays both a “vertical” and a “horizontal” function—it is not only sung to God but also sung as the gathered people of God. Therefore, a song is a tool for teaching and forming the church, as well as reflecting the church’s beliefs about God in praise.

In total, eighteen song lyrics were identified in the thread, sourced across many different Hillsong albums. They represented songs Christians had sung in their church. These lyrics are reviewed below to construct an ethnographic or anthropologically minded theological summary. The participants selected lyrics they believed were relevant to peacemaking. Where they felt comfortable to do so, they also explained why they had selected these excerpts. Songs that participants felt assisted them in loving people of other faiths included well-loved Hillsong tunes such as “Hosanna” (2007) and “You Said” (1999) and “The Cry of the Broken” (2011).

In particular, many identified lyrics that reminded them of the world outside the church, but particularly those who were “unsaved” or not Christian. These Christians believed that focused prayer upon other people during worship generally assisted them in loving their religious neighbours better. Other songs with more specific content were presented as helpful to them in loving followers of other religions, including the song “Elohim” from the Hillsong album Let There Be Light (2016). These lyrics sing:

He is Almighty God Elohim
Maker of the earth,
He is the Lord of hosts,
Heaven’s King
God of endless worth,
His kingdom stands above
Every power, every living soul,
His love is like the sun
Ever true, shining over all

This song is a paraphrase of the passage Matthew 5:43-45 in which Christians are exhorted to love their neighbours. The participants noted that it reminded them that God’s generosity extended to the deserving and the undeserving alike.

Likewise, the Hillsong United song “So will I (100 Billion X)” from the album Wonder (2017) was cited three times. Participants suggested that singing this song encouraged them to have compassion for people of diverse faiths. They outlined the link as the compassion Christ demonstrated for them before conversion, which suggested they should do the same to others.

I can see Your heart
Eight billion different ways
Every precious one
A child You died to save
If You gave Your life to love them so will I
Like You would again a hundred billion times

“Valentine” from the Hillsong album There is More (2018) was quoted for similar reasons. The verse reminded participants of the gift of their own salvation, while the chorus encouraged them to remember that even if they did not understand another people’s perspective, the world in its entirety was created, and loved, by God.

To woo us back from death and woe
A valentine to a faithless world
Every wayward heart, You pursue us all
And in kindness call us home

This world is Yours
My God, this world is Yours
All You made to be Yours
I know You love us all

The song “Mountain” from the album No Other Name (2014) was sung as a prophetic declaration in anticipation of God’s salvation extended to the whole earth.

All the earth, welcome home
In every heart Your will be done
All Creation, welcome home
This hope is ours, Your kingdom come

In this worship song, participants pray and expect the conversion of those of other faiths and the entire world. Finally, one of the newest releases from Hillsong was cited, the song “Good Grace” (2019),

People come together
Strange as neighbours
Our blood is one
Children of generations
Of every nation
Of kingdom come

So, don’t let your heart be troubled
Hold your head up high
Don’t fear no evil
Fix your eyes on this one truth
God is madly in love with you

This was stated to evoke inclusiveness toward people not only of other religious faiths but also all other races and ethnicities.

Several important observations can be made from the selected songs above. It seems that, after a few qualifications, these Christians agreed that worship songs do move them towards peacemaking. However, it became clear from the selections that this does not occur only in the doctrinal or lyrical content of the songs, but the affective content. This affective content seemed linked more directly for participants. Lyrics chosen by participants seem to reflect John Piper’s encouragement for Christians to desire the conversion and sanctification of all individuals, rather than Wink’s recognition and resistance of the systemic forces at play.

Additionally, although the texts highlighted by participants widely recognize non-Christians or “the unsaved” as a group, there were no explicit distinctions made between people of other faiths. From the writers’ view, perhaps this broadens a song’s appeal to its global audience. Interestingly, in these selections, the songwriters omit the biblical word “enemies” even where used in the Bible – for example in the paraphrase of Matthew 5. Therefore, while participants selected these songs for this exercise, they did not refer to specific faiths or reference current events of violence or conflict. In summary, the selected songs demonstrate that participants use Hillsong songs to sing and pray rather abstractly for the conversion of the whole world and may apply this to people of other faiths while doing so.

This research is consistent with my previous theological work, in my own knowledge there is no song across the Hillsong repertoire referring to specific earthly enemies; however, there are indeed references to cosmological or spiritual ones.[22] Declarations against the devil and spiritual powers are found in songs such as “The Enemy Has Been Defeated” (2009) and “Not Today” (2017). However, those songs were not cited by my Christian participants to discuss people practicing other faiths. This likely follows Wink’s logic that focusing on God forms us in God’s image while focusing on our enemies does the same.

Heart of Worship: Is it leading us to Christian Orthopathy?

Analyzing this content using Marti’s recommendations for found theologies, we can see a “vision language” forming within these texts. The songs advocate a response of love, in an approximation of the Golden Rule maxim found in Matthew 7:12, or “do to others what you want them to do to you.” Worship art (or, at least, worship music) assists these Christians to think of and pray for their religious other as individuals, rather than at the level of a religious group. Beyond the earthly actors, however, more systemic powers are identified. In response, in the above texts, various emotions are cultivated. This returns us to one of the most apparent functions of the contemporary worship song: to foster affect, which will now be explored in light of orthopathy—discipleship in right Christian “pathos” or emotion.

Historically the Evangelical church has had a complicated relationship with emotions (or affect) in worship. Christian responses have ranged from the outright rejection of emotion through to full recognition of its importance. This raises a problem that has plagued discussions about worship for decades. Some Christians doubt it is possible for the contemporary worship repertoire can play any role in deepening faith. Some more traditional denominations critique worship songs as “shallow” or “too emotional,” and also for overemphasizing the human aspects of life rather than focusing upon the divine.

However, Professor Mark Talbot from Wheaton College explains this was an important issue during the Great Awakening, which swept North America in the 1730s and 40s.[23] The evangelist Jonathan Edwards was worried at the fervour that was taking over his small Northampton, Massachusetts.[24] After scrutinizing things more fully, his classic text, Religious Affections, was written as a defence of human emotion as a tool to persuade us of God’s presence, and saving grace.[25]

The modern Christian assurance of salvation often seems linked to this more experiential understanding of God’s love. Today, according to a Barna group survey, 40 per cent of Americans claim to have been “born again” or to have accepted Jesus as their personal Savior.[26] Of these Christians, many associate their conversion with a “heart-felt” or emotional experience. Famously George W. Bush declared that Jesus was the philosopher who had influenced him most sincerely, “because he changed my heart.”[27] This evokes the words of the Methodist preacher John Wesley, who wrote that his heart was “strangely warmed” during a meeting at Aldersgate, London.

People who maintain other religious commitments evoked strong negative emotions amongst these Christians that ranged from a sense of sadness for those who do not believe, through to fear for those who may perish. Online, there is often anger demonstrated against those who continue to deny Christ after hearing the gospel message, through to outright disgust for “the infidel.” But what about other, more positive, types of emotions? Are there more positive emotions that Christians can practice, such as compassion, or even, love?

As stated earlier, the Bible seems to promote affective responses. Jesus exhorts Christians to “love your enemies” (e.g. Matt 5:43-48). In fact, Jesus considers the greatest commandment to be “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Deut 6:4-7); but the second is, “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt 22:37-40, Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:27). Scripture also emphasizes active love for neighbour within the passages such as the parable of the Good Samaritan. So, what role can Christian worship art play regarding orthopathy, or, assisting Christians to increase their love for others?

Here we can turn to some sociological research. The “Godly love” study was a collaborative effort between several sociologists and theologians who sought to investigate Christian formation, but more specifically, whether Christians could generate love for others in worship.[28] They state, “Godly love is defined as the dynamic interaction between divine and human love that enlivens and expands benevolence”.[29] Some Christians, it turns out, have capabilities that cause them to love others extraordinarily selflessly. These are sometimes called “exemplar” individuals.[30] So what causes this type of devotion to others?

One of the critical findings asserted by the researchers was that rehearsing an experience of God’s love seems to increase the love a worshipper then has to give to people outside their own family or friendship circle. In other words, worship creates a reservoir of love; the more loved people feel by God, the more love they can give out to others. This is particularly interesting in the context of conflict and violence; as the research is not yet applied to views on interfaith groups.

Reviewing the songs selected by my participants, we can see how Christians both emphasize God’s love and cultivate a response of love within contemporary worship songs. The lyrics selected remind worshipers of their shared humanity by emphasizing the similarities between themselves and any religious other, via a common need for salvation. This is seen in the lyrics of “The Cry of the Broken” (2011).

Lord I thank you
For your love
For this grace divine
Love and mercy
You gave it all
The greatest sacrifice
You were wounded
For my sin and
You were bruised
For all my shame
You were broken
For my healing
Only by the cross
I am saved

The song “Hosanna” (2007) notes the love God has shown the worshiper, but also then facilitates prayer that the individual would similarly demonstrate these attributes of love and compassion to others;

Heal my heart and make it clean
Open up my eyes to the things unseen
Show me how to love like you have loved me
Break my heart for what breaks yours

There is no doubt that contemporary worship art builds affect for worshippers. The above examples outline the ‘found theology’ in the lyrics selected by participants to be relevant to peacemaking amongst people of other faith. They show that contemporary worship songs do in fact centre the worshipper upon the love that God has shown them, cultivating gratefulness for it. This develops love in the “vertical” sense between God and individuals in the worshipping community. If the Godly love research is correct, then it may also develop love and compassion in the “horizontal” sense, between individuals in the worshipping community, and their outsiders.

In addition to this, while emotional outlooks may open us to the religious other, we may also be moved to action or “en-trained” to orthopraxy through participating in worship, as will now be seen.

Worship in Action: Is it Leading us to Christian Orthopraxy?

The above sections have outlined how “emotionalism” in worship is generally considered counterproductive to discipleship. Emotion has been even considered to lead us away from right Christian action (or “orthopraxy”) by leading Evangelical thinkers, which may perhaps be challenged by the sociological literature. For example, in 1999 Bryan Spinks claimed that a desire for emotionalism entertained rather than discipled Christians in worship services (particularly in megachurches). He proposed this reflected secular life in a phenomenon he called the “worship mall.” In this paradigm, American pastoral staff related to their congregation members as consumers rather than participants, failing to disciple them to outwork the faith as exhorted in Scripture (e.g. Phil 2:12). The Arts, Spinks argued, have been used by megachurches primarily to enhance the experiential aspects of the worship gathering, rather than assisting Christians to undertake biblical action afterwards.

Interestingly, one discussion between participants on the thread identified that worship lyrics could be problematic for discipleship and may even encourage wrong action. While for some participants the song “You Said” (1999) served to cultivate prayer that the lost might be saved, others suggested that it promoted the idea that “the distant shores” were dependent upon Western sources in order to hear the message of Christ:

You said, “Ask and I’ll give the nations to you”
Oh, Lord, that’s the cry of my heart
Distant shores and the islands will see
Your light, as it rises on us

This was noted as “arrogance,” and considered a countervailing affect by participants, which may lead to bad practice.

In a similar vein, the Australian theologian Michael Frost recently critiqued the idea that “contagious” or energizing worship could facilitate successful member discipleship.[31] He alleged that it is not only the content of contemporary megachurch worship services but also their medium that encourages passivity amongst Christians. He notes today’s common megachurch worship technology of using large screens serves to make the preacher larger than life, and therefore by default congregation members become comparatively small. He links this to a lack of discipleship in these churches.

However, various sociological studies have reviewed the embodied nature of Christian discipleship in megachurches and come to different conclusions. For example, Wellman and his colleagues examine megachurch worship practice and conclude that participation in a large energized auditorium setting may move worshippers very effectively towards biblical action. Sociologist Randall Collins claimed that during times when large groups of bodies move in similar ways, it could generate emotional energy, which he explains as;

…a feeling of confidence, courage to take action, boldness in taking initiative. It is a morally suffused energy; it makes the individual feel not only good, but exalted, with the sense of doing what is most important and most valuable. [32]

Thus, a large group of people participating together creates a bigger emotional payoff. Wellman and his colleagues note that megachurch worshipers’ bodies become effectively “en-trained,” or trained to synchronize in worship, and this flows into other spaces.

Therefore, the Arts may play an important role in Christian formation by providing the vehicle for training worshippers’ bodies, and for moving them to action. Contemporary worship is particularly powerful in creating synchronicity of bodies, as Christians dance or clap together to the music, focused upon the lyrics. During the sermon, bodies are quietly seated facing the same direction listening to the preacher on the screens. These times that the congregation achieves bodily synchronicity in a worship service may be particularly powerful for discipling or energizing Christians for future action.[33]

It is rather difficult to determine whether the artistic expressions used in the worship service move Christians towards right action after the service. Few examples of interfaith engagement originate from or flow into the worship space at Hillsong Church. However, the lyrics selected do provide some evidence of the belief that contemporary worship should motivate Christians to act with loving-kindness towards people of other faiths. And the particular shape this action should take is found in the lyrics of the above songs.

We can compare this with the actions of the worship songwriters in order to find a consistent message regarding peacemaking. For example, the members of the band Hillsong United (some of the church’s most popular recording artists) intentionally met and listened to the stories of Syrian refugees. Within a documentary-style YouTube clip created in partnership with World Vision, the band provide a link for those who would like to contribute money towards displaced peoples. In contrast with the band’s official YouTube channel (1.7 million subscribers), this collaboration does not seem particularly popular (6,299 views). However, it does show the artists engaging with people of other faiths in compassionate ways.

The video clip shows three of the most famous Hillsong worship leaders (Joel Houston, Jonathan Douglass and Taya Gaukrodger nee Smith) visiting the informal tent settlement in Beqaa Valley, Lebanon. These artists are shown walking around the camp, playing with children, and talking with Muslim families, who explain about their former lives in Syria. In spliced footage clearly taken after listening to the stories of the families, songwriter Joel Houston speaks candidly,

We tend to label everything, and we build kind of walls between, ok, whether it be our faith, or what country we came from, or what colour our skin is. It takes away the responsibility of having to think about what people are really like – or the humanity.

Similarly, vocalist Taya Gaukrodger speaks directly to the camera, unable to hold back tears, seemingly talking about the exclusion of these families from Western Christian nations:

I don’t really get mad a lot, but that would make me mad. Because people are people, kids are kids, and to say that one person is not worthy to another…. Like, what is that? Where did that come from? Yeah.

Behind the visual footage of these Muslim children playing, a song begins. It is not Hillsong United, but The Brilliance, another worship band popular amongst Evangelicals. It sings, “when I look into the face of my enemy, I see my brother.”

The clip demonstrates a fascinating intermingling of Evangelical and Pentecostal art and artists. It shows Christian pursuit of orthopraxis, as well as values and beliefs about people of other faiths. The video makes no explicit mention of the specific faith of the refugees shown; however, this is visible in the women’s hijabs or head-dresses and is implied in what is spoken. Although these Pentecostal worship leaders never identify any conflict between Muslim and Christian people, the video editing (assumedly the work of World Vision) overlays lyrics that communicate there may be a perceived tension between Islam and Christianity.

Significantly, these worship leaders are used to demonstrate how worship should lead us towards a response to people who are entirely unlike the viewer economically, politically, and religiously. The affective trajectory identified by my participants within the lyrics of the Hillsong songs was compassion. Here, World Vision evidently hopes that this content will lead to the right action of donating money to the poor who have been displaced by religious violence. The band members can be seen to model how other Christians should act concerning displaced peoples; with compassion.


In summary, what do the Arts contribute towards resisting violence and conflict, and moving Christians towards peacemaking? The global Christian church shares resources widely across various artistic mediums. In particular, contemporary worship integrates particular aesthetics and art forms; the most popular are music, dance and video. Other Arts technologies such as lighting and screens are commonly incorporated into the contemporary worship service to heighten the experience of transcendence with the Spirit. However, the Arts are rarely evaluated as tools of discipleship. We should examine whether (and how) these forms move Christians towards more biblical belief, emotion or action—orthodoxy, orthopathy, or orthopraxy—particular concerning loving people of other faiths.

This article reviewed the worship arts as a largely unexamined mode of theologizing about our contemporary world. While the Arts are used in church primarily to cultivate a “vertical” connection with God, they also facilitate a “horizontal” one, particularly the desire to share the gospel message with the world. In particular, it sought to explore whether contemporary worship music can contribute to Christian peacemaking in situations of conflict or violence.

By asking Christians to identify worship songs they believed related to peacemaking with people of other faiths, the article sought to determine what renewal Christians believed about interfaith engagement. The Christian participants (most of them worship musicians or leaders) pointed to eighteen songs with lyrics that, in their view, were related to peacemaking in a world of conflict and violence.

Within these songs, little content directly related to the topic of interfaith engagement in a world of conflict and violence, but Christians themselves linked lyrics to peacemaking with people of other faiths. The selection included various relevant biblical references (e.g. Psalm 2:8) and paraphrases – the one most closely related to peacemaking with other faiths was Matthew 5: 45, which reminded the worshiper of God’s generosity to those of other faiths. Most lyrical contents encouraged praying for (or proclaiming) the salvation of those who did not yet know Jesus. Overall, the songs intentionally developed an affective response modelled upon God’s compassion or love towards all people that was inclusive of those of other faiths. In this way, the selected lyrics humanized the religious “other.” It reminded worshipers of their own sinfulness as well as the sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross, which enabled them to be forgiven. The nature of the relationship emphasized was not of enemies, but commonality as children of God.

The conclusion is that the worship arts may move people to love their enemies but may also entrain Christians to resist violence by emphasizing the shared humanity of all people. Also, it may encourage people to action, such as generosity towards those of other faiths facing financial disaster. While more research is needed, the potential for this to expand toward compassionate actions (such as listening to others) was modelled by three Hillsong worship leaders in their response to Syrian displaced peoples of other religious commitments. They demonstrated clear compassion. Therefore, contemporary worship may be able to contribute to peacemaking and that the Arts as used in Christian worship may indeed play a vital role in resisting violence in this polarised world.


[1] Peacebuilding can be thought of as the measures that are taken to prevent conflicts before they occur, or the action that brings hostile parties to agreement (See https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/terminology). For John Paul Lederach, peacebuilding is the action that is needed to “transform conflict toward more sustainable, peaceful relationships …peace is seen not merely as a stage in time or a condition. It is a dynamic social construct.” John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 1997), 20.

[2] Wainwright, G., and K.B.W. Tucker. The Oxford History of Christian Worship. Oxford University Press, U.S.A., 2006.

[3] McIntyre, E.H. “Brand of Choice: Why Hillsong Is Winning Sales and Souls.” Journal for the Academic Study of Religion 20, no. 2 (2007): 175-94.

[4] Walls, Andrew. The Missionary Movement in Christian History. T&T Clark Ltd, 2004.

[5] Coleman, S. The Globalisation of Charismatic Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[6] See Willard L. Sperry, Reality in Worship (New York: Macmillan, 1925).

[7] Smith, J.K.A. Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010, p31.

[8] Phillips, L. Edward and Tanya Riches. “Pentecostal Worship: Introduction.” Liturgy, 33, no. 3 (2018/07/03 2018): 1-3. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0458063X.2018.1448660.

[9] Anderson, Alan. “Varieties, Taxonomies, and Definitions.” In Studying Global Pentecostalism: Theories and Methods, edited by Allan Anderson, Michael Bergunder, Andre Droogers, and Cornelis van der Laan. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010.

[10] Dawn, M.J. Reaching out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture. W.B. Eerdmans, 1995.

[11] This is famously shown by Margaret Poloma in her taxonomy of the Assemblies of God. Poloma, M.M. and J.C. Green. The Assemblies of God: Godly Love and the Revitalization of American Pentecostalism. New York University Press, 2010.

[12] See https://www.lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant

[13] Latourette, K.S. A History of Christianity. Harper & Row, 1975.

[14] Woodberry, Robert D. “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.” American Political Science Review 106, no. 2 (May 2012).

[15] https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/06/14/if-islam-is-a-religion-of-violence-so-is-christianity/

[16] https://www.foxnews.com/world/american-missionary-killed-by-uncontacted-tribe-had-planned-mission-for-years-report-says

[17] The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. (1999).

[18] https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/blessed-are-the-peacemakers

[19] Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Fortress, 1992. p13.

[20] Ibid, p269

[21] Marti, Gerardo. “Found Theologies Versus Imposed Theologies: Remarks on Theology and Ethnography from a Sociological Perspective.” Ecclesial practices 3, no. 2 (2016): 157-72.

[22] There is one song “Hope” which is directly about earthly war and which I have previously written on, which was released in 2003 following the 9/11 attacks. Participants within the thread did not select this song. See Riches, Tanya. “The Evolving Theological Emphasis of Hillsong Worship (1996 – 2007).” Australasian Pentecostal Studies, no. 13 (2010): 87 – 132.

[23] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/godly-emotions.

[24] Religious Affections in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, [Yale University Press, 1959], 169

[25] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/an-overview-of-the-religious-affections-12-no-signs-and-12-true-signs/.

[26] https://www.barna.com/research/evangelism-is-most-effective-among-kids/.

[27] Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. Yale University Press, 2007. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vm83m.

[28] This was the focus of a Templeton Grant between Margaret Poloma, Ralph XXX and Matthew Lee. Other researchers such as Amos Yong also have collaborated in this project.

[29] Lee, M. T. and A. Yong (2012). The Science and Theology of Godly Love, Northern Illinois University Press., Loc 91.

[30] Alexander, P. (2012). “Exemplars of Godly Justice: Peacemaking and Justice Seeking in Dangerous Contexts.” PentecoStudies.

[31] Michael Frost (2014, 77)

[32] (Collins 2004, 38),

[33] Wellman., James K., Katie E. Corcoran., and Kate Stockly- Meyerdirk. 2014. “‘God is like a Drug…’: Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Megachurches.” Sociological Forum. 29 (3): 650 -672.