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Worship that Blesses the Whole Community with the Whole Gospel

Most Christians know that Jesus calls us to love God with all we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Canaan Community Church changed its worship to truly follow the Great Commandment.

The moment that changed his ministry happened soon after Jonathan “Pastah J” Brooks’ church asked him to move from being youth pastor to senior pastor. It was a warm Sunday in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, so the doors were open. Brooks was about to preach when a young man was called out of worship by a friend.

“As soon as he steps on the church porch, a bunch of guys jump up and start to beat him down. I could see it from the pulpit, so I pointed and yelled, ‘Somebody stop them!’ Everybody turns around. All the guys in the church run out, and a full-out melee starts on the steps.

“And I thought, ‘God, what do you want me to tell people at this moment?’ God loves us? Happy Mother’s Day? I felt like God told me, ‘Forget about being successful or keeping church a sacred place or just saving souls. Canaan Missionary Baptist Church is not going to survive unless you change the way it operates,’” he says.

That experience led Brooks and his congregation on a journey of redefining what it means to live out Jesus’ Great Commandment. They made worship changes to become a faith community focused on loving God and their neighbors.

Neighborhood as parish

Brooks says that googling for churches that love their neighborhood introduced him to Lawndale Community Church, only seven miles away. He connected with their pastors, Wayne Gordon and Phil Jackson, who led him to the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA).

“I was raised in Englewood, and my wife and I moved back here while I was a youth pastor. But I hadn’t thought through how a church is supposed to connect to neighbors. Even after we moved here, I had a ‘better than’ mentality and didn’t want our kids playing out front. Most of our church members drove in.

“CCDA gave me the language, theology and practice of letting God’s redeeming power work through our congregation and community to bring forth shalom, where nothing is missing, nothing is broken. I grew intrigued with the Catholic parish view of ministry. It’s like, you live in this area, so this is your parish, and we are responsible, together, for it,” Brooks says.

Not everyone shared his dream of a church where most people lived, worked and worshiped in the same neighborhood. Thankfully, although about two-thirds of the congregation left, they left on good terms, and some still support the church financially. In 2011, the church left the Missionary Baptist denomination, changed its name to Canaan Community Church and affiliated with CCDA. CCDA churches aim “to inspire, train and connect Christians who seek to bear witness to the kingdom of God by reclaiming and restoring under-resourced communities.”

By 2015, Canaan membership had rebounded to 155 members, and 70 percent live in Englewood. “Some are new. Others are from the remnant and decided to relocate. Even my mom returned, despite the fact that she’d worked so hard to get me out of the neighborhood,” he says.

Worship grows out of shared life

Aligning with CCDA principles led Canaan to make worship changes that Brooks describes as “more biblical, both corporately and individually….life changing ideas of what service looks like to God and our community.”

Honoring God’s image. A central worship theme is reminding people that each is created in God’s image. Everyone is worth loving because they are God’s creation. “We want to make sure our neighbors know their value. We all have dominion over something. We all have gifts and time to share to make God’s body complete. Individuals who feel they have little choice about their destiny can join together as a co-op,” Brooks says.

He explains that worship at Canaan makes space for people to use the gifts God has given them, even if they do things differently than others might. A youngster who knows only how to keep the beat by banging sticks on drum rims is welcome alongside more experienced musicians. This reflects the biblical values of relationship and development, overtop efficiency and outcomes.

Leaders gladly change the order of worship when someone needs a gift that another can share. “Recently, when it was time for preaching, a man felt he needed to hear the song ‘Mighty God.’ Our youth were singing that Sunday, so they sang if for him. Everybody was engaged. It seemed like lots of people needed to hear it, but only one asked,” Brooks says.

Offering. Canaan went from “give on your way out” to seeing the offering as part of worship. In a message on being Jesus’ physical hands, Brooks added the CCDA perspective that everyone’s gifts are needed in order to become whole as a community. “We wanted to take the focus off the people who can always give money. We are all givers. Now we do a soul train giving line. Giving is about your heart. Even if you can’t give money this Sunday, you can give a smile, a hug, a dance move or a high five,” he says.

Sermons. All week long, Canaan people hang out, do a weekly food co-op, attend neighborhood association meetings, volunteer in the schools and more. “The things I preach about come out of our shared experience—like why do bad things happen, why do kids get shot?” Brooks says.

Music. People used to come to Canaan to hear the choir. Leaders did away with the traditional praise and worship time. Instead church musicians compose songs that speak to what the congregation believes. The worship team and choir ask God to use their music to guide people through pain and to connect with others. The minister of music explores how to minister all week long through music.

Canaan has given music lessons at church, and some parents of music students have joined the church. “We pass on our music to public school choir teachers. We asked a local principal how our musicians could help, so we played for the high school graduation. We’re talking with a recovery clinic in the neighborhood about how we can do music therapy there. As we partner with our community, all that we do through music becomes worship,” Brooks says. 

Lament and confession. Worship reminds the Canaan community that Jesus came to reconcile the creation, to make the world functional again. Brooks notes that a favorite verse in black churches is “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5, KJV)—and people want to go straight to the joy.

However, a few years ago, when worshipers came to celebrate a Canaan church anniversary, they found the windows covered and all the lights off. Leaders asked people to give testimonies about deaths and unfair situations. For every story, they lit a candle on the altar. Brooks preached about tough times when David and the prophets questioned God, and God replied, “I am in control.” People commented later about the healing power of talking about pain, grief and anger in church.

“We pastors don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, but, unless we get in touch with the brokenness in our lives and community, we don’t get to the real joy. As a church we name the dysfunction, confess and lament, weep over it, pray to God and engage as ambassadors of reconciliation. When we don’t see fair trials or the media reports only bad news in our neighborhood, we are called to start hard conversations,” Brooks says.

Canaan had a Blue Christmas service that used Psalm 13’s question “how long?” as a sentence starter. Someone might ask, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” The congregation would echo, “How long?” Then the person would voice a struggle, like “How long, Lord, will I be without a job, even though I’m putting in applications everywhere?”

Testimony time. Worshipers remind each other that though life is hard, God is present everywhere. “Because of what Christ has done, I am reconciled to God. The cross made reconciliation with others possible. Jesus gave us the ministry of reconciliation. We should live as though we are new creations in a newly-functioning world,” Brooks often says. That’s why every worship service includes ample testimony time. He says that people who used to sit back now will testify, participate in corporate prayer and request songs.

More we, less me. Canaan now prays corporately at every service, often with liturgical prayers, because most are written from a we or us perspective. They change song words from I and me to we and us. They try to finish the service in 90 minutes or two hours and tell people they can leave early if they have to. But lots of Sundays, people are still sitting and sharing two hours after church. They often eat together or go bowling.

“I tell visitors, ‘This is probably not how church has been for you before. But this is what feeds the community here. This is genuine worship that grows out of genuine people. God is always here. What makes it different today is that you are here. God understands your struggles. I come to church because you are going to be here,’” Brooks says.



Read this conversation with Jonathan Brooks about why Canaan Community Church no longer does outreach ministry. The church website explains how the congregation aligns with CCDA principles. Enjoy audios and videos for free on the Christian Community Development website.

Here “Pastah J” explains his family’s decision to move to Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. His blog post “Ok, White Folks, here’s how you can really help” generated scores of comments. The Englewood Portal is a digital tool that helps residents, organizations and businesses to connect and share positive news.

In this video (12:25), Jonathan Brooks explains his call to work for systemic change, even before his congregation is ready. Calvin O. Butts, pastor of historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, shares how to move people with love.

Gather a group to read and discuss these books. Consider doing so with a church that’s culturally or socioeconomically different than yours.

Rebecca Joy Sumner, a pastor in Everett, Washington, suggests how your church can personalize the Prayer of St. Francis to your neighborhood.


Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship arts or outreach meeting. These questions will help people think about how worship can form us to live out the whole gospel for the whole world:

  • What do you envision when you pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven? How does this vision come through in your congregation’s worship?
  • Which worship change at Canaan Community Church might work in yours?
  • If you live in or partner with a neighborhood that the media portrays negatively, what are you doing to spread the news about positive people, events and trends there?