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Worship that Calls Us to Reflect God’s Heart for Justice

Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson co-wrote The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance. They explain how weekly worship helps congregations keep working with, and waiting on, God to make all things new.

In 2008, International Justice Mission (IJM) field staff in Kolkata, India spent months gathering evidence and working with local police to rescue underage girls from a brothel disguised as a “truckers’ hotel.” The lead trafficker was brutal, wealthy and deeply connected in the underworld of rape-for-profit.

IJM prayer partners prayed fervently before the rescue team went in. But when the local police and IJM arrived, the brothel was empty. Someone within the police had tipped off the owner.

“We had people all over the world praying. Police and IJM staff together showed up seven times in six months, only to find the owner had been warned away every time,” recalls Bethany Hanke Hoang, who founded IJM’s Institute for Biblical Justice.

The big breakthrough came on the eighth attempt. As IJM social workers helped the freed girls move through trauma into restoration, IJM lawyers doggedly pursued the case against the brothel owner and manager. It took another three years to locate, try and convict those men. God blessed their relentless prayer and work. Since then, police now come to IJM initiating solid cases and have closed more brothels and rescued more girls.

Hoang recounts the story in The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance, which she co-wrote with theologian Kristen Deede Johnson, who teaches theology and Christian formation at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

“Crossroads Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio had scores of people praying for this case in Kolkata and still to this day they are working toward ending slavery in India. They’ve pioneered world-class aftercare facilities in India, and they partner with social workers, psychologists and entrepreneurs to help rescued survivors build new lives,” Hoang says.

Justice_Calling_book_coverReading The Justice Calling can help congregations do what Crossroads and other churches have learned to do: trace God’s heart for justice throughout the Bible; become a community in it for the long haul; sustain their commitment through worship and action; and, above all, remember that all of this is God’s work, and he’s beckoning us with the gift of joining him.

God’s passion for justice

The Justice Calling leads readers through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, to see that justice is central to God’s heart and character. There’s a chapter for each movement in the Bible’s narrative arc—creation, the fall, Israel, Jesus, the church and all things being made new.

“Throughout the entire story we’ve found that five key words…emerge as essential and interconnected for understanding who God is and who God calls his people to be: holiness, hesed (faithful and active loving-kindness), justice, righteousness, and shalom (flourishing wholeness),” they write.

They use real-life stories to show the difference between violent injustice and “flourishing that results from the right ordering of power.” Since Hoang and Johnson created the book in partnership with IJM, most stories come from IJM cases of slavery, sex trafficking, power abuse and property grabbing. The authors hope that drawing nearer to the God of justice will help congregations discern where they should join God, whether in fighting sexual violence and human trafficking, protecting widows and orphans, pursuing prison reform, refugee resettlement, creation care, ending racially charged violence or other deep injustices.

“We want to help people realize that this passion for justice isn’t new. It’s always been at the center of God’s heartbeat, and he’s calling us into it and wants us to move forward in hope and courage,” Hoang says.

Many of IJM’s church partners preach regularly on justice. Calvary Chapel Delaware County in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania does a three week sermon series each fall on compassion and justice. It recommends ways for members to make it a year-round commitment. Crossroads in Cincinnati used a six week sermon series on materialism to help worshipers experience more freedom in financial giving for aftercare shelters. Other churches find that Advent and Lent are good times to focus on justice.

In it for the long haul  

“I meet so many younger people who are passionate about justice. They often think they need to leave church to seek justice. I wonder what it might look like for them to still be as passionate when they are 40 years old and have a mortgage,” Johnson says.

She and Hoang pay so much attention to scripture and theology because they know how hard it is to stay hopeful in the work to end violence and injustice. They include “Invitation for Today” spiritual practices in each chapter, such as receiving and extending the gifts of Sabbath rest and lament.

“Lament is a gift. In the midst of everything going wrong around us—whether in the world at large or in the lives of people whose names and faces we know and hold dear—lament is a gift given to help us hold fast to God. God invites lament because he knows our temptation to turn away rather than toward him in the heat of hardship….

“The more we probe scripture to see how prophets and leaders and ordinary people lamented their circumstances, the more it becomes clear that God invites our questions and pleadings rather than our despair and silence,” they write.

Westwood Community Church in Chanhassen, Minnesota partners financially and through sustained prayer with IJM to end child slavery in Ghana’s fishing industry. As Chaz Nichols, Westwood’s director of missions, often says, “Our goal is not to be a church who simply feels bad about injustices—but to do justice in the world.” Westwood does justice-themed sermon series, book groups, weekend seminars and concerts, and it reports on the learning in its monthly magazine.

“Westwood integrates justice into their music and the way they pray. They bring restoration to victims and also engage with those who perpetrate crimes. I recently spoke there the day after they’d baptized 75 women at the women’s prison in Shakopee, where they do outreach and worship,” Hoang says.

Woven throughout worship

The Justice Calling explains that weekly worship is key to persevering in God’s mission. “God has always longed for a people to live in union with him and from that union to live with justice and righteousness. Through Christ and the Spirit, the church is that body of people—and we are most ourselves, most who God created and redeemed us to be, when we come together in worship and praise of God,” the authors write.

Johnson belongs to Pillar Church in Holland, Michigan, a joint congregation in the Reformed Church in America and Christian Reformed Church in North America. She says, “I tend to think sacramentally about the role of worship in shaping how we see the world and share God’s heart for justice.

“At Pillar, the theme of justice is consistently part of our worship. Our sermons, sending and other worship elements remind us that God is making all things new. We celebrate communion each week and connect the communion table to the bread we receive and to feeding those who are hungry. Every month a different local or international nonprofit is invited to speak briefly about their work, and then we take a special offering for them.”

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, a church plant in Murphy, Texas, recently joined with other churches for an evening with IJM founder Gary Haugen. “Led by Brendan Kimbrough, their vicar, St. Timothy’s has committed to praying daily for the work of justice. They use the weekly IJM prayer requests during the liturgy every single Sunday and pray for people by name who are affected by injustice or are government officials trying to uphold laws,” Hoang says.

God is in control

The authors write, “The closer we get to the real needs of others, the more we will face the enormous temptation to respond and react out of the poverty of our own resources and strength.” They write that God calls us to be saints, not heroes. Like the prophet Habakkuk we must learn how to “wait in hope and trust that God’s justice will reign” even as we take steps “toward darkness” by the power of the Holy Spirit, boldly trusting our God who longs to rescue and redeem.

How worship leaders use language and frame stories makes a difference in how worshipers understand their roles in working for justice.

Johnson explains, “We often have the desire to see ourselves as the hands and feet of Jesus. It’s tempting for pastors or prayer leaders to motivate people by saying, ‘God needs you do this, and people will suffer if you don’t.’ But God is the primary reconciler. Christ invited us to join in his work of making all things new.”

She suggests praying more like this: “God, we thank you that in Christ you are the Redeemer. We thank you for the ways your Spirit continues to be at work. We pray for [specific situation] and ask for your help to see where we might join you.”

Johnson says that while writing about college friends who moved to the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, she learned something that preachers should remember while introducing stories in sermons. “My friends read my draft and said, ‘Please name who was already there when we moved in, like our East End Fellowship co-pastor Don Coleman.’ It’s important to name and honor in sermons and prayers the people who have already joined in what God is doing in a specific place. Even as we come to see God’s heart for justice for the first time, we’re joining a great cloud of witnesses.” 



Gather a group to read The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance. You can use these shareable graphics, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and this reader’s guide.

Kristen Deede Johnson and Bethany Hanke Hoang shared a book excerpt “Live As Saints (Not Heroes),” in Perspectives Journal. Explore vast online resources available through International Justice Mission (IJM) and IJM Institute for Biblical Justice.

This Books & Culture feature by Amy L. Sherman describes how church members use their unique gifts to support justice causes

Take a Slavery Footprint survey to see how you unwittingly support modern day slavery. In Eastern Congo, armed gangs force whole villages to dig for coltan, a mineral used to conduct electricity in smartphones.


Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, board, worship or social justice team meeting. These questions will help people start talking about how to value and include justice in worship:

  • What breaks your heart? What first steps can you take to learn more about what breaks God’s heart?
  • Discuss IJM’s definition of injustice: “what happens when someone uses their power to take from someone else the good things God intended them to have—their life, their liberty, their dignity or the fruit of their love or their labor.”
  • How and where do you discern God calling you to learn more about injustice locally and globally?