The National Pastors Convention in San Diego is over and I've returned to the frozen north. But I still have one last reflection from the conference. Mark Labberton, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California, spoke on Thursday night about the intersection of worship and justice.
Drawing mainly from the Old Testament prophets Daniel and Isaiah, Labberton built a case for thinking differently about worship. "Worship reorders reality to help us see what is true," he said. It should reorder our priorities and help us see the world differently. But quite often worship is simply a baptized version of our culture. In our worship we simply mirror what is all around us - worship of self. This, he says, is "illegitimate worship."
"Fear of God is what matters most," says Labberton. "The failure of our people to live this way is a failure of our worship." The solution is not making our worship louder, faster, or more spectacular as many are in the habit of doing. Rather, we need to reevaluate what our worship is forming within our people. "Does our worship impact our view of our neighbor?"
In many churches we engage in "worship wars." But these battles are usually over issues of style, song choice, and aesthetics. Drawing heavily from Isaiah chapters 1 and 58, Labberton argues that what matters most in worship is how the act impacts our love for our neighbors. "It is possible to worship God and lose our neighbor," he said. But in Isaiah we see the Lord rejecting his people's worship because they did not act justly toward the oppressed, orphans, and widows. Their worship was vertical, and was never horizontal.
Labberton's points were clear and well stated, and his admonition was as simple as Jesus': Love the Lord and love your neighbor. Having just wrapped up a series at my church on our biblical responsibility toward the poor, I was thankful for Labberton's thoughtful message on the interplay of worship and social justice. But my big takeaway from his talk came as I was leaving the hotel's ballroom.
Like most ministry conferences, at NPC the lobby outside the main ballroom was converted into a bookstore selling resources. I had difficulty leaving the huge lobby because a line stretched literally out the door. Pastors were waiting to purchase their copy of Labberton's new book (The Dangerous Act of Worship - Living God's Call to Justice) the way school kids line up to buy the latest Harry Potter tome. Although the lobby bookstore was crowded after every session, following Labberton's talk the line was particularly long.
Now, don't misunderstand me. I thought Labberton's message was right on target, and I'm sure his book is equally meaningful. But the overwhelming response I saw in the hotel lobby made me realize that a theology of social justice may be more foreign to we evangelicals than I had realized. Have we so fully bought into the notion that worship is primarily entertainment that when someone gives a biblical perspective we are surprised, rush to the bookstore, and get in line to discover more?
I'm grateful that more people are engaging these issues, I'm grateful for voices like Labberton, and I'm glad so many were eager to buy his book and learn more about the subject. His integration of justice with worship resurrects a very old, but neglected, biblical teaching. What I saw at NPC may reveal just how neglected it has been.