Worship that Reorders Reality

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.

February 13, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 14 comments


October 25, 2007  3:34pm

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February 27, 2007  9:59am

Thanks for the report back. Worship is so much broader than a Sunday morning style or preference. It is a lifestye.

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February 19, 2007  12:49am

You are so right! Most of the things we do in Evangelical Christianity has become so self-centered. Christianity is not verticle but horizontal. We are a community put here to take care of those that need to be taken care of. We forget that a lot and start to focus more on ourselves and what we need from God. What can we give to others? That's worship.

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Kristin S.

February 18, 2007  10:39pm

I think it is so true what Labberton said, worship should change the way we veiw the world around us, and yet so often we go through the motions without stopping to consider how what we are doing should and can change the way we think. It is sad how little the American church is doing in the area of social justice, but I do think that we are being to become more aware and making more efforts to meet the needs of those hurting around us.

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February 18, 2007  5:08pm

When you posted, "Have we [evangelicals] so fully bought into the notion that worship is primarily entertainment..." you state that "we" think of worship as primarily entertainment. I hear a lot of people critique pastors and worship leaders that way, but don't find many (any?) of them that consider worship entertainment. Are we just talking to different people?

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February 16, 2007  5:13am

Hhmm.... sounds like this blog is worshiping God. By God, we are.

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February 15, 2007  7:49pm

I totally agree with this post. 100 percent. Then I remembered the event (I'm not sure where exactly in the bible it is) in which a lady poured oil over Jesus as an act of worship. She was immediately criticized by religious leaders (or the disciples, again I can't quite remember the story) for being wasteful of funds that could feed the poor. Jesus than rebuked them back. In my view, in light of worship(or perhaps the handling of our finances...hmmm) there is a season for charity and a season to be "wasteful of our funds" in our worship.

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Dan Wilt

February 15, 2007  7:33pm

Our studies at the Institute Of Contemporary & Emerging Worship Studies guide us to central ideas about worship - both on a human and biblical level - and the subtle corruption that occurred when we began to believe worship was solely, or primarily, the acts of expression/remembrance that occur in a "service" is where some of the darkest malformations of the Christian heart in worship began. B eautiful and necessary in and of themselves those acts are, but they are only ever intended to be the fountainhead of a life lived coram Deo, in the presence of God. "The glory of God is a human being, fully alive," said Iranaeus of Lyons. The whole life response, including intimate musical expression, the eucharist, the caring that is social justice, the engagement with culture, the creative sharing of the Kingdom story, our parenting, stewardship of money and the earth (to name a few), and ultimately our worldview, are the only fitting full-life responses that are worthy of the term "worship."

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February 14, 2007  8:41pm

I think our long forgotten friend Amos mentioned something about this. Something about the Lord requiring justice and righteousness for worship to be valid? Both of these seem to be concrete practices that whole communities are called to participate in. Perhaps our "praise songs" and our elaborate plasma screen laden church arenas make God want to vomit if we're not participating in justice and righteousness? But hey...who listens to the prophets right?

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Tim Hallman

February 14, 2007  1:41pm

"not so much a definition of worship as an indicator as to whether our worship is pleasing to God" Good point. The skeptic in me says that Labberton's ideas will be reduced to a formulaic definition. The seeking side of me hopes that it will contribute to our developing practice of worship for our day and age. Karl Barth makes the point that all the attributes of God are interconnected, you can always see all of them even if you are focusing on one. I think the same can be said for God's commands to us: worship, prayer, evangelism, discipleship, mission, etc are all interconnected, and when you focus on one, you can still see all of them. In one sense, that is what Labberton is doing, helping us see how worship is tied in with so many other things. I'm glad to hear of other pastors who have an open view of worship, it takes the pressure off to perform and entertain, and helps make it easier to relax and focus on what matters most.

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