At a worship service I attended, my attention was drawn to the enthusiastic worship leader. He opened our time with prayer, asking God to meet us and draw us into the Lord's presence. Then he stood with eyes closed and the band playing. He lifted his hands and offered his joyful praise to God.

That's when I really took notice, for as he sang so rapturously, he kept stepping on the feet of the people behind him. Not just once or twice but repeatedly throughout the singing. No apology. No acknowledgment of his "tromping in the spirit." He was just praising God while oblivious to his neighbor.

I have no doubt the worship leader was just so caught up in his own experience of worship that he lost track of others. That's exactly the problem.

For all of our apparent passion about God, in the end much of our worship seems to be mostly about us. We presume we can worship in a way that will find God but lose track of our neighbor. Yet it was this very pattern in Israel's worship life that brought God's judgment. Biblical worship that finds God will also find our neighbor.

What is ironic and especially pertinent is that many debates about worship are just indirect ways of talking about ourselves, not God. Our debates devolve into how we like our worship served up each week. It's worship as consumption rather than offering. It's an expression of human taste, not a longing to reflect God's glory.

If we worship Jesus Christ, then we are to live like Jesus. In fact, Jesus says in Matthew 25:31-46 that our worship will be measured by how we have lived.

The heart of the battle over worship is this: our worship practices are separated from our call to justice and, worse, foster the self-indulgent tendencies of our culture rather than nurturing the self-sacrificing life of the kingdom of God.

Paralyzed in the pews

I do not stand outside of this sweeping critique, not for a moment. Nor does the congregation I serve. Many of us are simply busy with our daily lives. Apart from major headlines, few international needs go deep into our hearts. When we do pay attention, we often experience information overload and an unending sense of need and desperation when we hear of places like East Timor, Darfur, sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh, Haiti.

We admit that people may be suffering in the world. But we conclude that the suffering of "those people" is not what it would be for us; that dying of starvation in a refugee camp in Sudan is roughly the same kind of suffering experienced by the street person we encounter on the way to work; that it is beyond our grasp to respond effectively to suffering on a global scale.

Part of the malady is this tragic rationale: that in the face of global need, if we can't do everything, we can't do anything. We are paralyzed, inert.

Meanwhile our suffering world waits for signs of God on the earth, "with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God" (Rom. 8:19). God's plan is that we, the church, are to be the primary evidence of God's presence. Every continent needs solid signs of that. Staggering statistics of land grabbing and bonded slavery, of malnutrition and starvation, of HIV/AIDS and wrongful imprisonment are rife. An enormous chasm exists between these daily realities in our world and the preoccupations of most Christian disciples in North America.

Jesus' call to "go and make disciples" must be carried out in a world such as this. The life-changing good news is God's saving love in Jesus Christ, who wants to make every person and every thing (including every form of injustice and oppression) new. That is our hope and our commission.

The real crisis over worship, is this: will God's people worship God in a way that demonstrates we are awake? By loving our neighbor in God's name? Will we worship the living God as he asks: "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God"?

Worship leaders may want to focus only on what seems culturally and socially immediate. But if we are to worship the Lord of all creation, the Savior of the world, then while we are checking the sound system or pondering prayers or sermons, we have to hold on to a wider vision of God's love.

The world in our worship

For several years I received each Sunday morning an e-mail from mission partners we were supporting. This couple and their three small girls were living and serving at-risk children in Cambodia. One of the only e-mails I would read before the worship service was their weekly update. I read it as a spiritual discipline, as a morsel of mercy and truth, as a reminder and a call.

I needed to lead our worship services in Berkeley with my heart freshly reminded of the realities of suffering in the world, the urgency of hearing and living out the hope of the gospel, and the joyous and costly call of sacrificial living in the name of Christ.

Each Sunday I want to serve the people in the pews right in front of me and lead them into the transforming presence of God. The issue is: what are the criteria?

Scripture indicates that the answer will be whether those who feel blessed by worship live changed lives. The evidence is not just the immediate post-service buzz but whether people are actually giving their lives away for the poor and the oppressed in some tangible way.

One Sunday I preached on Psalm 27, a remarkable psalm that vividly describes being afraid and finding God's comfort. I'm sure it was at least a "nice sermon," maybe even a good one. Later that week I attended a dinner sponsored by the International Justice Mission, a Christian organization that seeks justice for people facing various forms of oppression.

Elisabeth, a beautiful 17-year-old girl from Southeast Asia, spoke at the dinner. She had grown up in a Christian home, memorizing Bible verses, which became all the more poignant during the year she was kidnapped, forced into prostitution, and enslaved in a squalid brothel. As she spoke, she projected a picture of her room in the brothel. Over the bed where she was so brutally treated, day after day, she had written these words on the wall: "The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and foes attack me, they will stumble and fall." These are the opening verses of Psalm 27.

I thought back to the previous Sunday and my sermon on this same psalm, remembering some of the fears I had listed for those in my church. Those were real and legitimate fears, but none of them were as consequential as those Elisabeth faced. I had this image of a silent movie going through my mind, listening to Elisabeth while envisioning my congregation gathering for worship on a random Sunday. While we were busy trying to park our cars in Berkeley that morning, a task "so totally horrible," as one person said to me recently, girls like Elisabeth were coming to worship in their settings too. She came before God in her windowless room in the brothel. We did so in our glass-walled sanctuary.

If we see Elisabeth's story through the lens of the biblical narrative, we realize that love for God ties us to love for Elisabeth. Not because her story provokes sentimental compassion, but because her life and circumstances make a claim on those who worship Jesus Christ.

Worship like the world depends on it

True worship reclarifies the purposes of God and our part in them. False worship, which can be found as much among God's people as elsewhere, leads to distorted mission.

Take power, for example. Power is one of the most profound gifts of God and therefore a prime target for false worship; that is, to take power and misuse it for something other than what honors God and his creation. Elisabeth's suffering, and much of our own, has to do with an abuse of power. Faithful worship helps us clarify and limit human power in our hearts and minds. False worship never does that. False worship sets the terms of injustice, a distortion or aberration of power. Faithful worship asks whether we are seeing and living in God's reality or in the fiction created by our own fallen lives. When we or anyone besides God assumes the central role, life whips us out of alignment.

The fallout of false worship distorts our sense of God, ourselves and others, leading to injustice and suffering, pride and entitlement. The damage continues relentlessly. No wonder God gets angry at Israel, or the church, when this distortion is perpetuated by the very people he calls his own. This is the burning message of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos. This is a battle line in the worship wars that really matters to God. Whom do we fear?

Another distortion that false worship fosters is this: the loss of God's intended witness to love and justice. God intends that from true worship will flow lives that are the evidence of his just and righteous character in the world. False worship instead leads to false representation: we may speak in God's name but fail to show God's life. The prophet Isaiah says that when God's people do this, we lie about the God we represent (Isa. 5:20-23; 29:13-16).

God intended for those in Abraham's line to be blessed to be a blessing. Their relationship with God was for their own sake but also for the sake of those who through them (and us) were to "taste and see that the LORD is good." The world is to see and know something about God through the lives and actions of faithful worshipers.

Worship that reorders

On a trip to India, I talked to a pastor about reading. He said, "If I save for four months, I am able to buy one Christian book through a discount I am offered. I have never traveled outside India, but I have heard that sometimes people in America buy books and don't read them." He asked with dismay, "Is that really true?" I mumbled something to cover my embarrassment, as I thought of just such books on my shelves.

For us, it's not a matter of if we have bought books we don't read, but how many. It's not whether we get our children inoculations, but whether we can keep track of the paperwork to prove it to the schools. It's not whether we eat, but how much we eat beyond what we need or even want. It's not whether we have a bed, but what color and theme the bed coverings will be. It's not whether we have a chance to hear about the love of God in Jesus Christ, but which ministry or church or medium we like best. Some people in our own country don't have these choices (a scandal in itself). But most people in America do. Meanwhile, millions in the Southern Hemisphere and in Asia have never lived a single day with choices like these.

This disparity between economics and justice is an issue of worship. According to Scripture, the very heart of how we show and distinguish true worship from false worship is apparent in how we respond to the poor, the oppressed, the neglected and the forgotten. As of now, I do not see this theme troubling the waters of worship in the American church. But justice and mercy are not add-ons to worship, nor are they the consequences of worship. Justice and mercy are intrinsic to God and therefore intrinsic to the worship of God.

Our worship should lead us to greater mercy, to costly acts of justice, for those who are the least seen, the least remembered, the least desired.

Vigorous biblical worship should stop, or at least redirect, our endless consumerism, as our free and faithful choice to spend less in order to give away more. Our community reputation, as Scripture suggests, should be that the church comprises those who pursue justice for the oppressed because that is what it means to be Christ's body in the world. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that it's enough to feel drawn to the heart of God without our lives showing the heart of God.

Mark Labberton is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California

Excerpted from The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God's Call to Justice (Zondervan, 2007), used by permission.

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