Church Worship

What's at Stake in Worship? Part One

  • Mark Labberton Author, The Dangerous Act of Worship
  • Published Mar 22, 2007
What's at Stake in Worship? Part One

EVERYTHING. THAT’S WHAT’S AT STAKE IN WORSHIP. The urgent, indeed troubling, message of Scripture is that everything that matters is at stake in worship.

Worship names what matters most: the way human beings are created to reflect God’s glory by embodying God’s character in lives that seek righteousness and do justice. Such comprehensive worship redefines all we call ordinary. Worship turns out to be the dangerous act of waking up to God and to the purposes of God in the world, and then living lives that actually show it.

Worship, then, refers to something very big and very small, and much in between. It can point to the meaning and work of the whole created order. Worship can also be in the cry of a mother or in the joy of a new disciple. Worship can name a Sunday gathering of God’s people, but it also includes how we treat those around us, how we spend our money, and how we care for the lost and the oppressed. Worship can encompass every dimension of our lives.

True worship includes the glory and honor due God — Father, Son, and Spirit. It also includes the enactment of God’s love and justice, mercy and kindness in the world. This is the encounter and the transformation that is worth the pearl of great price, both for our sake and for our neighbor’s. On the one hand, Scripture indicates that worship is meant to be the tangible embodiment of God’s hope in the world. Conversely, the Bible also teaches that the realities of oppression, poverty and injustice can be both a call to worship and an indictment of our failure to do so.

Clearly we are not primarily speaking about worship here in the limited but important sense of the service of worship, though we will certainly reflect on that. Nor do we mean a still smaller piece of that service, the period of extended singing that is distinct from prayer and preaching that some call worship. This is not a book about postmodern worship versus modern worship. We are not concerned here with the pros and cons of praise choruses versus hymns, nor with liturgical debates over the value of candles, video clips, worship cafés or special lighting. These issues are not the focus of this book, although they may be as far as some have gone in considering the subject of worship. And that is part of what this book will try to change.

When worship is our response to the One who alone is worthy of it — Jesus Christ — then our lives are on their way to being turned inside out. Every dimension of self-centered living becomes endangered as we come to share God’s self-giving heart. Worship exposes our cultural and even spiritual complacency toward a world of suffering and injustice. In Jesus Christ, we are called into a new kind of living. Through the grace of worship, God applies the necessary antidote to what we assume is merely human — our selfishness. Worship sets us free from ourselves to be free for God and God’s purposes in the world. The dangerous act of worshiping God in Jesus Christ necessarily draws us into the heart of God and sends us out to embody it, especially toward the poor, the forgotten and the oppressed. All of this is what matters most and is most at stake in worship.

So what’s the problem? The church is asleep. Not dead. Not necessarily having trouble breathing. But asleep. This puts everything that matters at stake: God’s purposes in the church and in the world.


Whether I think of myself, or congregations I have served as a pastor, or other churches across the country and around the world, it seems that many of us are asleep to God’s heart for a world filled with injustice. It’s no surprise that we also seem to be asleep to God’s desire that out of worship should come a church that seeks and embodies the justice that’s needed in the world. We are asleep to God’s heart for the poor and oppressed, absorbed with our own inner life, wrestling with our own dreams and traumas that, for all their vividness, are unknown, unseen and largely unreal to the world around us.

I offer these observations first as a personal confession. Slumber would not be far off the mark in describing my own vision and heart toward the world at times. Busy with life, preoccupied with ministry, absorbed with what is personal, local, immediate — it’s easy to feel like there is not enough of me to go around as it is! So the thought of deliberately seeking to engage beyond these aspects of life can easily be neglected. Left to my own devices, I can live quite contentedly inside the bubble of my middle-class American life. Little in my world, apart from the presence and power of the gospel itself, would ever really demand or expect that I look beyond it. In clearer moments, I know this is a kind of sleepwalking. I write as one who is still just awakening yet who is eager for others to join in imitating those who are truly awake.

Beyond my own personal confession, my obversations of other Christians and churches and the absence of any strong evidence to the contrary convinces me that the church is largely asleep — even if it doesn’t look like it. For example, I recently stood on the grounds of a remarkable church: vibrant, thoughtful, committed, engaged, creative. It was the first day of an enormous, richly choreographed vacation Bible school program. Amid the swirl of activity, I watched the children in color-coordinated orange T-shirts dance and follow the worship band, whose faces were also projected larger than life on two huge screens up front.

Suddenly I felt that these hundreds of children were being put spiritually asleep — asleep to the God of the still small voice, to the God who suffered for the sake of the world, to the God who said, “Lay down your life, take up your cross, and follow me.” Don’t get me wrong; I do not doubt for a moment that the VBS leaders intended just the opposite. They were simply trying to find the best means to communicate to the children. But instead, what seemed evident to me was that this church, one that would by most measures be considered awake, was running the risk of investing astonishing energy in breeding and nurturing a yet more excellent sleep. Why? Because the primary message of its building, its programs and its ministry announced that it was first and foremost an institution that was wealthy and white. The church’s sociology was the primary message. The VBS production featured everything money and time could buy and was so central and primary that the gospel felt small and incidental in comparison. It felt like an instance of Jesus “in distressing disguise,” indeed possibly beyond recognition.

Even more unnerving, I had to acknowledge that this could just as easily and just as well be said of the vibrant church that I pastor. My church’s subculture is different, but not on a global scale. We have just finished a major building campaign and have enhanced our facilities substantially, with many years of effort and much expense. The privileges of churches like these can shroud the gospel in such middle- and upper-class consumer-oriented style and content that salvation subtly becomes more about providing a warm blanket of cultural safety than about stepping out into the bracing winds of spiritual sacrifice. Such patterns in a church’s life can easily, if unintentionally, lead to a focus on consolidating and extending power instead of identifying with the powerless. The former is a lot more like a comfortable bed to sleep in than the latter. No wonder we don’t want to wake up, let alone get up and get going in the work of justice...


Click Here to read What's at Stake in Worship, Part Two

This article is excerpted from Mark Labberton's new book, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God's Call to Justice (InterVarsity Press, 2007). Used with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without written permission from InterVarsity Press.

Mark Labberton is senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley in Berkeley, California. He is also visiting professor of biblical studies at New College Berkeley. Labberton received his doctorate in theology from the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England. He has published articles in Leadership Journal and Radix magazines.