Book Review: Danger — Worship in Progress
By Dan Baumgartner, Senior Pastor, Bethany Presbyterian Church
The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice
By Mark Labberton
2007 IVP Books, 198 pp
If you are nostalgic, or old enough, you will remember the ending to the Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Yes, the original version, before they ruined it with sequels.) In both the film and the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant of Israel proved to be far more than a carrying case for stone tablets. It had its own inherent power that could cause even death (see II Sam 6, or the movie’s face-melting scene), because it was a receptacle or focal point for the presence of God.
But at the end of Raiders, human arrogance and ignorance consigned the ark to a wooden crate and stored it in a warehouse full of thousands of identical wood crates. Humanity was robbed of a unique chance to encounter the terrible and wonderful presence of the God of the universe, said the movie’s creators.
Fast-Forward 27 Years
Undoubtedly, Mark Labberton’s 2007 book The Dangerous Act of Worship will be filed under “worship” in most church, college, and seminary libraries. Too bad. Might as well put it in a wood crate and ship it to denominational headquarters. If you’re looking for a book that solves the pipe organ vs. praise band controversy of the last 20 years, or the pews vs. soft chairs in the sanctuary conflict — then look elsewhere.
This is about worship in the broadest sense, so broad that it is better read as a challenge to serious discipleship. It took me several chapters to figure out that Labberton was using “worship,” as a synonym for “the Christian life.” Not Christian, like “American,” but Christian, like “radical.” The book is a hopeful but sharp indictment of prevalent American Christian worship that lulls people to sleep by turning their Sunday mornings into comfortable entertainment instead of life changing encounters that radically infiltrate all seven days.
So who is Labberton to issue such a clarion call? White, 50-something, family man, professorial, Cambridge-educated, pastor of a revered church (First Presbyterian, Berkeley, California) — not exactly what you imagined for a sharp-tongued prophet issuing a wake-up call for justice. However, he writes with the authentic voice of someone who is on a steep learning curve in his own life, and the indictment often sounds like an invitation to simply join him on that journey.
More Than a “Well-Oiled” Liturgy
In simplest terms for Labberton, worship means responding to God — “reflect(ing) God’s glory by embodying God’s character in lives that seek righteousness and do justice.” This can start, or be fueled in a worship time in the sanctuary, to be sure. But responding to God means first encountering God. And encountering him means something different than participating in a well-oiled liturgy, or listening to a sermon that is meaningful to an individual’s inner life but never moves him or her to pursuing justice in public life.
Surely when we encounter Almighty God in a worship service, it will illicit more than a “that was a nice service” feeling. People touched by the presence of God fall down, they take risks, they see the world in a new way, they reach across racial barriers, they feed the hungry, and they work for justice.
Does a worship service facilitate people coming into the presence of God? If it does, look for changed lives over the long haul. If it doesn’t, get ready for “that was a nice service.” Labberton warns churches not to get bogged down by false dangers — worrying about out-of-control worship, being irrelevant, trying to meet everyone’s expectations, the pull to be popular, or to help people feel comfortable.
Despite our obsession with church-marketing programs and consumer preference surveys, the place he keeps coming back to is “encounter with God.” If that happens, then all bets are off. Anything can happen. Our whole lives become worship. Justice can roll down like a mighty river. Racism, poverty, and oppression of many kinds can be brought into the light, discussed and worked on because God’s power is uncrated.
One of the strengths of The Dangerous Act of Worship is that Labberton doesn’t pretend to know exactly how a worship service brings about encounter with God. In fact, reading between the lines would suggest that the exact form is far less important than the heart and expectations of those gathering together. He eventually gets around to talking about actual elements of a typical worship service, and tying them to the call to justice, but it’s not the strongest part of the book. The many stories of changed lives, the places that a white upper-middle-class church begins to see worship as a lifestyle and not just a 60-minute event — these are the things that keep the pages turning.
The church where I pastor bears a strong resemblance to Labberton’s, so it was easy for me to make connections. And I have seen glimpses of the connection of justice and worship. Our congregation hosts up to 200 people for dinner on Wednesday nights. The crowd is a huge mix of homeless folks, people in subsidized housing, two full tables from a local deaf community, seniors from the neighborhood and people struggling with mental illness.
Wednesday evening has far more racial diversity than we have on Sunday morning. In addition, congregation members show up not just to cook or serve the meal, but also to grab a plate of food and talk. Friendships are made, people are valued, and comfort zones are stretched. Haircuts are given, help finding housing is offered, free clothing is sometimes available. It’s not so much a “feed” as a community. It’s not a program as much as it is worship, in the broad definition of Labberton’s book. I have encountered Christ on Wednesdays many, many times. When people ask me what has changed our church the most in the last 10 years, I always point to the Wednesday Night Dinner. But I also look expectantly, like Labberton, for deeper places God is calling us to live justly.
Should you read this book? You decide. If you want a “how-to” manual on worship services that will draw more people, forget it. If you want a nudge toward a riskier life with Christ, try it out. I dare you.
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church, which is located on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, Washington.
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