The Dangerous Act of Worship by Mark Labberton


The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice, by Mark Labberton. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007. 200 pp. $15.00.

Encountering God in true worship will propel us into a life involved in the ministry of social justice. So argues Mark Labberton, currently a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and previously senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California, who contends that the white middle-class church in America is neglecting this call (188). It is time the church awaken to the suffering that encompasses the world and make a difference in the lives of those that suffer, just as Christ has done in our salvation.

For Labberton, the church has misunderstood her call to the ministry of justice. “According to Scripture, that’s an issue of worship. According to much of church culture, there’s no connection between worship and justice” (17). The church is ignoring the suffering around her while, as Labberton posits, “mainline and evangelical churches keep debating what they think are primary worship issues: guitars versus organs, formal versus informal, traditional versus contemporary, contemporary versus emergent” (17–18). The real concern about worship should not be the preferential issues so often disputed, but rather, that in worship we have lost our neighbors, focusing solely on ourselves.

Growing from the inward focus on self, the church has set up false dangers in worship, such as worship that doesn’t seem relevant, that doesn’t meet expectations, or that isn’t comfortable. Because the church has occupied herself with these false dangers, she has missed the real dangers that lurk in the worship of God: worship that lies to God, worship that lies about God, and worship that leaves us and the world unchanged. When the church begins focusing on the real dangers that await her in worship, she will shift her focus from herself to those in need around her.

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At this juncture, Labberton takes an unexpected path by claiming that “a life that worships and does justice starts with rest” (95). Just as God rested on the seventh day, the church must rest. “We cannot live as light and salt, doing righteousness and showing justice, if we fail to practice living out of God’s rest” (96).

Returning to his original line of argument, Labberton states, “Christian worship—corporate and individual—can and should be one of the most profound and relevant responses to power abuse in the world” (109). Worship realigns the church’s conception of power as she is reminded, “throughout Scripture, the call to worship is given only by God and reframes everything else in the worship service that follows it as well as in life” (115). In addition to their liturgical functions, each element of the worship service voices a rebuke of the abuses of power not only in our churches but also in the world.

At different times in the history of the people of Israel they were called by God to live in either exodus or exile. During the exodus in Egypt, Israel lived as the oppressed with the goal of liberation from the Egyptians and reaching the Promised Land. Israel had a much different purpose during her exile. “Israel’s call in exile is to work out what it means to dwell in a foreign land and yet live as those who belong to Yahweh” (141).

The church today has assumed and ministered as if she were in exodus, when God has called her to a life of exile. This understanding of the call of the church is undergirded by Labberton’s belief that “creation will be fulfilled, not destroyed, in the new heaven and the new earth. That in turn changes how we live now” (147).

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To live out our dangerous act of worship, “we have to practice laying aside our unflappable pursuit of our own satisfaction, entertainment, pleasure or routine in order to pursue God and ask him to reorder our priorities and passions” (170). The focus has to shift from the false dangers that center on self, to the real dangers that focus on God’s call to serve. “It’s about entering, engaging, acting on behalf of someone else’s reality as though it were our own. In Christ it is our own. That’s the depth of our biblical call to justice” (178).

The author methodically argues in the first five chapters for justice as a component of worship. The strongest elements of his argument are the contrasting chapters on real and false dangers in the worship of God. Labberton brings to the forefront in these chapters a dichotomy of questions from those outside the church: “The question of many secular people is not, ‘Why doesn’t the church look more like us?’ Rather, their perceptive question (and God’s too) is, ‘Why doesn’t the church look more like Jesus?’” (51).

Labberton loses his logical line of reasoning with his chapter on the role of rest in the call to justice and struggles to regain the previously established line of reasoning until the conclusion, which focuses more on the first half of the book. Although Labberton does raise important thoughts in the latter chapters, their sequence lacks the clear focus of the beginning chapters of his book. For example, the chapter on living in exodus or exile is foundational to his line of reasoning because of the author’s cultural redemption posture and should have been included earlier in his argument.

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The Dangerous Act of Worship is a significant work because of the relative lack of writing in the area of worship and justice rather than the academic strength of Labberton’s writing. It is written at a popular level, targeting pastors and congregants as evidenced by the copious personal examples throughout the book. Given Labberton’s posture, the foundation work and conclusions are excellent. The logic that guides the reader from that foundation to his conclusions, however, lacks organization, preventing it from having the impact it otherwise could have had.

Robert Pendergraft
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX