Mark Labberton is the Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkley, California. He is the author of a new book, The Dangerous Act of Worship (InterVarsity Press). Preaching Editor Michael Duduit recently visited with him about “dangerous worship” and preaching.
PREACHING: Why is worship such a dangerous act?
LABBERTON: It is dangerous I think, because it involves an encounter with the living God. I think there is a very strong sense that the dangerous act of worship is that if we really have an encounter with God it will actually change our lives. That puts a danger to anything that would fundamentally be set against God. I can say for my own life and the life of other people, that we have a great deal that is actually set against God in our lives. So, it will be a dangerous encounter for that reason.
It will be a dangerous encounter also because if we are going to dare to plan to worship God it means that God will hold us accountable for what we are planning and what we are doing. God weighs seriously the actions of our lives as the benchmark of whether we are really faithfully worshiping. The strongest language that is used—especially by Jesus and the prophets—are words of judgment against false worship by religious people. So I think it is especially dangerous when the church plans worship, because then we are really held accountable for our worship. There is something truly awesome and very bold about that.
PREACHING: Let’s be honest: there’s a lot of what we call worship that isn’t particularly dangerous. How do you identify what makes worship dangerous and special, as opposed to worship practice that doesn’t fit into that category?
LABBERTON: The first thing about biblical worship practice that would be dangerous and redefining is to get worship out of a box called a “worship service” that happens on Sundays within a certain time frame, especially so it fits into a neat and tidy hour. So I think the first thing biblical worship does is blows that whole category up entirely.
Worship is meant to be after the whole creative order, in which every agency of God’s design and purposes ultimately is given over to God’s glory to reflect the reality and purposes of God. Therefore, if we are going to say that we are worshipers then it is a call to worship God with the whole of our lives. So when we talk about worship practices then we are talking about every practice, not just what happens liturgically within the walls of our church. That is a very dangerous difference from the way that worship is typically defined in a neat and tidy package: “Well, I went and did my worship thing within a certain tidy time frame.” I think that is the first place to start.
I don’t think the main danger has to do with activities of the liturgical kind, as though the goal is trying to make them more dynamic, more fearsome or more dramatic in some way. I think it is more the heart of transformation that worship calls for, which is really to be a mirror of the heart and mind and priorities of God. That puts us into very challenging terrain. It has to do with everything from loving the forgotten to actually loving our enemies. That is going to mean rearranging my life if, in fact, I am going to take those words and worship practices seriously. So it is the practices of daily life rearranged in the light of the Kingdom— that is the trajectory of truly dangerous worship.
PREACHING: Where does preaching fit into all of this?
LABBERTON: I think that preaching is the lifting up of the living Word of God—the written Word of God—in such a way that it can do this explosive work. So I think preaching is a seminal piece of this.
For example, now I am doing a series through the book of Amos. Part of the purpose of that series is to say: here is a set of mirrors that are being used by the prophet Amos in relationship to Israel’s life. At a time when Israel was prospering, the kingdom was divided, but Israel itself was in a good season and could well had parked itself in a kind of proverbial wisdom that it had clearly received God’s blessing. Then along comes the prophet who, in one way or another, nukes that perspective. So if we scratch beneath the surface we find a radically different story, so radical in fact that God makes it clear that He hates their worship.
The handling of the Word of God, the proclamation of the word of God, is letting it actually resound in the nooks and crannies and patterns of our lives. That is a very big and important thing.
PREACHING: How much does one’s view of Scripture impact how dangerous preaching is?
LABBERTON: You would think that one’s doctrine of the Bible should actually influence that. Yet I think it would be hard to make a case that the people in the American church who have the highest view of the Bible necessarily are the people who are the most willing to allow the Scripture to speak. Part of the dynamic that every preacher, every communicator, every Christian has to face is whether our message is fundamentally shaped by culture or whether it is fundamentally shaped by the Bible. That is not exactly a question that is settled by an affirmation or a nod about the Bible’s authority, at least as another doctrine. That is by your practice, like the worship experience itself. My doctrine might be good, but my practice of that doctrine might be weak or inadequate or gone. Then the chances of it doing that work are smaller.
So in the same way I think there is an enormous challenge to allow the practice of a high view of Scripture to actually shape how we come to the preaching task. How we dare to believe that the Bible will do its own convicting work and that we are really trying to unleash it in its potency to the congregation. That means that we have to do our own work, not just biblically and exegetically, but also our own work spiritually and theologically, really dying to the idolatries that actually shape a great deal of pastoral ministries.
The reason it often doesn’t happen isn’t that we don’t have a high view of the Bible, but we have competing with it a high practice of idolatries of various kinds that simply distract us from really wanting the Bible to do its work.
PREACHING: You talked about cultural influences. To what extent is it alright for a culture to influence preaching and worship? At what point to do we draw the line?
LABBERTON: I think biblical faith is fundamentally, culturally embedded. God is without embarrassment culturally revealing Himself throughout the whole Bible. Clearly there is no such thing as a culture-free revelation. There is a revelation that is more than culture, but it is always embedded in culture. So I don’t think there is an option to ever be culture-free. I think we are always culture set.
So then the question is: how do we expose and attempt to get a grasp of those influences? To see how culture has already shaped every act of language and perspective and relationship and so forth, to enable our lives to actually be re-cast in light of the larger culture which is the kingdom of God.
In some ways you could say the kingdom of God is not the absence of culture but the re-creation of culture. Our goal as biblical people is to try to live into the greater culture of the kingdom, rather than the myopic and self-oriented nature of cultures generally. I think that is where the revelation of God meets us, first in the crisis of our own cultural patterns, and then hopefully delivers us from our culture, beyond our culture.
I think that one of the great gifts of the Bible is that it meets us in culture but then it expands our vision. So God is always particular for the sake of being universal. He is not particular for the sake of something becoming small but for the sake of clarity and accessibility, and then it is for the sake of unleashing something that is much greater than that particular area.
So when God was the most particular in Jesus, He did the most universal thing for the world. It was in that very specific act that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ.
PREACHING: Your church is in a unique setting in Berkley California. Berkley is identified as an intellectual center but also as very politically engaged. Within your own local church setting, do you find yourself adapting worship and preaching to try to speak to that culture?
LABBERTON: I think the most relevant thing in the world is the gospel. So I think what we are trying to do is allow the intensive relevance of Jesus Christ to be made known to every generation. So our goal at Berkley is to simply do everything we can to lift up Jesus Christ—in every conceivable way we think is faithful and true—to every generation and every kind of person that may wander through our doors or that we may find in the highways and byways of Berkley.
Wherever you are, we want you to consider Christ and we want to be with you in that process as a community. We want to be with your in questions of doubt, as much as issues of faith, we want to be with you in questions of fault in complexities of the world and the economies and its injustices, and also in local practical realities of neighborhoods and schools and families and personal crisis.
So I think what we try to do is keep that clearly in focus—that the life of our church is really marshaled around that one central affirmation. We want to be a faithful church in Berkley rather than a church that is trying to follow or imitate the rabbit trails of endless agendas, advocacies, politics, personalities. I learned a long time ago that I would rather be a conservative in a liberal environment than a liberal in a conservative environment. So I love being in a place like Berkley where there is an implicit and explicit challenge to justify your faith. It feels like a legitimate and compelling mission to me.
PREACHING: Tell me about your preaching. Do you preach in series, and how long is a typical sermon for you?
LABBERTON: We typically preach in series, I and our staff. They are typically what I would think of as expositional series through biblical books. Periodically there are also topical series. Exposition in our tradition sometimes means a sermon that goes through text in a verse-by-verse kind of way. We have tended to define exposition in a little broader terms than that—it is to try to expose the central meaning of the text and then to try to explore some of its implications. I think the text is central and it is typically in a sequential pattern of exposition. A typical sermon is about 30 minutes.
PREACHING: How many Sundays a year do you preach?
LABBERTON: I have tried to develop a preaching team at First Pres., so I only preach about 30 Sundays out of the 52.
PREACHING: Do you have other times out of the week that you teach?
LABBERTON: I teach a class most Sunday nights for an hour and a half regardless of whether I am preaching or not. I am present in worship whether I am preaching or not. I am not off doing something else while my associates preach. We are also committed to having international preachers. We have a very strong commitment to the larger conversation of how does the church of North America hear the church of the majority of the world.
PREACHING: What is a typical week for you in terms of preparation for preaching?
LABBERTON: I do a lot of preparation in a large block of time in the summer, spending a couple of weeks just working on the preaching for the upcoming year. I spend a lot of time reading, praying, reflecting, adjusting and developing how series and texts could be developed. I write up a master plan of next year’s preaching. All of this is done very carefully and discussed with associate pastors that I work with. So that sets up a lot of where we go.
Monthly our pastoral staff discusses all of the next month’s texts. That has been another careful look at the text regardless of who is preaching. Then the next layer is my own personal preparation on the weeks that I am preaching. I spend Mondays pretty much just in study, and then I do more of that on Wednesday. By the end of Wednesday it is fairly clear to me what shape the sermon is going to take.
PREACHING: How many hours do you typically spend on a 30 minute Sunday sermon?
LABBERTON: I would say all together maybe 10 hours.
PREACHING: When you get away for the summer and plan for the year, are you also planning the Sundays when some of your team members will be preaching?
LABBERTON: Yes, as I am trying to shape a series, I look at how that week is going to stand out in comparison to other weeks. But when we then have staff discussions as it gets closer, I am certainly not trying to shape what my other associates are trying to preach. I feel they need to have their own integrity before the text and before the people on the Sunday they are preaching.
So as we are talking about it they are free to change the title, though probably not the text because it is in a sequence. But even that can be slightly modified. If they wanted to develop that differently from how I originally envisioned it that is fine, provided that there is a sense of continuity. We are trying to develop a long conversation. I really see preaching as a long conversation with the congregation. So I don’t measure it by week by week effectiveness; it is really a much longer measurement.
PREACHING: Where did you serve before going to Berkley? And have you had to adapt in a setting like that?
LABBERTON: I became a Christian in college and part of the influence of that is a call to be a pastor in a college/university setting. I feel like those are the settings that fit me. That’s a mission field that too often local churches abandon to parachurch groups or abandon period. So I have a strong sense of calling.
I served as an intern and church director of college/university ministries at University Presbyterian church in Seattle. I had an opportunity to work for about a year and a half as John Stott’s study assistant. I came to Berkley the first time to be the college pastor; I was there for six years in that role. I went to do a Ph.D. and came back to the U.S. and served an 18-month pastorate in Wayne, Penn. I came back to Berkley 14 years ago. So that is the map of where I have been.
In Wayne, the call was different because it is an upper/middle class, largely white suburb of Philadelphia. That was not a natural fit for me. It was a difficult and challenging season for me to figure out how to communicate there. One of the reasons that I accepted the call to Berkley was in part a call away from Wayne—really feeling I was not the person to be the pastor of that church. It was partly because I didn’t understand how to preach in that setting.
PREACHING: What are the things you most enjoy about preaching and what are the things you find the most challenging?
LABBERTON: I do love the fact that it is a really long conversation. I love the fact that when you get to preach regularly you do get the sense that you are engaging in a very organic, mysterious humbling process, by which you are trying to invite people into an engagement with God and the Bible. So what I love about it is all those dynamics that are active and living, the astonishment that I regularly have that God chooses to use me—and also preaching, period—as a channel of communication. I just find it stunning. So it is a gift of grace to me to preach; it is an extraordinarily privilege and it is not one that I am entitled to or that I take for granted.
I love the variation of it, the spontaneous elements of it as well as the invitation it is to do serious careful theological work. The congregation is really being called to become theologians and I have the privilege of trying to instigate, encourage and challenge them, as I do myself to try to become a better theologian, in how I think and act out my faith. I love both those dimensions of preaching.
PREACHING: What about the challenges of preaching?
LABBERTON: I think it’s the limitation of my own humanity and my own gifts. I have some gifts that make me capable of communicating some things, but I feel like I am deeply inadequate in communicating many other things. I really love to hear other people preach because I like what they bring to it—in terms of their own personality and their strength in God in difference to mine. I can admire preachers who do things that are really different than what I do in preaching. I don’t feel a call to imitate them, but I am aware that I wish I could say or be to my congregation more than I am in my communication. I can do what I can do and I can only do what I can do.
PREACHING: Are there some things about preaching that you know now that you wish you known when you first started as a young pastor?
LABBERTON: When I first started preaching I never preached with notes. I found it much more natural to just communicate straight to the people. Seminary bred that out of me—teaching me that it was important to develop a sermon in a different way, to develop a manuscript, to compress that into an outline, etc. I would say that during that time my preaching suffered. That was not a good season. I probably let that go on without really acknowledging how much I felt hampered by it.
One day, I was literally in the middle of preaching a sermon and I thought, “I am never going to do this again.” And I have never done it again. So looking back, I wish I hadn’t done that. It didn’t in anyway enhance my preaching. It didn’t do what it allegedly was going to do. It actually restrained both me and the Spirit.
PREACHING: So you preach now without any notes.
PREACHING: Do you write anything?
LABBERTON: No I don’t. I just spend a lot of time thinking, observing. I may jot notes, but I frame it in my mind. My mind tends to organize things in various ways. The image is like tea steeping to me. I am trying to just soak in the text, tying to soak in the images, soak in the stories, the metaphors—the biblical ones as well as the intersections of those with the experiences of my own life, the experiences of the congregation or the experiences that I see in the world around me.
There is a point that seems to happen somewhere in that process where it starts lodging in my mind and in my heart that this is the right way into that. When I am about to go out to preach the sermon on a Sunday, I have a very clear picture of what I think the text is saying, a clear picture of what my game plan is going to be. As far as I am concerned, it is all up to God. So we will see what happens in the course of the service and the course of preaching.
Another image that I see in my own mind is that I am going into the preaching moment with a quiver full of arrows, any one of which might be legitimate on this occasion. I am going to decide—based on what I hope is the work of the Spirit in combination with the text and my own intuition—which are the most important arrows. That varies from service to service.
On occasion the three sermons on a Sunday morning may be roughly similar, or some say if they came to all three services they would seem like I preached three different sermons. They are all in the same text, all in the same essential context, but how they are illustrated—why I use certain arrows in certain services as opposed to others—is just a matter of dependence on God’s Spirit’s nudging and the freedom to feel like this is okay.
PREACHING: It sounds very extemporaneous.
LABBERTON: It is extemporaneous. I always get a little nervous if by “extemporaneous” people mean unintentional, unplanned, spontaneous, slightly chaotic, a little “ADD.” I am hoping that is not true of my preaching. But if extemporaneous means living, dynamic, unfolding, flexible, I hope those are all true.
PREACHING: Do you go into the pulpit with at least an introduction in mind of what you are going to do?
LABBERTON: I do, but it frequently changes. I definitely have an introduction and I definitely have in mind a starting point, but I also find in the course of worship an idea or connection will suddenly become apparent to me out of the singing or prayers or something else that has occurred earlier in the service. I will hold onto that and I will decide in those moments just prior to starting the sermon whether I am going to do that or not.
It feels like it fits the way God made me. It fits the settings in which I typically preach. There is a lot of uncertainty about it until the moment when it is happening.
PREACHING: It sounds like the dangerous act of preaching!
LABBERTON: I just think one of the most important gifts a preacher can give the congregation is really humility before God and before the word — to be willing to put as much as possible of ourselves on the line and into the Word.