After reading a book about the history of slavery, Brian McLaren was haunted by this image: Southern slaveowners in the antebellum South, sitting comfortably in the church pews on Sunday mornings, hearing the words, “You are forgiven.”   

The image shows how Christian worship has the power to save or destroy the world, he said. And going forward, he believes the path to destruction is straightforward: “Just keep worshipping exactly as we’ve been worshipping since 1607 … and just keep worshipping exactly as we’re worshipping now.” 

McLaren shared that warning at Perkins’ Fall Convocation, which brought about 135 alumni, ministers, laypeople and others to the campus of Southern Methodist University Nov. 12-13. With the theme “JustWorship,” the program featured speakers and workshops, a resource fair, and worship. 

Several worship experiences were offered throughout the program, including opening and closing services at Highland Park United Methodist Church, a labyrinth walk, a Taizé service, and a Worship Under the Stars event on Monday night (moved indoors due to inclement weather, but still moving and inspiring, according to attendees.)  

“Worship was truly the highlight of the event,” said Priscilla Pope-Levison, coordinator of the program and Perkins’ Associate Dean for External Programs & Professor of Ministerial Studies.  “Participants got to see the breadth of worship experiences, and each illustrated this idea of bringing together both loving God and loving neighbor.”    

Monday Night Plenary

The centerpiece event was the Monday night plenary at Highland Park United Methodist, “How Can Worship Save or Destroy the Planet?” featuring McLaren and Sandra Van Opstal.  

McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian whose most recent book is The Great Spiritual Migration: How The World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking A Better Way To Be Christian. Van Opstal, a second-generation Latina in the U.S., is the Executive Pastor at Grace and Peace Community on the west-side of Chicago and author of two books on worship, The Mission of Worship and The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World.   

Both stressed the formative power of worship – for good or for evil. 

“We’ve got to take a hard look at the role worship plays in forming us as people,” McLaren said. “Otherwise, our worship simply serves as a chaplaincy to an extractive and exploitive economy.”   

Van Opstal cited the words of Amos 5:22-24 as a clear warning against the idolatry of empty worship.   

“God is saying, ‘I despise your religious festivals. Away with the noise of your songs,” she said. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” 

Church worship services can steer people toward becoming healers, or plunderers and killers, McLaren said. 

“We’ve got to face the fact that while we’ve been worshipping happily – this world has been treated like a trash dump,” he said. “The cries of the poor have gone unheard, and the power of the super-rich has increased. Christians have done these things Monday through Saturday and then gone to church on Sunday …. where worship just lifts them up and gives them more confidence to keep doing what they’re doing.”  

McLaren decried harmful beliefs related to the environment, such as, “Jesus is coming back so we might as well use it all up.”  

“It gives us permission to dominate and exclude to the harm of other living creatures,” he said.  

He also took issue with phrases often heard in church worship, such as, “Give us the lost.”   

“Give other human beings to us as our possessions? Define everybody else as the lost?” he said. “That renders other human beings as subhuman.” 

Growing up in a conservative evangelical family, McLaren said that he came to realize that he’d never heard a song that simply sang the words of Jesus.  

“It’s almost like our worship insulates us from what he said,” McLaren observed. “Worship tries to make us feel good rather than be good.” 

Van Opstal sparked laughs of recognition when she opened her talk by singing what sounded like a familiar contemporary hymn: “I’m coming back to the heart of worship, cause it’s all about me, Jesus./It’s all about me and how I feel about you, Jesus. 

“Our worship is all about intellect and intention –not about action,” she said. “We have words. So many, many, many words.”   

Worship cannot exist without embodying justice, Van Opstal asserted. Living in proximity to communities that are historically exploited, she has witnessed the sorrow and the hopelessness that exploitation creates. Worship should foster solidarity with these communities.   

“It has nothing to do with the carnival of multi-ethnic diversity,” she said.  “It’s about solidarity with those who suffer.  If we don’t do that, there will be more raping of the planet and we’ll just go on singing and building buildings and feeling pretty good about ourselves.”   

Van Opstal noted that North American Christians are still in the habit of sending missionaries out to the rest of the world, but instead, she says, the example of Christians in other parts of the world can teach North Americans.   

“Ninety percent of the world’s Christians are not in North America,” she said. “They have something fantastic happening in their churches. We have an entire generation of people who are wondering, ‘Where are the churches?’  Well, that’s where they are.”   

She mocked conferences that advocate superficial changes to worship – changing the style of worship, changing the color of the sanctuary – in hopes of bringing young people back to church.  

“You cannot slap a coat of paint on idolatry and fool young people,” Van Opstal said.  “What is happening in the global church in our so-called under-resourced communities is actually the gift that can save the world.”  

Kent and Susan Roberts, members of Highland Park United Methodist, found the words of McLaren and Van Opstal provocative and inspiring. 

“Sandra Van Opstal was just fantastic,” Susan Roberts said. “I don’t like praise music, and I’ve always wondered, ‘What’s wrong with me?’  She articulated why I don’t like it — it always felt so empty.” 

“The program opened up a world of possibilities for expanding the repertory of ways to experience Christianity,” Kent Roberts said. “Sometimes I get frustrated. But this felt like a door opening.”   

The convocation served as a good reminder of the church’s potential, according to Shandon Klein, a full-time Perkins student in the M.Div. program and Assistant Director of Welcoming at First United Methodist Church in Richardson. 

“It was a reminder to keep our eyes on the prize,” she said. “Not to just feed into the institution of the church but also into the movement for change.  You can build up your church and keep it in your own little box, or you can use the institution to literally promote change in the world.” 

2019 Convocation 

Plans for the Fall 2019 convocation were announced at the event.  Featured keynote speakers will include Rick Steves, the travel TV host, a guidebook author and devout Lutheran, who will speak on “Travel as a Spiritual Act;” Celestin Musekura, president and founder of African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries; and Samira Izadi Page, founder and executive director of Gateway of Grace. The event will take place November 11 & 12, 2019, on the campus of SMU.