Bringing Good Things Together: Work and Worship – Justin Lonas

Addressing the gap between theology and practice in the church is the theme of countless sermons, books, blog posts, and tweets. This effort often falls into a dichotomy between overthinking theological concerns or overwhelming Christians with lists of imperatives to jumpstart their obedience gear.

Still, the basic impulse is good. The Lord is concerned with bringing his people’s words, worship, and work into holy alignment. Much of Scripture reflects his instruction and chastisement of those who he says “come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isa. 29:13).

Trough the influence of James K. A. Smith and others, a holistic model is being recovered, exploring the value of liturgy, habits, and disciplines for shaping people (heart, mind, and body) to follow the way of Jesus.

Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson’s Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy stands out in this vein precisely because it so carefully attends to mending what has been torn apart. Their “and” becomes a theme throughout.

This is a book about repair, restoring the ministry of the institutional church and the life of its members through the week. It is about teaching us how to recover our vocations as ambassadors of Christ in word and deed, bearing God’s image body and soul. It is about God’s seamless design that our daily labors and our liturgical praise—both often appearing in the Old Testament through the same word (ăvôdâh)—are offered to him as our participation in his work.

Though dense with meaning, this book is also eminently practical. It commends new ways of integrating the embodied, working lives of worshipers into the sanctuary—and does all this in less than 300 pages. It will serve others studying in this field for years to come, yet it is aimed at the local church and accessible enough for small-group discussion.

Work as Worship

The broader faith-and-work movement has long stressed a believer’s royal role in the creation mandate (Gen. 1:28), bringing order and goodness to the world through work. Kaemingk (assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary) and Willson (professor of missiology and missional ministry at Calvin Theological Seminary) build on this while also emphasizing the priestly function of believers. Their concern isn’t only with how what we know of God should shape how we do our work, but with how our work as his people should shape our witness in the community and the worship of the local church.

This approach affirms the dignity and value of Christians’ skill and labor while calling churches back from the tendency to segregate Sunday worship from the visceral realities of congregants’ daily lives. They often refer to church members as “workers”—a jarring distinction at first, but one that makes more sense as the book progresses.

This isn’t a concession to Americans’ propensity to find their identity in their careers, but rather a reminder of our calling as God’s representatives. A church member’s work—whether paid or unpaid, in the marketplace or in the home—isn’t simply a necessary evil we can be glad to finish each day. It should be an extension of what God is doing in the world through his church.

A church member’s work isn’t simply a necessary evil we can be glad to finish each day but an extension of what God is doing in the world through his church.

In this, the authors take churches to task for reducing avenues of service in ministry to the institutional church or parachurch ministry. Beyond a few privileged professional examples (doctors or government officials, say), church members who find their callings outside formal ministry seldom see their work represented in songs, testimonies, or prayers on Sunday morning.

This, they suggest, sends an implicit message that those who want to serve the church should become a pastor or missionary, work for a nonprofit agency, join the worship team, or teach third-grade Sunday school. These are good, but in focusing only there, the church risks overlooking the work of the majority of Christians. This, in turn, risks squeezing worship into a transactional relationship: come, sit quietly, and give offerings to support “real” Christian work in exchange for spiritual sustenance for the long week ahead.

Embodied Worship

I fear I’m being more strident here than Kaemingk and Willson are. This book is focused on building something beautiful, not merely deconstructing what is broken. It’s refreshingly hopeful throughout, rooted in the faithful retrieval of threads of the Christian tapestry (from Scripture and history) that have been unraveled by modern Western culture. It’s much more of an invitation than a critique. It could help members see more clearly why the work of their church in evangelism and formation is so vital, and how every aspect of their lives can be shaped by that mission.

The authors anchor this invitation in the communion table. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper practiced in every church in every place in every age is for many contemporary American believers, if not an afterthought, not as central to public worship as it once was. Looking to both the Old and New Testaments, and the practice of churches around the world, the authors make a case that the communion table and the offering are intimately intertwined.

In the worship of ancient Israel, the prescribed offerings required the labor of the people offering them—sacrificing a bull, goat, or even grain and oil, represented months or years of  work on the part of a farmer or herdsman. In this, the authors see that “the substance of the worship was not simply the raw fruit of creation; it was the transformed and handcrafted fruit of human culture” (80).

This book is focused on building something beautiful, not merely deconstructing what is broken.

Though our money-based economy abstracts the connection between our labor and our worship for most of us today, the authors seek to encourage liturgical practices that reconnect our imaginations to the embodied reality of our faith. As the church gathers and brings the fruits of its labor through the week into worship on Sunday, we see the real presence of Christ in the work of our hands.

This is especially the case for bakers and vintners who produce the bread and the wine in the meal by which we remember our Lord’s sacrifice, but each of us contributes to the public worship of the church—providing for the building, utilities, the pastor’s paycheck, support of missionaries, and ministries of mercy among the congregation and community, and more through our faithful offerings of time, skill, relationships, and financial support.

What Do We Do with This?

Ultimately, Kaemingk and Willson ask what the life of the church has to do with the life of the world. How do the workers they describe carry the worship of the triune God into their vocational lives?

Though emphatically not a how-to manual, the book offers local churches several ways to reintegrate work and worship. Among other suggestions, they encourage:

  • Leaders meeting often with members to learn what joys, struggles, and sorrows their work brings them, and asking specifically how to pray for and serve them.
  • Discipling the church on the significance of work and embodiment through teaching and preaching the whole counsel of God.
  • Writing prayers and meditations that acknowledge the working life of church members during public worship and equip members to carry worship with them through the week in how they think and speak of Christ in their vocation and relationships with colleagues, bosses, or clients.
  • Calling attention to the good work of congregants in all sectors—recognizing it publicly, taking into account the economic and vocational realities that weigh on members, and intentionally sending workers on mission through the week.
  • Incorporating music that sees the work of the people as part of worshiping God (such as the songs of the Porter’s Gate Project).
  • Connecting with other churches growing toward reconnecting work and worship through organizations like Made to Flourish and the Oikonomia Network.

Why It Matters

If at times the faith-and-work movement has been criticized as niche theology for white-collar professionals, Kaemingk and Willson invest this conversation with robust significance, exploring how better grasping the intertwining of our work and worship strengthens our praise and witness, both publicly and privately.

If churches take their recommendations to heart, perhaps members and leaders would know one another better and work together for the good of the community in coordinated ways. If members become more intimately aware of the triumphs and travails of each other’s lives, they would begin to see how some economic and social conditions make work toilsome—especially for low-income workers at home and around the world.

This extended conversation might open ways for the church to speak into the lives and ethics of its members and provide the necessary grounds for true unity and love. As the place where people gather to tell and retell God’s story of redemption and call others to find their hope in it, the local church is uniquely suited to demonstrate Christ’s reconciliation of all things through his cross (Col. 1:20) in how it engages the whole lives of its members on Sunday and throughout the week.

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