Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy

Written by Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson Reviewed By Dennis Greeson

Recent years have witnessed a growing interest in the intersection of faith and work. Matthew Kaemingk, who teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Cory Willson, associate professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, both celebrate the popular interest in how one’s work matters to God. However, they also warn that unless Christians learn to move from the abstract relationship of faith and work to the concrete relationship of work and the church’s worship, both one’s faith and work will remain malformed and immature. “There exists a profound separation between work and worship in the lives of many Christians today,” they argue. The problem as they see it is that this disconnect between work and worship is mutually influencing, leading to deficient work and hyper-spiritualized worship of God.

The solution the authors propose is to seek integration between work and worship by bringing the concerns of work explicitly into the Sunday liturgy, and by seeing the liturgy as directly formative for Monday through Saturday endeavors. Accordingly, their main audience is worship leaders: those who are charged with shaping the experiences of Christians as they gather for congregational celebration. While what they offer is not a “how-to” manual, the book subsequently places a strong emphasis on praxis atop a fairly comprehensive biblical theology of the worship-work relationship (p. 11).

Additionally, while Kaemingk and Willson turn their sights specifically towards the economic and liturgical practices of Western Christians, they rightly recognize that because of the fall, distorted work and worship are universal maladies suffered by humans of every culture throughout history. Thus, despite writing to a Western audience, they make a concerted effort to bring wisdom and practices from both ancient traditions and from around the world into the conversation. Their work is filled with references to international worship practices, and the literature they resource has an intentionally global scope.

The book is divided into three parts, consisting of theological and practical foundations, resources from scripture and the worship practices of the early church, and a final section on practices that suggests strategies for integrating worship and work. The first part begins with their vision for the nature and purpose of worship and its relation to work. They argue that “worship is the heartbeat of the church” and ought to be focused on “intensive” experiences of God’s grace in gathered worship which fuel “extensive” scattering into the world to love and serve God (p. 19). In their view, worship is a formative practice which shapes workers for their work. Consequently, deficiencies in the nature and practice of worship will ultimately fail workers in their God-given vocations.

In chapter 2, they examine contemporary trends in worship which are inherent to a Western individualistic context and which, they believe, fail workers, before turning in chapter 3 to examine what modern workers bring with them into the worship time. Worship leaders, they argue, often fail to consider or understand the lived weekly experiences of workers who fill their pews. Because of this, workers are often not led into seeing how their work relates to worship or how God joins them in the workplace. The irony is that weekly work is God-given and is the primary way the church joins God in his creative and redemptive missions in the world.

The second part of the book surveys theological and practical resources for proper integration of work and worship from the Old Testament, the early church of the New Testament, and descriptions of the liturgical practices of early Christians recorded in writings such as the Canons of Hippolytus and the Didascalia. For Israel, instructions for worship given in the Pentateuch were meant to form them into a people whose whole lives, including their work, honored God and revealed his lordship over creation. For instance, Israel’s worship calendar of celebrations and thanksgivings followed the agricultural calendar, and the agricultural work was routinely brought into the worship service. Throughout their rituals, Israel was to remember that any bountiful harvest comes from God, and all work is to be done for and unto God.

This is reinforced through the Psalter, which consistently points to the fact that God’s work is what gives meaning to our work. Additionally, the writings of the prophets warn against how worship and work “can begin to separate and die” through each one becoming either idolatrous or inauthentic (p. 117). Turning to the early church of the New Testament and beyond, Kaemingk and Willson explore how Christians frequently brought the fruit of their labors into the worship service and took their worship services to the streets to consecrate the areas of work and proclaim Christ’s lordship over the cities and fields. The early church therefore presents a compelling model for how work and worship must be seen as integrally related and mutually formative.

In the final section, Kaemingk and Willson offer practical strategies for worship leaders to relate worship and work more directly in the Sunday gathering. These mainly concern bringing work into the celebration of the Lord’s table, and by preparing workers to scatter into the world to continue their worship through their labors. They also highlight how architecture and atmosphere surrounding worship can engage the imaginations of workers. Concerning the gathering of the church, the examples they provide include calling worship leaders to create times to celebrate harvests or offer public petitions of workers in a church’s given context, be it manufacturing, software coding, or boardroom meetings. As the church scatters into Monday life, Kaemingk and Willson see it as vital for worship leaders to pray specifically for work and workplaces, as well as to call workers through a benediction to worship God and join him on mission.

Western Christianity suffers from a centuries-old divide between the so-called sacred and the secular realms. One highlight of Kaemingk and Willson’s study is their proposal that both work and worship are designed by God to “habituate” God’s work in the world into both the economic and doxological activity of Christians. The ways of God’s work in sustaining his creation, and bestowing grace through redemption, are infused into the life of the worker through both liturgical and economic habits, but only when they are rightly oriented and rightly related. The two are designed to be mutually reinforcing, and Kaemingk and Willson present a compelling case for what is at stake if either is neglected.

One critique of the book might be that Kaemingk and Willson’s narrow focus on the experience of the worship service neglects consideration of the church’s other ministries and endeavors. Limiting the scope only to the church’s liturgy, however, certainly allows them to focus on making their case that what ails Western Christianity uniquely is a failure to worship well as a corporate body, leaving open further considerations for future conversation. Regardless, worship leaders will benefit from Kaemingk and Willson stirring the liturgical imagination with their practical strategies and examples of worship from around the world. The book will also benefit anyone seeking to deconstruct the divide between spiritual Sunday life and the so-called secular endeavors of the rest of life.

Dennis Greeson

Dennis Greeson is associate director of the BibleMesh Institute and a PhD candidate at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

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