Review: Work and Worship

By Chris Robertson.

I’m excited to share Matthew Kaemingk and Cory Willson’s new book, Work and Worship, with you. Their work makes a significant contribution. The book’s goal is to help the reader explore the reconciliation of how faith and work in the context of gathered worship. 

One concept presented early and discussed throughout the book is being “vocationally conversant.” They define this term as “forms of worship that engage work and workers in a divine dialogue. Worship that is vocationally conversant facilitates an honest exchange between workers and their God…In and through vocationally conversant worship, workers discover the patterns of God’s work, creativity, and service.”

Kaemingk and Willson present their argument in three parts: First, they describe the book’s foundations and how the separation between worship and work manifests itself in the contemporary church. The chapter titled “Workers in the Pews” is worth the price of admission on its own. There, the authors offer a thoughtful examination of modern workers, the nature of their work, and how they enter into worship. There is much wisdom in this chapter for pastors and worship leaders to plan and lead their congregations in gathered worship. 

The second section contains data from the author’s research project. Here, they explore work and worship, as shown in the Old Testament and the early church. Kaemingk and Willson focused their research on times and cultures other than our current moment because of the Church’s recent struggles with worship and work.

Finally, Kaemingk and Willson offer some practices to bring faith and work in gathered worship alive for our communities.

I want to share two highlights from the opening section of the book, Foundations. First, in chapter one, the authors describe a healthy heart’s routine of drawing blood in and sending it back out. This movement is reflected by the systolic and diastolic pressure your doctor always measures. “This opening and closing movement draws blood in and propels it out. Without this rhythm, the blood stagnates. It becomes static and stale. Without the heart’s dynamic force – pull and push, gather and scatter – the blood, the heart, and the entire body begin to decay and ultimately die.” 

Kaemingk and Willson relate this movement to the gathered church’s weekly rhythm. Citing theologian J.J. von Allmen’s book, Worship, they make this connection. “Like a heartbeat, Christian worship has a life-giving rhythm. Like a heartbeat, it has a systolic and diastolic function. Worship welcomes and gathers people in. Worship sends and scatters people out. In and out. Pull and push…One day in and six days out. Like the valves of a healthy heart, the doors of worship must regularly open and close to draw people in and send people out.” 

I also want to draw your attention to the chapter titled “Workers in the Pews.” This chapter provides perspective to help any pastor or worship leader ensure their gathered worship can be “vocationally conversant.” Read this chapter slowly with a pen or highlighter in hand.  

“Who are these people sitting in these pews? Pastors and worship leaders need to cultivate a deeper pastoral and theological understanding of the holy priesthood to whom they’ve been called to minister. Listening to workers is a great start. Visiting workplaces is another. Learning about workplace rituals, liturgies, and seasons is important. Hearing about vocational hopes and heartaches enables worship leaders to better appreciate the emotional and spiritual weight that workers carry with them into worship. What we’re looking for here is a pastoral curiosity in understanding both work and workers. This pastoral practice of listening and learning is the starting point for those who wish to design and lead worship that is responsive to workers. This is the first step in developing worship that is ‘vocationally conversant.'”

I want to highlight a couple of other sections from the work to whet your appetite. In chapter five, in the context of discussing work and worship in the Pentateuch, Kaemingk and Willson demonstrate the shortage of work-oriented celebrations and the consequences of that lack. 

“Emotionally, many Christians simply do not know how to stop, celebrate, and enjoy the goodness of God in their careers. We lack the words, the habits, and the categories to celebrate good work well done. Bonuses, promotions, retirements, and new jobs are not sufficiently celebrated in worshipful festivals and frivolity.” Ask yourself, when was the last time your church, your small group, or fellow Christians celebrated the completion of a project at work, a successful annual review, or a pay raise. Each of these is an example of God’s hand of favor and provision. They should all be brought into the context of worship and celebrated as part of gathered worship. Why don’t we do this more regularly?

“Ethically, neither worship nor feasting plays a meaningful role in the formation of Christian workers today. We don’t think about how gathered worship and celebration should train us to relate to our land, profits, coworkers, or the poor. Beyond digital transfers, we do not know how to joyfully respond to our bonuses and promotions in festive ways that bless our community and create delight. This contemporary disconnection between our profits and our worship, our feasting, and our community has ethical consequences for our economic and spiritual lives. 

Theologically, we lack the celebratory practices that we need in order to meaningfully connect our profits to God’s provision and presence. Predictably, in the absence of the feast, we vocationally forget. We imagine that our bonuses and promotions result from our diligence, hard work, brilliance, or good fortune. We make our harvest. We decide where it goes. And we do all this alone. Or, of course, we begin to attribute our newfound fortune to some other invisible hand.”

Deep down, we know this is not correct, but we lack the formation and imagination to connect our work and the fruits of our labor with our Creator. Kaemingk and Willson trace how integral and organic these connections were in the Old Testament. How can we recover an integration of our work and worship in the modern context?

In chapter six, Kaemingk and Willson examine the connections between work and worship in the Psalms. They argue that we cannot understand our work in the world before we know God’s work.

“In the psalms, the works of God’s hands provide an interpretive lens for the work of our hands – not the reverse. The Psalter here is functioning under a simple, but powerful assumption” a worker can’t understand the place or purpose of their work in the world until they learn to sing, pray, and meditate on God’s work in the world. Singing about God’s work force, conviction, and regularity is the critical hermeneutical lens through which a worker can more clearly understand and begin their labors in the world.”

And how can we sing about God’s work in the world if we do not bring the fruit of our work into gathered worship? If we do not present, discuss, or display our work in worship, we miss a significant percentage of God’s work in the world.

Psalm 23 is a fascinating study of the work of a shepherd. This chapter presents our Almighty God working as a shepherd. Why does the Psalmist have no trouble describing God’s work in the world through the lens of a shepherd? The labor of a shepherd is humble, dangerous, smelly, dirty, and challenging. 

“The primary purpose of Psalm 23 is obviously to illustrate something about the work of God – not the work of shepherds. However, imagine a group of shepherds singing this psalm together night after night. Those from higher socioeconomic classes might look down on their humble vocation, but in this psalm, the shepherds are invited to sing about a deity whose work is somehow comparable to theirs. Shepherds image God when they protect those under their care, skillfully locate fresh water for their flocks, ward off danger, and provide a sense of rest and security. Singing Psalm 23, a group of shepherds can gather to praise a deity who is not at all embarrassed to be compared to them.”

If you get nothing else from this review or this book, know that each person on this earth bears the image of God. God is not at all embarrassed for your work to display some aspect of his character. David wrote Psalm 23 to help shepherds understand this idea. Kaemingk and Willson wrote Work and Worship so people from all vocations can realize this and share this idea with others.

Please read this book for yourself, and then share it with someone you know who needs to understand their work matters, and God desires they bring it into the context of worship to celebrate and offer it as a sacrifice of praise.

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