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Cory B. Willson on the Faith/Work/Worship Ecosystem

Theological conversations about faith, work, and worship take on new meaning when they start with the needs, questions, and experiences of workers.

Cory B. Willson is the Jake and Betsy Tuls Professor of Missiology, World Christianity, & Public Theology and director of the Institute for Mission, Church, & Culture at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He and Matthew Kaemingk wrote Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy (Baker Academic, 2020). In this edited conversation, Willson talks about how various movements related to faith, work, and worship fit together.

In the last 150 years, who have been some of the main theologians addressing faith, work, and worship? 

Protestant and Catholic theologians have responded to existential needs in considering faith and work. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII wrote the encyclical Rerum novarum [Of New Things] to emphasize Catholic social teaching against labor exploitation, especially of children, in the Industrial Revolution. The Dutch pastor-statesman Abraham Kuyper responded six months later with his speech The Problem of Poverty, which emphasized the dignity of work and said that laissez-faire capitalism and Marxist communism both lack a sufficient theology and ethic for upholding human dignity and society.

Theologians readdressed these issues after World War II. The World Council of Churches championed human rights and justice. Vatican II launched a “theology of laity” movement that helped lay people see their workplaces as venues for carrying out the “mission of whole people of God in the Church and in the World.” Catholic social teaching continues to emphasize worker rights. Liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest, wrote often about how Christians are formed in worship for their life in the world. That’s an abiding theme in the liturgical theology movement.

How do you categorize the goals of current movements focused on faith, work, and worship?

Everyone who writes about these topics has to pass through two gatekeepers: Pope John Paul II in Laborem exercens [Through Work] and Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work. But these important texts are from a 30,000-foot perspective. They don’t directly take up workers’ experiences, and few Protestant congregations use these texts in their discipleship ministries.

I broadly divide current movements into two groups: theology of work, and faith and work (or faith at work). For decades, R. Paul Stevens and Steven Garber have both given sustained theological attention to matters of work and vocation. Amy L. Sherman is prominent in the theology of work movement that helps workers and institutions think about their work as opportunities to better reflect a biblical worldview of shalom. She works closely with the international Theology of Work Project.

The faith and work movement helps people think about workplace ethics and workplace evangelism. Key leaders and institutions in the faith and work movement include David W. Miller, founder of the Princeton University Faith & Work Initiative, as well as Tom Nelson and Matt Rusten of Made to Flourish. These and related organizations all offer helpful resources to workers and churches. 

What’s an example of a faith and work conversation that might not connect with some workers?

Theologians, practitioners, and preachers sometimes use the language of calling and vocation to assure workers that their work has value. For example, Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, a sermon series turned into a book, is one of the finest expressions of faith and work. Keller was preaching largely to young, urban professionals, helping them deepen their vision of how to connect their work to God’s work. As a good pastor, Keller put their questions front and center in his writing.

But their questions are not every worker’s questions. For example, they don’t resonate with a good friend of mine who’s a nurse. He says, “I like Keller’s book, but I am not asking the questions he is asking. I know my work has value, but I just don’t like doing it. I have to stay in this job because my wife is a worship leader whose job doesn’t pay well.”

Where does the Worship for Workers movement fit in? 

You might contrast theology of work as more academic and faith and work as more for practitioners who are trying to remove false dichotomies between “spiritual” personal faith and “secular” daily work. Even those two movements don’t always talk together. The theology of work texts privilege dialogue within the scholarly guild over listening to the needs and questions of contemporary workers. And local churches often hold faith-and-work practitioners at arm’s length rather than integrate their content into worship practices. Liturgical theologians, for their part, frequently focus on the script and practices of the liturgy as central to formation, with no attention given to workers’ weekday work.

Philosopher James “Jamie” K. A. Smith writes, “If all of life is going to be worship, the sanctuary is the place where we learn how.” Matthew Kaemingk and I wrote Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy and resonate with Smith. We go on to argue that if the sanctuary is to be formative, then our daily life must be brought into worship. Our emphasis on worship for workers is facilitating an interdisciplinary conversation that takes workers’ experiences and questions as the starting point of theological reflection. 

How can churches help workers bring work into worship? 

Matt and I build on philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff’s idea of bringing trumpets of praise, tears of lament, and ashes of repentance from daily life into worship. We added the images of bringing petitions and fruits of harvest into worship. As God’s royal priests, we should never come into gathered worship empty-handed. We come as priestly representatives of our respective workplaces and communities offering up to God the fruits of creation. Using those categories can help preachers and worship planners start with where worshipers are, not where you think they should be. Churches that want to respond to real felt needs must deal with brokenness, injustice, hardship, and stress in daily life and work. Worship can express and address these felt needs through prayers, confessions, litanies, songs, artwork, sermons, and the sending.

Do all these conversations—theology of work, faith and work, Worship for Workers—apply mainly to people who have some agency and power in their careers?

Matt and I try to be self-aware of our contextual roots and their limitations. All theology is contextual; therefore, it is incumbent on theologians to engage in sustained dialogue with all parts of the body of Christ. In our book we engage in real conversations with people around the world and use sidebars, illustrations, and stories from different ethnic, ecumenical, and economic contexts. I did a Zoom training with pastors in West Africa to see if what we’re saying resonates in their context. They said it did, but it was embodied differently. They, too, deal with similar dichotomies between “the spiritual” and everyday work.

We’re planning a second book to help local churches recenter disciple making around the priesthood of all believers. But instead of using the Creation stories (Genesis 1 and 2) to focus on Christians’ daily work, as so many writers do, we recognize that work for most people is more like being in Egypt than Eden. Along with those enslaved in Pharaoh’s brick-making factory were the midwives who put their lives at risk to subvert the order to murder innocent babies. Other workers today feel as if they are working in places that resemble the liminality of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. For still other workers, their experience feels like working in an exiled land where they have to navigate how to faithfully conduct their work in ways that seek the shalom of the city in exile while not bowing the knee to Babylon’s gods.

So, what needs must worship address when workers feel unseen or dehumanized? 

Consider the story of Flor Martinez, whose job was disassembling chickens in a poultry packing facility in Texas. She and her coworkers cut chickens’ throats and disembowel the birds. Their daily tasks are designed to promote efficiency, and workers have to wear diapers or extra pants because they’re not allowed enough bathroom breaks. When Flor spoke out against these practices, she lost her job.

What does hope or “bread for today” look like in congregations with members like Flor? It’s important for worshipers to practice lament. Worship can help them maintain human dignity by reminding them that God hears and attends to oppressed people. Those with more agency in unjust workplaces need wisdom and courage like the Hebrew midwives to take risks and intervene or subvert in countercultural ways that God calls them to.

Where can churches find practical resources to help workers form faithfully?

The website Worship for Workers and The Porter’s Gate Worship for Workers album are great places to start. You’ll find confessions, prayers, litanies, art, praise elements, benedictions, and more connected to each song on the album. The website includes hundreds of liturgically edited original songs, worship ideas, and other related resources. Matt Kaemingk is the Worship for Workers program lead, and Katie Roelofs is the program director. They have a 2024 Vital Worship, Vital Preaching Teacher-Scholar Grant to create a handbook with very practical “how-to” advice for pastors, preachers, and worship leaders who want to implement vocationally conversant worship in their church’s worship practices.

Worship for Workers acknowledges that work is so much more than being a professional or having a 9-to-5 office job. God recognizes the labor of parents, grandparents, people looking for work, children and youth, and those who perform essential services for little pay or recognition.

Are there any other projects you’d like to mention?

Beginning in fall 2024, Calvin Seminary’s Institute for Mission, Church, & Culture will host small groups of pastors and leaders from local churches for a four-day seminar focusing on worship practices and discipleship formation that empower Christians for mission in their daily work. The seminar immerses participants in teachings on the priesthood of all believers from Scripture and from church history, leads them through experiential learning activities for pastor-congregant teams, and offers contemporary ministry models and stories. More information will be made available at


Read Cory B. Willson’s Reformed Worship article “The Heart of Worship.” Browse, use, adapt, or contribute to resources on the Worship for Workers website. Gather a group to read and discuss Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy.