Cory Willson on Inhabiting the Liturgy
Maybe you feel like a bad Christian when you catch yourself thinking about work or weekday concerns during corporate worship. But doing so can help you worship more deeply and faithfully.
Cory Willson is Jake and Betsy Tuls Assistant Professor of Missiology and Missional Ministry and director of the Institute for Global Church Planting and Renewal at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is cofounding editor of the journal Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue. In this edited conversation, he talks about why and how you should think about your workweek during worship.
What’s the difference between bringing Sunday worship into weekday work or bringing work into worship?
When “faith and work” books and blogs speak of “connecting Sunday worship to Monday work,” they often mean overcoming the false dichotomy between individual Christians’ personal (private) faith and public lives. For example, James K.A. “Jamie” Smith writes,” If all of life is going to be worship, the sanctuary is the place where we learn how.” Smith focuses not simply on how preaching forms worldview, but, more specifically, on how Christian rituals embedded in the liturgy form our desires through embodied practices. Humans are what they love and worship. Going further, humans are liturgical creatures whose loves are formed by the constellations of their everyday rituals. I believe Smith’s fundamental view of the human person is spot on. His insight points those working in this area of faith and work to consider what discipleship looks like when we think about forming our loves, not just our minds.
Assuming Smith’s understanding of the human person, I spent six months in three churches trying to understand the experiences of Christians in corporate worship and weekday work. What I found was surprising and counterintuitive.
Of the 77 people I interviewed, those who gave faith-impacting-work illustrations talked most about practices that helped them bring their weekday experiences and emotions into corporate worship. Instead of stopping with a theological explanation of why their work matters to God, these people spoke personally, effortlessly and specifically about how they carried their workweek into Sunday. This dynamic impacted the way they inhabited worship and encountered God.
What have you found in your research about how people bring their work and lives into worship?
This was one of the more fruitful lines of inquiry in my interviews. When you ask a group of Christians about corporate worship’s role in their daily lives, you get a helpful window into their spirituality. Some described Sunday worship as a time to “refuel” after a tiring week. Others referred to worship as a time to be still. One woman put it this way, “Often, Sundays are the only time in my week when I am alone with my thoughts before God.” Still others said that, in corporate worship, they actively bring the week’s stresses and strains—as well as victories and successes—before God.
Conversely, I spoke with a significant number who felt that to truly engage in worship and focus on God, they must leave their weekday concerns at the sanctuary door. The implicit theology revealed in these comments reinforces the bifurcation of the Christian faith that many of us make between our private and public lives.
How might youth or adults think about their lives so that they can bring all of who they are into worship?
My research with these Christians taught me how to inhabit the liturgy of corporate worship more faithfully. Whereas I am often disconnected from my workweek emotions, I encountered Christian interviewees again and again who engage in the worship liturgy because of their mindfulness about their workweek. Several said they experience disconnection in worship while singing praise songs about God’s faithfulness and love and yet thinking about sufferings, injustices and violence in their workweek. This reinforced for them how much is at stake in liturgical practices and how desperately they need worship that helps them intercede for others and be reoriented to God.
Here I find Nicholas Wolterstorff’s work on liturgy helpful. He argues that Christian liturgy is not simply to form our spiritual lives. It serves a critical role in forming the church to serve God’s purposes in the world. As we gather, we bring the trumpets of praise, ashes of repentance and tears of lament on behalf of the world before God in worship. And, through the liturgy we are then nurtured in God’s story and can carry hope, strength and courage back to those people and places to which God has called us.
The interviews inspired me and my wife to rehearse the week’s trumpets, ashes, tears and petitions while driving to church. This practice prepares us to bring all of our life and experiences before God in corporate worship.
Imagine someone who attends a church that only includes praise in worship. How can that person inhabit the liturgy when worship doesn’t seem to make space for lament, silence, repentance or petition?
If the Psalms teach us anything about prayer and worship—and they teach us a lot!—they show there is no single scripted way to practice lament, praise or confession. Each psalm’s texture is unique, and, as we sit with these poem-prayers, we feel the emotional residue of the psalmist’s experiences of life and God. The Psalms offer lessons for how we can inhabit liturgical worship with God’s people.
Some lament psalms start by crying out their pain to God and pleading desperately for his intervention. The psalmic prayers often reach a turning point, a yielding to God through an act of trust and faith. Psalm 42 has this basic form. It begins with a cry to thirst for God’s presence (42:1-2) and ends with the words, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (42:11).
In contrast to this structure, Psalm 89 begins like a praise psalm. The first 37 verses recount God’s promises and faithfulness throughout generations. But the psalmist surprises us in verse 38, because the next 14 verses recall the promises of God and his powerful works of old—but use these truths as material for lament. Praise and lament coexist in the Psalms and train us to attend to both without letting one crowd out the other.
I believe that there is a teaching word for us in this. A lot of worship music focuses on praise in ways that can lead worshipers to crowd out lament. But need we be so passive as worshipers? Why not use the words of praise, as the psalmist does in Psalm 89, as material for lament? This helps us cry out for God to intervene, heed injustice and bring release from suffering. As we engage in worship with the trumpets of praise, ashes of confession and tears of lament active in our hearts and minds, we should feel free to creatively adapt our postures and petitions. After all, God calls us to present our lives as living sacrifices to him (Romans 12:1).
What might worship leaders do during the closing to help worshipers go out to display Christ’s relevance in their whole lives?
A friend of mine, Matthew Kaemingk is a theologian in the Pacific Northwest and has thought a lot about how corporate worship forms Christians for the workweek. He suggests that pastors pause before the benediction and invite people to think about the coming week. What have you scheduled? What do you worry about or hope for? Pastors might ask worshipers to pull out the calendar on their phones and pray over the coming week. The goal is to bring hopes, fears and cares before God. You ask for God’s presence to empower you and go before you. Whatever form this may take on any given Sunday will vary, but naming these events and emotions is an act of faith in a sovereign God who is “mindful of humans” as they serve him by caring for “the works of his hands” (Ps. 8:4, 6).
Explore resources from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship on faith and work. Read Cory Willson’s Reformed Worship reflection, “How Theology Can Ruin Your Prayer Life: How the Psalms Can Help.”