Isaac Wardell on Bringing Work into Worship
Daily work, paid and unpaid, consumes our lives, energy, and minds—even when we are in church. Here are ways to plan worship so people see themselves and their work as instruments of God.
Isaac Wardell is director for worship arts at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, and founder of The Porter’s Gate Worship Project, a sacred arts collective. In this edited conversation, Wardell talks about practical, relevant ways to plan sermons, prayers, vocational testimonies, and songs that connect work and worship.
Why should worship planners include the workaday world in worship?
Our church is committed to every aspect of a person’s life growing more and more into the image of Jesus. Our everyday work, whatever that may be, is one of our most important “schools” for growing in knowledge, obedience, and godliness. For many of us, however, what we learn of the gospel at church doesn’t seem to connect to what we do every day.
As a church, Trinity is serious about learning together how to make the most of our jobs, large or small, to bless our neighbors and take part in God’s mission to restore all things. An important first step is to recognize that people bring their work and vocation to church with them and would love to have that acknowledged. They have a powerful and emotional reaction to hearing their job and vocation named in church. It speaks to them deeply.
How do you bring work into worship at Trinity Presbyterian?
Over the course of a year, you will hear your job named in a sermon or prayers. One week you might hear, “Today we pray especially for people who work in healthcare—all aides, doctors, lab techs, nurses, and social workers . . .” Also, about every four to six weeks, we ask someone to do a vocational testimony.
How do you prepare people to do vocational testimonies?
We schedule our volunteers in twelve-week runs, although I sometimes reach out just two weeks ahead to someone whose story I know. We ask them to speak for three or four minutes on where they see the world’s consolations and desolations in their job and where they sense Jesus’s presence in their job. I ask each person to send me a draft so I can critique and help shorten it. The point is not to recount a trajectory of career success but to identify what God is showing, teaching, and doing in your work life.
Where in the worship service do you include vocational testimonies?
As in many churches, our worship follows a pattern of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. During the thanksgiving portion, we take an offering of money and offer something else, such as a musical offering or vocational testimony. We have a little call and response around the vocational testimony. The individual ends with “This is what the Lord has done in me,” and the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”
Which vocational testimonies do you especially remember?
Trinity has about a thousand people at each of two morning worship services, so people don’t always know each other. I recall an elder talking about his work as a hospice doctor. He is humble and mild-mannered, yet he talked very powerfully about what it’s like to work with people who are dying. His testimony revealed the depth of his compassion and made him feel more known as a person.
During a sermon series on Ephesians, we got into questions of race. The Charlottesville city manager, an African American, goes to our church. He talked about race as an African American and as a Christian, explaining what it’s like trying to run a city in a context of racist history. He spoke a couple of years before the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. He mentioned feeling surprised when a black woman told him how much she feared white people. In that conversation, God revealed to him that his degrees and position let him experience freedoms that many people don’t yet enjoy.
How else might you include work in your worship services?
At a 2017 Calvin Symposium on Worship discussion on connecting Sunday’s worship to Monday’s work, Matthew Kaemingk suggested doing more with commissioning services. It’s common to bring up the high school team that’s going to Mexico on a mission trip and pray for them. Why not bring the teachers forward in September or all the retail workers in late November and pray for them?
Implementing this quickly would be easier in a small church than in a giant church like ours. We have a committee that’s been working on this for about a year. We want to make sure we don’t miss any vocations represented in our community. We plan to have a sermon series on vocation and then start a regular practice of inviting people from specific categories (including those in unpaid work) to come forward for blessing and prayer.
Not everyone experiences their job as something God has called them to. How can worship connect with people who feel they have no choice but to remain in a job they hate, so they can pay the bills?
Fundamentally, calling is less about meaningful paid work and more about who is calling us. Jesus calls us more fully into the life of the world and invites us into his life. Sharing in Christ’s life is hard sometimes. In Philippians 3:10, the apostle Paul describes knowing Christ as not just experiencing the power of his resurrection but also as participating in Christ’s sufferings and becoming like him in death. Jesus knew what it was to feel humiliated and lonely in his calling. As the One through whom all things were created, he separated the sea from the dry land. Yet he also knew what it was like to wash the feet of people who might never thank or even like him.
What worship songs might pastorally care for people who don’t feel fulfilled at work?
Graham Kendrick’s popular “Knowing You (All I Once Held Dear)” asks to know Jesus in his suffering. A recent Porter’s Gate song, “Wood and Nails,” identifies with Jesus, a humble carpenter doing sweaty work down on his scarred hands and knees. It asks, “O show me how to work and praise, trusting that I am your instrument.” In another Porter’s Gate song, “Your Labor Is Not in Vain,” Jesus promises to be with us even when others seem not to know or care about us or our work.
The old hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” echoes Jesus’s Psalm 22-based lament. The nineteenth-century hymn “More About Jesus” asks the Holy Spirit’s help in knowing more about Jesus’s love, will, word, and kingdom so we experience communion with the Lord.
Listen to Work Songs, the first volume by Porter’s Gate. Read Every Job a Parable: What Walmart Greeters, Nurses, and Astronauts Tell Us about God by John Van Sloten. Check out Cardiphonia’s resources for worship and vocation.