Join our mailing list

Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson on Work and Worship

Many of us feel guilty for thinking about work during gathered worship. We don’t see a connection between what we do in worship and what we do at work. But a new book on work and worship describes biblical worship practices that help workers reclaim their place in the priesthood of all believers.

Matthew Kaemingk teaches Christian ethics and is associate dean at Fuller Texas in Houston, Texas. Cory B. Willson teaches theology and missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Both have spent more than a decade researching, teaching, and writing about the divorce between paid work and worship in urban American contexts. In this edited conversation, they discuss their book Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy.

You state in your book’s introduction, “Modern Christians are living their lives in pieces, and the pieces are dying.” Can you give an example? 

MK: One person in my congregation is a mother, elder, and full-time employee of an international corporation. She’s a woman of deep faith, but she wrestles with how to connect these distinct worlds of family, church, and workplace. Left in separate pieces, her work, worship, and family life can all begin to decay. Our whole lives, our whole selves, must be brought before God in worship. We cannot check our past or coming week at the door. It’s spiritually damaging for this woman not to bring her struggles with work and family into the sanctuary. 

If Sunday worship is disconnected from our lives in the world, then it becomes an act of “spiritual pretend.” Workers often try their best not to think about work during worship, yet the vast majority of us do. And then we feel guilty for not “focusing on God and spiritual things.” This is absolutely wrong and damaging. We must bring our workplace confessions, sacrifices, and praises before God in worship.

CW: The integrity of worship is at stake. When worshipers experience disconnects between home, church, and work, then gathered worship also dies. If you don’t bring those parts of yourself into worship, then what happens in the sanctuary is irrelevant to your past week and your week ahead. 

One of our neighbors is an ultrasound technician for pregnant moms. Sometimes she has to give hard news, like maybe the baby has a heart defect. Sadly, she has come to expect that gathered worship on Sunday will have nothing to do with work experiences like this. Sunday morning becomes lonely and isolating. 

Many books on faith and work begin with a theology of work and expect people to apply theological ideas to their jobs. How does your book compare to that approach?

MK: We have tried to come at the problem of “faith and work” from a new angle. Rather than seeing theology as the metaphorical glue, we look at how the rhythms of worship—over years of practice—can slowly begin to bring our disparate lives of faith, work, and family together. 

CW: We build on the ideas of people who come before us in the faith and work movement. Those books lay a foundational worldview by answering questions such as whether your work matters to God or has a purpose. They assume that having the correct ideas will help workers connect Sunday’s worship to Monday’s work. But this workplace theology doesn’t address felt needs. Our book opens a conversation between workplace theology and worship studies. We offer worship practices to help workers bring their work into the sanctuary and practices to help worshipers gather and scatter.

Which Old Testament worship practices shaped how the people of Israel did their work?

MK: The Old Testament grounds both work and worship in creation, and Israel’s practices of gathered worship and scattered work were always meant to be woven together. After generations of slavery in Egypt, Israelites learned to practice an alternative economy that left behind the greed of Pharaoh. They learned to work restfully through a series of rituals, prayers, and feasts. They regularly offered their firstfruits to God. In worship, the work of the Israelites’ hands was central. Instead of the priest imparting information to the people in regularly scheduled services, the community would present their collective work to Yahweh. They could bring in the best of what they had raised or made—whether barley, wheat, sheep, birds, fruit, honey, oil, wine, beer, cakes, or other things. Work was central in worship. 

After presenting their work to Yahweh, workers would share their profits in community feasts that included servants, widows, priests, orphans, and foreigners. These worship feasts trained workers to think of work not as a way to enrich themselves but to glorify God and care for the land and the community.

CW: In the worship services that Matt describes, often you rehearse the Exodus narrative in a prayer (Deut. 26:1-11) before presenting your offering for the priest to set before the altar. “My father was a wandering Aramean. . . . Our people were brought out of oppression in Egypt into this land. . . .” This narrative shapes their ethical imagination for how they treat the land and the poor, how they live in society. It’s core to their identity. The flourishing and fruits of their work is all the result of God’s initial rescue.

Another Old Testament worship practice carries out from the sanctuary into the workplace. Deuteronomy 15:12–18 commands that when you set Hebrew servants free after six years, you shouldn’t send them off empty-handed. Send them off with the best of your flocks, grain, and resources, because you were slaves in Egypt, and God brought you out. 

In the early church, how did worship practices connect with people’s work lives? 

MK: We were shocked by how much we found in early Christian history that deeply connected work to worship. Early Christian worship often took place in homes. People would carry into worship fish they’d caught, bread they’d baked, clothing or crafts they’d made, money they’d earned. It was part of a communal celebration of God’s goodness. Elders and deacons would distribute these goods among the priests, prophets, and congregation, but also among the poor in their city. Some of the earliest prayers and liturgies include blessings for olives and cheese that worshipers had grown or made.

Furthermore, the church was very restrictive about the sorts of professions that could give an offering—nothing from hotel owners who watered down wine or from gladiators, prostitutes, or lawyers who were dishonest. If you bring work into worship that is stained by injustice, sin, or idolatry, you are dishonoring God and harming the integrity of the community. Early Christians did not think they were “doing God a favor” by offering their work in worship. They saw it as a gracious honor to be allowed to offer work in worship, a holy invitation to participate God’s economy and God’s great work. 

How did communion practices of the early church connect with people’s work lives?

MK: We found a fun little story from the sixth century about a woman who comes forward to take communion from Pope Gregory. He breaks a loaf, and she starts laughing. Why? She recognizes the bread as a small loaf that she baked in her mundane kitchen. Yet the pope is telling her, “This is the body of Christ.” The work of her hands has become the work of Christ. 

Early Christians understood communion as a beautiful exchange of gift and grace. God gives us creation, like soil, sun, and rain, to grow grain and grapes. We work with creation and give it back to God, like bread and wine. The work of our hands is broken, incomplete, not that great. Yet God graciously accepts the work of our hands. God blesses, breaks, and redeems it. And he gives our broken little work back to us as the body and blood of Christ. In consuming that grace and work of Jesus, we are sent out from the table to extend the work of grace to others.

Whom do you see as your audience for this book?

CW: We have three audiences. We want workers to understand that they are priests who can offer their work and worship to God. We want them to see their workplace as their holy parish. And when they gather for worship, they don’t come empty-handed. To use the language of philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, workers should carry into worship their trumpets of praise, ashes of repentance, tears of lament, and petitions from their workplace. They should intercede before God on behalf of their coworkers and workplaces. This priestly role of intercession is central to both worship and discipleship.

We hope our book will help pastors and worship leaders see themselves as servants to the priesthood of all believers. Their primary role in worship is to equip and empower believers to live out their priesthood at the front edge of God’s mission in the world: the workplace. 

We invite fellow scholars, theologians, and seminarians into the warm, messy, beautiful waters of doing scholarship that begins with workers’ needs, questions, hurts, and triumphs. Allow their questions to drive how you go about your theological task of mining history, theology, and scripture for resources that help empower the priesthood of all believers.

What first steps can you recommend to pastors and worship leaders who long to help worshipers reconnect their labor and liturgy?

CW: How you start worship is really important. In the first minute, it helps to say something like, “You have a lot on your mind and heart right now, including from work. This is the place to bring all that to God.” Any worship leader can start doing that next Sunday. It’s easy. 

MK: Any congregation can make small worship changes that greatly increase connections between work and worship. Many churches know how to send off missionaries or youth ministry teams. You have them stand up, you pray for them, and you commission them. So a wonderful first step is to do the same for workers. 

Many churches have a testimony time in worship. Although testimonies often focus on spiritual or personal transformations, you can easily create worship space for workers to offer testimonies about how God has moved and transformed their own vocations. Creating space in worship for workplace testimonies enlivens everyone’s imaginations for how workers are central to God’s mission. These are just a few of the many examples and practices we discuss in the book.

How might COVID-19 affect these first steps? 

CW: I don’t want to downplay the hurt of not being able to gather. But COVID gives us an opportunity to return to basic principles of gathered worship and its role in people’s lives. We’re used to being passive spectators or consumers when we view screens. We need to train people to be fully present in worship, even on Zoom, Facebook Live, or YouTube. 

COVID has led our family to interact more with our neighbors. We work from home, so we’re beginning to see our neighborhood as our parish. My wife and I used to talk on our drive to church about the trumpets, ashes, tears, and petitions we needed to bring into worship. Now we put those on sticky notes inside our house before Zoom worship. The Holy Spirit uses God’s Word to transform and encourage us as we minister to others, such as the neighbors whose baby has health challenges.

How might your book help worshipers even if their congregations don’t pay attention to work?

CW: Our book is also about how you enter into and inhabit a liturgy. Maybe you know it’s okay to carry fears about your job, health, and current politics into worship. But what if your church only does praise songs, never lament songs? You are not beholden to the scripted liturgy. You can sing those songs about how God is good and great because that is true. You can sing them in a spirit of biblical lament because that is also true. Lament always pushes on God’s promises to ask questions like why and how long, Lord? In fact, most worship leaders want worshipers to inhabit the liturgy. They want the acts of worship to serve people so they can have honest exchanges with God.


Read Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy. Visit the Work and Worship book website to read the foreword by Nicholas Wolterstorff. Register for the 2021 Calvin Symposium on Worship so you can join a livestreamed session with Matthew Kaemingk, Cory B. Willson, and Noel Snyder. Read edited conversations with Isaac Wardell about bringing work into worship and rethinking calling and vocation.