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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy,” by Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson

Published Wednesday, March 10, 2021 By Levi Bakerink

What happens on Sunday affects the rest of the week; or at least, it should. Too often, however, the doctrine of vocation and ‘all-of-life’ worship is little more than a theological exercise, lacking any practical application to workers’ lives. This divorce between Sunday worship and the workweek is what authors Kaemingk and Willson seek to address in their new book, Work and Worship. This endeavor is not simply a scholarly exercise, but a personal one. They detail the effects of this theological divorce from their own experience growing up in the church, stating “never once did we see our parents’ labors in the fields of the Lord recognized or blessed during gathered worship” (9, emphasis original). In response to this problem they propose the solution: not only must the church have a robust theology of work and worship, but these “theologies of work need to be practiced, embedded and embodied” in order that these divorced worlds of work and worship might be reconciled (4).

To that end, this book is divided into three sections: foundations, resources, and practices. In the first part, the authors lay the groundwork for their argument by describing the ways in which worship can both form and fail workers. Worship can form workers when the worship service accounts for the different stories that workers bring with them each Sunday. These stories are summarized as trumpets (stories of thanksgiving and praise), ashes (sin and rebellion), tears (heartbreak and lament), petitions (intercession), and fruit (offering). On the other hand, worship can and will fail workers when it does not take into account that “worshipers are also workers” (34). In order to prevent this misunderstanding, they distinguish two ways in which clergy can better understand the workers sitting in their pews. The first way is the pastoral act of listening to the workers’ stories described above. In doing so, clergy will realize that Monday through Saturday are not liturgically neutral, but in fact “workers are being liturgically formed (and deformed) all week long” (44). In addition to listening, clergy must also reflect on their theological understanding of work. Workers are integral to God’s mission—they belong to the priesthood of all believers. As such, one sees this mandate for work and worship first in Eden, where Adam and Eve were called to work and keep the garden. Thus, “Eden was the original site of fully integrated work and worship. The garden functioned as both a workplace and a temple” (53). Workers, therefore, must see themselves in light of this divine ordinance, and they need Sunday worship to help them. This first section carefully lays the foundation of the current problem and what is at stake if not addressed.

In the next and largest section of the book, the authors investigate the biblical and historical data concerning the integration of worship and work, both from Scripture and the early church. They begin by discussing the integrity of worship and work within each major section of the Hebrew Bible, collecting examples from the Pentateuch (ch. 5), the Psalms (ch. 6), and the Prophets (ch. 7). These chapters demonstrate that in ancient Israel a ‘theology of work’ was “deeply embedded, enacted, and embodied in its practices of worship” (88). This point is clearly seen from Israel’s beginning, as this nation’s newly created economy was experienced in direct juxtaposition to their slavery in Egypt. Whereas “Pharaoh’s economy of never-ending work, greed, oppression, and exhaustion was now a relic of their past,” Israel’s economy, in contrast, was to be ordered around a day of rest, in which laborers could actually celebrate their work instead of despising it (69). The sad reality from the laments of the Psalms and the warnings of the prophets, is that this integration of worship and work was not always successful. Indeed, “extracting the Israelites out of the Egyptians economy was one thing; extracting the Egyptian economy out of the Israelites was another thing entirely” (69).

Continuing their section on resources, they move to the early church, and make the helpful observation that the early church was born out of the Jewish religion. Thus, the impulse and desire for integrated work and worship in the Old Testament did not disappear with the advent and ascension of Christ, but rather its importance was heightened. The authors trace examples from biblical data (such as Acts 5 and 6) and early church accounts (such as the Didache) to demonstrate that the conduct of workers in their workplaces mattered greatly in corporate worship. In fact, ill-gotten and unjustly gained offerings were grounds to bar early church worshipers from the Lord’s Table, and sometimes from the community itself (151-152). The conclusion to this section is clear: God’s people (whether ancient Israel or the early church) were deeply concerned that their worshipers whom God has set apart as ‘holy’ were also holy workers. With its theology and practice, does the church demonstrate the same concern today? It is in answer to that question that the final section of the book turns.

In the final three chapters, the authors discuss ways the church today can reorient and reconnect its liturgy to the workers’ labors. Of primary consideration is the Lord’s Supper. As the pastor fences the table, how can workers examine themselves as workers? In what ways have they been unfaithful and unjust in their workplace, and how can the pastor can help guide workers in examining themselves in this way? As workers approach the Lord’s Table, likewise they are reminded that God’s economy is not like the world’s economy, for “the economy of the table forces rich and poor, high-tech and low-tech, into a single-file line” (200). As they receive the elements, workers are also reminded that, even after a busy week of providing goods and services for others, at this table they contribute nothing, but can only receive. Finally, with regards the welcome and the benediction, the gathering and scattering aspects of corporate worship, they discuss how pastors can shape their language, corporate prayers, and even their spaces, to better integrate workers and their stories into worship.

This book is a wonderful addition to the growing ‘faith and work’ movement, and Kaemingk and Willson deserve much praise for how they have advanced the conversation forward. Pastors, elders, worship leaders, and all those with a hand in crafting the worship service will benefit greatly from reading this book and reflecting on its challenges and recommendations. Many will find the discussion on the biblical and extrabiblical resources of immense value. Not only do these chapters handle the texts of Scripture with scholarly detail and great care, but intermixed throughout the book are an abundance of captivating, convicting, and intriguing examples of liturgies, prayers, and worship practices from the global church.            

The concluding chapters accomplish their stated goal; they are a helpful “lens” through which leaders can examine their current worship services with workers in mind (209). These chapters, and the book as a whole, is not a ‘how-to’ text for crafting a worship service; and does not intend to be. Instead, it provides a framework for pastors and church leaders to evaluate their services. It remains up to them to determine how the forms and circumstances of their worship can change to better incorporate the workers in their pews. If nothing else, readers will be unable to overlook the workers in their pews, and that in itself is a step in the right direction. This book will not be the end of the discussion, but it will be the standard text through which the conversation continues for many years to come.

Levi Bakerink (MDiv) is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a candidate for ordination in the PCA. He is currently serving as pastoral intern at All Saints Reformed Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA.

  • Levi Bakerink


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