Theology That Works
A Feature Review of
Work and Worship:
Reconnecting our Labor and Liturgy
Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson
Paperback: Baker Academic, 2020
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Reviewed by Allen Stanton
Shortly before I started my previous pastorate, I spent some time listening to my soon-to-be congregants about what they liked and didn’t like about our small church. One comment in particular stuck out to me. The parishioner was talking about a beloved former pastor, who had been retired for about 5 years.
“He was a second career-pastor. He spent a career working in an office, and could really make his sermons relate to my work-week.”
I suspect the comment was directed a bit towards my age – I was 26, and 6 months removed from seminary. Aside from a brief stint in a think-tank, I had no career experience. But more than that, it was a plea. Please, don’t just get up there and lecture us about the New Testament. Make it connect to what we go through each week, even if you’ve never been in those shoes before.
I tried, hard. And, I probably failed.
It wasn’t from a lack of disinterest. I was and still am deeply interested in understanding how vocation, work, and faith all connect. I am passionate about reconciling our economic selves and our faithful selves. I want worship to highlight the holy in the midst of the mundane week, and help people make those connections for themselves as well.
For the most part, books on the theology of work and economic theology tend to be very ambitious and ethereal. They often muse about the corrupted systems of work in which we find ourselves, bemoan the way capitalism defines our ethic (rather than the other way around), and advocate for renewed economic systems. There are many interesting and important books in those categories. But, they say precious little about what happens when that theology intersects with the realities and life of local church.
All of this is why I was skeptical when I received my copy of Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy. I assumed that this book by Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson would be another tome to be tossed in the pile of “good and aspirational theology”, but woefully disconnected from the life of actual people.
I am happy to say that I was very wrong. Work and Worship is in fact the single best book I have read on rethinking our relationship between worship and work. In it, the authors seek to reconcile the professional and faithful lives of the congregation. Worship, they argue, is where that incarnational moment can happen. To help guide churches to the point where their worship becomes integrated with their work outside of worship, the authors organized their book into three parts. Part 1 explores theologies and practices of worship and how that impacts workers, both positively and negatively. In Part 2, the authors explore biblical and historical practices of integrating work and worship. Most of this section lingers in the Old Testament, with two chapters on work and discipleship in the early church. In Part 3, Work and Worship moves to practices that can help churches make this connection on their own.
The first standout feature of this book is that it is painfully real. It bears in mind that people have jobs that they enjoy and that are drudgery. It remembers that people are blue collar and white collar. It operates on the knowledge that people are formed within their work spaces, because those are the spaces where people spend most of their time. These authors understand that work, like the rest of creation, is both deeply flawed and steeped in sin, while also something that can be reconciled to God (13, 226-228).
That focus on reality is established at the outset of the book, where the authors state that their task is not to just set forth another theology of work. They are efficiently focused on how worship and work might be reconciled for followers of Christ. While they do explore a theology of work, it is not built systematically. Instead, their focus is on pulling theology out from the people, “taking the work of people…as its starting point for biblical and theological investigation” (11).
This brings me to the second major strength of the book, which is that Work and Worship decentralizes theology, moving it away from the clergy and ecclesial institution into the hands of the people. Throughout, the authors have clergy playing a facilitator role rather than a teaching or presiding one. There is no clericalism to be found here; just the opposite in fact. Ordinary people are “ordained in the priesthood of all believers,” and they have a role to play in the parish of their workplaces (230-231). Worship is not just about their theological instruction, and the church is not about programming opportunities to monopolize the lay person’s time. It is about preparing people to take their faith into every aspect of their lives. This is a point reinforced by numerous liturgies, prayers, and ideas for commissioning the people of the church to go out.
This emphasis on the work of the laity runs counter to much of what is taught in seminaries or in institutional settings. My professors in seminary would tout a clericalism, which prioritized the high status of the pastor, while diminishing the leadership of people in the pews. Denominations, in turn, prioritize attractional programs that draw volunteers in, rather than remember that people have jobs, passions, and interests that take place outside of the church walls. Work and Worship is the first book in mainline theology I’ve read that takes seriously the refrain of laypeople who say, “I’m tired after a long week of work.” Rather than guilting the laity to be more active, Work and Worship gives permission for the church to help people through the spiritual and physical exhaustion.
To be sure, there are some weaknesses in the book. At times, the authors default to an idea that vocations are always chosen. In a discourse on prohibited vocations in the Old Testament, leading to a question about preparing young people to choose their vocations. For many people in our society, securing a job is less about vocational discernment and more about economic demands. How does the church help those individuals think about vocation and work?
The authors also emphasize that they will be drawing from “global and rural worship communities” (11). Their notion of rural seems to be limited to an idealized notion of agrarian communities (which I would contend is the only idealized part of their effort). Given that, in the US, only about one-third of rural counties are dependent upon agriculture (and many of those large corporate farms), I wondered what lessons they might draw from mining and manufacturing communities.
There are a few other quibbles. Part 2 could have been shorter, and Part 3 longer. While they disdain the theory-praxis model, they more-or-less followed that same template. And, I did wonder whether including womanist theologies might be beneficial when developing a theology that begins in the lives of people. Still, this is a refreshing and useful book, and a great foundation for more work in this area. I look forward to returning to it many times in the future.
Rev. Allen T. Stanton is the executive director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College. He is the author of Reclaiming Rural (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), and his writings on faith-based rural economic and community development has appeared in numerous places, including Faith and Leadership and Practical Matters.
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