Walking into a sanctuary, many workers feel like they’re visiting another world, a world quite detached from their world of work. Sitting in their pews, workers feel as if an increasingly wide chasm has opened up between the rituals they’re being asked to perform in the liturgy and the rituals they perform in their daily work.
Some contemporary workers have completely resigned themselves to this growing chasm. Some have even grown to appreciate it. They’re grateful for a liturgical escape, a chance to forget about the pressures and pains of work—even if just for a moment. In the sanctuary they find a spiritual haven from the cares of work and the world.
Other workers are deeply bothered by the growing chasm, haunted by a gnawing sense that the sanctuary is completely irrelevant—incapable of responding to the raw struggles, questions, and issues they face in the workplace. The chasm eats at them. They long for things to connect.
Through our research and experience working alongside pastors, professionals, and congregations on this issue of faith and work, we’ve become increasingly convinced that theologies of work need to be practiced, embedded and embodied in communities of worship. Theologies of work will never be sustainable if they remain theoretical. If my work truly matters to God, that theological assertion needs to be reflected in my community’s worship. Daily work should “show up” in the community’s prayers and sermons, its songs and benedictions, its testimonies and sacraments.
Theologies of work matter, but they need to be sung and prayed. We need to find ways for our theologies of work to inhabit more than our brains—they need to enter our bones.
Two Nurses, Two Pastors
Imagine, if you will, two nurses and two pastors. The first nurse comes to her pastor and shares stories of the highs and lows from her past year of work at the local hospital. She talks about her struggles with anxiety regarding her patients. She shares her workplace joys of accomplishment, healing, and blessing. She asks some difficult theological questions about illness, disability, and death. She shares some laments about the health-care system.
The first pastor responds by making a valiant attempt to answer her many difficult theological questions. He falters a bit (he’s never worked in health care). Running out of things to say, he gives the nurse a book about faith and work and looks up another on theology and health care. Finally, he lets her know that he will be leading a book club on faith and work in the spring. Perhaps she could invite her fellow nurses to come and hear him teach.
The second nurse goes to his pastor and offers the same reflections. He receives a very different response from her. Hearing him out, the second pastor makes no attempt to teach him about faith, work, or health care. This pastor offers no theological answers about death or disability. Instead, she listens and asks probing questions about the nurse’s work and his workplace joys and heartbreaks.
In closing, the pastor asks if she could meet with him and the five other nurses from their congregation for lunch at the hospital. Sitting around a small table in the hospital cafeteria, the pastor asks the nurses even more questions about their work. She wants to hear more about their victories and failures with their patients. She wants to hear more about their prayers for their colleagues and doctors, their challenges and frustrations of work on their specific floors. The pastor takes notes. She commends them, prays for them, and closes by inviting them to worship on Sunday morning rather than to a class.
That Sunday, during worship, the pastor asks the nurses to come forward. She asks the elders to lay their hands on them and she prays—not a generic prayer but one that she’s composed specifically for them. The prayer articulates the nurses’ vocational struggles, longings, praises, and pains to God— all those things they shared in the hospital cafeteria. The prayer asks for the Holy Spirit’s protection and power to go with the nurses as they return to the hospital the next day. Following the prayer, the congregation stands together and commissions the nurses. The pastor sends the nurses out with a blessing and a charge for their ministry to their patients.
Two nurses and two different pastoral responses. In the first encounter, church is largely understood as a place you go for theological “answers” about work. It is a place of theological training. However, in the second interaction, we find a different understanding of the church. It is not, first and foremost, a place for theological training or answers; instead, it is a place where workers can carry their workplace questions, pains, and praises to God in community. The church won’t always have answers for work, but it can provide a set of practices and a group of fellow workers who can bear the weight of work together—week after week.
There was nothing inherently wrong with the first pastor or his response. There is a chance that the nurse will remember (and perhaps even appreciate) the pastor’s class and his attempts to answer her theological questions about death and disability. There is even a chance that she might read and remember a few of the ideas from his books on faith, work, and health care.
But the second nurse? There is no possibility whatsoever that he will ever forget the day his entire church surrounded him, placed their hands on him, and prayed for his work. He will never forget that they carried the joys and the heartbreaks of his hospital, that they—as one—offered his career up to God’s sovereign grace. This is the power of worship.
Cory B. Willson (PhD, Vrije Universiteit and Fuller Theological Seminary) is Jake and Betsy Tuls Associate Professor of Missiology and Missional Ministry and directs the Institute for Global Church Planting and Renewal at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.