Theology and Work
Published by Cory Willson
Jake and Betsy Tuls Professor of Missiology, World Christianity, and Public Theology
In this recent video, institute director and Calvin Theological Seminary professor Cory B. Willson speaks on theology and work, reminding us that “God cares about not only redeeming his creation, but his creating purposes of seeing justice and flourishing develop throughout the world.”
Work, though it includes hardships in our fallen world, is—at its heart—good. The Genesis narrative places Adam and Eve in a garden, and places them as its caretakers. Work, therefore, is not just present at the very beginning of human existence, it predates human sin. When all was “good,” as God declares, work was there.
But how can we live out a theology of work as a good gift, even a calling, from God? And how does proper seminary training in the theology of work actually help the wider world?
For one, more and more laypeople—or congregants who work outside of the church and outside of ordained ministry—are coming to seminary. More and more believing “workers” in this world are rightly viewing their roles as architects, bankers, youth advocates, and zoologists, as part of God’s mission in this world.
By deepening their theological education, theology of work doesn’t just reside in the heads of these believers, but in their bones, as Willson and his contemporary Matthew Kaemingk explain in their book, Work and Worship. Once awakened to an embodied theology of work, Christ followers can’t help but live out the calling God has given them with wholehearted purpose.
Secondly, ordained clergy are ever seeking an understanding of theology of work that helps them to serve their community members of all vocations. In doing so, believers can practice being the church together rather than widening the perceived gap between the holy purpose of pastors and the seemingly ordinary tasks of the broader community of believers.
How does a pastor’s understanding of a right theology of work play out in a church setting? Willson and Kaemingk offer a powerful example in Work and Worship.:
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 pas- tor 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.Thereisevenachancethatshemightreadandremember 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.
Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson, Work and Worship, Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group © 2020 Used by permission.
In all work, and in all things, our creator desires glory and orchestrates redemption. May Christ followers continue to build communities that value the work of their members and encourage each other in continued service.
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