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Vocation as Liturgy

“God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.

Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful. Let the message about Christ completely fill your lives, while you use all your wisdom to teach and instruct each other. With thankful hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. Whatever you say or do should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, as you give thanks to God the Father because of him.”
-Colossians 3:12-17, NIV

Eugene Peterson, in his book, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, writes:

Vocational holiness, in deliberate opposition to career idolatry, is my subject. Personal holiness, the lifelong process by which our hearts and minds and bodies are conformed to Christ, is more often addressed.  But it is both possible and common to develop deep personal pieties that coexist alongside vocational idolatries without anyone noticing anything amiss. (p. 4)

In the same vein, Frederick Buechner, in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABCs, defines work as: “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need” (p. 95).  

The quotes are inspirational and poetic yet for many it seems out of touch and naïve in regards to how they understand (and live) work.  The naiveté comes not from the potentiality of Buechner’s truth claim but rather from the lack of developed understanding of work as anything other than something we simply must get through.  When one prods these frustrations they discover countless conversations of bewilderment and confusion from marketplace people, the majority of people in our congregations, regarding how what they do Monday through Friday has any continuity to what they experience Sunday morning.

For many marketplace people there is a divide between what we call “church” on Sunday morning and the lived out expression of church as people Monday through Saturday.  Whether this divide is intentional or not is up for discussion but the truth remains that many feel a disconnection between their faith and the demands of the marketplace. Amy Sherman, author of Kingdom Calling, explains:

The Church generally shies from the topic [of work], and our divinity schools and seminaries are no better. Fewer than 10 percent of regular churchgoers, surveys say, can remember the last time their pastor preached on the topic of work. When he or she did preach on work, inevitably the tone was critical—if not hostile—and painted all business people as greedy and uncaring. Seldom do pastors honor the work world as a place for parishioners to live out their high calling. Whether [they’re] a secretary or a CEO, people in the pews seldom hear from the pulpit that God has a plan that includes [their] work, and that [their] faith can help inform how [they] approach [their] work. (p. 93)

Such an approach is needed to help a majority of the Church understand how God wants to use their gifts and talents for the areas in which they spend most of their lives.  Sadly, many clergy do not understand the realities of most of their parishioners.  Even language like “clergy” and “parishioners” has reinforced this division defining some jobs as sacred, i.e., clergy, while others are secular, i.e., business.  Dorothy Sayers, renowned Christian poet, essayist and playwright, provocatively captured this in the early twentieth century:

In nothing has the Church so lost her hold on reality as in her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the secular work is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion. But is it astonishing? How can anyone remain interested in a religion that seems to have no concern with nine tenths of his life? The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables. (Creed or Chaos?, p. 139)

In the absence of any bridge (i.e., a call to make good tables) between work and faith, many marketplace people are left living a dichotomist life with faith and God on Sunday mornings and the real world Monday through Friday.  A gospel loaded with values and ideals implicitly valuable for the marketplace, is reduced to a message of simply do good, be kind, and help people; “not to be drunk.”  Or, for the revivalist marketplace people, it becomes evangelize the company so no one goes to hell.  While both groups do their best to live out the ways of Christ, both adopt a gospel message that is reductionist. This is why so many simply become secular humanists feeling that work is just something to get through.  They have not been taught or trained that God has a vocational call on each believer’s life and that this type of work is a gift from God to participate in his work in the world.  Thus it’s no surprise that the sad consequence is that some even believe that work is a curse—a product of the fall of humanity.

In his book, How Then Should We Work?: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work, Hugh Whelchel, Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, a biblical advocacy think tank in Washington, D.C., argues the contrary:

Work is not a curse but a gift from God. By our work we employ useful skills to glorify God and love our neighbors. Work is not a result of the Fall, although the Fall because of its curse made it inevitable that sometimes work would be frustrating and feel meaningless (Genesis 3:17-19). (p. 13)

A difference must be understood between work and toil or work and employment.  Since many experience a disconnection between faith and work, work simply gets reduced to getting through the work week or having a job simply for a paycheck.  These are practical realities but they miss the fulfillment and contentment that can come when one’s job and vocational call are in alignment.  

A product of the Protestant Reformation was that every job was understood as vocation. Luther’s understanding of vocation was consistent with his theological understanding of the priesthood of all believers—a belief to which all Protestant groups at least give mental assent.  But as the western world has become industrialized and secularized, this understanding of calling has created a vocational anxiety that has struggled to manifest a counter-witness to the often times dehumanizing effects of industrialization and mass labor. William Placher, the late professor of Humanities at Wabash College, comments:

Moreover, many people grow more nervous about identifying ‘vocation’ with ‘job’ or ‘career.’  An idea that seemed liberating to Luther’s contemporaries has come to seem to some more like a burden. Furthermore, even when we have learned to dismiss many of the ideas of Karl Marx, we can recognize that he had some valid points when he talked about ‘alienated labor’ in the modern world.  The shoemaker of several hundred years ago made shoes for friends and neighbors, and brought all the skills of a craft to making them well.  The modern assembly-line worker too often anonymously adds a particular bolt to a product for an unknown consumer, a task in which one cannot really excel.  The work does not seem to belong to the worker.  It is hard to feel pride in one’s work in such an ‘alienated’ situation, and thus somehow also hard to feel ‘called’ to such a job. (Callings, p. 8)

“Alienated labor,” to borrow Marx’s term, divorces vocation from job.  A workforce of marketplace people sitting in the pews or chairs on Sunday are struggling with how their role amongst the “labor” has anything to do with the kingdom of God.  Where vocation should help them understand how their call relates to employment or work, many Christians struggle to differentiate between ‘work’ and ‘toil.’  

This tension between work and toil speaks to a breakdown in language regarding vocation and employment.  The purpose of vocation is to unite each Christian to the grand mission of God as told through the metanarrative of Scripture.  Vocation is meant to bear witness to God by giving glory to him in the ordinary parts of our life.  Vocation takes the unique mix of gifts, skills, and talents God has designed in us and connects our ordinary lives with the extraordinary mission of Christ.  As Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, writes:

[The] doctrine of vocation encourages attention to each individual’s uniqueness, talents, and personality. These are valued as gifts from God, who creates and equips each person in a different way for the calling He has in mind for that person’s life. The doctrine of vocation undermines conformity, recognizes the unique value of every person, and celebrates human differences; but it sets these individuals into a community with other individuals, avoiding the privatizing self-centered narcissism of secular individualism. (Work, p. 511).

If the Church, as collective witness, is to take Witherington’s assessment seriously, we must agree with Whelchel that: “Vocation is ‘integral’ not ‘incidental’ to the mission of God” (p. 7). Vocation and work are constitutive of our larger witness.  To reinforce this understanding of work and vocation we must reexamine the orders and structures by which we worship. In other words, how does work shape our liturgy?

The word ‘liturgy’ is derived from a term in ancient Greek, leitourgia, which means ‘work of the people.’  Historically understood, liturgy has reminded the Church that worship is work.  As the gathered body assembles they are working together.  They are working towards greater understanding.  They are working together to lift praises and hymns to God.  They are working together to create a witness to the watching world.


This historically was the role the liturgy played for the Church.  The order of worship was meant to provide a pathway for the gathered body towards the presence of Christ; understood many times through the taking of the Eucharist.  The Eucharist developed a worldview that members were part of a larger entity called the ‘Church.’  The Eucharist was constitutive of what made the Church.  “Our vocational call,” Whelchel argues, “flows out of a sacrificially committed life transformed by the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 90).

The very symbol of Christ emptying himself (the Eucharist) flows into our vocational call.  “All we do is to be done from a heart filled with love for God. If our lives are not an expression of our love for him, they will express rebellion against him. That is simply our religious nature as God’s image bearers. All our cultural life is subject to Yahweh’s norms, and we are called to respond to him in obedience” (p. 89).

Our vocational call reminds us that, like the Eucharist, we are taken, we are blessed, we are broken, and we are given.  This Eucharistic understanding of vocation sees our Monday through Friday lives as not merely a means to an end—be it the weekend or the Sunday service. Rather, it is the context in which we live Eucharistically for the watching world.  This is our liturgy.

This liturgy, order of worship, of going and staying alongside a developed understanding of vocation is necessary for the Church to bear witness in the dominant culture that does not share our belief system and in a society in which the Church must find fresh ways of being faithful without political power.  “Vocational liturgy,” as I’ll call it, is essential for the Church to rediscover its voice in the marketplace.

  • Vocational liturgy (V.L.) is grounded in the mission of God.  
  • V.L. helps every believer see their gifts and call as part of the grand story that God is telling.  
  • V.L. allows the local church to live out worship 24/7.
  • V.L. expands the influence of the Church since western culture has often marginalized the once central voice the institutional church held.
  • V.L. establishes a credibility of witness and fosters a conversation of ideas.
  • V.L. fosters an ecclesiology that values congregants holistically, not just what they provide the institutional church.
  • V.L. reminds us that God is at work all around us and that his mission necessitates good marketplace leaders as much as good pastors.
  • V.L. creates a market for the gospel—it embeds the gospel message in the surrounding culture by bringing the good news into the classroom, factory, office, etc.

If the Church wants to change culture then empowering marketplace people to live out their vocational call will make it conversant with its surrounding culture and help it change and create culture with the surrounding town or city in which it resides.

Worship becomes more of a process than an event as the liturgy becomes more constitutive of God’s people and not only a celebration on Sunday morning.  The liturgy, lived out through vocation, fosters the witness of a gathered people who are also scattered throughout their neighborhoods. Vocational liturgy fosters a need to gather and scatter—we gather to celebrate and encourage one another and scatter to share and invest.


One comment on “Vocation as Liturgy

  1. tinamhunt says:

    So much relevance and challenge here. Something I will read again…and again.


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