Holy Worldliness

How The Early Church Integrated Work and Worship
by Lydia Rueger Shoaf

I once heard a pastor say that his parishioners would often comment on how hard it was to go to work in “Godless workplaces,” day after day. The pastor responded, “It’s not Godless, if you are there.” 

This pastor’s words came to mind—but I began thinking of their meaning in a different way—as I read Matthew Kaemingk’s book, Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy. In chapter 8, Kaemingk’s research on worship practices of the early church shows that “early Christian worship did not facilitate a worker’s escape from creation or daily work.” In fact, their practices show how they brought holiness to their work, instead trying to escape from it.

Worldly, but Holy

Second-century Christian worshippers gathered in one another’s homes for the communal meal, bringing products of their work, according to Kaemingk: “Women carry the body of Christ, kneaded on their rough-hewn kitchen tables and baked in their wood-fired ovens. Men carry the blood of Christ, grown in their fields, crushed in their presses, and stored in their cellars. Sailors carry their fish in from the harbor, their scales glistening in the sun…With their work in hand, they gather for worship. In one corner of the room a pile of extra clothing, coins, tools, food and other household items has grown to a significant size. After worship, the deacons will distribute the extra items, food, and crafts to the local poor.” 

While the exact structure of the early church’s service is unknown, a few things are: Everyone contributed to the gathering. It was a slice of real life; probably messy and not highly intellectual. It was worldly, but holy. 

The Kind of Work Mattered 

The early church welcomed the products of one’s labor in service to God, “however, the presence of unholy work and unholy workers in worship was another story entirely,” says Kaemingk. Dishonest business people or goods obtained from shady dealings were not well received. Acts 5:1-11 tells of the first reported corrupt offering, which ended in death.

They cared so much about this, that church leaders examined the career choices of candidates for baptism before they could participate. An early Christian document, containing the chapter “Concerning the Crafts and Professions,” outlined a list of prohibited careers associated with pretty much anything the church saw as dishonorable. And while people in modern society might raise an eyebrow at the laundry list of frowned-upon professions, Kaemingk sees greater purposes we can apply today: 

“Perverted work and holy worship cannot coexist. Life, labor, and liturgy need to be faithfully interwoven…What would it look like for contemporary pastors, elders, and small-group leaders to actually know the workers they disciple and the industries they engage? How might fellowship groups ‘be constant…with all care and with all diligence…to search out concerning the things that are given’? How might the community take seriously the ancient call to gather work into worship that is holy, just, and praiseworthy?” How might they, indeed.

Making Public Spaces Sacred

Though modern Christians typically view the church building as a “sacred space” and the marketplace as a “secular space,” this too, was another distinction that early Christians didn’t recognize. Following the age of Christian persecution, “entire congregations marched, sang, and prayed their way through the city squares and even around city walls,” says Kaemingk. In the Middle Ages, priests, alongside workers and children, prayed and chanted together through fields where crops grew. 

Most modern worshipers would find this uncomfortable, but as Kaemingk explains, “Christians needed to ensconce their own ways of engaging the spiritual, economic, and political life of the city…What we have here is a parade of workers asking Christ to bring renewal to the city’s markets, shops, and fields.” 

They saw this practice as a form of public service. Kaemingk believes that working people who are Christian “don’t need to invent a new marketplace spirituality to resist the gods of the market. They already have an ancient liturgy waiting to be rediscovered and reimagined.”

Bringing Ancient Practices to Modern Life

What will you reimagine for your career? Your workplace, the goods you produce, the people you oversee, the tasks you perform—they aren’t Godless by design, and because you are there.

But as work today has become less physical than in the past, how do we remain faithful to the integration of our work and worship? What might it look like to see the Sunday worship experience as less of an escape from our work, and more of a launching point for the work that God has called us to? 

Be inspired to learn what this can mean, and hear more from theologian and author Matthew Kaemingk at Work + Worship, June 16th and June 17th.

Join us June 16th and 17th for Work + Worship

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Lydia Rueger Shoaf

Lydia is an intern with Denver Institute for Faith & Work, and a freelance writer and editor.