What makes a human being a human being? Is it that we are homo sapiens — sophisticated animals with the capacity for abstract reasoning and complex language? Or are we homo faber — creators of culture, builders of civilizations and empires?
Yes. No. Both.
It’s not that these characterizations of human beings are wrong, exactly, but they are incomplete. The biblical writers put the matter differently. One of the most fundamental insights of the Christian faith is that human beings are doxological creatures: we are made to worship. We can’t help it. So, the question is not whether we will worship, but rather what we will worship and how. According to the opening chapters of Genesis, human beings are priests before they are anything else. Here’s how theologian Alexander Schmemann puts it:
All rational, spiritual, and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in [the] capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. “Homo sapiens,” “homo faber” … yes, but, first of all, “homo adorans.” The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God.Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy
Another way to say it is that “worship in the Spirit and in truth is the highest act of a human being, the act in which we are most truly human.” As the Bible tells it, the prime way that humans fulfill their priestly duties is through their daily work. In both of the biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, the words for “worship” are vitally related to the words for “work.”
If that’s true, though, why doesn’t it feel like that? I won’t speak for you, but I don’t feel much like a priest when I’m sitting in traffic on my morning commute, when I’m changing my toddler’s diapers, or even as I type this essay on my computer. What happened to the grand biblical vision of Adam and Eve, the first high priests, reflecting the glory of God across the earth and summing up the inarticulate praise of creation and offering it back to God? How did work become so disconnected from worship?
If Alexander Schmemann and John Jefferson Davis aren’t your speed, we can glean the same insight from arguably the greatest theologians of the ‘80s, the hair-band Loverboy: “Everybody’s working for the weekend.”
How do we turn this around? Can we participate in Christian worship in such a way as to energize and sanctify our Monday-through-Friday? Is it possible to stop working for the weekend and start “weekending” for the work?
The One-hour Worship Week
I think so, but it’ll take unlearning some bad habits around work and worship. Why can’t we find a way to take Sunday into Monday? The problem, it seems to me, lies in a deep-seated and immensely stubborn misconception about the nature of worship.
This misconception is that “worship” is something we do only one hour per week on a Sunday morning (and, if we’re being honest, when we think of “worship,” we might have in mind the first fifteen minutes of service and the last ten). When we conceive of worship in such narrow terms, we unwittingly compartmentalize our lives into “sacred” and “secular”: Sunday morning is when we do our “spiritual” work; Monday through Friday is when we do our “ordinary” work. This dichotomized thinking is more poisonous than we realize. As Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson put it, “Poorly worded songs, prayers, and sermons can all divide a worker’s life into a series of compartments and competitions: church versus world, private versus public, spiritual versus material, faith versus work.” A one-hour worship week will not sustain us through a 40-hour work week.
That’s because malformed worship disintegrates the vital connection between work and worship. Rightly-formed worship — what Jesus calls “worship in Spirit and truth” (John 4:24) — is an orientation of life which is receptive to and reflective of God’s continuous redeeming action in the world. One word of caution here: while all work can be worshipful, work is not identical with worship. There is something absolutely unique that happens when God’s people assemble for corporate worship centered on Word and sacrament on the Lord’s Day. When believers are together in this way, they become the temple of the living God (1 Corinthians 3:16). We are not doing that when we sit in traffic, change diapers, or type essays, but it is possible for the Spirit of God to fill our offices and workshops just as he fills his temple. Corporate worship on Sunday is the training ground for active, priestly worship on Monday.
When Schmemann says that the most basic human work is priestcraft, he is drawing on a long line of Christian thinking stretching all the way back to Genesis 1 and 2. However, this idea was put most powerfully by the apostle Paul in Romans 12:1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Wait a second — are we the priests or the sacrifices?
Paul’s vision of Christian worship is one where the people of God, anointed as priests by the very Spirit of God, present themselves as sacrifices on the altar in response to God’s sacrifice of himself for the sake of the world. There are a couple of things we should notice here. First, Paul urges us to present our bodies to God, which suggests that worship is not something we do with our “souls” for an hour a week, but an action performed with the whole self, Sunday to Sunday and every day in between. This, says Paul, is our act of “spiritual worship,” which brings us to our second point. In the biblical imagination, “spirit” does not mean “non-material,” it means a material reality animated by spiritual things. In other words, Paul does not have in mind a disembodied, disincarnate act (as if such an act were even possible), but a bodily act empowered by the Spirit of God. Here’s how Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop writing at the end of the first century, explained it to one of the earliest Christian communities: “Even those things you do according to the flesh are spiritual, for you do all things in Jesus Christ.”
To do fleshly things in a spiritual way — now there’s a definition of worship that works for traffic jams, soggy diapers, and staring into screens.
 Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Yonkers, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2018), 22.
 John Jefferson Davis, Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 74.
 Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson, Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020), 27.
 Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians, ch. VIII, trans. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing, 1885).
Join in June for "Work + Worship."
Share this article
This post was published June 3, 2021
Ryan serves as theologian-in-residence for Denver Institute for Faith & Work, where he writes and teaches on the integration of faith and work. Alongside his work with Denver Institute, Ryan is an instructor in the Division of Christian Thought at Denver Seminary, where he teaches theology and the history of Christianity, and associate pastor at Foothills Fellowship Church in Littleton. He holds a Th.M. in ecclesiastical history and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Edinburgh. He has published in the areas of inter-religious dialogue, historical theology, and Christian ethics. Ryan lives with his wife, Adrienne, and their daughter in Lakewood. Most importantly, Ryan is a diehard fan of the Denver Nuggets—and he liked them even when they were terrible.