Reclaiming “Vocation” in our Worship & Preaching

In his 1972 book, Working, Studs Turkel describes the search of all people who work for a level of meaning in their employment that transcends the actual monetary compensation they may receive for it.

It is a search, he writes, “for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” Turkel’s lengthy oral history then goes on to describe the failure of most people to find that meaning, that life, in or from their daily work.

Work. It’s such a huge part of our lives. As William Faulkner once observed, “You can’t eat for eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours a day — all you can do for eight hours is work.” And then Faulkner concludes, “Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.”

Work. No matter what we’re doing it’s important simply because we give so much of our time and ourselves to it. Which brings me to a question, a hunch, and a challenge.

A Question
First, the question: how much attention does your congregation give to recognizing and honoring the work of your people? There is profound theological justification for this in the Reformation doctrine of vocation that dares to assert that all labor done in faith is pleasing to God, as pleasing, in fact, as “spiritual” or “religious” work. There is, therefore, a holiness to ordinary, even mundane labor that has the potential to confer the kind of recognition and meaning that Turkel describes the average person as seeking.

But how often do we lift up the sanctity of daily labor in our congregations? Recently I had the chance to ask two elderly gentleman who had lived and worked all over the country — one spent his career in business, the other in politics — how frequently their pastors had lifted up their everyday work as pleasing to God and worthy of the church’s attention. “Never,” replied the first; “Once” replied the other.

A Hunch
Now the hunch: congregations that do not connect what happens on Sunday with the lives of their people throughout the week will slowly but surely die. Let me explain. The day when people go to church because their parents did has passed. “Church” is one more activity that competes with multiple others: sports, scouts, school activities, social clubs and volunteer associations, the list goes on.

Increasingly, people assess activities by what they gain from their participation. By way of recent example, a colleague of mine recently asked a fellow traveler on a major airline whether he goes to church. “Funny you should ask,” the surprised traveler responded. “My wife, our eight and ten year-old sons, and I recently sat down after dinner to talk about whether to still go to church. We decided that none of us get much out of it, so we’re not going anymore.”

Now, I know what you may be thinking: this is just one more bit of evidence that the pragmatic, uber-utilitarian spirit of the “what’s-in-it-for-me” generation is taking over America and we should resist caving in it! But hold on a second. Do we really believe that Sunday worship should not deeply affect and inform our everyday lives? Do we not, in fact, deny the authenticity of God’s call to all Christians to work for the health of their families, communities, and world through their daily labor when we rarely if ever connect what we do on Sundays with what our people are doing on Monday through Saturday?

I have sat in multiple “listening sessions” with every day Christians who time and again report a huge gap between their experience on Sunday and the rest of their lives. It’s like a huge chasm exists between the Church and “the real world” of family, work, volunteering, politics, commerce and the rest. Each week they traverse the thin bridge between these worlds, but over time more and more are asking whether it’s worth it.

It does not, of course, have to be this way. Each and every week, there are multiple opportunities in Sunday worship to highlight the calling of all Christians through their baptism to be God’s partners in sustaining and caring for this world that God loves so much. We exercise our baptismal calling in our volunteering, in our voting and other civic responsibilities (including both paying our taxes and making sure those taxes are spent well!), in our family responsibilities, and through our daily work at home, school, and our jobs. Seeing how God is at work in all these ways can at times be difficult, but it’s a whole lot easier if we have a community of faith encouraging us to look in the first place and offering help and support in doing so.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that vocation isn’t simply one “theme” among many that a congregation may emphasize. I’ve come to believe, in fact, that vocation is simultaneously the flip side of justification-by-faith (providing us an arena by which to live out of the grace and freedom we have experienced in Christ) and provides a logic for our worship and congregational life.

Each week we are drawn into worship

  • to confess the disappointments, confusions, and failures of the previous week,
  • to receive absolution and be encouraged in our lives of faith in the world,
  • to have our sense of calling clarified and deepened, and
  • to be commissioned and sent again into the world as God’s partners.
    In this way, the faithful are regularly gathered to the word and sent back out to the world, and this dynamic, weekly movement in and out, back and forth, between God’s church and God’s world is, at its best, the respiratory system of the body of Christ.

A Challenge
If this kind of lively emphasis on vocation characterizes your congregation and worship life, wonderful! If not, then here’s my challenge: Start now! There is no better time, when you think about it, than this coming Labor Day weekend to draw an emphasis on Christian vocation more deeply into your congregational life. And I don’t have in mind a one-off affair, but rather allowing Labor Day to kick off a renewed emphasis on God’s desire to use our everyday activities to create a more trust worthy world.

If you’re interested, here are a few possibilities:

  • Sermon: Not only can you preach on vocation Labor Day weekend, but you can you can do so regularly throughout the church year — you’ll be surprised how often the lectionary provides texts that speak to everyday circumstances And even when your whole sermon isn’t on vocation, you can life up our daily vocations as parent, sibling, co-worker, employee, citizen, and volunteer regularly. (And you’ll be amazed at how appreciative your parishioners will be when you do!)
  • Prayers: Make praying for the various vocations of your people a regular part of worship. There is no reason why at least one petition each week in the prayers of the church couldn’t be used to lift up one or more of the roles your people play in the world.
  • Commissioning: We often commission our Sunday School teachers. Why not include all educators and students in the fall, healthcare workers during flu season, politicians during elections or near the end of legislative terms, homemakers before the holidays, and so forth? It will be very important to be expansive in the vocations we lift up, making room for retirees, youth, those who are underemployed or unemployed but continue to contribute to the congregation, family, and community in multiple ways, and so forth. The point isn’t simply inclusivity for inclusivity’s sake, but rather to avoid lifting up some vocations as somehow more important than others.
  • Hymns: There are multiple hymns that celebrate God’s work in the world through God’s people. Find them and sing them.
  • Announcements and Benediction: In these moments of “communal address,” we have the chance highlight the work of people in our midst, announce upcoming opportunities for service, and send people forth with the confidence that what they do during the week matters to God. I’ve come to prefer, in this regard, putting the announcements just before the benediction — not only will everyone hear them, but they bring to the fore the various vocational arenas into which we are being sent to be God’s people in the world.

There are many other opportunities to lift up vocation in our worship life. Be creative. Talk with others congregational leaders. Talk with your people (preferably in their homes and places of work!). But more than anything else, give it a try. What, after all, do you have to lose, especially when you consider that what you might just gain is worship that really matters!