Why embodiment matters to the Christian in our work and worship

December 12, 2019

In recent years, there has been an explosion of conversations, books, and organizations focused on championing the deep value of our work. This is a good gift, one that, at its best, recaptures the goodness of creation and the wonder of embodiment. God has placed us in the world not as disconnected souls, but as people who taste and experience life and do our daily work through a dance of muscles, bones, blood, and neurons.

We are bodies and minds

We know that people need to be active and engaged in meaningful physical practices for the health of our bodies, but for mental and emotional health and even spiritual health, too. Embodiment helps us recognize our limits, paradoxically cultivating both true humility and a proper sense of self-worth as God’s handiwork.

In The World Beyond Your Head, philosopher Matthew B. Crawford describes the concept of the “jig,” which he defines as “a device or procedure that guides a repeated action by constraining the environment in such a way as to make the action go smoothly,” something that “reduces the degrees of freedom that are afforded by the environment. It stabilizes a process, and in doing so, lightens the burden of care” (p. 31).

Crawford reminds us that in today’s mediated world, “we often find ourselves isolated in a fog of choices” (p. 6). It has become necessary to “re-jig” our world with natural limits, finding “ways to recruit our surroundings for the sake of achieving our purposes” (p.33). Embodied, physical work itself functions in this way for our brains, helping us to keep our identity and grip on reality in spite of our tremendous, God-given capacity for imagination and intellection.  

For many of us, though, our work seems to resist embodiment—the largely nonphysical realms of writing and studying, or any number of jobs in an age of technology and automation. How do we overcome this? We can try to mitigate the effects through hobbies or exercise, but if most of our waking hours are spent in projects that are intellectual, physically inactive, and isolating from other people, simply adding activities to the periphery of our lives (where they’re most likely to be trimmed out in times of stress or heavy workloads) doesn’t seem to cut it. 

This isn’t a new problem. Today, though, many of the historical “jigs” that forced mental work to be more physical—schools and libraries for scholarship, newsrooms and printing presses for journalism, office buildings for service jobs, ink and paper for writing—have been pushed aside by more “efficient” digital competitors.

Embodied creativity

Particularly in creative fields, the ideal presented to us is an isolated genius, finding his authentic voice and sharing it with an eager, waiting public. But does this really reflect how human beings produce ideas and art?

Singer-songwriter Drew Holcomb recently shared with Rolling Stone magazine how he turned more to co-writing music after seasons of overcommitment (touring extensively and doing much of his songwriting alone) had damaged his physical health and left his creative well drying. What he found was that sharing this load with others actually produced work that was more personal and authentic in some ways than what he’d been able to create on his own. 

“‘They all really pushed me to do things a little differently,’ Holcomb says of his new record’s collaborators. ‘We were able to establish a dialogue about me and my story and the songs still came to a very personal spot. I write from the present moment; who I am and where I am in life.’”

Being limited by our bodies, our world, and our perceptions—and embracing those limitations—allows us to deepen our humility and collaboration gives us an even greater capacity to create and flourish.

Micah Fries, senior pastor of Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., practices collaborative creativity in ministry, co-writing sermons with the church’s pastoral team for the past three years, an idea he got from other pastors (specifically Kevin Ezell), that has become a ministry necessity as the church has grown. “Since we all preach the same messages [across multiple campuses and venues, each featuring live preaching] we have to prepare collaboratively,” Fries said.

Though doing sermon preparation this way takes longer, requires more lead-time, and challenges his team to be willing to submit to each other as they work together, Fries says the benefits are undeniable. “Our sermons are simply better. More eyes on the text means a better likelihood of interpreting it correctly. More minds thinking through application and illustrations make these more robust and representative.” Moreover, he says that in the communal nature of this style of sermon preparation his team grows closer together and learns from each other.

Being limited by our bodies, our world, and our perceptions—and embracing those limitations—allows us to deepen our humility and collaboration gives us an even greater capacity to create and flourish. God’s image in each of us is more fully expressed as we share together in the work he sets before: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor” (Ecc. 4:9).

Collaborative worship

Maybe this is why God poured the most intellectual, spiritual, and imaginative activity of all—knowing and relating to a him—into bodies. He doesn’t simply declare the gospel in a booming voice from the clouds, but comes to us as an incarnate Messiah, fully embodied and sharing in our limitations and sufferings, even unto death. He calls us to fellowship with him amid a gathered community of followers who engage in very physical expressions (the bread and the cup, the water of baptism, the breath of singing, hands and feet to serve others) of the spiritual realities he wants us to meditate on forever.

In this way, our worship and our work are brought together, body and soul crying out with Moses, “May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands” (Ps. 90:17). 

So how can we put the call to embodied co-laboring into practice in our lives and ministries? 

Here are a few suggestions:

As we seek to live out our callings through the physical community and means that the Lord has provided for us, may he grow us spiritually and give us a greater appreciation for our incarnate Savior. 

Justin Lonas

Justin Lonas serves as editorial and content specialist for the Chalmers Center at Covenant College. He is also an M.Div. student at Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta. Read More