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Teaching Worship as a Christian Practice: Musing on Practical Theology and Pedagogy in Seminaries and Church-Related Colleges

The teaching of Christian worship is a relatively new phenomenon at church-related colleges, seminaries, and divinity schools. Prior to 1965, there were no full-time professors of worship in any North American school, Protestant or Catholic. Worship was generally ignored in churchrelated college curricula and tucked way into preaching courses at seminaries and divinity schools. Today, in contrast, many of the 300 members of the North American Academy of Liturgy hold full-time teaching positions. The last forty years has also been a period of unprecedented liturgical change in most Christian traditions. The Liturgical Movement associated with Vatican II, Charismatic renewal, various forms of church growth, neo-confessionalism, and liberation theologies have each transformed the practices, criteria, personnel, and polity that shape congregational worship. These institutional and cultural changes make for a time of both instability and innovation in the teaching of worship.

In light of this ferment, I offer here some initial thoughts about how recent discussions of Christian practice might ser ve as a promising pedagogical foundation for courses on worship. It may seem a bit odd to develop my thoughts about this for a journal with such a wide ranging audience. But the issues involved in teaching worship bring together so many central concerns of Perspectives over the years: the relationship of faith and learning, the nature of learning and thinking in a post-enlightenment era, and the nature of the church, pastorate, liturgy and sacraments. I hope to benefit from the insights of readers with expertise in ver y different fields–from both the academy and from the church we are eager to ser ve. Indeed, the discipline of liturgical studies will be in a learning mode for a long time to come.

To begin, consider Christian worship to be an example of a larger category of “Christian practices.” 2 Even a short list of paradigmatic Christian practices might include such community activities as hospitality, forgiveness, discernment, and grieving with hope in the face of death. Worship is like these practices in responding to fundamental human needs, being practiced over time, and being an action of a community, not only of individuals. While they have a firm theological spine, Christian practices are not just “applied theology.” They arise at the meeting place of theological convictions, community life, historical wisdom, cultural context, and socioeconomic conditions. And they are so richly textured that they have been a magnet for serious study not just among so-called “practical theologians,” but also by biblical scholars, systematic and historical theologians, and scholars across the humanities (cultural anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and more)–a movement of sorts that gives rise to the phrase “turn to practice” that characterizes so many disciplines of late. At its best, this movement features teaching and writing that connects each area of traditional theological studies (Bible, history, theology, practice) and breaks down the tall–and sometimes destructive–walls that often separate them.

How would the teaching of Christian worship change if it were more firmly rooted in a theologically robust understanding of Christian practice?”


For one, it wouldn’t involve any less theology! In fact, one of the goals of practices-oriented pedagogy must be to expose the profound connections between the mechanics of liturgy in any culture and the theological commitments they reflect and shape.

Part of the educational challenge is to distinguish different levels or modes of liturgical discourse. I am grateful for an instructive experience I had near the beginning of my work as a liturgical choral conductor, hearing comments of four worshipers after a service in which my choir had participated. Table The first, obviously a veteran chorister or former drill sergeant, remarked: “That choir’s procession was as precise and symmetrical as any I have seen.” The second commented: “I loved the exuberance of that choir.” The third observed, as if discovering the logic of liturgy for the first time, “I couldn’t believe how all your music went so well with the scripture readings.” The fourth, in a noticeably reflective tone, added: “My husband died six months ago, and tonight through your music, I finally have been able to pray.” These comments each speak at very different levels. The first addresses matters of mechanics, the second matters of style, the third, the form of worship; only the fourth attempts to speak of worship’s deep meaning and purpose. A technique-driven course would focus mostly on worship’s mechanics and style. A theory-heavy course would focus mostly on worship’s meaning and purpose. An average course taught from a practices point of view would give some time to each. An exemplary course from a practices point of view would focus on the connections among these four modes and regularly demonstrate how to move easily and coherently among them.

For this to work, each mode of discourse needs to come into its own. Sustained reflection on both overarching theological themes (e.g., the priesthood of Christ) and discussions of tangible practices (e.g., how to distribute the elements of communion) should each feel at home. One of the strategies that I have found most helpful is that of juxtaposing particular moments in worship with either key theological themes or biblical texts. This method is reflected in Leanne Van Dyk’s A More Profound Alleluia: Worship and Theology in Harmony (Eerdmans, 2004), in which each chapter illustrates how particular liturgical moments (e.g., eucharist) both reflect and shape attitudes toward key doctrinal loci or themes (e.g., eschatology). Each chapter is followed by two hymn texts that are themselves liturgical documents, but that also speak memorably and evocatively about a given theological theme.

Oddly, the type of connection most in need of exploration is the connection of worship to God. It is, in fact, remarkable that so many books about worship say so little about God. It is relatively easy to write or teach about worship in ways that give exclusive attention to architecture, musical styles, prayer forms, vestments, and patterns of leadership but nothing about the God who is addressed in worship. This is a bit like speaking of a day on the beach without reference to sunshine.

Every semester my Asbury Seminary colleague Lester Ruth gives his students one overarching question for his introductory courses. Professor Ruth has taught entire semester courses based on questions like these:

  • “If Jesus Christ is truly and fully the incarnate God, what impact should that have on Christian worship?”
  • “If the gospel is a comprehensive story remembering God’s activity from beginning to end, what impact should this have on Christian worship?”
  • “If Christian worship forms us to be certain kinds of Christians, then what should our priorities in worship be?”
  • “If God is triune, does that make any difference in how we worship?”

These questions open courses on practices to the entire history of Christian theology, and make readings by Augustine and Aquinas, Bonhoeffer and Barth just as pertinent as any recently published worship manual. Without naming questions like these, we run the risk of perpetuating the impression that doctrine and practice are unrelated and that “practical theologians” are the second class citizens of any theology faculty. More significantly, we risk promoting worship practices that feature no awareness or expectation of God’s presence.

The Tangible and Quotidian

But this theological task is only one part of the challenge. The equally great danger is that courses will float above the reality of day-to-day Christian community living. To remedy this, worship classes need to attend to concrete, observable actions in both extra-ordinary and ordinary places.

Practices are things people do. Our study should not be limited merely to what people think about worship, how they think during worship, or whether or not they like what they are doing. A significant amount of energy should be reserved for encountering actual gestures, symbols, sermons, songs, images, and environments. Worship is a multi-sensory subject matter. This is why worship courses feature so many photographs, video-clips, and sound recordings of actual worship services. Worship faculty might require students to purchase a hymnal not only to analyze songs, but also to sing them. And students need to participate in worship, sometimes guided by the most savvy participant-observer methods our cultural anthropology colleagues can offer us, and sometime guided by their own intensive prior study of both the neighborhood and the liturgy of the congregation they visit.

One large temptation here is to give all our attention to the grandest congregations, such as Westminster Abbey, Brooklyn Tabernacle, or Willow Creek, to pick contrasting examples. This feels a bit like playing a video of LeBron James at a fifth grade basketball camp: it’s inspiring, but not necessarily the most helpful. Part of the move toward concreteness must also be a move into the ordinary. Practices-oriented teaching revels in the quotidian.

  It is, in fact, remarkable that so many books about worship say so little about God. This is a bit like speaking of a day on the beach without reference to sunshine.  It welcomes home-made family video recordings of baptism services along side highgloss, mass-marketed recordings of prominent congregations. Relatedly, practicesoriented teaching also needs clear-minded awareness of the social, cultural, and economic dimensions of liturgical practice. Practices-oriented worship professors are grateful for books like photojournalist Camilo Jose Vergara’s How the Other Half Worships (Rutgers University Press, 2005), which helps to rebalance our often gentrified Powerpoint presentations.

This is not to say that young basketball players should never watch LeBron videos or that worship students should never be asked to reflect on the grand drama of a papal funeral or a megachurch Easter pageant. Instead, what we need is the constant juxtaposition of the grand and the ordinary, the rich and the poor, the grand-among-the-poor and the ordinary-among-the-rich that helps students see that what is at stake in any liturgical performance can be instructive for refining both our approach to local, contextual ministry and our working understanding of the ecumenical breadth of the church.

An especially important form of attention to concrete practices is possible through the use of both historical and cross-cultural case studies, everything from liturgy in fourth century Jerusalem, Calvin’s Geneva, a late 19th century Pentecostal Holiness Church in Mississippi, and John Wimbers’ Vineyard Church of the late 1970s to post-Vatican II worship on the island of Samoa. Case studies expand our awareness of the diversity of ministry practices, ground theoretical discussions in the complex dynamics of everyday life, and train new skills for perceiving what is at stake in any given situation.

Case studies are especially adept at helping us see the whole context of a given situation. What Bennett Reimer says of music education applies to a lot of theological education: we give far too little attention to how the parts fit into the whole (A Philosophy of Music Education, Prentice Hall, 2002). Any good choir concert involves the coming together of technical skill, artistry, historical understanding, emotional maturity, theoretical analysis, marketing, an awareness of the audience, and managing nerves–a high form of kinesthetic intelligence. Worship services are no less complex.

This complexity also suggests why worship should be taught not just at seminaries, but also at church-related liberal arts colleges. Communal worship practices can be studied in many disciplines: art, music, dance, theater, communications, theology, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and economics (we’re still working on the connections with chemistry). Given this disciplinary range, and the echoes of these disciplines throughout the academic study of religion more generally, a religion department of church-related liberal arts colleges may be one of the best places from which to pursue the teaching of practices (easily a topic for full essay in itself).

Importantly, the goal of this interdisciplinary work is much more than mere description. The goal is to train perception, to equip students with significant and instructive questions with which they can habitually interrogate their own contemporary practice. The work of training perception has been explored in a particularly compelling way in Elliot Eisner’s The Educational Imagination (Prentice Hall, 2001). Though Eisner is writing about the perception of what happens in effective classrooms, his insights apply to any complex, interactive human endeavor that centers around matters of meaning and beauty. Eisner builds his perspective around the claim that “the paradigmatic use of qualitative inquiry is found in the arts”–especially the role of art critic. Following Ernest Cassiser, Eisner calls for a “binocular vision through complementary forms of inquiry” which together offer a kind of “depth perception” of a given reality, such as an effective classroom (or, I might add, a worship service). He suggests that effective critics must themselves become connoisseurs of a given event and then write in a way that invites those who are not yet connoisseurs to see deeply into the central significance of that event.

Of all the kinds of historical and crosscultural inquiry that might be helpful to the liturgical/practical theologian, the literature of art or music criticism presents a fascinating (and largely unexplored) model.

  A worship professor is not primarily interested in producing worship professors and liturgical critics but rather worshipers who participate in worship more fully, actively, and consciously as part of a vital, faithful Christian life.  I think of my colleagues in art history, for example, who read widely in intellectual and social history, and weave together the rich tapestry of themes from that reading while trying to help students see deeply into a painting that projected before them. While they may comment on the chemistry of the paints used, the techniques the artist used to render the work, and the social context of the artist, they ultimately are interested in disclosing what is beautiful or prophetic about that art work. They draw on economics, chemistry, and social history, but ultimately are interested in discussing the artwork as an artwork. Likewise, effective teaching of liturgy draws on every available type of data in order to understand a given case study, but then probes what is especially pastorally significant and instructive for faithful baptismal living.

Training for Participation

We teach in order to illuminate cruciform beauty we discover in other parts of the body of Christ, and then to foster deeper participation in it ourselves. A practices-oriented approach calls for transforming courses from being mere introductions to the discipline of liturgical studies into a kind of training camp for “full, conscious, active participation” in worship as part of faithful Christian communal life. In the past, many worship courses functioned as a kind of introduction to liturgical studies. Yet while introducing students to the vocabulary, methods, and key concepts in liturgical studies is a worthy goal, it is both possible and beneficial to aspire to more. A volleyball coach is not interested primarily in producing effective volleyball journalists or statisticians, but players. Likewise, a worship professor is not primarily interested in producing worship professors or liturgical critics but rather worshipers (and, in seminary teaching, pastors and worship leaders) who participate in worship more fully, actively, and consciously as part of a vital, faithful Christian life. College teaching remains committed to honing liberal arts habits of mind. Seminary teaching remains dedicated to equipping future pastors with key skills for leadership. Both, however, begin by seeing the learning process as a (rigorous) part of Christian discipleship.

The obvious danger here, readily apparent to most teaching faculty who read this, is that our students will think of such a course as merely a devotional exercise.

  Teaching worship is unlike the classroom training of prospective surgeons, where only rarely will students have been present at surgery in a conscious state prior to the class. It is more like training a golfer or singer who has already developed some persistent habits, however bad or good.  The easiest way to remedy that is by assigning challenging readings (of primary sources whenever possible), asking probing questions about historical and cross-cultural examples, and requiring significant engagement within the classroom and with local worshiping communities. In fact, the teaching I’ve been describing should lead to immensely challenging courses, chock full of cognitive content, and strong enough to prepare the best students in the course for further graduate study. The goal is to overcome the idea that devotional vitality and rigorous learning live in opposition–an opposition unwittingly promoted not only by devotional literature that lacks theological precision, but also by theological teaching and writing that avoids devotional engagement. (By comparison, I am grateful that my music history and theory teachers were just as interested in their students’ musicality as my performance instructors.)

The largest challenge in all this is that most students have participated in worship practices that have already formed their theological imaginations. These personal experiences are likely to be far more influential than any class in shaping their attitudes toward worship and habits of leadership. Teaching worship is unlike the classroom training of prospective surgeons, where only rarely will students have been present at surgery in a conscious state prior to the class. It is more like training a golfer or singer who has already developed some persistent habits, however good or bad. The effective golf coach or singing instructor begins by making their student aware of acquired habits, and then chooses one or two features of their swing or approach to singing to hone through physical exercises that reshape their muscle memory.

Thus, effective courses might begin by helping students perceive their past and current participation in worshiping communities at a deeper level. Asking students to name both “their favorite worship song” and “the song that has most nourished their faith” (only rarely are they the same) will help them re-frame their working categories of music. Asking students both “what is your favorite style of worship? ” and “what moments in worship have transformed your outlook on the Christian life? ” begins to detach instinctive preferences from deeper questions of formation.

In the Augustinian Tradition

To close, perhaps it is fitting that as I have worked on developing and honing these pedagogical moves, it has been an historical case study of richly textured practice that has most challenged me. Wise patristic pastors knew that an abstract sacramental theology would mean little to new Christians. One had to experience Eucharist to understand it. So Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose, and Augustine, among others, saved their mini-courses in sacramental theology until after Christians were baptized and shared in Easter Eucharist (see, for example, Craig Satterlee, Ambrose of Milan’s Mystagogical Preaching, Liturgical Press, 2002). This “mystagogical”–that is, “post-experience”–pedagogy as it is known offers some of the most profound models of teaching from the patristic period (and, yes, the M-word need not scare off Protestants). In fact, a good deal of Augustine’s pastoral and theological vigor can be better understood by seeing his life’s work in light of this pedagogical model.3

This practice-oriented pedagogy gives us a well-grounded model for pedagogy today at both colleges and seminaries. It is a picture of robust liturgical participation followed by rigorous theological reflection. It is a picture of profound theological depth, interdisciplinary rigor, and pastoral concern. It calls for leaving behind any vestige of Enlightenment-shaped theological pedagogy that is concerned merely with dispensing information so that we can pursue a vision of theological teaching, research, and learning as profoundly formative (indeed, how can theology be anything other than ‘practical’?). It honors and respects the interdisciplinary sophistication of recent religious studies, but harnesses that work for the sake of vital participation. It seeks to be a worthy steward of the best traditions of both seminary and liberal arts education, and is not shy about seeing this stewardship as a way to “grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”