What I’m Learning About Teaching Worship: Pondering Best Practices // Part One
Here are some thoughts, practices, philosophies, and methods I’ve been pondering as I attempt to teach worship to college students well.
1. Theory and practice, or theology and technique?
I was recently reminded of this dichotomy at a recent conference for pastoral musicians. Several attendees, when asking me about the nature of our program here at Samford, kept referring to the technical aspects we’re teaching. And these were often further dichotomized into the stylistic polarities to which many of us have grown accustomed: Do you teach contemporary or traditional? Classical or pop? Choir or band? Piano skills or organ?
My typical answer? “Yes,” meaning, “both, and hopefully the places in-between.” We need both sides of this spectrum. We need students who can practice the mechanics and techniques of worship well. We also need students who can speak of worship’s deep meanings and purposes. Theological formation will be the key to this end. As someone trained in theology, I know I am biased, but I tend to see the theoretical or theological side more often neglected in the training of young people. They’re looking forward to the rehearsal, to leading the band and, ultimately, leading congregational song, but they aren’t so ready to talk about the theological foundations that undergird those practices. Sometimes this is due to the fact that we struggle to make the theoretical as engaging for students as the practical. I struggle with this feat. “When are we going to get to the music?!” some students ask, after spending much of the first month of their intro course constructing a theology of worship. So the aim here: creatively combining and balancing theory and practice in the teaching of worship in ways that draw students into both modes of knowing, doing, and being.
2. Engaging active, high-order thinking through various methods.
Research overwhelmingly suggests that we need more flipped classrooms, that students need to spend more classroom time on active, high-order, interactive reflection and engagement with the material. The traditional model often sees this high-order thinking as happening either before class time, often as part of their reading, or after class time, when students are working on assignments aiming to apply material learned in the classroom. Instead, let’s aim for that engagement in the classroom itself. For me, this has meant spending a lot more time thinking critically about the delivery of course content. It also has me constantly trying to place myself in the student’s shoes, remembering that they aren’t nearly as invested in this material as I am. I’m easily excited about the stuff I’m teaching; students don’t catch onto the hype quite as easily. So I’m constantly reflecting, How can I go about making the actual classroom time with them more vital, engaging, and meaningful? I’m currently aiming to include more discussion, immediate practice or use of content, having students teach others, case studies that require problem-solving, and much more group work, to name a few methods.
3. Playful teaching and learning—connecting student interests, practices, and experiences to course content
The more active methods will also end up making learning more playful, more fun. Here, I’m especially thinking of our need to creatively connect our content, what we want students to learn about worship theology and practice, to the student’s interests and experiences—their lives. How can we make teaching on Christian worship more connected to the lives and interests of our students? Some ideas:
using story and narrative
using anecdotes and short stories—especially my own personal anecdotes
incorporating books and movies as illustrations
a concept map. Specifically asking students to try and make interconnections of what we know, what we don’t know, connections across different classes they’re taking, connections between the classroom and their local congregation and its practices.
Basically the incorporation of popular media, which could include objects, websites, social media. These are media that I hope to engage more often in an attempt to make our learning more playful, more relevant, and more easily applied.
This is especially important since we’re learning about worship—which is an embodied event and practice. When we connect with students’ interests, practices, and experiences we help them see that, what evangelical liturgical scholar Robert Webber helped us see, worship is a verb. It’s something we do. Incorporating these media helps our learning about worship stay close to that reality.
4. Worship professor as student pastor—graciously meeting students where they are
In the past year I’ve been frequently reminded of how scary and confusing theological education can be, especially to a young college student. I’ve been reminded of my time as an undergraduate, when I was introduced to new biblical and theological concepts that left me thinking and feeling both excited and confused, inspired and drained. Faith learning, learning about our faith, can be overwhelming at times. If you are a minister or you have a natural pastoral bent, this point might seem obvious.
This means that part of the worship instructor’s task, especially for the young student, is to help the student become rooted in his or her specific tradition—even her specific congregation and its faith and practice—before emphasizing or forcing a stretch beyond that location. I’m certainly of the opinion that a good worship education will enable the student to transcend her specific liturgical, theological, and aesthetic location. I hope that the graduate of our program will lean into today’s liturgical landscape, learning to recognize and then move beyond their own limited particularities. But when we guide them to this, and to what extent, should be discerned pastorally.