What I’m Learning About Teaching Worship: Pondering Best Practices // Part Two

Published on October 27, 2016 by Emily Andrews  

Here are some thoughts, practices, philosophies, and methods I’ve been pondering as I attempt to teach worship to college students well.

Which do I choose: Spiritual and intellectual, or heart and head, or faith and learning, or devotion and scholarship, or Sunday and Monday?

I was recently on a panel for a meeting of religion majors here at Samford who are considering seminary. I was struck by how often their questions were coming from a concern which maintains a polarity between these two sides. Students—from freshmen to seniors—were expressing questions related to this dichotomy. Many voiced worry, wanting to ensure that their seminary choice wouldn’t lead them too far down the “head” path, less they lose the “heart” of their faith.

This conversation reminded me of the task in my own classroom to help students bridge this gap. This is, in fact, connected to one of the primary challenges I have faced: students “love” worship, it’s their greatest “passion,” many have attested to having received a divine revelation about worship, about their leadership of it—ultimately it’s the means through which they access God! Teaching worship is not quite like teaching math or science, where students don’t normally come in thinking that they are the expert on the subject, nor do they often attest to encountering God’s presence therein. And this understanding, at least among our students, often leads them to understand all talk of worship as falling on the first side of these polarities, where it’s thought to “belong.” Helping students synthesize, apply, connect, and map their two worlds into one, holistic one is a primary task.

Balance cognitive, affective, and behavioral learning activities.

The best teaching and learning will engage the whole person. Again, this might seem obvious, and yet it’s not always the case that this is our practice—my own classroom included. Seeking to engage these three aspects—our knowing, being, and doing—is a critical part of helping students bridge some of the dichotomies noted above, seeing how the various parts fit into the whole. If we’re teaching them that worship should include the full, conscious, active participation of all worshipers, we should model this in the classroom. I think this informs the person we’re teaching—who is always a whole person.

Root learning in experience, participation, and observation—using ethnographic methods to teach and learn.

It’s especially important that we attend to the concrete practices of actual Christians at worship. Some more skilled than I have written on and modeled this task, so I won’t elaborate here. Put simply, there are many resources we can use to help students become better, more perceptive participants and observers of Christian worship. These experiences can expand our awareness to worship in its diversity and ground our discussions of theory and theology in the complex dynamics that occur every time real people gather to worship the triune God. If participant-observation is not always an option, case studies can also be useful, which has also led me to wish for access to more, better, and diverse case studies.

Create more opportunities for common worship experiences, followed by ample reflection.

Instructors of worship should make time to actually worship together with students—which can sometimes be a challenge, given how brief our contact time actually is. I’ve also discovered that it’s sometimes a challenge due to its “awkward” nature. We expect to go to church to worship or lead others in worship, sometimes with ample musical and technological resources. When I tell them we’re going to do this in the classroom, there’s always some odd looks at first, like, “We’re going to do that here?” This practice has the potential to address many of the points already noted. Providing ample opportunities for students to actually lead us and their peers in worship is a primary means of beginning to think more holistically, to have the chance to consider how all these different parts—our theology of worship, techniques and mechanics, the dynamics of our inner person and emotions, interpersonal skills, leadership of people, pastoral considerations—come together.

Common worship practices in the classroom can also help us move beyond the mechanics and technique more easily. When worship is a big task, when our only models emulate the grandest of congregations, we can sometimes be so caught up in the required logistics of facilitating worship in that context that we never get to those other levels—the deep structures, meaning, and significance of our gathering. By simplifying the performance as in a classroom, we can dig into all the levels of analysis, helping students become more perceptive by digging deeper, by making room to sustain our reflection on a particular level, perhaps a level they would normally gloss over, or be unaware of altogether.

Teach the student.

By this I mean remembering that we are teaching students first, human beings in all their complexity and particularity, rather than thinking of ourselves as first teaching a lesson, our course content, or our area of expertise. Honestly, this is easy to forget: I’ll spend all my time thinking about the information I want them to learn this day, or become overly engrossed in the techniques and mechanics of my own teaching, or even rely too much on bringing my own research into the classroom to the neglect of what they may actually need. I occasionally remind myself that I’m teaching students, people whose stories and backgrounds I’m trying to learn more intimately, and then letting that knowledge shape our class and time together. Trying to teach particular people, rather than canned lessons and content, is perhaps one of the most challenging parts of my course preparation. But in the end, I know from my own experiences as a student that this intentionality will lead to more rewarding and enriching learning encounters.