Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Worship Education

As I am finishing a paper for a class, it struck me that it might be useful for me to put another part of that paper on the web.  This paper was for a class with Rev. Betty-Jo Middleton on Models in Religious Education.  It is a section of the larger paper I am completing for a class with Dr. Mark Hicks on an experiment with Worship Education at the Great Lakes Naval Station.  As I found it difficult to find resources on Worship Education in researching this project and paper, perhaps my putting this on the web will inspire others to write more. 

I approach the religious education model of worship education with certain pre-conceived notions, and I think it is best to state them openly at the beginning. First, I find it rare that, in a liberal faith tradition, a sermon should be educative as its primary goal. I disagree with Gabriel Moran, in his book Showing How that a sermon is a form of teaching. Perhaps this is true in more text-based traditions, but in my understanding of the sermon it is primarily an act of invocation and evocation. The sermon does not come into existence till it meshes with the heart and stories of each person listening. Both invocation and evocation have an important place in Worship Education, I question the role of the sermon in Worship Education.

I also bring to this discussion a belief that all activities of a church, from a class on sexuality to a board meeting, to a Sunday Morning Service should be set within a religious and worship container. This may be as simple as lighting a chalice and speaking words before a board meeting, to a RE class that incorporates chalice lighting and hymns in a regular RE “liturgy” that spans all age groups each Sunday.

In her book The Worship Workshop, Marcia McFee gives three ideas that all worship should encompass. She says “Worship is a time and place where we are inspired (to breathe in)” Secondly, “Worship is an opportunity to cast-off, or “expire” (to breathe out) those thing we do not need.” Thirdly, “Worship is also the experience of “con-spiring” with (to breathe with) the Spirit in determining our role.”

What McFee argues for is a new understanding of worship that takes in not only many different methods found in more modern or progressive forms of education, but also takes in the whole life of the church. Of the many examples she gives of what this kind of holistic worship might look like, she includes dramatic interpretation as worship, dance as worship, and even re-forming a more traditional workshop into a worship experience.

In one of her more creative ideas, she presents a changing church liturgy that mirrors the development of the Christian Church through its history, teaching the history of worship in the church not in a lecture, but through following those changes on different Sunday mornings.

However, what I found to be the most profound aspect of her work was the call to broaden the responsibility for worship within the congregation, not simply to a small team of “worship associates” supervised by the minister, but in such a way as to eventually include the entire congregation in preparing a dynamic and changing worship program. Her point that we have such a stable structure of protestant worship because it was all a single individual could manage, along with all of the other aspects of ministry is well founded, but it is also secondary. The real reason I would engage in such a broadening of the responsibility of worship is that the act of participating in the crafting of worship is in itself and educative experience. We learn more by doing than listening, and we learn more by leading than doing. Broadening the responsibility for worship to the whole congregation is to me an example of the “method is the message.”

On their website www.worshipeducationresources.com, a group of Christian musicians and worship leaders from Texas are working with Weyland University to expand the understanding of how music can be used as an educative tool in worship. While focused specifically on music, they do understand what they are doing as the beginning of a transformation in what worship means. They offer workshops for both musicians and worship leaders, in what seems to be creating a new vocation in music ministry.

As the above website and many others like it show, there is a language difficulty around the term “Worship Education”. The term is used in two distinct ways. The most common (and not the intention of this paper) is “worship education” is educating people about worship. Often this means trying to revitalize traditional worship patterns by teaching people more about them. Many congregations offer as a part of their new member programs classes called something like Worship Education, but when you delve even slightly into them, you realize this is more about indoctrination than any kind of co-creative worship experience. The overwhelming majority of material available under the title “Worship Education” is to educate about worship, not to educate through worship.

Even in the definition of the term that I am using in this paper (worship education as educating through worship) there is wide diversity. In a more text-based understanding of worship and the sermon, as presented by Gabriel Moran in Showing How or by Fred Craddock in Preaching, the sermon is primarily understood as educative in nature. In that understanding, all worship that approaches the sermon in this light could then be considered worship education.

Yet I question, in a non-text based tradition, the efficacy of preaching as a central aspect of Worship Education. In the book Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance by Christine M. Smith, preaching is a theological act for the preacher, and only secondarily so for the congregation. For the congregation it is primarily an act not of education, but of evocation. In the case of Rev. Smith, it is the evocation of the emotions and commitment of the congregation in opposition to the radical evils of the world.

The concept that I am circling around in my own understanding of worship education in the life of a church is not that we should radically transform the Sunday Morning Worship experience to be more like a workshop or a Religious Education class, but rather that we should transform the entire life of the congregation to be more like the Sunday morning worship. We should consciously look for ways to make all three aspects (invocation, evocation, and education) a part of not only Sunday morning worship but also of board meetings, covenant groups, and Religious Education. All three should be held in balance throughout the life of the church.

In Sunday morning worship, seeking to balance education with invocation and evocation might mean providing a space for dyad discussion after the sermon. In religious education, seeking to balance invocation with evocation and education might mean starting all of our classes with a chalice lighting and a prayer. In a board meeting, balancing evocation with education and invocation might mean having a structured exercise that calls upon members to listen deeply in dyads on an issue, and then reflect back to the group what they heard from their partner.

What Marcia McFee said about worship, I say about the entire life of the church. To paraphrase and translate for a Unitarian Universalist faith, she said that “There are no finer reasons to call God’s people together than for: Studying classics and scriptures, talking about our theology(ies), studying the history of our faith practices, exploring, evaluating, visioning, dialoguing, fellowshipping, and creating.

My vision of worship education is a model not just of doing worship, but of doing church as a whole. Whenever we come together, it should be for a balance of invocation, of evocation, and of education. The entirety of our congregational life should be worship education.
Works Cited

Craddock, Fred. Preaching Abingdon Press, Nashville. 1985

McFee, Marcia. The Worship Workshop Abingdon Press, Nashville. 2002.

Moran, Gabriel. Showing How: The Act of Teaching Trinity Press, Valley Forge PA. 1997.

Smith, Christine. Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville KY. 1992.

Worship Education Resources. www.worshipeducationresources.com (accessed March 3, 2009)

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