July 31, 2015

Drills and Scales for Shaping Pastoral Imagination

Drills and Scales as Building Blocks

Every good soccer or basketball team does drills to practice basic skills. Every good pianist or saxophonist practices scales. Drills and scales are the building blocks of success any time our bodies and minds are involved in an activity we love.

Scales and drills shape how human nerves and muscles work together seamlessly in real time. They get us ready to respond to whatever a game or musical performance brings our way. They make doing the right thing instinctive, like second nature.

When the pressure is on and when nerves are frazzled, and it’s your turn to shoot a last second free throw or play a solo line, what a gift it is to know that your mind and your muscles have done it before, and they are primed to do it again.

The particular kind of drills and scales individuals or teams learn also points to something deeper, to the way that they aspire to play—the way they imagine the game to be. A fast-paced basketball team practices lightning-quick passing. A singer who wants to sing jazz practices smoothly slipping in and out of an unfolding jazz chord sequence.

With this in mind, here’s a question that can really matter for all of us who are passionate about shaping and leading worship: What kinds of drills or scales would be most fitting for worship planners and leaders?

Drills for Worship Leaders

Forget for a moment that many of us do not (yet) have or take time as we begin to shape a service for scales and drills. Just imagine what we might do if we did.

Here are possible drills for how we approach the Bible:

  • For any given text, find one that communicates the very same point, but in a different genre or from the other testament. Find another that uses contrasting imagery.
  • For any given text that is not a Psalm, find the Psalm that most appropriately fits it.

These drills teach us to think about how to imbed any given Bible text inside the whole of scripture. And these drills might open our eyes to a host of different texts that could be incorporated in any given service.

Here are a few drills about prayer:

  • Find 5 newspaper headlines and turn those into brief intercessory prayers.
  • Start with a theme (e.g., “the patience of God”), and name how it might shape quite different prayers: lament, confession, thanksgiving, intercession,

Done regularly, these drills would likely lead to worship services with a richer, more concrete, more wide-ranging, and more balanced diet of prayer.

Here are drills that focus on your worshiping community.

  • Go to your sanctuary or worship space when it’s not in use. Sit in 3 different seats, and name individuals who typically sit near there. Name 3 things that these individuals are likely to have on their heart and mind when they come to worship.
  • Walk around the outside of your church. Notice people who live, walk or drive by but who do not gather with your community. Identify one key reason why they might not yet join you.
  • Give yourselves 5 minutes to name 5 individuals whose gifts and talents may not have been used in worship recently.

With this kind of awareness fresh in our minds and hearts, we are much more likely to shape services out of pastoral love.

Just like drills and scales for athletes and musicians, these drills and scales say a lot about our pastoral aspirations for worship. They form us to grow in the direction of what we aspire to be. With this in mind, what drills and scales would you add?

Disciplined Pastoral Imagination

With that basic introduction in place, let’s take this one step deeper. In his writing on learning in the arts, Harvard philosopher V. A. Howard reflects on how drills and scales work (see his book Learning by All Means: Lessons from the Arts). He wryly notes how budding musicians can easily slip into one of two patterns:

  • Drudgery—where artists have lots of scales or drills, but with no imagination about why they are doing them. Howard calls this “a wistful wish to achieve high ends by fixed means.” Think of a child toiling away at piano scales with no clue why they matter.
  • Fantasy—lots of imagination, but no scales or drills to turn that imagination into to fruitful habits. Think of a child who dreams of playing jazz, but has no patience to learn the chords that make jazz music work. As Howard concludes, “Paradoxically, it takes a lot of thoughtful effort to learn to do something ‘without thinking.’“ (91)

I think most of us who have tried to be athletes or musicians know one or both of these experiences! And perhaps we can even recognize these tendencies in our shaping and leading of worship. The spiritual life, too, can oscillate between drudgery and fantasy.

Naming these two opposite problems helps Howard chart a middle way—where we embrace disciplines, but always remain aware of our aspiration for them. We take on habits, aware that habits can become the habitation of God’s Spirit to form us into Jesus’ disciples.

Howard adds this additional insight: when we both engage the imagination and work at thoughtful drills, each one produces growth in the other. Growth in drills helps us envision new artistic possibilities. Growth in vision suggests new approaches to drills and habits.

The more I reflect on the value of imagination-engaging drills and scales, the more I think we should prioritize developing them for our ministries of worship. What do you think?

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.