August 31, 2015

Worship Education — Part II: Backdoor Worship Education

“You treated us like we were in kindergarten!” blurted Betty, the crusty older woman who had been a soprano in the choir I directed for many years.

After recovering from her barb, I realized she was right.

It was the mid 1980s, a season of significant worship transition in our denomination. A new hymnbook had just been published at the same time as contemporary praise and worship was beginning to bubble up everywhere. Our congregational leadership had decided that we would navigate these transitions by having a “hymn of the month,” which we would teach the first Sunday of the month and sing in each of the subsequent services. 

It was my month to teach. I had gone through our selection line by line in call-and-response fashion, and Betty was not pleased. I learned something important from Betty: using a worship service as a place to practice intentional worship education is a tricky dance, and one must honor the character of the dance in order to pull it off.

The Dance

This dance has two steps which exist in tension with one another. 

1. Worship requires education. Corporate worship is a multi-layered spiritual discipline, and all spiritual disciplines involve specific skills that one becomes more proficient in. Some of the skills required by corporate worship include:

  • allowing the songs and prayers of others to become one’s own songs and prayers (remembering that often these come from very different times and places).
  • offering one’s heart to be teachable by the Word and Spirit.
  • entering into the joys and struggles of being part of a community which includes people of different ages, temperaments, life situations and ethnicities who are in different seasons of life which range from rich contentment to deep despair. 
  • understanding the purpose of each dimension of worship so that one can enter into each one with intentionality. 

I could list more, but you get the idea. Just as a golfer must learn the skills involved to sink a 15 foot putt, so a worshiper is called to learn a set of skills that enable one to enter into worship. This requires intentional worship education.

2. Worship education is rarely explicit during the worship service. Instead, it comes through the “back door.” When Betty complained about my song teaching, she was not frustrated about being educated. She was frustrated with the explicit manner of the education. 

Explicit education treats the gathered community as students first and worshipers second. Students tend to adopt a posture of detached reflection that allows them to stand back and analyze. Worshipers seek to engage with all of their heart, embodying the call of Psalm 62: 8: “Pour out your hearts to him, you people, for God is our refuge.” 

The Backdoor

Backdoor education allows worshipers to be worshipers while also recognizing that we are always learning. It uses two principal educational methods:

1. Backdoor ed models healthy engagement with worship. Worship flows from the state of our heart, or, to use a similar phrase, the posture of our being. To worship in spirit and in truth (John 4: 24) leads us to worship in humility, integrity, repentance, emotional honesty, openness to community, and much more. When we who lead worship model such postures, these ways of being are “caught” by the worshiping community and it learns how to worship in spirit and in truth. Backdoor education happens. 

2. Backdoor ed sneaks tiny teaching moments into the flow of worship. There is also a surreptitiously sneaky dimension to backdoor worship education. Worship leaders learn to slip short phrases and sentences as they lead that almost “trick” the community into growing educationally (but in a good way, of course).

Imagine sentences like these being used during worship:

“The three verses of ‘Before the throne of God above’ contain allusions to more than 15 different Bible verses. What a gift of weaving Scripture into song!”

“What a joyful privilege it is to confess our sins to a Lord who overflows with grace. Please join me in a prayer of confession.”

“As we sing ‘Precious Lord, Take my Hand,’ I invite you to give thanks for the worship blessings we’ve received from the African-American community, and to pray for ongoing racial reconciliation.” 

“I invite you to receive the benediction as we prepare to leave this place of worship and, strengthened by the Lord’s blessing, continue to worship him in all that we are and do this coming week.” 

Imagine every worship service containing eight sentences like this. Imagine the cumulative effect of such backdoor education week after week, for five years. Imagine this backdoor education supplemented by explicit education that takes place in Sunday School, youth group, adult education groups, guides for family education at home, and a 4 week sermon series on worship that recurs every five years. 

I imagine that such intentionality would build capacity for a congregation to engage worship deeply. Thank you, Betty. You’re words stung at the time, but I learned a valuable lesson.