Reflections on Teaching My Worship Class

Zac HicksWorship & Mission, Worship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Resources, Worship Theology & Thought1 Comment

Last week, I was blessed to have a packed classroom full of thoughtful, engaged students. My aim with this week-long intensive Worship course at Knox Seminary was not to solve all the problems but to place these present and future worship leaders and pastors on some healthy trajectories. We spent a LOT of time in the Scriptures, but we also needed to ask important questions about how we read the Scriptures, because ones understanding of interpretation (hermeneutics)–especially that of the Old Testament–shapes ones sense of what parts of the Bible are applicable to worship now. We asked important questions about the Christ-centered nature of worship, through the lens of Trinitarian theology, Old Testament worship practices, and a Reformational anthropology strongly connected to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And we did all that while moving up and down the “abstraction ladder,” making sure we weren’t staying in ivory tower for too long without asking concretely how what we were studying applied to our given worship contexts. We laughed, stood in awe, and wept. We gained some new convictions and solidified some old ones. From my perspective, it was a huge success. I’d like to share, with a little more detail, some of what we went through, including readings and key insights.

Textbooks Used

The following texts were read by students beforehand to prepare for the class.

Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014). 

  • Entire book – 360 pages.
  • ISBN# 0801026989  |  Amazon

Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009).

  • Part 1 (pp. 15-155) – 140 pages.
  • ISBN# 0801036402  |  Amazon

Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).

  • Chapters 7, 8, 9, & 10 (pp. 89-132) – 43 pages.
  • ISBN# 0310494184  | Amazon  

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, & Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001).

  • Entire book – 230 pages.
  • ISBN# 0801035775  |  Amazon

James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, & the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997).

  • Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2 (pp. 13-67) – 54 pages.
  • ISBN# 0830818952  |  Amazon

Along with portions of my forthcoming book, a critical article also explored was:

Michael A. Farley, “What is ‘Biblical’ Worship? Biblical Hermeneutics and Evangelical Theologies of Worship,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51, no. 3 (Sept 2008): 591-613.

  • 22 pages.
  • (Free online PDF

Day 1 – A Biblical Theology of Worship (I)

We began by examining the major Greek and Hebrew words for “worship,” listening to Block’s helpful categorization of them in three large groups of expression–attitude/disposition, physical, and cultic/liturgical. Against the broad backdrop painted by these worship words, we applied the language to the typically stunted ways we tend to use the the word “worship,” allowing the biblical language to expand our imaginations. We then examined passages of Scripture that helped us to see some of the Bible’s most broad governing thoughts about worship: (a) that corporate worship is a dialogue between God and His people, characterized by cycles of revelation and response; (b) that God is the proper object of worship, worthy because of who He is and what He does (and has done); (c) that we are worship’s subject, called to offer a response of adoration, thanksgiving, devotion, etc. to God.

However, we camped longer on (c) to expose the incompleteness of Block’s assessment of worship’s subject, and for this we walked through various pages and statements of Torrance’s work. What we learned is that a proper Trinitarian understanding of God yields Him as both object and subject of worship. In other words, worship’s subject is not us, first and foremost, but the living High Priest, Jesus Christ, who offers up perfect worship to God the Father. By the Spirit, we all worship in Christ, echoing His prayers and praises after Him. This Gospel of worship’s true Subject is a crucial element for understanding the role of worshipers and worship leaders. We engaged an in-class reading from church father Basil the Great as we examined John 4’s statement about worship being done “in Spirit and in Truth,” determining that this statement was nothing short of a Trinitarian read on what we had already discussed.

Day 2 – A Biblical Theology of Worship (II)

At the beginning of the second day, we took a step back from Scriptural examination to ask a critical question explored by Farley in his article: How are we reading the Bible to determine our theology of worship? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not simple, as Farley exposes.

We started the day by looking at the Reformed “Regulative Principle for Worship” (RPW) alongside the other major Reformational view, the Normative Principle (NP). We examined the debate between the RPW and the NP in its historical context during and in the generations after the Reformation, looking at the language and interpretation of the Westminster Confession of Faith and catechisms. We observed a spectrum within the Reformed tradition of how to understand the RPW, from the more “tight” interpretation by thinkers like D. G. Hart and G. I. Williamson to more “loose” interpretations by authors such as John Frame and R. J. Gore.

We then turned to Farley to understand the hermeneutical problems that are a part of determining a theology of worship. With Farley, we concluded that the Old Testament was often way too underutilized by evangelical interpreters. We made a case for a Christo-centric interpretation of Old Testament practices and forms for the New Testament church.

We turned, then, to the New Testament, to look at the typical passages that help us determine the “non-negotiable” elements of New Testament worship…things like Word, sacrament, singing, prayers, offering, etc. We determined, though, that the New Testament voice didn’t offer the full story of how the Bible not only guides the elements of worship, but its structure.

We then walked through various Old Testament passages which exposed a consistent pattern of how the people of God approached Him, both individually and corporately, throughout salvation history, weaving in some insights from Block, Chapell, and Allen Ross. This consistent pattern, we determined, was strikingly similar to the shape that most historic liturgies of the Christian church took. We determined that the Scriptures offer general guidelines for worship structure that many of us have ignored or not fully seen…ultimately a worship structure that allows the church to encounter God in a Christ-mediated (not merely Christ-centered) fashion.

Day 3 – A Biblical Theology of Worship (III); Worship & Mission

On the third day, after reviewing the pattern of worship explored in day two, we sought to apply this pattern to various traditional and contemporary worship structures to see how a Christ-mediated worship structure could look through the lens of many different ways of worshiping–the Praise & Worship model, the Vineyard/Charismatic model, the historic liturgical (Word & Table) model, etc.–and I offered some “hybrid” options, like what I call a “Reformational Charismatic” model. We briefly touched on the perspective of worship-shapers like the Calvary Chapel movement, John Wimber, and Robert Webber.

At this point, we moved on from talking about the elements and structure of worship and into exploring worship’s “grammar.” We were interested in how we construct the words we use to talk to God and respond to Him in the worship service, peering particularly into the practices of the Reformers in this regard. We laid the foundation for this discussion by exploring three key Reformational anthropological insights: (a) simul justus et peccator; (b) the Old Adam; (c) incurvatus in se. We then looked at how one Reformer, Thomas Cranmer, used these insights as a kind of grid through which to sift the received liturgy, straining out works-righteousness from the grammar of worship through the way he edited worship’s prayers. After this, we entertained an exercise where we examined, with this “Cranmerian eye,” the words of popular worship songs, to work the muscles that would make us sensitive to what the Reformers were sensitive to. We concluded that if we are to take seriously the doctrine of justification by faith alone, we need to allow it to inform worship’s grammar in the way the Reformers did.

Briefly after this, we turned back to the Christ-mediated, gospel-shaped worship patterns we previously explored and then looked at this pattern in light of an annual worship calendar. We explored the Old Testament annual cycles of feasts and festivals and then turned to John 5-10 to see how Jesus was proclaiming Himself the fulfillment of them. We determined that some kind of Christian calendar year may be warranted, even encouraged, by the Scriptures. We looked at the broad seasons of the Christian year and saw how they offer to the church a way of engaging the gospel story not only in a weekly fashion, but in an annual one.

We spent the remainder of the day exploring the topic of Worship and Mission, observing that they are too often separated in ecclesiological conversations. We determined, with the help of Jean-Jacques von Allmen, that Scripture sees worship and mission existing in symbiotic (mutually life-giving) relationship. They are both inherent in the Trinitarian life, and they are therefore part of the DNA (not departmental add-ons) of every local church. We asked the question of what contextualization of worship practices looks like, weaving in insights from Keller. We determined that contextualization involves perpetual three-way listening–to Scripture, to the Great Tradition, and to our local context–and when we listen in this way, we are engaging in the work of the Holy Spirit in and through all three (though most clearly and definitively in Scripture).

Day 4 – Philosophy of Worship; Worship & Formation; Architectural & Aesthetic Formation

Utilizing portions of my book, we began the fourth day by discussing the central questions we need to answer in forming our own philosophy of worship. The goal was to set the students on a trajectory to develop a succinct philosophy of worship statement that would be useful in formulating vision for their local church as well as entertaining various job opportunities as pastors and worship leaders.

We then moved on to an extended discussion of worship and formation. We walked through Smith’s (maybe now classic?) treatment of affectively oriented anthropology and “cultural liturgies.” After summarizing Smith, we brought in two other voices to round out the discussion, open-endedly, about important additional insights about how biblical change, growth, and formation works. We turned to a debate between Aristotle and the Reformers (particularly Luther and Melanchthon) about formation through habit, true change, and the bondage of the will. We read portions of Aristotle’s Ethics and Melanchthon’s Loci Communes to hear their voices in their contexts. Not necessarily solving all the problems, we did determine that habitual formation can only go so far before we need to reckon with the reality that “inside-out” change is only really possible when begun in the heart as a divine gift of transformational grace bestowed upon us by the Spirit through the work of the the Son. We concluded that formation must be thought about “within” this Gospel-centered structure for it to be truly formational in a positive, lasting direction.

We ended the day by talking about how architecture and other aesthetics shape and form people. We discussed, using diagrams provided by Block, the benefits and liabilities of different kinds of worship spaces and configurations. We walked through Coral Ridge as a test case, noting the pluses and minuses of a worship space like that.

Day 5 – Exam & Paper

The last day was reserved for an exam. My goal with the exam was to review the students’ apprehension of the most important points, not nit pick the details. After the course, the students will be working on a paper due to me within the month. The paper includes their articulation of a philosophy of worship, their appraisal of the service structure and contents in their own local church, a “Cranmerian” analysis of a few worship songs in their local church. The final part of the paper is reserved for reflections on areas for pastoral growth for these future pastors and worship leaders.

Things I Learned

1) Teaching intensive courses is exhausting, intellectually and emotionally.

2) Teaching on worship is enriched when you get pastors and worship leaders in the same room. One of the blessings of this class was that the existing and future pastors in the room were forced to reckon with the voices and perspectives of worship leaders, who always see things from a slightly different angle. And, it was helpful for the worship leaders in the room to see these pastors wrestling through the issues from their perspective. And the fact that I am both an ordained minister and a worship leader means that I was able to help build those bridges and broker those discussions. I get both sides; I live in those tensions.

3) Teaching forces you to grapple with issues more deeply. When you have to teach something, you’re often forced to pursue ideas further down the thought-path than you would in, say, the blogosphere. Students don’t let you off the hook. They ask incisive questions and won’t let you leave stones unturned. This is healthy, sharpening, but sometimes uncomfortable. And I’m grateful for it.

4) Teaching is nearly equal parts planning and improvisation. The most dynamic classrooms I’ve experienced have been the ones where the professor had a script, but knew how to jam on themes and variations. They had sensitive spirits for the rabbit trails, knowing which ones to go down and which ones to block off, and they recognized that often the greatest teaching moments happened on those side-paths, not the central one they had carved out. One of my philosophy professors, Douglas Groothuis, likened himself to the pedagogical version of a jazz musician. I felt, tasted, and enjoyed some of those realities last week. I didn’t always do a good job, but I saw first hand the value of the interplay between my script and the improvised moments. And it was fun.

How Can One Get a Hold of the Content?

Knox Seminary filmed the class. It is in the process of being edited down, and it will be made available as an online course. If you’re interested in the class, I imagine on a future date you’ll be able to register for it and have access to the videos. You can contact the registrar, Lori Gottshall, for more details. At this point, we will see if there will be another opportunity for me to re-teach this class. I hope so! I’ve got some things that I’d like to make better. I’m so grateful to the leaders of Knox for giving me the opportunity to do this.

One Comment on “Reflections on Teaching My Worship Class”

  1. Interesting stuff Z.

    I've long felt that the Law/Gospel's current promoters are stuck in a Kantian echo chamber of the categorical imperatives. Aristotle's virtue ethics can break that chamber and maintain the Gospel distinction.

    In other words, very few Christo-centric preachers and thinkers can reconcile their theology with Jamie Smith's anthropology. I have a way to do this, and it sounds like you do too. I think one needs Aristotle, Augustine, and the Puritans (ironically).

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