July 20, 2015

Worship and Learning

“People can’t worship when they’re learning.” I was working with another planner—I’ll call him Mike—on a combined worship service of our two churches. Together we were responsible for selecting songs, recruiting singers and deciding the order of worship. Mike and I shared many important traits: both of us loved Jesus, both of us were committed to the Church, both us wanted true and good worship to happen at the combined service.

But Mike’s comment told me that we did not share basic presumptions about people and about worship. “People can’t worship when they’re learning,” he said. While I stared at him, not having words to kindly argue, he dug deeper. “Worship is an experience. If people have to think about it, they can’t engage.”

A little voice in my head reminded me of the variety of meanings that the word “worship” has to cover. As John Witvliet explains in an article in Reformed Worship, “the English language is impaired [because] we have only one word to refer to three distinct meanings.” Ok, so maybe this was simply a semantic issue.

I listened carefully to try to understand Mike’s point of view and I found something we could agree on. We both affirmed that it is not wise to teach many new songs to a congregation in a single service, especially not a special combined service of our two different congregations. We agreed to select “known songs”—if we could find enough of them known by both congregations—but that’s another topic.

However, even though I agreed with the choice to avoid learning new songs in that particular service, I found myself arguing silently with his premise. I disagreed with his declaration that people could not worship and learn at the same time. In his ongoing comments he hinted that “worship” was a holy activity while “learning” was a lower work of the mind, but not of the spirit.

I’d never thought to declare this before, but because of that conversation, I decided to write down my arguments for a different perspective on learning and worship:

Learning is an integral part of worship in the reformed tradition because it reinforces key tenets of our theological understanding. Learning requires integration of a person’s mind/body/soul-spirit rather than emphasizing separation. Worship-learning is covenantal as we learn from each other and assist each other in the learning process. Learning offers us the humility posture of discovering God in his Word and world. 

  1. Learning a new skill, song, idea or behavior typically engages the whole person—head, heart, will. When we sing, “all of me,” (a common phrase in worship music) we mean every atom, every cell, every skill, every thought, every deed. So, our brains are worshiping as the synapses are firing between the neurons in our brains, analyzing new information, connecting it to previous knowledge and then cataloguing and storing it for future retrieval.
  2. Learning in a worship context is a communal activity. Like a vibrant classroom, the variety of people in the sanctuary contribute their own skills or needs to the whole and we build a  new thing together. We belong to a covenant community in which each member is individually gifted with unique knowledge and skills to absorb the new knowledge and to help or be helped into new experience or knowledge by others.
  3. Learners develop a posture of humility which declares “I don't know everything…there’s more for me to learn.” This may be a characteristic of Christians who prefer different theological emphases, but reformed folks tend to attach our humility to our theology. God is God and I am not. God has revealed himself in his Word and world and he desires to be more known by his people. Therefore, I humbly learn.

The initial context for my conversation with Mike was introducing new songs for a combined worship service. For many good reasons, I understood and agreed with the values of limiting the learning curve.

However, his adamant declaration that “people cannot worship when they are learning” cannot be supported. If that premise were true, then the sermon would be excluded from being worship. Either that or preachers would have to commit to never presenting new insights or applications of a text. Months later, Mike told me that the sermon is not “worship,” but “teaching.” Ah, we really did have a semantic issue and someday, I’ll introduce him to Witvliet’s explanation.

As worship leaders and planners and preachers, we must certainly be wise and sensitive in making choices of when and how to introduce new learning to our congregations. How to present new songs, when to use a new pattern of prayer, how to use drama or visual art or new distribution patterns for communion. Throwing new things out without thoughtful consideration causes its own damage.

But most certainly we must learn in worship. We must engage our whole person, involve the covenant community and take on a learning posture of humility as each week we grow in our knowledge and expression of gratitude toward our Creator who made and invited us learn about Him.

How do you view worship and learning?

In what ways have you connected learning in a worship context to your theology?

Rev. Joy Engelsman is a multivocational pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. She preaches frequently in Denver-area congregations, provides ministry coaching throughout North America, and serves as a missionary with Youth for Christ/Africa developing staff and leaders.