PHILOSOPHY OF TEACHING
“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time
that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”
- Oscar Wilde
The quote above may seem like a strange way to begin a statement meant to secure me a job doing the very thing Wilde suggests cannot be done. However, it captures for me two key convictions that guide my approach to teaching: first, that learning does not happen only—or even primarily—in the classroom; second, that my main responsibility as an educator is not merely to impart knowledge but to nurture students who know how to learn.
Every student who enters my classroom has had some experience of Christian worship. Whether they are conscious of it or not, this means that they bring certain presuppositions about Christian worship to the class, which shape the way they respond to class material. This also allows me to tap into their intrinsic motivation—nearly everyone has strong opinions about how worship should (or, more commonly, shouldn’t) be done. Since my goal is to help students succeed not primarily in the classroom but outside of it in their places of ministry, a key aspect of my pedagogy involves welcoming that prior knowledge as valid and legitimate while giving them tools and skills with which to evaluate and further that knowledge. Rather than a site of information transfer, I run my classroom as a kind of laboratory in which we collectively examine our experiences of worship under the microscopes of worship history, tradition and theology and engage in creative practical experimentation to explore different ways of doing worship.
When students in my introductory worship class first learn that baptisms prior to the fourth century took place in complete secrecy, they typically react with shock. Their own 21st century (and, typically, Protestant) lens of worship does not permit them to comprehend how baptism, which they know to be a public declaration of faith, could ever have been practiced in secret. As the shock subsides, however, they begin to ask, “Why?” My lectures on worship history, tradition and theology are aimed at providing students with different lenses through which they can answer this critical question. The material is framed around questions designed to inspire curiosity and develop empathy and self-awareness, enabling them to look at something like this secretive baptism and understand the different historical conditions and theological emphases that help to explain why it was practiced the way that it was. As they begin to see that there are multiple ways to express faithful Christian worship, I direct them to apply these lenses to look more critically at their own contexts in class and small-group discussions, as well as written assignments. For example, one assignment asks students to analyze a worship service they are familiar with from the viewpoint of a 4th century worshipper. What would they be surprised by? What would feel familiar to them? How would they (or wouldn’t they) recognize this as Christian worship? What underlying theological and contextual presuppositions contribute to the way this 4th century visitor would perceive the service?
The explicit invitation for students to consider their own contexts of worship encourages them to take more ownership over their learning, as they can see an avenue for its direct application. Thus, as with the assignment above, I ask students to demonstrate their learning by applying it to a real-world situation, whether that be designing a worship service for their church, developing curriculum for a short workshop, or writing a sermon. I also build in opportunities for students to practice worship planning and leadership skills by designing and conducting worship services for the class. While I try to cover as much ground as possible, situations that we did not specifically discuss will inevitably arise in their ministry careers. Thus, these activities and assignments are designed to equip them with the resources and critical thinking skills that will enable them to discern the best approach in any given situation.
A key component in that resourcefulness is the ability to see a situation from multiple perspectives. Wherever possible, I supplement lectures and readings with videos, audio recordings and field trips to support different learning styles as well as to create a more immersive experience, allowing students to inhabit different modes of worship more fully. Apart from simple exposure, my aim with such immersion is to cultivate in them an attitude of hospitality toward both the unfamiliar and the objectionable. Worship is a lived experience, and while students will not agree with every form of worship, I ask that they strive to understand it from the perspective of those who practice it. Small group discussions present another opportunity for students to practice this hospitality toward one another, and I model this hospitality in my discussion of readings by taking time to introduce the person behind each text and encouraging students to treat them as live interlocuters—what would this author think about this issue? Why? What is at stake for them? As students learn to shift their frames of reference in order to empathize with a differing point of view, they also learn to see their own more clearly.
Finally, I will have failed as a professor if students leave my classroom with the sense that faithful worship depends merely on human skill, even if theologically informed and pastorally sensitive. In all my classes, I seek to cultivate not only skillful worship leaders but passionate worshippers as well. By beginning each class with prayers or songs from different worship traditions, and sending students from class with a benediction, I frame the work that we do together in the context of Someone much greater than ourselves. The critical eye that a seminary education aims to develop in students can sometimes paralyze them in their ability to pray, worship, read Scripture and otherwise commune with God. I strive to teach students in such a way that the critical thinking skills they develop serve instead to increase the sense of awe and wonder that lies at the heart of Christian worship. As we study different expressions of worship, the central question of “What aspect of God does this worship emphasize?” keeps our eyes trained on the God who is at the center of the worship we study and offer, and reminds us that no single expression of worship can exhaust the fullness of who God is. As our appreciation for the many forms of Christian worship expands, so will—I hope—our sense of wonder at the mystery and majesty of God.