Fred P. Edie
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I observed Debbie Wong as she taught a session for the course titled “Worship and Christian Formation” (XTIANEDU 766) on March 18, 2021. This course in catechesis includes an introduction to the liturgical theology of juxtapositions followed by consideration of formational dynamics including embodied narrativity, evocation of emotion including desire, ritual as performing communal identity (plus shaping personal and social imagination), and the power of heightened speech. Debbie’s session on “Congregational Singing” filled out the final category.
The course included a diverse mix of students representing four different degree programs at DDS. Since it is allotted only a miserly seventy-five minutes of Zoom synchronicity, the course seeks to maximize use of Sakai, our online teaching platform (home to syllabus, assignments, reading/viewing resources, etc.) by developing weekly “modules” describing the week’s objectives and subject matter then providing students step-by-step instructions for preparing ahead of time for weekly classes.
Debbie’s module assigned two different readings offering analytical lenses for assessing congregational song. She rightly surmised that students would voice passionate opinions about music supported by little more than personal preference. The readings invited students to consider the range of uses to which music is put in worship and the particular worship settings where it is employed. These readings were both practical and theological in nature; they offered students the means to assess the theological work singing can do (praise, memory, lament, etc.) and provided a number of rules of thumb for choosing the right songs for the right worship settings. Next Debbie’s module supplied links to samples of Christian songs for students to listen to. In one case the same song was set within three different musical styles, in another, students were invited to sample the rich diversity (including internationally) of Christian singing. In each case they were instructed to reflect on these samples through the lenses provided by the chapters they had just read and bring informal notes to class.
In the zoom class session Debbie proved to be a smooth and hospitable host. She primed the pump by playing a new song to reflect upon, then invited preliminary student responses. Moving from that introduction, Debbie effectively described the formational efficacy of singing in the language of “sacrament,” “strategy,” and “schooling.” She also helpfully reiterated course language seeking to display formation in terms of “mind,” “body,” and “heart.” These were the most “lecture-like” offerings of the class, requiring about fifteen minutes total. Debbie’s seeming comfort in this role as exemplified by her conversational and accessible style welcomed students into an extended conversation with her and one another. Debbie’s original teaching plan had included more content, but she displayed foresight (and teacherly wisdom) by paring it back prior to teaching the class.
The remainder of the session featured a continuation of the pedagogy of “guided discovery” whereby students listened to songs they had sampled and surfaced insights about them along the lines featured in their readings and by Debbie’s mini-lecture. She handled their responses equitably and positively. Students were lined up to speak through the entire session.
Obviously, the pedagogies employed in the module and class were very effective. Debbie rightly surmised that a class on congregational song should feature singing and then reflection upon it. Equally important to the successful class, however, was the knowledge and character Debbie brought to it. She is formed in and through contemporary worship, a scholar of this worship style, and an advocate for it. Up until this point the class (which I instruct) had considered liturgical uses and formational efficacy of scripture and the formal sacraments of baptism and communion. Debbie’s recognition that congregational singing is, in many worshipping communities, doing the work of these historic holy things had the effect of validating many students’ own experience of formation through worship. Put differently, Debbie contributed important new content to the class.
Debbie is already a remarkably good teacher and a fine colleague with whom to reflect on the craft of teaching. I wish her continued success in the classroom.
Fred P. Edie