For over 30 years, I’ve had the great privilege and joy of teaching worship to students preparing for ministry. As a teacher, I find that some questions never go away: “What am I trying to accomplish? How will I give students what they need to be faithful leaders of worship? How will they be prepared to engage the contemporary moment and to adapt to whatever is to come?”
I hope students will learn a great deal about the history, theology and practice of worship. There’s a story to tell about the origins and development of Scripture, sermon, sacraments, song and prayer in the rich variety of traditions of worship (history). There are understandings to explore in and around the practice of worship—about God, our life together as God’s people and God’s purpose for the world (theology).
There is practical knowledge to learn and to rehearse about the way worship takes place in the bodies and with the voices of those who gather and those who lead (practice). This is the material of study in the teaching of worship.
Over the years I’ve come to realize that my purpose goes beyond conveying the material of liturgical history, theology and practice. It is training the liturgical imagination of those who will be the stewards of worship within local Christian communities.
The aim of the study of worship is to stimulate, expand and give shape to a liturgical imagination that can enliven a worshiping community in the great gift of God’s mercy toward the world in Jesus Christ. This gift from the very heart of God strengthens us in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another, to use the words of one of our prayers after communion (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 114). That is what I’m trying to accomplish in my teaching.
Some may get stuck on the word “liturgy.” To many, it suggests worship that is fixed and formal, which may or may not be what they prefer. But it’s a good word for what Christians are about when they worship. It comes from the word leitourgia, which brings together the Greek words for “people” and “work.” In the ancient world, it referred to a “public work,” something that served the common good. Christians understood their gatherings as such “people work.”
Liturgy is the public work of God for the good of all. It is work that God is doing to give life to the world—God’s abundant life in Jesus Christ to each and every one. The words and actions of our worship are intended to witness to that work and participate in it.
Liturgy as the public work of God requires imagination. When people bring imagination to their work, they take it beyond what’s already known and expected. A liturgical imagination takes the words and actions—all the things of worship we know and expect—and makes them ever-new to those gathered in the present moment.
The word of God comes alive among us anew, again and again, in what we hear, pray, speak and sing; in what we see, touch and taste; in the ways we move together with our bodies and into the silence of our hearts. All these matters of the senses require our imagination so that the Word of God—Jesus Christ himself—might be known to live among us and claim us as his own, to fill us with forgiveness, healing and hope, and to make us witnesses to his love for all.
A well-formed liturgy requires:
- Scriptural imagination that grasps how Christian worship is grounded in the narratives, words and images of Scripture and the central witness of the Scriptures: God’s mercy for the world in Jesus Christ.
- Sacramental imagination that grasps how earthly things—water, bread and wine, the bodies and voices of a gathered community and all the material realities of worship—are the way the Spirit draws us into the presence of God in Jesus Christ and directs our lives into the life-giving purpose of God.
- Ecclesial imagination that grasps how worship in the power of the Spirit gathers God’s people and binds us together in the one body of Christ across time and space, including the role of shared worship practices in connecting local worshiping assemblies to each other.
- Eschatological imagination that grasps how worship kindles hope for a world redeemed, restored and made new in Jesus Christ, and, in that hope, instills vision and commitment to the common good and care for the earth, our common home.
- Contextual imagination that grasps how a worshiping community engages the life-giving ways and materials of the local culture and context and resists captivity to whatever diminishes the abundant life God intends.
- Ritual imagination that grasps how to richly enact the inherited patterns and practices of worship with our bodies and as a communal body, and to creatively adapt in response to current need.
A liturgical imagination sets all these things in motion in the worship life of a congregation, where Christ is alive among his people for the life of the world. That is what teaching worship aims to accomplish.