Let Us Pray: Classroom Worship in Theological Education



Theological education typically includes classroom worship, a practice of great pedagogical power and curricular import. As pedagogy, classroom worship does four things. It focuses teaching and learning on God, and fosters theological dispositions necessary for sustaining that attention. Second, it rightly positions the entire class in dialogical relation to the divine Thou, in communal relation to each other, the larger church and the wider world, and in personal relations that risk transformation. Third, it frames theological education as an integrative practice of faith and learning. Finally, it invites teachers to know their students as whole persons and students to trust their teachers as spiritual guides. As curriculum, classroom worship may have greater significance than chapel worship for many students and at particular schools. It should be moved from implicit curriculum to explicit, with careful attention to the null curriculum and to the matrices of relationship within which worship has meaning.

“The first thing a student in Walter Brueggemann's class notices are the prayers. Each class, each day begins with evocative prayer . . .”

“I want to thank you as instructors for opening our class sessions with prayer.

I really . . . feel the power of that practice undergirding all that we do.”

“He offered prayer for the midterm, and I don't remember what he said but I just remember the gentleness of it, and I was really touched.”

Here are three testimonies to the power of beginning seminary class sessions with prayer.1 They point to a widely recognized phenomenon: a typical class at an average theological seminary includes some act of worship – prayer, singing, or devotions. A 2003 survey of theological faculty by the Auburn Institute found that two thirds of them think it “important to open or close class sessions with prayer or other devotional activity” (Wheeler, Miller, and Schuth 2005, 21).2 What begs for analysis is the pedagogical power and curricular contribution of such practices, inasmuch as they remain “under theorized and under explored.”3 After all, with so little time available to teach the deliberative optative and the quartodecemian controversy, why would a reflective teacher sacrifice even five minutes to an activity that seems to belong more properly in the seminary chapel than in the classroom? I will suggest here that we do it precisely because such practices do belong in the classroom, not merely as preliminaries to teaching, but as authentic pedagogy.

Shall We Pray?

“Do you start class with prayer?” is a question that often generates a good deal of heat. One friend answered my email query with “I do NOT pray before my classes” (emphasis original), followed by three closely reasoned paragraphs justifying his practice. Others are just as passionate and reasoned in their affirmation of the practice. Listening carefully, one can usually hear in their arguments claims about their self-understanding as a scholar, about the demographics of the class, or about the mission of their particular school. These are all important issues of identity. We must take seriously objections like “I do not assume that my students . . . grant to me . . . the spiritual authority one might grant a priest or pastor” (Foster et al. 2006, 109), or “not everyone in my class is a practicing Christian,” or “a seminary is not a church, and a class is not a prayer meeting.” But we must take just as seriously affirmations like “I am ordained to this teaching ministry,”“these students are preparing for various kinds of church ministry,” or “this school's mission is ‘to glorify God.’ ”4 Thus, from the perspective of identity, answering the question “shall we pray?” may be yes or no, depending on a particular teacher's vocation, a course's constituency, or an institution's mission. If we think instead about the task of educating clergy – about cultivating a pastoral imagination (Foster et al. 2006) – I believe that a much stronger and more universal case can be made for including worship in the classroom.5

Beginning with Worship

Where worship is a regular part of each class session, it usually occurs at the beginning. A cynic might suggest that this is nothing more than a form of classroom management. “Let us pray” usually silences a noisy room in ways that “Let's get started” does not. Opening class with a devotional act can certainly serve purposes other than truly worshiping God. Yet despite the risk of instrumentalizing classroom worship, two thirds of theological educators continue to run the risk. Why? Perhaps because we innately sense the power of classroom worship to focus theological education on God.

Attending to God

A Godward focus is intrinsic to Christian worship, and also to theological education, if it is genuinely theological, for theology is paying attention to God (Wood and Blue 2008, 3). Though every discipline in the theological curriculum pays attention to a more proximate and obvious subject matter – perhaps a text and its interpretation, or a tradition and its explication, or a skill and its application – ultimately it must attend to God as its essential ground, horizon, or goal. Classroom worship acknowledges and orients this Godward vision by intentionally “practicing the presence of God.”6 When teaching and learning begin in worship, there are benefits for both teachers and learners.

Teachers need the focusing power of classroom worship because our attention too often and too easily stops short of the divine mystery. John Witvliet alerts us to this danger in the field of liturgy: “It is remarkable that so many books and courses about worship say so little about God” (2008, 138). Substitute your own discipline for worship, and Witvliet's words will probably still read true. In every discipline, there is a propensity to lose sight of God, focusing instead on things closer to hand. Every time I step into the classroom there are pressures to lose focus on God which arise from my subject matter, even though ultimately God is that subject. Opening with a focused act of worship does not make me impervious to impairment, but it does explicitly turn the whole class's attention toward God, who is – as a prayer of John Calvin reminds us –“the proper end of all our study” (1984, 80).

Moreover, classroom worship is a most appropriate way to acknowledge and enact the stance from which the majority of theological educators teach. Auburn's 2003 study found that three quarters of theological faculty “strongly agree” that teaching has a spiritual character, and another eighteen percent “somewhat agree.” This spiritual character of teaching and learning in a theological school is not only communicated by classroom worship, it inheres there. Similarly, more than eighty percent of theological educators told Auburn that they rely on God's presence while teaching. What could communicate and enact that reliance more effectively than classroom worship integrated with classroom teaching and learning?7

Students, too, need practices of worshipful attention to God. Hess and Brookfield introduce their volume on Teaching Reflectively in Theological Contexts with the claim that theological formation “focuses on the awakening and deepening of spiritual awareness” (2008, 4). The authors of Educating Clergy point out that “A significant part of every seminary student's intellectual task is to come to grips with the meaning God will have for his or her own life as well as for his or her future professional career” (Foster et al. 2006, 4). Charles Wood writes that “theological education, in its various modalities and locations . . . rightly centers on development” of an aptitude for “paying attention to God, and to everything else in its ‘God-relatedness’ ” (Wood and Blue 2008, 3–4).

Habituating Hearts and Minds

Sustaining attention to God requires more than a teacher's intention or students' effort, however. In the classroom (as in the sanctuary), attending to God requires certain dispositions or affections, what we might call habits of mind and spirit. Some dispositions are requisite to all teaching and learning: a student needs trust in her teacher, humility about her present mastery of concepts or skills, and courage to persevere in her study. Without these dispositions, it is as difficult to teach Tagalog as it is the Chalcedonian Definition. Other dispositions seem more particular to theological education, given its focus on a divine subject. Classically, we might consider the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, ideally with a healthy dose of joy thrown in.

But given my focus on the pedagogical power of common worship in the classroom, I want to highlight four dispositions that Don Saliers claims are engendered through faithful Christian worship: awe, delight, truthfulness, and hope (1996). Each of these is essential to healthy theological education. Students who develop a technical mastery of the various disciplines and skills that comprise the theological curriculum will remain grossly lacking in genuine pastoral imagination apart from the capacity to be “awed to heaven” (Brueggemann 2003) by God and the gospel. Students who succeed in the classroom for the sake of grades, peer esteem, self image, or denominational requirements, yet who never discover the exhilaration of careful exegesis or the sheer delight of reading the desert mothers and fathers have nothing more than a simulacrum of real learning. Students who settle for what is merely correct – whether political, liturgical, or evangelical – will be mannered at best, ideological at worst; only a deep thirst for truth opens us fully to the transformative power of our subject matters, and the Subject they finally reference. Students who start a course or degree program with great energy will not be sustained in that work, let alone in the rigors and disappointments of ministry, by sheer enthusiasm or force of will; finally hope that “all manner of things shall be well” (Julian of Norwich) is needed to form and sustain the pastoral imagination. And these same dispositions that students need to grow into their ministerial identities are just as requisite for teachers to be sustained in theirs.

Of course, five minutes of classroom worship are not sufficient to inculcate dispositions of awe, delight, truthfulness, and hope, any more than two chapels a week are. But taken in concert, classroom worship, seminary chapel, and congregational worship can work together to form in all of us dispositions that are essential to theological education. And where such dispositions already exist, beginning with classroom worship can elicit them in ways that allow awe, delight, truthfulness, and hope to undergird, permeate, and sustain an entire class session.

Positioned by Pronouns

In addition to focusing on God, classroom worship positions the class relationally toward God and everything else in God. We can see this most clearly by noticing the pronouns that are as proper to classroom worship as to all corporate worship.

We Pray to You: Learning Coram Deo

First, classroom worship addresses God in the second person as “you,” thereby positioning God as a personal Subject rather than an impersonal subject matter. For all the truth of divine mystery and all the attendant danger of anthropomorphism, theological formation attends to a who rather than a what. Beginning with classroom worship can serve for some students and teachers as a hedge against slipping “from a personal relationship with God to a merely technical reference,” a danger Helmut Thielicke says constantly threatens theological study (1962, 33). But it has far greater potential than this prophylactic effect, if we speak honestly to God in the context of our studies. For example, Marianne Meye Thompson led an advanced Bible seminar which engaged in critical study of biblical texts on Tuesdays, followed by “personal and communal prayer . . . to God about or with the texts” on Thursdays. The course progressed from “positive” texts about God's love to “more ‘difficult’ texts in which God is portrayed as arbitrary, cruel, or absent.” Though it would have been easy to “withdraw back to a safer, comforting, familiar God,” the class instead engaged these “new, frightening dimensions of the divine” in prayer. Thompson remarked on what a difference it made, “speaking in the second person ‘to’ this God rather than only in the third person, ‘about’ God.” It affected how students understood and felt about God (Foster et al. 2006, 107). Thus, classroom worship's direct I-Thou and we-You address to God holds powerful pedagogical potential to form both pastoral imaginations and affections.

We Worship and Learn Together

Second, classroom worship positions the class in the first person, as a “we” that includes my “I.” The “we” comes first, for classroom worship, like all corporate worship, “is a first-person-plural activity.” We pray, praise, or sing as participants who “are called to be aware not only of God's presence, but of each other, and of the world” (Witvliet 2008, 121). The “we” of classroom worship ought properly to remain a “we” in the teaching and learning that follows. Both in worship and in study we pay attention not only to God, but “to everything else in its God-relatedness” (Wood and Blue 2008, 4). One dimension of this, according to Brueggemann, is how the “we” of classroom prayer invites us “to locate teacher and students in the ongoing life of the church in whose service we learn.”Brueggemann's praying at the beginning of class “asserts that learning takes place with a cloud of witnesses who have believed and trusted before the present company and who believe and trust presently alongside the immediate body of teachers and learners” (2003, xv). But the “we” of common worship erects no parochial breakwater against the world; instead “we” stand before God representatively on behalf of the whole world (von Allmen 1974, 128–29). So our initial classroom worship and the learning which follows must “ponder the condition of the world that is the proper though sometimes disregarded context of all evangelical learning” (Brueggemann 2003, xv). Rightly understood, the “we” of classroom worship positions our theological education in the church and for the world.

Risking Myself

The “we” of classroom worship also positions each one of us. First, it positions the teacher as another one of the learners, as fellow member in the church, as co-servant of the world. The “we” of classroom worship thus positions me with my students in ways that are more fundamental than our difference in role. Second, classroom worship articulates our shared identity as more basic than my individual differences or your social diversities or his theological viewpoint. Classroom worship, like all corporate worship, is a practice of receiving the gift of diversity-in-unity. It positions us to see that “while diversity is normal, . . . [it] is not theologically normative”– unity in Christ is (Anderson 2003, 122–23). Common worship does more than just remind every “I” in the room that “we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5); common worship enacts that belonging. Finally, our classroom worship risks my identity. As Annie Dillard famously said, worship is such risky business that crash helmets and life preservers are in order (1982, 40). Genuine worship does not allow me to keep a safe distance or maintain a critical reserve; it risks my identity, my self-understanding, and my anticipated future. So does true theological education. Like worship, theological education risks my prior understandings of God and world, destabilizes my identity, hazards my future on a relational process in which God is the superior, determinative power. Beginning with classroom worship positions every “me” for the educative process that follows with all of its inherent risk and promise.

In summary, classroom worship rightly done – in first person (plural including singular) address to God in the second person – is a model for and an invitation to the deep relational geography of theological education.

Ora et Labora: Integration

Another power of classroom worship is the way it properly frames faith and learning in theological education. Opening or closing with worship can symbolize that the teaching and learning “has a spiritual or religious character” and relies on God's presence (Wheeler, Miller, and Schuth 2005, 21). Indeed, specific acts of classroom worship imply that the whole class session is a way of loving God with one's mind (Brueggemann 2003, xv). But what classroom worship symbolizes it can also effect: an ethos of study as rendering gratitude and praise, a pattern of learning as ongoing circulation of divine and human offerings.

Too often, our students arrive at seminary convinced that there is a divide, perhaps even a chasm, between heart and head. John Witvliet describes it as “the notion that devotional vitality and rigorous learning live in opposition” (2008, 120n5). Faculty, too, can imagine this chasm between worship and study, and our teaching can reproduce it. Educating Clergy laments “Teachers who emphasize either critical analyses or devotional study of sacred texts” because that either/or fails to “introduce students to the power of their interdependence” (Foster et al. 2006, 54).

From one point of view, beginning with common worship simply reproduces the problem; a devotional preliminary followed by a critical main course, with neither practice aware of, or interacting with, the other. But “since it is possible,” as Don Saliers notes, “to think prayerfully and to pray thoughtfully,” a much more integrated practice is possible (1980, 75). I will present two examples.

Educating Clergy offers a description and analysis of a class session taught by Dianne Bergant of Catholic Theological Union.

She began the class session with a prayer from St. Teresa, noting that it was St. Teresa's day in the calendar of saints. The prayer provided her with the opportunity to emphasize the role of a woman as ‘thinker and teacher in the Christian, and Roman Catholic, tradition’ several times during the class session. It established a theological framework for the class (‘all is passing’ and ‘God is enough’). It also functioned as a pedagogical device ‘signaling’ for students Bergant's intention that they learn how to combine an affirmation of their religious tradition with a critical stance towards its implications for contemporary life. (Foster et al. 2006, 59)

Note that Bergant not only integrates affirmation with criticism, but also integrates common worship with classroom learning.

My colleague Max Lee begins every class with a devotion from scripture and a prayer from the communion of saints. In Greek Exegesis, he does the devotion from a Greek text which exemplifies one of the grammatical principles being covered that day, and demonstrates in the devotion itself the fruitfulness of attention to the grammar. Max reports, “If in my Greek class, we are studying the imperfect tense, I try to pick a Greek text that highlights the usage of this tense and how it changes the way we understand the text (for example, translating elegen as an iterative imperfect in Luke 23:34: ‘And Jesus kept on saying [and would not stop saying], “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” ’).”

Note that both Bergant and Lee have pedagogical reasons for a pastoral practice. However, neither one is using an ostensible act of worship to teach students instead of to worship God. Rather, each teacher is modeling integration: the integration of praying and learning, of head and heart, of tradition and situation, of pedagogue and pastor. Beginning with common worship not only frames all that occurs in the classroom as grateful response to God's prior initiative, it can also, when rightly done, model and effect integration.

Teacher as Worship Leader

Pedagogies of performance are essential to theological formation (Foster et al. 2006, 156–186), and we engage such pedagogies every time we invite students to open class with prayer, take their turn leading a devotion, design a meditation, or lead a song. For traditions with strong allegiance to the priesthood of all believers, or with softer distinctions between clergy and laity, sharing the leadership of common worship at the beginning of class can also enact and reinforce an ecclesiological vision. In such settings, a student leading the class in prayer may have less to do with sharpening her skill at pastoral prayer and more to do with inculcating an attitude of egalitarian distribution of worship leadership. In my seminary, some faculty invite students to pray or lead devotions, not so that after graduation they will pray with more eloquence or devote with more confidence, but so that after graduation they will remember to invite their congregants to lead prayer and devotions rather than always take the lead.

Nonetheless, there are good reasons for faculty to retain the regular leadership of common worship in the classroom. One reason is because it invests us in the lives of our students – their experience and their callings, their struggles and their triumphs. A second reason is that it displays us as persons of spiritual trust.

Learning Our Students' Lives

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer states that it is best if the prayers of a community are led by the same person. He points out, however, that the one who consistently leads the prayers must “share the daily life of the fellowship” and “know the cares, the needs, the joys and thanksgivings, the petitions and hopes of the others” (1954, 63). Here Bonhoeffer articulates a crucial rubric from pastoral ministry: to lead God's people well in prayer and worship, one must know not only God but also the people. The liturgical principle is perfectly analogous to the pedagogical reality that to teach our students well, we must know them. Faculty who are uncomfortable with the idea that “teacher becomes pastor,”8 who agree with the teacher who said that students have not “designated me as their spiritual leader,” will nonetheless recognize that teaching well demands more than knowing our material; it requires that we know our students. If we follow Bonhoeffer's advice by regularly leading our students in prayer, we thereby require ourselves to develop and sustain an acquaintance with our students (an acquaintance that might otherwise go lacking). The responsibility of leading in prayer nurtures disciplines of attention and compassion that can only enhance our capacity to teach these students.

Showing Our Spiritual Selves

I offer a second reason to lead the common worship. In a thoughtful exploration of the conundrum of fostering students' trust while challenging their core convictions, Matthew Skinner suggests that three forms of trust are needed: professional, personal, and spiritual. According to Skinner, the first two forms of trust are germane to every significant situation of teaching and learning. The third, however, is unique to our task. “The dynamics of faith and theological education's overt attention to the reality of God make it crucial that students trust their professors as reliable theological guides who are attuned to distinct kinds of spiritual commitments.” Skinner urges theological educators to be transparent, avoiding “manipulation or exhibitionism.” He assures us that fostering spiritual trust “hardly requires displays of exemplary faith or sentimental expressions of piety,” though he would surely not require a genuinely pious and sentimental teacher to hide that spirituality under a bushel (Skinner 2008, 99, 104).

There is no program or strategy for eliciting spiritual trust, but “a teacher can take deliberate steps that give students opportunities to perceive her as trustworthy in a spiritual sense.” One such step (Skinner's third) is “performing as a theological interpreter in public contexts outside the classroom,” such as preaching or writing books for pastors. “These efforts . . . provide glimpses into the God she is teaching.” Skinner is right about this, but he overlooks an opportunity to nurture spiritual trust that is closer than the chapel and more frequent than one's publication of monographs: leading common worship in one's own classroom. Where a teacher regularly leads students in prayer or praise, she risks a transparency that offers “glimpses into the God she is teaching,” offers glimpses into the spiritual self she brings before God (Skinner 2008, 108, 110, 111).

I want to put flesh on Bonhoeffer's directive and Skinner's invitation by describing the practice of my colleague Phil Anderson. At first glance, he appears to design classroom worship to serve primarily pedagogical ends. Anderson begins each class with the singing of a hymn from the period and people being covered that week. Thus, the hymns serve as primary source documents from ecclesiastical history. Before singing, Anderson contextualizes the hymn by discussing its author or provenance. Finally, as much as possible he chooses hymns from the seminary's denominational hymnal, in hopes that students will learn to value it as a treasury of the communion of saints. Yet, there is also a pastoral dimension here. Anderson's class uses these primary source documents in accordance with their original purpose – as acts of worship rather than as textual artifacts. Moreover, among all the hymns he could choose from a given era, Anderson selects one that is fitting for the current moment of the class session. Sometimes his choice is determined by what is going on in particular students' lives, or in the wider seminary community, while at other times it is guided by local politics or world events. In this regard, Anderson is following Bonhoeffer's dictum to know “the cares, the needs, the joys and thanksgivings, the petitions and hopes” of the students (1954, 63). Finally, all who know Anderson recognize how central hymnody is to his own spirituality. So when he leads his class in singing a hymn, he is manifesting the transparency of soul and trustworthiness in faith that Skinner commends.

Anderson's practice serves as another example of the integrative power of classroom worship. It shows us how a deliberate pedagogical practice combines with pastoral attentiveness to students in ways that enrich both classroom worship and teaching. Other teachers will plan and practice classroom worship quite differently, not only because our disciplines and pedagogical objectives differ, but because our spiritualities do as well. That is as it should be, and invites us to explore how diversity in classroom worship impacts the seminary as a school of prayer.

Seminary as School of Worship

My seminary names leadership of worship and prayer as one of the competencies our Masters of Divinity intends to form. It is likely that yours does too, because one of the most important roles seminary graduates undertake is to lead the people of God in prayer and praise. Thus a theological school is, and ought to be, a school of worship.

Learning Worship

How do we school worship in our students? Typically, theological schools have answered by pointing to required classes in worship, seminary chapel, and field education experiences. Though each of these can make an important contribution to a student's formation for worship leadership, seminary chapel has become the lightning rod for conversation and controversy about schooling worship (Foster et al. 2006, 275–80; Anderson 2003).9

Byron Anderson argues convincingly that many seminary skirmishes over chapel worship are rooted in the expectation of seminarians (and not a few faculty) that worship is primarily (or even exclusively) about expressing “my” faith. This fails to notice that “the work of theological education – and therefore of communal worship in the context of theological education – is first and foremost about formation for leadership in the church. The disciplines of corporate worship and theological study are companion formative practices of the seminary.” Certainly worship is our honest expression to God, but it is also meant to be God's transformation of us; thus it is both “the glorification of God and the sanctification of humanity,” as has been asserted since Pius X. Beyond forming dispositions, chapel worship outside my normal modes of expression can deepen relation with God and broaden community, precisely because it invites “an encounter with the otherness of one's neighbors as well as the Transcendent Other” (Anderson 2003, 118, 121, 119).10

Anderson mounts a convincing argument for the curricular significance of chapel worship. Unfortunately, at my school the majority of students are not regularly in chapel.11 Yet all of our students regularly participate in classroom worship, because it occurs within the bounded space and time of the class. There may be important qualitative reasons that chapel worship remains more formative than classroom worship for students who regularly do both. But from a quantitative point of view, even a student who attends both of my school's weekly chapels will spend almost as much time engaged in classroom worship as chapel worship. For this reason alone, I believe schools should seek to understand the curricular impact of classroom worship in theological formation.

One dimension of that impact relates to its frequent repetition. Roy Rappaport suggests that the frequency of rituals may enhance their formative power. Rituals of “high frequency” attempt not only to regulate daily behavior, but also “to penetrate to the motivational bases of that behavior.” Regularly repeated rituals work to encode meaning in everyday life, so “that they seem to be natural, or at least of ‘second nature’ ” (1992, 18). Thus, even though the duration of classroom worship is relatively briefer than chapel worship, its significantly greater frequency enhances its power to form a student's pastoral imagination or a professor's pedagogical process.

The full impact of classroom worship on theological education will depend on what is done in each classroom, and how all the practices of classroom worship fit together into some coherent whole. At a school near mine, about half the professors incorporate classroom worship into their pedagogy. Overall, this may school their students in the judgment that worship is a matter of the professor's (and subsequently the pastor's) personal piety, rather than a practice intrinsic to the subject matters and skills of pastoral work. At my school, all of my colleagues (save one) lead classroom worship that parallels the worship in their home congregation. For example, the Old Testament professor who opens class by singing Hebrew choruses projected in PowerPoint belongs to a congregation that sings (English) choruses projected on a screen. The professor who opens class with a photocopy of a hymn from the hymnal regularly worships in a hymnal based (and organ led) congregation. For any given course, this creates a uniform worship experience, but students working through the typical academic week will encounter a smorgasbord of worship structure and style.12 Overall, this may school them in the judgment that worship is a matter of the professor's (and subsequently the pastor's) preference, rather than a performance sensitive to context and subject to authority. At Mary Hess' ELCA school, all of her colleagues “find it very easy to pray spontaneously in a public setting,” whereas she reads prayers from her Roman Catholic tradition. Overall, Hess recognizes that this might suggest to her students that “Catholics cannot or do not choose to engage in spontaneous prayer,” but she hopes to teach them “that it is permissible, perhaps even enriching, to use someone else's words to open prayer space” (Hess 2008, 193, 196).

Implicit and Null Curricula

It can help us understand the overall impact of classroom worship to view it through Elliot Eisner's categories of explicit, implicit, and null curriculum. Many schools have ministry courses in which leading worship in the classroom is part of the explicit curriculum. But in most instances of classroom worship, the answer to “Will this be on the final exam?” is “No.” Though individual teachers may be quite intentional about how the content and form of their classroom worship intersects their teaching, as the examples of Bergant and Anderson show, on the whole theological faculty have not reflected as a body about how the regular practice of classroom worship fits in and contributes to its curricula. Yet every time we begin a class with some form of common worship, we are not preparing to teach – we are already teaching. Thus most classroom worship comprises part of the implicit (and null) curriculum of a theological school.

As implicit and null curricula, what does classroom worship teach? At a school where some teachers do and some do not, classroom worship may symbolize or even reproduce an implicit curriculum of conflict between evangelical and progressive theological commitments. If so, their implicit curriculum may mirror the national ideological struggles of their sponsoring (mainline) denomination. At my school, where all lead worship but each according to her own lights, classroom worship both symbolizes and reproduces an implicit curriculum of worship's necessity and centrality, but also its relative freedom from denominational control or traditional authority. In that sense, our implicit curriculum reproduces the official position on worship of our sponsoring denomination.13 At Mary Hess' school, classroom worship teaches an ethos of extemporaneous prayer, while also inculcating an underlying prayer script that relies “on a particular rhythm, a cadence for drawing scriptural verses and particular experiences together in a pattern that proves familiar to listeners” (Hess 2008, 194). This implicit curriculum also establishes the parameters of the null curriculum: prayer “by the book,”Tongsung Kido, meditative silence, and a host of other forms. When Mary Hess begins class by reading someone else's prayer, she moves an entire form of prayer from the null to the implicit curriculum.

But what her practice teaches depends on more than what happens in her classroom. It also depends on the life experience of her students, the classroom practice of her colleagues, the ethos and chapel practice(s) of her school, and the liturgical tradition(s) of its sponsoring denomination. This means that if a faculty want to be intentional about classroom worship as a powerful pedagogical practice, we will have to reflect on it within the larger interpretive context of the implied curriculum, which includes “programs, rituals, and relationships integral to the culture of the school” (Foster et al. 2006, 53).14 If I open each class with a hymn, what students learn from that depends, in part, on whether other faculty lead hymns, praise choruses, or do not sing at all, how central hymnody is to the seminary's chapel services, whether I am using the denomination's hymnal (if it has one), and what authority that hymnal has.

Mary Hess' poignant “What am I teaching? I wish that I was sure!” (2008) invites us to move classroom worship from the implicit to the explicit curriculum, at least occasionally. Within my class, I can occasionally comment not just on the connections between classroom worship and course content, but on the pedagogical rationale for including it, and the particular objectives that determine why I do it in this way. Across the curriculum, a school might communicate explicitly its understanding of what classroom worship teaches.15

Parts or Wholes: What Does Worship Mean to Our Students?

Finally, reflection on what students are learning from the implied curriculum of classroom worship raises the question of whether classroom worship is construed as whole unto itself, with its own integral meaning, or as a component part of larger liturgical structures, from and in relation to which it draws meaning. I suspect that free church and liturgical traditions will part company here. In what follows, I have been helped by the challenge to liturgical theology mounted by Melanie Ross (2006).

Consider two quite different examples. Class A begins with the teacher inviting students to name particular prayer concerns aloud, then leading an extemporaneous prayer for the needs expressed, as well as inviting God to work in the ensuing class session. This approximates very closely the free church tradition of sharing “joys and concerns” followed by a pastoral prayer. Though students with that background may be better habituated to participate, the practice is accessible to all, and noticing the congruence between classroom and congregational worship is not essential to understanding what is going on. The meaning of this form of classroom worship does not depend on its relation to typical congregational worship, nor on where intercessory prayer usually occurs within a service; in other words, the meaning is not structural. The full meaning of this practice is formal, however, inasmuch as the forms of voicing items to be remembered in prayer and of praying extemporaneously both contribute to the ethos of human authenticity and divine immanence that is essential to free church worship.

Class B begins with the teacher reminding students that it is the second week of Lent, offering a liturgical greeting, praying the appropriate collect from the prayer book, after which the entire class sings the Gloria Patri. This approximates at least loosely the liturgical tradition's entrance rite. Students from that background will know their parts by heart, and will be habituated to the pattern of beginning with a deliberate, adoring focus on God. Students unfamiliar with liturgical worship's basic ordo and calendar will lack the context to interpret a Lenten prayer offered as an opening collect, because the full meaning of this classroom worship depends on background knowledge about how these particular acts mean as parts of larger wholes. In short, the meaning is structural, and those structures both form and express the ethos of liturgical worship.

Therefore, the formative power of classroom worship as implicit curriculum will be strongly conditioned by two things. One is the worship traditions that our students bring to the classroom. In this regard, it is crucial to note that today, though most of our students “come from a religiously plural environment, they often have worshipped only in insular contexts, knowing little of the piety and practices of traditions other than their own” (Erickson and Lindner 1997, 26). Thus because their experience is limited, a typical Baptist student can no more manifest “full, conscious, and active participation” in worship in Class B than a typical Episcopalian student could in Class A. The Baptist lacks habituation in the meaning of liturgical structures, and the Episcopalian lacks habituation in the affect of worship forms. If we intend to teach certain things through the design and content of our classroom worship, we will be wise to know as much as possible about how our students worship. And if we expect to foster particular sensibilities with an implied curriculum of classroom worship, we will almost certainly need to communicate directly what we think classroom worship means to our diverse student body.

The second factor that will condition the formative power of classroom worship is its relation to the common worship life of the school. Liturgical classroom worship (Class B) would be at home at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, but would likely seem orphaned at Bethel. Free classroom worship (Class A) would be familiar at Fuller, but would likely feel alien at Luther Seminary. Thus, I have come the long way round to reaffirm the crucial role that chapel worship plays in seminary formation. We see now that classroom worship can serve as echo and amplification of the worship tradition embodied in seminary chapel, or as caveat and question mark.

What all this means for a particular school will be discovered by collegial conversation about classroom practices, curricular objectives, institutional ethos, and student experience. Ideally, an entire faculty would engage in such conversation together in trust and hope, recognizing that risking self-revelation and sacrificing autonomy are necessary steps in service of a more integrated and aligned curriculum.

Let Us Pray

So let us convene a pedagogical and curricular conversation about classroom worship. But even as we do, let us continue to pray in the classroom, and praise and meditate too. Let us do it, not because it will make us better teachers, or our students better learners, or our seminary more curricularly coherent. Classroom worship may well do all these things, but such things are finally not the point of worship: God is. So I conclude with a warning from Aidan Kavanaugh, who reminds us that like a feast, which is an end in itself,

the liturgy inevitably forms its participants but does not educate them in the modern, didactic, sense of the word. . . . Conflating liturgy and education produces poor education and dissimulated liturgy. The liturgy, like the feast, exists not to educate but to seduce people into participating in common activity of the highest order, where one is freed to learn things which cannot be taught. (1982, 28)

Theological education is precisely that, being freed to learn things which cannot be taught. Classroom worship embraces and enacts just such a freedom.


  • 1

    The voices are Edwin Searcy (Brueggemann 2003, xiii), an anonymous student email to professor Janet Ramsey (Foster et al. 2006, 138–39n18), and an anonymous third year student at Mainline Theological Seminary (Carroll et al. 1997, 189).

  • 2

    For reflective interpretation of this data based on qualitative interviews, see Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination (Foster et al. 2006, 109).

  • 3

    This is Mary Hess' description of the state of research into the role of chapel worship in theological education in her preface to Common Worship in Theological Education (Garrigan and Johnson 2010). Ironically, this book focuses entirely on chapel, giving no consideration to classroom worship. Thus, in calling attention to the dearth of critical reflection on seminary chapel, it throws into even greater relief the near total absence of reflection on classroom worship.

  • 4

    At my school, all but two colleagues are ordained, all but a few students intend ecclesial ministry, and our mission statement reads “The mission of North Park Theological Seminary is to glorify God by preparing students to serve the church by proclaiming and living the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

  • 5

    Defining “worship” is a small cottage industry best avoided here. In this essay, I use worship to designate particular acts, whose native home is the corporate worship of the church, by which the class attends to or devotes itself to God. Such acts include, but are not limited to, prayer, singing, silence, reading Scripture, meditation, testimony, a devotional, or other proclamation. The attitude of such worship can range from lament to joy, from hope to thanksgiving, from adoration to intercession. Throughout the essay, I use “common worship” to indicate the social character of gathered worship, and I use “classroom worship” to indicate intentional common worship in a class session.

  • 6

    Educating Clergy suggests that theological educators use classroom prayer or meditation as their most common pedagogical strategy for “practicing the presence of God,” a practice that is “the primary catalyst to and resource for” the pastoral imagination (Foster et al. 2006, 103–09, quote 109).

  • 7

    To Auburn's statement “I rely on God's presence while I teach,” 28.1% indicated “somewhat agree” and 52.1% indicated “strongly agree.” The data cited in this paragraph was provided to me in a personal communication by the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary on September 4, 2009.

  • 8

    This is Ed Searcy's description of his former teacher (Brueggemann 2003, xiii).

  • 9

    Foster et al. give an overview of the different challenges faced by schools with “a shared liturgical tradition” and schools of “diverse liturgical traditions.” Anderson suggests that seminary-sponsored worship “has been and remains problematic” in Protestant seminaries because of three intrinsic polarities: expression and formation, diversity and unity, and congregation and seminary. For an in depth discussion, see Garrigan and Johnson (2010).

  • 10

    Mark Searle offers a lucid summary of the formative power of ritual, suggesting that its core formation is “relationship to God, to one another, to those who have gone before us, to those who will come after us, and to the world as a whole” (2006, 25; see 24–27).

  • 11

    My own observation is confirmed by attendance data from our chapel committee. Such attendance patterns are probably typical at schools with “diverse liturgical traditions,” whereas attendance is often much higher at schools with “a shared liturgical tradition.”Foster et al. report that at Yale, where diversity predominates, about twenty percent of the student body is present for any given service, with “about half the students and many faculty members” participating at least once in a week. Church Divinity School of the Pacific, on the other hand, centers around a formative liturgical tradition; there, “participation is significant” (2006, 277).

  • 12

    See Anderson for three critiques of a smorgasbord approach to seminary chapel (2003, 118–21).

  • 13

    This position of local autonomy rather than denominational authority is embodied in The Covenant Book of Worship, which recognizes “emerging diversity” and “is not meant to limit or curtail” (2003, ix, x).

  • 14

    See also their claim that the implicit curriculum is “found in the rituals and organizational structures, values and assumptions, and patterns of relationship and authority that make up the culture of a school” (Foster et al. 2006, 49).

  • 15

    This step would entail faculty conversation beginning with a description of their current practices. That raw data would allow an analysis of the explicit, implicit, and null curricula. Finally, faculty should converse together about what the implicit curriculum should teach, and what changes in practice would assist that objective. In this process, faculty should attend to the three perennial polarities that every seminary must manage: expressive and formative, unity and diversity, and congregation and seminary (Anderson 2003).