Reflections on the 2020 Quarantine

This season of quarantine has affected all of us in different ways. I am a professor of worship arts at Grace College in Winona Lake, IN and a part-time worship pastor at Winona Lake Grace Brethren Church. As I reflect on the impact of the lockdown on learning in the classroom and worship for our local church families, there are some interesting similarities. I am grateful for technology and the ways that we have been able to stay connected, even if artificially, via the internet. However, teaching music lessons, giving a lecture, or watching a worship service online is not the same as participating together in meaningful learning and worship with students and our local church families. Meaningful experiences of learning and worship can occur in homes, but the community misses out when they are separated from the larger body of Christ. 

An essential embodied experience of learning and worshiping develops when Christ-followers participate together in community. The New Testament references at least 30 “one another” passages,[1] one of which is Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (ESV). In 1 Corinthians 14:26 the Apostle Paul writes, “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (ESV).  New Testament worship was communal and for the building up of the Body of Christ. Exercising spiritual gifts becomes difficult when the body does not meet as a local church. The word “church,” ekklēsía in the original Greek means the assembly or called out ones. Most Christ-followers would agree with the above argument but there are some “online only” churches that existed before the Covid-19 pandemic. The static nature of delivering information online during this quarantine, whether for an academic course or a worship service, has revealed some fundamental issues in our paradigms that may have been there all along. 

In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer addresses this static nature of education.[2]  I see similarities between the pattern of worship in the Bible and the active learning paradigm in Palmer’s work.[3] Palmer describes fostering community in the classroom in sacramental terms as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, the flowing of personal identity and integrity into the world of relationships.”[4] The author describes our educational system, which mainly delivers information through lectures, as reflective of the Enlightenment and Modernity. His observations on Western educational pedagogy sound similar to the Free-church practice of the liturgy, which places truth as the object, filtered through an expert, and distributed on to the participants or congregants.[5] This model essentially makes the congregation passive as they listen to a lecture-type sermon. Palmer suggests that teachers should not think of truth as an object, but as the subject and to help their students engage in active learning and listening. God in his community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, invites us to engage with him, commune with him, in a dialogue of revelation and response through the liturgy. 

Russell Mitman in his book, Worship in the Shape of Scripture says “Scripture has the innate capacity to shape, not only the sermon . . . but the whole of the liturgical action itself  . . . The entire worship event intends to become a proclamatory encounter with the Word of God . . .”[6] The liturgy should not be mere descriptions about God, but also an invitation for the gathered community of worshipers to engage in a dialogue with God.[7] Mitman finds patterns of human/divine encounter throughout scripture and summarizes them in the following way:[8] 

  • Call to worship - some divine interruption from God. 
  • Confession - some human awareness and acknowledgment of a discontinuity between divine and human. 
  • Word - God has a Word. 
  • Response - The Word spoken will become the Word enacted. 
  • Dismissal/Sending 

How does the biblical pattern of worship help us in thinking about engaging students and worshipers in effective learning? The pattern we see from Scripture is that there needs to be a call to worship. From a pedagogical perspective, we could begin with casting a vision for what we are teaching, calling the students to the area of study for a particular course. This creates an interruption, if you will, into their world-view, introducing paradigms that they may have never thought about, and challenging their preconceptions about their world.  This is related to Piaget’s theory of disequilibrium.[9] What if worshipers encountered a transcendent God who called us to consider his holiness and glory?

Next, there needs to be a time for confession - an awareness of the discontinuity between who we are in light of God’s character and where we are in relation to our knowledge of him or the subject at hand. This allows participants to respond, recognizing the chasm that exists between where they are now in their journey and where they need to be. In his book, Discussion as a Way of Teaching, Stephen Brookfield encourages educators to use “buzz groups” in their lectures,[10] periodically breaking into small groups to answer the following questions: What is the most important point being made so far? What question would you most like to have answered?  What is confusing or ambiguous? In educational pedagogy, this relates to Vygotsky’s theory, discovering a student’s zone of proximal development.[11] 

Thirdly, we see in the biblical pattern of worship that God has a Word. God does not intend for his Word to us to be only an intellectual exercise. Deuteronomy 6:4-9, The Shema, says that we love God with our entire being. The word “heart” in the passage implies the mind as well, which is why Jesus mentions it when he recites the Great Commandment (Matt 22:36). His commands must be on our hearts. We must teach right doctrine but it involves our hearts as well as our minds. I believe that God has wired us in such a way that our heart’s desires are linked to our minds ability to learn effectively. 

James Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, in his book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, suggests an alternative orientation to how we engage our world.[12] Challenging the Enlightenment’s philosophy reflected in Descartes’ axiom, I think therefore I am, Smith reminds readers that God has not created us primarily as thinking-beings but as loving-beings. Our hearts and lives are more oriented by what we desire. Our cognitive functions help us to fix our desires on the right objects.[13] Are the issues we see in the church today related to a general worldliness or lack of obedience to God due to a deficit of knowledge? Or are they linked to our diminutive desire for God? Are we awakening in God’s people, both in the church and the classroom, a passion for experiencing all that God is for us in Christ that will compel them to pursue him with all of their being? 

Lastly, we see the biblical pattern of worship leading us to respond to God’s revelation. “The Word spoken will become the Word enacted.”[14]  Brookfield suggests that we “End every lecture with a series of questions that your lecture has raised or left unanswered.”[15] The gathered church needs an opportunity to respond to God’s Word. The Lord’s Supper is the historic response of the church to the Word. If churches do not celebrate the Lord’s Table each week, they should not leave God’s Word in the theoretical but offer an alternative time of response. 

Whether in corporate worship or the classroom, are we able to engage with God and with each other through the online medium? Has this season of quarantine uncovered some fundamental deficiencies in our teaching and worship paradigms? Our classroom environment and liturgies should not be mere descriptions about God (or any other subject we may be engaging with) but should be an invitation for the gathered community of worshipers/students to engage in a dialogue with God. 

[1] NT one-another passages are listed at the end of this paper. 

[2] The following discussion was originally published in Brath, Walter John. Enhancing the Significance of the Lord's Supper for Worship Arts Students at Grace College and Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. 2018.

[3] Active learning recognizes the lecture model of the Enlightenment and Modernity as less effective for student comprehension and seeks to engage students in the learning process through discussion, exercises, and projects. See Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2017), and J. Wesley Baker, “The Classroom Flip: Using Web Course Management Tools to Become the Guide by the Side” Selected Papers from the 11th International Conference on College Teaching and Learning (2000), 9-17. 

[4] Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life, 92. 

[5] Ibid., 103. 

[6] F. Russell Mitman, Worship in the Shape of Scripture (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2009), ix. 

[7] Mitman, Worship in the Shape of Scripture, 84. 

[8] Ibid., 43. 

[9] Piaget’s theory states that students learn best when they encounter a problem or issue (disequilibrium) and work towards solving it (equilibrium). See Jean Piaget and Arnold Rosin, The Development of Thought: Equilibration of Cognitive Structures (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978). 

[10] Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill, Discussion As a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for University Teachers (Buckingham: Open Univ. Press, 2010). 

[11] Vygotsky’s theory suggests that the teacher helps students to understand what they do not know and what it will take to learn and develop. See Lev Vygotsky, The Zone of Proximal Development (London: Routledge, 1999). 

[12] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011). 

[13] See also Jen Pollock Michel, Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition & the Life of Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014). 

[14] Mitman, Worship in the Shape of Scripture, 43. 

[15] Brookfield, Discussion As a Way of Teaching, 70. 

NT one-another passages:  

1. Be at peace with each other (Mk 9:50)  

2. Love one another (Jn 13:34)  

3. Be joined to one another (Ro 12:5)  

4. Be devoted to one another (Ro 12:10)  

5. Honor one another (Ro 12:10)  

6. Rejoice with one another (Ro 12:15)  

7. Weep with one another (Ro 12:15)  

8. Live in harmony with one another (Ro 12:16)  

9. Accept one another (Ro 15:7)  

10. Counsel one another (Ro 15:14)  

11. Greet one another (Ro 16:16)  

12. Agree with each other (1 Co 1:10)  

13. Wait for one another (1Co 11:33)  

14. Care for one another (1Co 12:25)  

15. Serve one another (Gal 5:13)  

16. Carry one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2)  

17. Be kind to one another (Eph 4:32)  

18. Forgive one another (Eph 4:32)  

19. Submit to one another (Eph 5:21)  

20. Bear with one another (Col 3:13)  

21. Teach, admonish each other (Col 3:16)  

22. Encourage one another (1Th 5:11)  

23. Build up one another (1Th 5:11)  

24. Spur one another on (Heb 10:24)  

25. Offer hospitality to one another (1Pe 4:9)  

26. Minister gifts to one another (1Pe 4:10)  

27. Be humble toward one another (1Pe 5:5)  

28. Confess your sins to one another (Jas 5:16)  

29. Pray for one another (Jas 5:16)  

30. Fellowship with one another (1Jn 1:7)