Reflection and Worship Education

May 11th, 2011

As a teenager, I worked as a counselor at an Episcopal summer camp tucked away in the Cascade Mountains. The camp was focused on group process: helping kids grow in their ability to work together in small groups to achieve their goals and learn to better relate to one another. As a counselor, I was introduced to a principle that has informed my work ever since, though I wasn’t always aware of it. At camp, we called it “E + R = L,” or, “Experience + Reflection = Learning.” After a long hike, a chapel service that the kids had planned, or a campout that they had organized, we’d sit the campers down and ask them to reflect on their experience. “What went well about what we just did?” we’d ask them. “What could have gone better?” The kids would pipe up, their statements sometimes mundane or sometimes profound, and, incredibly, I would see that they were learning.

Learning about worship is not a purely intellectual process. It’s important and edifying to teach folks the meaning of the word epiclesis or to discuss the liturgical changes that occurred during the Reformation. At the root of these academic inquiries, however, is the reality that worship is an experience. The theology that is implicit in our worship develops in the hearts and minds of the worshippers in the pews. Therefore, your greatest doorway to the liturgical education of your congregation lies in the experience of your congregants. You only need to know how to help unlock those reflections, as mundane or profound as they might be, to begin the learning process.

So how do you go about facilitating reflective learning?

Create an appropriate venue. This will depend entirely upon the culture and habits of your congregation. However, remember that your congregants will be better able to reflect on their experience in worship if the experience is still fresh in their minds. You might consider convening worship reflection meetings after church or over lunch or setting up a dinner every other week to talk about worship with whomever would like to come. You might also introduce reflection as a regular part of worship planning meetings or other meetings of church leaders. If a longer period of time has elapsed between the worship service and your reflection, bring along worship bulletins to jog your congregants’ memories of the services you’ll be reflecting on.

In whatever context you do your reflection, it’s important to create a space that is open and inviting. Hold your sessions in a comfortable room where everyone can sit in a circle and be seen by one another. Make sure that the space you choose is quiet and free of distractions. In other words, a church hall during coffee hour is not the place for reflecting on worship.

Frame the discussion around simple, experience-based questions. A congregation using the reflective process may ask, “What did you notice?” Asking this question to a group of folks immediately following a worship service can produce extremely rich reflections based in the experience of each congregant.

After asking this question, I will often push folks to reflect more theologically on their experience, asking, “What did that say to you about who God is?” Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions on what a congregant offers. Gently ask congregants to consider the theological concepts implicit in what they have noticed in worship.

It is also effective to structure your reflections around a certain liturgical element of worship, such as the way in which scripture is proclaimed, the experience of movement in a service, or Communion. These reflections are often richest just after a new element has been added to a worship service, as it asks congregants to more carefully consider an experience that might be perceived as negative simply because it is unfamiliar.

Set guidelines and stick to them. Be clear about communicating to your congregants that you are using this time to offer reflections on the experience of worship. Some folks might offer immediate solutions and suggestions for how to change or improve worship. Kindly but firmly redirect them to the question you have asked them to reflect on. It may take a while for your congregants to get the hang of this new process, but after some time and repetition, they will sink into what’s being asked of them, and begin to see value in the conversations.

Keep quiet. Allow your congregants to do the reflection. Don’t offer excuses, explanations, or arguments in response to what they have to say. When speaking purely from experience, no one is wrong. Keep your own thoughts and reflections to yourself, at least for the moment. Do engage what your congregants have to offer. Encourage them to speak, and respond to what they say, but don’t interpret their comments.

Embrace silence. It might take a while for folks to begin to feel comfortable with this process. Don’t be afraid of long periods of silence while people sit and think. Just keep smiling and wait for someone to offer a reflection. Eventually, someone will!

Include children and teenagers. They often have honest and direct reflections to offer on their experience of worship. Bring them into the conversation. It’s important for everyone to hear how they experience the service. If your worship is communicating something to children, you’re probably doing something right.

What will this practice of reflection bring to your congregation? With time, it will help create a culture of reflective liturgical consideration at your church. When you ask a question repeatedly and consistently, people begin to carry that question with them and ask it of themselves. Your congregants will begin to live more deeply into their own experience as worshippers, evaluating their response to worship and developing their theologies with each Sunday ritual.

Reflective practice brings with it a heightened awareness of the experience of others. When you lead your congregation in this kind of sharing, they will begin to see how different perceptions and perspectives of worship can be. What is moving to one person may be trite to another. Reflecting on this allows us to carry our opinions of worship more gently, remembering that everyone experiences worship differently.

Finally, reflecting with your congregation will better enable them to respond and adapt to change. As you experiment with new ideas on Sunday morning, helping your congregants reflect on these new experiences will allow them to deeply consider their immediate reactions and learn through the reactions of others. You’re teaching your congregation to be liturgically flexible, meeting the future not with trepidation, but with a curious spirit.

So how do you go about facilitating reflective learning?

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