Multiple Intelligences in Worship

February 20th, 2012

When liturgy works, each worshiper is spiritually touched by some element of the worship service. When it doesn't, each person knows that as well. To better assure the former more often than the latter, worship leaders must have an awakened awareness of how to put in place that which makes worship work.

We are not monolithic people. Many personalities and levels of spiritual experience comprise a worshiping audience. What inspires some may be dullsville for others. The fact is that multiple intelligences make up each congregation. Everybody is “intelligent” in some way, or “a combination of ways.” (Howard Gardner introduced the concept of multiple intelligences in his book, Frames Of Mind, 1983). Each person responds to particular sounds, rhythm, volume, sights, people, he or she experiences worship. Something must “touch” the emotions, inspiring that person to feel visited by the Holy, which is what true worship is.

Some glimpses of recent worship services reveal the following scenarios, sharing components of worship which tease out particular intelligences at work in worshipers.

He was four years old, barely visible behind the set of snare drums that he played so jubilantly. Steady cadence flowed from rhythm of drumstick upon drum, coaxing from the instrument sounds of joy and excitement, restrained and dignified, belying the tender age of the drummer.

A mother and daughter danced together in choreographed rhythm. Their movements ebbed, flowed, glided, painting collages of a soul obeying her Lord; witnessing that sometimes you just gotta dance.

Perched on chair, saxophone protruding from poised lips, little Joey, age 12, played “Amazing Grace,” allowing the melody to flow smoothly into the enraptured congregation, carrying listeners to a spiritual place where grace made its mark in their souls.

Tradition echoes in sounds of the tried and true renditions of hymns we love, flowing gently, caressing the troubled mind, soothing the aching heart; reminding all that God is love and is present, in each one, in the midst of them, sustaining strength and inspiration, reviving tired souls, animating hands and feet to keep time and rhythm with their God.

A more staccato rhythm, part of Black Church tradition, Gospel music moves the nimble of spirit to swing, sway, clap, shout.

With dreadlocks to his shoulders, guitar perched on knee, Edmund Stewart teases the audience with the haunting lyrics from Jesus Christ Superstar, “I Don't Know How to Love Him.” What a teaching moment!

I had the thrill of interpreting for our youth gathering the meaning of the words of the song. That is, the song captures what were, perhaps, Mary Magdalene's conflicting emotions about the holy man that Jesus was. Men had only cared about her body. Jesus wanted her soul. She didn't know how to love like that. Jesus showed her how.

Multiple Intelligence Theory names specific intelligences:

  • linguistic intelligence: the ability to use words effectively, orally or written, or both
  • logical-mathematical intelligence: the capacity to use numbers effectively
  • spatial intelligence: the ability to perceive accurately the visual-spatial world such as with color, space, shapes, etc
  • bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: the use of the whole body to express ideas and feelings as an athlete or dancer
  • musical intelligence: the ability to perceive, discriminate, transform and express musical forms
  • interpersonal intelligence: perceiving and making distinctions in mood, motivations and feelings of other people
  • intrapersonal intelligence: self-knowledge and the ability to act based on that self-knowledge which includes having an accurate assessment of oneself (i.e. strengths, limitations, temperament) with the capacity for self-discipline, self-understanding and self-esteem

With some basic knowledge of Multiple Intelligence Theory as resource, planning worship can be invigorating as the worship committee adds variation to patterns of worship. The purpose of worship is to enable a deeper awareness of one's closeness and connection to the Holy. By offering different forms of expressions of worship, a congregation experiences a range of possibilities to witness the touch of the Divine. Such experience is received in life-enhancing ways.

When planning worship for multiple intelligences, think of a flower garden rather than a tulip patch. It is ok, even preferable, to utilize more than one worship resource at a time. Let the make up of your worship committee reflect diversity in gender, age, gifts, race, and experiences to embrace the make up of your congregation. Search out from your congregation dancers, musicians, dramatists, speakers, and graphic artists. You will be pleasantly surprised at what you will find.

Case in point. Two years ago, I appealed to our worship committee (two women, two men, and a youth) to assist me in developing variety in our worship services. At this time, I had not heard of Multiple Intelligence Theory. I felt the need for us to be more eclectic in our expressions of worship. We went forth with a worship service including a drummer, guitarist, a children's choir, a youth choir, liturgical dance, piano, and organ. Each offered its respective gift of music and participation, and the congregation was elated! This diversity in worship style helped our small congregation to turn the corner from its plateaued status to embrace many future possibilities in that area of our life together, appealing to the multiple intelligences of the worshiping audience.

The most common worship elements of sermon and song tend to appeal mainly to the linguistic and musical intelligences. More contemporary churches also appeal to bodily-kinesthetic intelligence through dance and music people can clap and move along to. But there is more we can all do to make sure we connect with each worshiper in a way that they best connect with.

  • Those with logical-mathematical intelligence will appreciate statistics and research. A digital ticker counting the number of children who have died of preventable disease during the service complements a worship focus on mission and healing.
  • Those with spatial intelligence will be inspired by visual art and creative use of the worship space, rearrangement of seating and other furnishings, etc.
  • Those with interpersonal intelligence will be especially enriched by a time of sharing with other congregants. Consider a time of discussion after the sermon or a time to share concerns and pray in small groups.
  • Those with intrapersonal intelligence will enjoy opportunities for self-reflection. Silent time for reflection on the message, encouragement to journal one's own response, or a self-assessment will help these individuals grow in faith.

Refuse to believe that your congregation is too old, too small . . . any of those superlatives that render you impotent to change. People can adapt to new things better than we think, especially if innovations in worship reach each person at a personal level. I often quote Psalm 92:14: “They shall bring forth fruit in old age, they shall be fat and flourishing.” To that, I say “amen.” And, I invite you to open a new window in your worship, receive the fresh wind of the Spirit moving in different ways for all your people.


Adapted from an article that originally appeared in Circuit Rider magazine. Used by permission.

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