by Sandra Brower.
I’ve just returned from a week teaching at Wesley State University in Ondo, Nigeria – about a five-hour drive northeast of Lagos. It was a fresh reminder that theology is, indeed, everywhere. I always jump at the chance to leave my desk, and its associated duties, in order to visit and engage with sisters and brothers in Christ around the world. It’s so good to hear stories which are so different from mine, yet aligned to the story that we share. As soon as we arrived on campus, we were greeted by many different individuals, who had come from various districts to participate in their first week of a Doctor of Ministry programme. One minister shared his desire that we would take away the good and positive stories about his country, as a foil to the negative press we were likely to get on our newsfeeds.
Storytelling is at the forefront of my mind. Back home now, I’ve been madly trying to meet a deadline for the Postgraduate Certificate of Higher Education programme I’m enrolled on this year. My allocated small group has to submit material this week on the topic of ‘storytelling as a learning tool’. It’s been fascinating to look at storytelling as a learning theory; much research supports the claim that ‘whatever we learn, we’re learning it through someone else’s story and through their eyes’ (Ashton & Stone, 2018, p. 147). My week in Nigeria was no exception.
I was invited to deliver lectures on liturgical worship. The Church has long proclaimed the motto lex orandi, lex credendi: as we pray, so we believe. In other words our liturgy leads to and informs our theology. During our week together, the students and I considered the proposition that in corporate worship, we gather together as a community of faith to be guided by the God who seeks after us. The scattered community brings its various stories that have developed in the time apart, gathering once again to have these stories shaped by and oriented to God’s story. At the end of my teaching week, I asked each student to answer the question, ‘what was the most significant learning point this week?’ A common response was the concept that Christian worship starts and ends in community. It doesn’t start with each of us, individually, or even corporately; it starts with the Triune God, a community in his very being, who calls us to worship, gathering us to himself. By his Son and his Spirit, the Father draws us in to participate in the life of God.
One of the PowerPoint slides for my PGCHE group’s presentation on storytelling defines storytelling as ‘a learning tool to make sense of experience’ and a ‘way of knowing that is socially constructed.’ I can’t help but think how this relates to theology and corporate worship. Stated as simply as possible, theology is ‘God-talk’ – talking about God. It is the conviction of many that we can’t engage in this task in any meaningful way unless the God of whom we speak reveals himself to us. If he doesn’t, how on earth can we know what to say? But where is God revealed to us?
When I lecture on worship, I often come back to David Peterson’s (1992, p. 20) definition of worship as ‘an engagement with [God], on the terms that he proposes, and in a way that he alone makes possible.’ In worship, we don’t simply gather to talk about God, we meet with him. The Latin motto begins to make sense. Worship is the fount of theology, because it is where we meet with God, and come to know him. And in coming to know God, we come to know and understand ourselves. It is in this engagement, then, that our stories become meaningful and we are, indeed, able to make sense of our experience.
I find it frustrating when worship leaders assume that we call ourselves to corporate worship (the latest fashion being ‘countdowns’ to worship). It turns the framework of Christian worship on its head – we gather ourselves to call on God, often expressed in an initial time of songs of praise and adoration. Certainly corporate worship must incorporate our adoration and praise, but these must always be understood in the context of response. Worship leaders (and planners) are instrumental in determining whether or not our worship, from the outset, expresses a gospel of grace. If whatever we learn is indeed through someone else’s story and through their eyes, let it be God’s story and through God’s eyes. Then, and only then, will we have eyes to see and ears to hear the good and positive stories my Nigerian brother challenged us to bear witness to.
Peterson, David (1992), Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press)