THE LITURGY OF LEARNING
By Rev. Dr. José Abraham De Jesús-Rivera
THE MOVEMENTS OF THE LITURGY OF LEARNING
Gathering for the Word
Engaging the Word
Responding to the Word
Going with the Word
Worship is expressed through liturgy, which comprises the various elements we use to respond in a meaningful way to God. In exploring liturgy, a number of questions must be raised. What is liturgy? What is the liturgy of learning? What are the movements of the liturgy of learning?
The word liturgy comes from the Greek leitourgia which is from laòs, meaning people, and árgon, meaning work. Liturgy has to do with people and work. In ancient Greece it referred to public work, "something performed for the benefit of the city or state. The meaning was the same as paying taxes, but the liturgy could involve donated service as well as taxes."1 Liturgy is the work of the people for the benefit of the people. The term came to be used primarily to describe the active participation of the congregation in the worship service. In Luke 1:23 it describes the services of worship in the temple; however, in Hebrews 8:6 it acquired a new meaning, Jesus became the mediator of the new covenant, which is critical to understanding Christian liturgy. Today we continue to use the term in its former descriptive meaning; it denotes what is done in church or the text of what is done in church.
Earlier we stated some of the reasons why we need a new approach to church education. All church educators know that we have moved with the various waves, theories, and practices of the schooling model of education. The questions we have to ask ourselves are: Is there a different way of doing church education? Is it possible to break the cycle that for many years has guided local church education that is, that Christian education is for children and youth, and worship is for adults? Many people throughout the church are searching for answers. Some of these people are desperate, because of the church's failure to communicate and pass on the Christian faith and heritage not only to the new generation but to other generations as well.
The ecology of the church has changed completely. The church is no longer the center of the community, nor is it the center of the family. Everybody is so involved in private, individual concerns that little time is spent going to church, studying the Bible, or learning about the denomination, or their own faith community's history and heritage. The baby boom generation is seeking refuge through every possible avenue, to litter or no avail. Many think they have found it in the new evangelical movement, the TV evangelists, and the megachurches. But time has shown to many that there are no quick fixes to faith issues. The hunger and thirst are still present in their lives, and the church needs to reexamine its practices, including how we have been educating our congregations.
The liturgy of learning is a new approach. It changes how we can experience the scriptures in the context of the community of faith and how can we grow in faith. Earlier we stated that faith cannot be taught but must be experienced and caught in an environment that creates the right atmosphere for an encounter with the Word of God. The liturgy of learning is strongly anchored in the premise that experience is essential to the understanding and development of faith. Learning in this sense is an integrated and integrating act in which experience is organized and transformed, creating a new way of being and a new way of knowing, what I call the faith way of knowing.
C. Ellis Nelson has made a profound analysis of the concept of experience:
Experience is not only the great teacher; it is also the great unifier of all the diverse things that make up our lives. By its very nature, experience starts and stops with a set of circumstances. Some experiences say, an automobile accident are brief, although the meaning of the accident may linger for years. Other experiences, such as a war or a marriage, may last for decades. But what we call experience can usually be described as having a beginning and an end, even though it flows along with many other events in the stream of time.2
Our lives are made up of experiences. If an experience is strong enough, we will remember it for a long time, but if the experience is insignificant, we will forget it, or it will go into our memory bank. Experiences shape who we are and can even deform who we are. In modern psychology, it is understood that certain types of experiences can have a lasting impact on human life and behavior. Sometimes we mix two or more experiences in order to make sense of a particular situation.
It is important to understand that when we talk about experience, we are talking about somethng very subjective. Two people can go through the same set of experiences, either perceived or lived, and arrive at a very different interpretation of those experiences. Experiences are always interpreted by who we are; we each have a set of lenses through which we see. Without entering into a formal discussion of some of those lenses; there are several points worth mentioning. One of the most significant factors in interpreting experience is culture. It is culture that gives us the language, the values, and the psychological and sociological schemes we use to process much of what we perceive. Another influence on how we interpret experience is our social environment, which consists of the people we continuously relate to people from the workplace, people where we live, and people in the particular communities in which we participate, like the church. A third significant factor in interpreting experience is past experiences. Most of the time we analyze our experiences based on former ones. Another factor is education, which equips us with various tools and skills that can help or hinder how effictively we interpret experience.
We have to remember that from birth, and some would say before, that we are learning through observation and by living through different types of experiences. As we grow we keep adding more and more new experiences, and we start judging, behaving, and acting based on what we have learned through past experiences. When we participate in the church we have different types of experiences religious ones and a new set of lenses through which we interpret all our experiences.
As Ellis Nelson has remarked, "Experience that is religiously interpreted is similar to any other experience; the difference lies in the interpretation and in what we conclude from it."3 Many of our experiences can be interpreted religiously. In this sense we are doing theology, because we are introjecting theological meaning to something that happens to us. For many people it is difficult to understand that when they do this kind of thinking they are, in fact, doing theology. One of the convictions of the United Church of Christ that the Division of Education and Publication affirms is that theology belongs to the believers. Nelson has observed that theology, as Anselm said, is faith seeking understanding. Experience and thinking about experience are in a dialectical relation to each other. Without experience, there is little religion to think about; but experience, being extremely personal, needs critical reflection in order that it be instructive for other believers.4 It is at this point that critical reflection is done not only by the individual, but by the whole community of faith. When our personal experiences are placed in dialogue with the faith and the heritage of our particular communities of faith, we find not only meaning and affirmation, but also new faith. The most important part of this process is what is concluded from the analysis. What Nelson calls the residue of experience: "Faith as a residue of experience with God is not a doctrine but a feeling or a sense of confidence that one is related to an unseen holy Will that is concerned for the condition of human life everywhere. As such, faith is an underlying mood, outlook, or stance toward everything."5
Faith gives us a new sense of identity and purpose of who we are and why we are here. It is a new way of knowing and a new way of being. Our life is profoundly affected by our faith how we approach different circumstances and experiences, how we relate to our sisters and brothers, how we relate to institutions, how we judge, how we behave in society, and how we participate in the creation and re-creation of this world. Although faith has been associated with certain beliefs, it is more than just beliefs; it is a new way of being. It is to be a new creature, a new creation in Jesus as the Christ.
The last issue we will explore regarding experience is that shared experiences are critical in the development of our faith. One of our challenges is figuring out how to help people experience the presence of God as described in our tradition. The solution is a congregation where leaders create an awareness of God's will for present life situations through worship, education, and service. Amid such congregational life, an individual's faith will mature through shared experiences.6 As we know, two persons can have the same experience and arrive at a different interpretation. An important role that the community of faith has is to assist in the understanding of such experiences and give them meaning according to the community's beliefs, traditions, and heritage. By sharing our experiences, and by analyzing and re-constructing them within the community of faith, our personal faith, as well as the faith of others, will grow. Later we will discuss how most of our experiences are what we can call our stories, because we have given them some meaning and they become significant to our lives and to our faith.
However, another school of thought proposes that we can provide learning experiences just by telling people what they should know. To accomplish this, we subject them to a curriculum of teaching, and as long as we develop a good set of goals, objectives and, activities to simulate a particular environment, they will learn. This is specifically what the schooling model of teaching has been doing for a long time. However, the fact is that schooling, as a sole way of education, has been under heavy attack for quite some time.7 Whether we can teach faith in the same way is the crux of the question. Is faith something different from science, mathematics, social studies, and other disciplines? Is faith something that goes beyond the scientific method? If it is, then we should find ways to help people enter into a dialogue with the scriptures and their own personal experiences.
Another issue that merits our attention is faith as a way of knowing. Earlier we talked about how religion gives us a new set of lenses through which we interpret our experiences. If learning is an integrated and integrating act in which experience is organized and transformed, creating a new way of being and of knowing, then faith is one way we organize and integrate our experiences to create a new way of knowing the faith way of knowing. The problem is to try to define faith. We have to be aware that when we talk about faith, we are not talking about a particular set of beliefs but of an awareness of the presence of God and God's will for us and all human beings. Faith is something that can only be described as trusting in a Supreme Being, in a relationship with God. The apostle Paul said: The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God (Romans 14:22a). As Ellis Nelson has noted, faith creates beliefs as a way of expressing the contents of that faith: The faith relationship produces beliefs that express the meaning of a person's or group's relationship to God during a particular historical moment. However, we must not equate faith with belief in an absolute way. Faith is a reality greater than any documented beliefs, a fact with weighty significance.8
When we talk about faith as a way of knowing, we are verbalizing how our relationship with God helps us to understand and organize our experiences in such a way as to create a new vision, a new way of seeing reality, and a new way of expressing relationships. By sharing those experiences in the community of faith we can find unseen ways of knowing and understanding. This is what the liturgy of learning is all about a process of using faith as a way of knowing. James Michael Lee has remarked: Faith, the gift totally of God, occurs only in and through personal experience. Thus religious experience, active as well as passive, is faith's medium and mÃ©tier, and in no way is alien or somehow opposed to faith.9
THE MOVEMENTS OF THE LITURGY OF LEARNING
The liturgy of learning approach is based on four movements Gathering for the Word, Engaging the Word, Responding to the Word, and Going with the Word which correspond with four movements of the church worship service. (The only exception is the confessional movement of worship.) Let's explore some of the intricacies of this new approach to church education.
Gathering for the Word
The purpose of Gathering for the Word is to call people into God's presence and to prepare them to engage the scriptures. It provides a time for reflection and meditation, a time to acknowledge the presence of the divine in the process of engaging the whole community in learning.
This movement also establishes the environment and creates an atmosphere of trust, which is essential for growth in faith. The use of symbols is important in preparing the environment. Our faith is expressed with symbols, and symbols are one of the most powerful tools of teaching. Friedrich Rest, in Our Christian Symbols commented:
There are two great values in symbols: devotional and educational. We say that there is a devotional value in symbols because they help to remind us of the Christian faith; they create an atmosphere for worship. . . . Probably the greatest value in symbols is educational. It is surprisingly profitable and refreshing for adults as well as for children to approach the cardinal ideas of Christianity through church symbols.10
We constantly use symbols to represent a reality or an idea and to give it meaning. Symbols can be seen as falling into three categories: visual, aural, and kinetic. Visual symbols are those that stimulate our brain through the use of images paintings, photographs, sculpture, stained glass, and architectural forms are examples. Aural symbols excite our brain through sound waves that are processed by our ears. We hear many sounds in nature that immediately communicate something to us. Music is an aural symbol that communicates a message to us. We can view music as the art of arranging sounds in time in such a way that they become a language of communication in itself. Whenever we hear Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture or Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, we not only receive a set of sounds bound together, but understand a whole message that the composer is trying to communicate to us. The third category of symbols is kinetic. Kinetic symbols represent movement, as in dance, and there are a number of ways we can use them to communicate a message. Pantomime for example, communicates solely through movement. However, kinetic symbols are not necessarily previously rehearsed. We use them all the time in our body language, and in many instances they communicate more than words can.
Symbols are part of our human fabric and part of how we learn. They are socially created and accepted by specific communities to whom their use gives existential meaning. Charles Stinnette called symbols mediators of value as well as of learning. The ability to use symbols underlies the power of man to establish and maintain communal existence.11 Symbols also represent most of what is stored in on our unconscious. In James Michael Lee's words, symbols are a rich, dynamic, and potent form of knowing because much of it arises from the unconscious where all the elements which gave it birth enjoy unfettered interplay with all the other aspects of one's individual personality, both profound and shallow.12
Gathering for the Word can be enriched significantly by the use of church symbols and any other form of symbolic representation of our human nature. Both music and painting can be a key element in creating an environment for the liturgy of learning approach. Usually, when we are given the opportunity to experience any form of symbols, our imagination runs free and some of our unconscious knowledge is immediately triggered and brought forward. In that interaction plus sharing of the community's own understanding of it's vision and imagination, our faith is touched, and a new way of knowing is developed the faith way of knowing.
Among other things, Gathering for the Word brings the greeting of individuals as people of God, as well as the opportunity to create an environment of trust and love. It gives individuals the occasion to share their personal experiences and to place them in dialogue with the focus scripture for the day. Other Gathering experiences might include: suggestions for prayer, meditation, silence, room setting, liturgical/ritual arts, group-building exercises, use of art, playing games, values-clarification exercises, journal entries, and various physical activities.13
Engaging the Word
Engaging the Word is the second and by far the most important movement in the liturgy of learning. It corresponds with the third movement of worship, Proclamation. Its main purpose is to make the reading of the scriptures accessible to the participants and help them interact with the text a very crucial step, especially in dealing with people who consider themselves to be Bible illiterates. There are two very important issues in this movement: the hermeneutic of the text, and the dialectical hermeneutic between the participants' stories/experiences and the Story/Scriptures.
Hermeneutics, a part of linguistic sciences, studies the methodological principles involved in the interpretation of verbal content. There is, however, a difference between the plural hermeneutics and the singular hermeneutic. James Michael Lee puts it this way: While traditional hermeneutics is concerned with the theoretical aspects of the science of textual interpretation, hermeneutic focuses its primary attention on the way in which (1) verbal content was and particularly is (2) understood by the person.14 The basic problem with hermeneutic is, how do we interpret a text that was written for other people in another culture a long time ago?
Thomas Groome has suggested a three-point method of doing hermeneutic: hermeneutic of retrieval, hermeneutic of suspicion, and hermeneutic of creative commitment to the text.15
By hermeneutic of retrieval we mean the effort the educator makes to engage the participants in order to discern, affirm, cherish, and make accessible the life-giving truths and values in the Christian Story. The purpose is to help the student understand the text in its original meaning and throughout the faith and tradition of the church. For that reason the educator needs the aid of resources such as Bible dictionaries, Bible commentaries, concordances, and any other resource that helps uncover the original meaning of the text. In certain ways, it attempts to break time and space limitations in order to understand, and help the participants understand, the real truth behind the words used to describe a particular event. In this process of retrieval, the educator must be conscious that the text represents the interpretation of the Christ event based on the faith and experience of those who heard the words of Jesus as the Christ or those who in one way or another experience the call from God, like the prophets. Robert Funk, analyzing the concept of text, states:
The Christian faith, however, claims that God once spoke to man in Jesus Christ. In the strictest sense Jesus is therefore the text of the proclamation. . . . Faith, for its part, responds to the event of Christ with confession, which, formally speaking, leaves the deposit in the New Testament as text.16
So whenever we retrieve the text we are also retrieving it as a confession of those whose life and faith were affected by the message of Jesus as the Christ.
The second point is hermeneutic of suspicion. By this Groome means to address the false consciousness and distortions in the original text as well as its accepted interpretations. Sometimes erroneous interpretations have led to social, religious, and personal legitimation of negative actions. The hermeneutic of suspicion also alerts us to our own mistaken interpretations of the text. An example is how the American Protestant church manipulated the Bible, especially Paul's letters, to establish and maintain a slavery system. Preachers/teachers and church educators need to continuously engage themselves in the process of suspicion with the accepted interpretations of the text. They should also be aware that many messages of the text that are considered dangerous or subversive have been kept silent in the tradition of the church. So the process is not only to uncode erroneous interpretations but also to look for intentional omissions, for both represent a threat to those who historically have made the interpretations of the text.
The third point in Groome's method is hermeneutic of creative commitment. This hermeneutic helps participants to construct more adequate understanding of the Christian Story/Vision and to envision more faithful ways of living it with personal and social transformation.17 The role of the educator in this process is to help participants discover or rather, re-discover the meaning of the Story (the text and its traditions) in their personal lives in dialogue with the text. For such an enterprise both memory and imagination are essential. Memory recalls ways in which we or somebody else was touched by a particular text or transformed by it. This does not mean that we all have been affected by a particular text, but in our pilgrimage we might have heard it, and in one way or another it may mean something to us. Imagination is essential because it is the best way we can mentally and spiritually play with the text. Imagination creates new metaphors to use in talking about our encounter with particular texts. Metaphors provide new meaning to our understanding and to our faith way of knowing. As Funk has said, Metaphors redirect attention, not to this or that attribute but, by means of imaginative shock, to a circumspective whole that presents itself as focalized in this or that thing or event. Metaphor involves a 'soft,' as opposed to a sharp, focus.18
When we discover the text anew, we can grasp its meaning in our lives and, as a result make new commitments and create new ways of living. Thus the power of the transformational process of the hermeneutical cycle can be realized when we engage the text, establish a dialogue between the text (Story) and our particular story (experience), and return to the text to find a new commitment for our life.
The second issue in the movement of Engaging the Word is the dialectical hermeneutic between the Story/Scriptures and our own stories/experiences. The dialectical process calls everything into question. The dialectical hermeneutic calls into question our stories/experiences based on the Story/Scriptures. The goal is to establish a dialogue between the Story/Scriptures and our own stories/experiences.
Every day we process different types of experiences shaped by our culture, our environment, our relationships with other experiences, and our education; they become the material from which we create our story. Our story is internalized and enriched by the diversity of experiences we have had. The ability to understand and to reflect upon our personal stories, to question them, to look for signs of God's presence in them, is the dialectical hermeneutic.
There are several ways we can engage people into thinking and telling their stories, including questioning, painting, group discussions, and active sharing in small groups. Some people may be hesitant about telling their story. It has been my experience that when they are given the proper environment and the trust of the group, they will eventually participate. We can assure people that faith growth is a process; it is something we grow into rather than something static. John Westerhoff describes this as a faithing process: Shared experience, story telling, celebration, action, and reflection between and among equal 'faithing' selves within a community of faith best helps us understand how faith is transmitted, expanded, and sustained.19
When we have this interaction between our stories/experiences in light of how they have affected our faith and our relationship with God and other people in our community of faith, in our family, in our work, in the totality of our lives we are doing what is appropriate for the church to do: theology. As Ellis Nelson has said, Theology does not reveal truth but relates the mind to the truth revealed.20 We are helping people to understand their relationship with God in their daily lives and to express that relationship. We are helping them in their faith seeking understanding.
The challenge we are posing is to see how important it is for the people in the churches to begin a process of doing theology instead of just hearing someone talk about theology. Theology is much more than an academic theory about God to which we assent. It is the way we as Christians look at the world, our lives, and our relationships through a special lens the lens of Christianity and it is also a perspective on life.
Anthony B. Robinson wrote the following in a foundation paper on the local church:
We would suggest an older understanding of theology: that theology is to be part of the life of the believer. To be a Christian is to practice theology. Theology is first and foremost a perspective on life. The word perspective in its origins means something we look through. Christian theology is like a lens through which we look at life, at ourselves, and at others. It is a way of seeing and being. It is a way of constructing the world and our experience. It is not only a perspective in life one that is centered in God and God's revelation in Jesus Christ it also involves practices that sustain and embody that perspective.21
The purpose of engaging people in the process of dialectical hermeneutics is to help them relate to the Story/Scriptures based on their own personal experiences, to analyze those experiences, and to look to the signs of God's presence in their lives and in the life of the community of faith. This is something that should be emphasized. So many people are hungry for meaning in their lives that the teaching ministry of the church needs to help them look for those moments when God was revealed to them in ways they were not aware of. The church should provide an opportunity for members to examine their stories/experiences and see how a particular passage speaks to them. How was God present in this particular situation? Did I feel sustained or abandoned? What Story/Scripture relates to particular moments of my life? What has the community of faith said in the past? What is my community of faith saying now about a particular Story/Scripture? What relevance has a particular Story/Scripture had in my own faith journey or in that of someone dear to me? These are questions that every one of us can relate to. By opening the opportunity to engage in sharing, in reflecting, in questioning our stories/experiences based on the Story/Scripture, we are providing the most profound means of helping people relate their daily lives to their faith. At the same time we are helping people to do theology, to look at life through that special lens we chose to wear when we decided to be Christians.
Responding to the Word
The third movement of the liturgy of learning is Responding to the Word. This movement corresponds with the response in the worship service. Sid Fowler describes it this way:
This movement engages participants in such a way that they may make commitments, take actions, or identify new insights/understandings. The responses may either be individual or corporate. The responding may call for individual spiritual or moral change or for public/social/political action. The movement may also provide opportunities to learn and experience ways the church's heritage, as well as other cultures, has responded to the readings.22
One of the most difficult tasks of any educational approach is to help people to move from being mere spectators to becoming active participants. It is especially difficult in this society, where individual privacy is so prized. For many Christians faith is an area of their life that they consider private. This makes it difficult to relate faith issues to a larger context for the benefit of all people. James M. Wall made this observation:
In a book entitled Habits of the Heart, taken from De Tocqueville's phrase, five co-authors, headed by Robert Bellah, of the University of California, Berkeley, surveyed a number of Americans to find out to what extent individualism, which this new nation felt was so important to its own freedom, was now affecting culture. De Tocqueville had concluded that one aspect of American character, the belief that each individual must be free to pursue his or her own good, could become a danger to the larger common good.23
A number of questions relate to this particular matter. For example, to what extent are people in our local churches affected by individualism? How is the mission of the church hindered when people cannot make the connection between their faith and the sociopolitical realities of our world? And above all, what is the purpose of education in a local congregation besides teaching the basic beliefs? Is the Good News of the gospel just a personal possession, or will it move the larger society to change and to promote transformation?
In this time and place, church education faces a challenge. Whether we accept it or not, education is always political it can move people to action to transform society, or it can make the claim to be neutral and thus benefit the status quo. In other words, we can challenge the structures of our society or else bless the hegemony of social classes. Michael Warren, in Faith, Culture, and the Worshiping Community, has said:
Basically hegemony is a process by which the consent of the dominated classes is obtained for programs not in their best interest. The dominant classes shape the issues in such a way that these issues seem to embrace the needs and interests of the subordinate groups, at the same time that they mask and hide the deeper, controlling and directing interests of the dominant. For those who insist on ignoring the significance of class structures, hegemony is irreversible. Hegemony then is not raw coercion; it is one group's orchestration of compliance in another group through structuring the consciousness of the second group. Hegemony is by its nature covert, and because it shapes consciousness and action, religious persons need to understand how it works.24
One manifestation of this hegemony is the consumerist society we live in. Large national and economic interests control our society by means of expensive advertising on radio and television and in print, creating a false need to spend money on things we do not require. This is not coercion in the strict sense, but it is controlling and directing. The result is that powerful interest groups and/or companies control many segments of our society including those who make the laws and those who will eventually protect these groups at the expense of the larger society. Unfortunately, we rarely take the time to question the hundreds of laws that benefit only certain segments of our society. We rarely ask, How it is possible that this is happening? Consumerism is just one of the many symptoms of the hegemony that affects the lives of Christian people. And we have given into most of them without much of a struggle.
Responding to the Word of God calls us to be critical of how reality is presented to us. Jesus questioned things that were considered ultimate truth. Recall the famous Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says many times to the crowd, You have heard . . ., but I say to you . . . Jesus questions what was considered a critical part of being righteous, and he changes it. Engaging the Word just for the exercise does not make waves, does not transform us or society. Engaging the Word has to lead us to a new understanding of reality and to respond to the will of God in our lives and in our world. It must move us to make commitments to change.
One of the most beautiful stories in the Christian Scriptures is the story of Nicodemus:
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God. Jesus answered him, Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew. Nicodemus said to him, How can anyone be born after having grown old? . . . Jesus answered, Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit (John 3:1-4a, 5).
Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee and thus probably very well off financially and educated in the law, recognized there was something different about Jesus. His words We know that you are a teacher who has come from God are a confession of faith. Moreover, in this verse he twice calls Jesus teacher. He recognizes Jesus as a rabbi, one who knows and teaches the law, a teacher from God. What was burning in Nicodemus' heart was known by Jesus, and he answered, No one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew. In order to be born anew there must be a transformation, a metanoia. Malcolm L. Warford, former president of Bangor Theological Seminary, has written:
The Greek word metanoia, repentance, literally means an afterthought. In this sense metanoia is a change of mind about some idea or attitude previously held to be true. The change of mind represented by the term involves emotional as well as cognitive dimensions. The change in perception is related to a parallel alternation in our mood or feeling; it implies a change in behavior as well. When one examines the usage of the term in the New Testament, it is apparent that metanoia is basic to the proclamation of the gospel. For example, Jesus is depicted in Luke as entering Galilee to proclaim: The time has come; the Kingdom of God is upon you, repent, and believe the Gospel (Luke 1:4 NEB). In the preaching and teaching of Jesus, faith is seen as growing out of repentance, and turning to God is understood as the beginning point of a process of transformation.25
Thus metanoia requires repentance, the recognition of our own and our society's sinfulness and the willingness to be made new by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus' challenge to Nicodemus was, You have to be born anew from the water and the Spirit. That challenge is posed to us every day. Responding to the Word is the commitment to engage ourselves in the process of metanoia that will lead us to a personal transformation and to the transformation of our society.
Let's turn our attention to what I call the process of metanoia. It is not rational to expect that we can just get up one day and be a new person. It takes discipline, commitment, and spiritual renewal to engage in a process of transformation, and it can take a lifetime. As we walk down this path, new insights, new ways to look at reality and at the world, will emerge. We will be able to shake ourselves from the hegemony and start seeing with open eyes what is going on around us and how much we have missed. And because we have started in the process of being transformed we will commit ourselves to take action to better our world.
A great part of our church's rich heritage is that the United Church of Christ has always been at the forefront of social issues, beginning with the Amistad event, to the engagement in the development of institutions of health and higher education for marginalized people and the empowerment of the oppressed and exploited. It takes courage to be involved in the social struggles of the times. Lately we have seen more and more churches backing away from that heritage. More and more of our people have been influenced by the religious right, which claims to be neutral and preaches that the church should not be involved social issues. At the same time, we see the religious right in a desperate search for financial and political gains so as to partake in the hegemony of the larger interests of our country.
When we engage and respond to the Word we take a risk the risk of being claimed by the One who calls us into being. We risk being transformed by the power of the Gospel and moved to bring the good news of liberation to those who are oppressed, to those who suffer, to those who are terminally ill, to those our society has abandoned, to those who see no hope in their lives and in the world. We risk claiming our world environment as our responsibility to preserve, to bring about justice so we will have peace. It is a terrible risk, the one Jesus as the Christ has called us into. But that is the claim Jesus placed on us: You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house (Matthew 5:14-15).
Responding to the Word calls us to make difficult decisions: decisions to boycott, to write letters to Congress, to promote policy changes for the benefit of everyone, to identify strategies for action and engage in those actions, and to explore the opportunities for service we have in our communities through ministry. It is a call to praxis, to action and reflection that will lead us to further action.
Going with the Word
The fourth movement of the liturgy of learning is Going with the Word. If we say that worship does not end with the benediction, then we can say the same about the liturgy of learning. What is our purpose in going back into the world? To be witnesses and disciples.
A witness is one who speaks on behalf of someone else, one who gives testimony. Throughout the New Testament many passages talk about our responsibility to be witnesses. However, no one can be a witness without first being convinced about what they are testifying for. The whole purpose of church education is to help us understand and internalize our experiences with God through Christ to be witnesses. In order to do that, we need to know our Christian heritage, the traditions we are coming from, and how they relate to our daily lives as we encounter the Word of God.
On the other hand, we are called to be disciples. In the Christian Scriptures a disciple is both a learner and a follower. The disciples of Jesus learned from him, for he was teaching them at almost every moment but they were also Jesus' followers.
In the local church foundation paper published by the Division of Education and Publication, the third conviction about the teaching ministry of the church states that the purpose of teaching and learning in the church is discipleship. Ansley Coe Throckmorton, former general secretary of the division, has explained it this way:
Discipleship is to learn from Jesus, to follow Jesus, and to do so among those who look to follow Jesus Christ. Rather than receiving a body of knowledge to absorb and comprehend, we are to receive a map and we are to follow an itinerary.26
Going with the Word is a celebration of who we are as witnesses and disciples of Christ. It is also a challenge to be out in the world, following that itinerary in a journey of faith in which we will encounter people, giving them hope for a new life as we witness and live our lives as disciples. We are to reflect who we are by our love for our neighbors and show our witness to every human being we meet.
This movement in the liturgy of learning helps us celebrate by singing, praying, engaging in ritual acts, sharing the peace of God, using the symbols of our faith, commissioning, dedicating ourselves, creating individual reminders of our commitments, and offering our time, our talents, and our resources to God.
1. White, Introduction to Christian Worship, 31.
2. C. Ellis Nelson, How Faith Matures (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989), 125.
3. Ibid., 125.
4. Ibid., 75.
5. Ibid., 127.
6. Ibid., 151.
7. See Joe Park, Education: Schooling and Informal, in Selected Readings in the Philosophy of Education (New York: Macmillan, 1974), 230-245.
8. Nelson, How Faith Matures , 147.
9. James Michael Lee, The Content of Religious Instruction (Birmingham: Religious Education Press, 1985), 661.
10. Friedrich Rest, Our Christian Symbols (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1990), viii.
11. Charles R. Stinnette, Jr., Learning in Theological Perspective (New York: Association Press, 1965), 60.
12. Lee, The Content of Religious Instruction, 150.
13. Sidney D. Fowler, The Liturgy of Learning: The Teaching-Learning Approach to Word Among Us, in Word Among Us Notebook for Interpreters (Cleveland: UCBHM Division of Education and Publication, 1993).
14. Lee, The Content of Religious Instruction, 338.
15. Thomas H. Groome, Sharing Faith : A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 230-235.
16. Funk, Language, Hermeneutics, and the Word of God, 57.
17. Groome, Sharing Faith : A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, 234.
18. Funk, Language, Hermeneutics, and the Word of God, 138.
19. Westerhoff, Will Our Children Have Faith?, 88.
20. Nelson, How Faith Matures, 76.
21. Elizabeth Chandler Felts and Anthony B. Robinson, New Occasions Teach New Duties: A Renewed Vision of the Teaching Church (Cleveland: The Division of Education and Publication, United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, 1994), 28.
22. Fowler, The Liturgy of Learning: The Teaching-Learning Approach to Word Among Us, B3 2.
23. James M. Wall, Politics and the Religious Conciousness in Religious Education as Social Transformation, ed. Allen J. Moore (Birmingham: Religious Education Press, 1989), 126.
24. Michael Warren, Faith, Culture, and the Worshiping Community: Shaping the Practice of the Local Church (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 29.
25. Malcolm L. Warford, Metanoia: A Way of Thinking About Christian Education in New Conversations 2, no. 2 (Fall 1977) (New York: United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, 1977), 7.
26. Ansley Coe Throckmorton, The Church, the Teacher, and the Teaching, paper presented to the Michigan Conference of the United Church of Christ, 1992, 6.