Columbia Seminary professor: Accessible worship is ‘what God’s future feels like’

Dr. Rebecca F. Spurrier delivers the Caldwell Lecture Thursday at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Sincerely Media via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — By describing each slide as she displayed it, Dr. Rebecca F. Spurrier practiced what she preached Thursday while delivering the Caldwell Lecture to a roomful of people at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and online.

Spurrier, the Associate Dean for Worship Life and Assistant Professor of Worship at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, called her talk “Whose Bodies? What Technologies? Cocreating Access as Christian Worship.” Each slide she presented during the 80-minute talk received a brief description before Spurrier said her piece.

The pandemic “gave urgency to the use of technologies in worship and transformed practices of worship in some Christian communities, providing access for many and creating barriers to access for others,” according to promotional material describing Spurrier’s lecture. “How can Christian communities navigate these technological possibilities faithfully? This lecture makes the case that an answer must begin, not end, with access.”

Spurrier said when she told her husband she’d be delivering this year’s Caldwell Lecture, she laughed out loud, considering her own history with the topic.

“From computer software to mechanized door locks, I’m often mystified by tools that are designed to make my life easier,” a fact she attributes in part to growing up in Zambia, where during the late 1970s and early 1980s, even landline telephones were uncommon in the rural area where her family lived. “Children like me were the messengers that were sent to other people’s homes to communicate invitation, information and requests,” she said. “We were a human technology of access, and perhaps for this reason, face-to-face or in-person communication feels easiest to me.”

Yet as one who supports two weekly worship services at Columbia Seminary, “I have been stretched to imagine worship in ways that query my own habits and preferences: worship through slides, livestream, through video recordings, through YouTube and on Zoom. In my own work with our chapel worship, I often feel as if I am learning to speak a new language.”

Three key ideas on access and worship technologies have emerged for her, Spurrier said:

  • In worship, God chooses to reveal Godself to the gathered community “again and again. Through the power of the Spirit, God chooses to make Godself accessible to those gathered through some of the most basic activities of human life: through singing and storytelling, through water and bread.” Theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet described sacraments as “the Word of God at the mercy of the body,” and Spurrier finds that “a powerful way of considering all worship … God wants to make sense to us in a way we can understand.”
  • But there’s a catch. For God to communicate with us in worship, “the gathered must also make sense to each other. In other words, worship is a continuous practice of performing and creating access to one another.” A worship space “marked by expansive and diverse community means that we are continually experiencing moments where practices that are accessible and meaningful to some members create confusion or barriers for others. Worshiping together, we cannot take access for granted and must continually cocreate shared practices of access to common worship.”
  • It’s complicated because “God calls us to bring both the parts of ourselves that we have in common with others, but also our creaturely differences,” Spurrier said. “So, for God to reveal Godself in worship — for humans to know ourselves as God sees and knows us in worship — worshipers must bring all of what it means to be human to God. All of it!”

If we believe that, “then access is not something worshipers practice if we have the time or luxury or resources or technologies, but something that is integral to any service of Christian worship,” Spurrier said. “Cocreating access together is an act of worshiping God: As we collaborate to make it possible for each of us to offer our humanity to God and one another, we are already worshiping.”

She then asked: What does technology have to do “with this creation of access?”

Dr. Rebecca F. Spurrier

Spurrier had an expansive definition of technology used during worship that includes chairs and pews. Many worshipers in Zambia sat on the ground, she said. When she lived in Ukraine, “chairs were not used in many Orthodox liturgies.”

Most North American Protestants “take seating for granted as a technology that makes worship possible,” she noted, and yet worship leaders expect people to stand from time to time during the service. “Such expectations around sitting or standing raise important questions about how the use of chairs or pews in worship benefit or create barriers to the full range of human differences that are present in our worship spaces.”

Any technology we use during worship, from chairs to computers, “invites us to query the ways that their use reveals or conceals God’s presence,” Spurrier said. “Whose access is prioritized and for what reasons? In this sense, Christian worship is a space where we who worship together imagine the common good of those of us who gather and in which we allocate resources. How might worshiping communities allocate technologies to expand access so that those of us who have experienced barriers to worship can bring the fullness of their humanity and bodies to the prayer and praise of God?”

Over the past few years, Spurrier has facilitated a collaborative project with disabled and nondisabled Christians to create disability centering prayers and other liturgical resources. The team interviewed 25 Christians who identified as disabled about their experiences of worship. A good number “celebrated the access they had experienced through livestream and online recordings” during the pandemic, Spurrier said. “But they also worried that when a majority of nondisabled congregants no longer needed this kind of access, congregations would stop prioritizing it or consider it not worth the investment of time and money.”

Spurrier offered five practices she’s found helpful in her work:

  • Seeking out narratives and testimonies about lived experiences of worship, “and in doing so I try to pay particular attention to those who have experienced barriers to participation in worship.”
  • Imagining, inviting and supporting multiple ways of joining in and leading any collective acts of worship. Among those is offering several options for people to participate in communion. “As a liturgical act,” Spurrier said, “the project of cocreating access is never finished.”
  • Preparing for worship is also worship! That can include the choir arriving for warmup, sound checks, the assembly of slides for use in worship — even the act of baking gluten-free bread for use during communion. “These gatherings too are communal worship as we give thanks to God and ask for the wisdom to continue to reveal the divine presence among us,” she said.
  • Considering access as love rather than a problem to solve. For example, at Columbia Seminary, preachers are asked to provide notes or a manuscript so that the pages can be duplicated for people to follow along if they like. Spurrier made her presentation available in a document available here. “What we found is that others in our community benefited as well,” she said, including “a good number of our students who sometimes found spoken English difficult to understand, especially through a mask.”
  • Providing accessible worship is a journey rather than a destination. Spurrier teaches students that worship “is practicing together the kin-dom of God in our assemblies. It’s one of the meanings of worship that many students feel is lost or hidden in worshiping communities they know … When we gather for worship, we are called to discern and perform together what God’s future feels like.”

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