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Today in the Mission Yearbook

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


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

January 16, 2024

Photo by Sincerely Media via Unsplash

By describing each slide as she displayed it, Dr. Rebecca F. Spurrier recently practiced what she preached 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.”

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. … 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!”

Dr. Rebecca F. Spurrier

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.”

Spurrier offered 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.
  • Preparing for worship is also worship! That can include the choir arriving for warmup, sound checks — even 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.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Dr. Rebecca F. Spurrier delivers Caldwell Lecture at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Angela Wyatt, 1001 Apprentice, 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Yun Kyoung Yang, Editorial Assistant, Korean, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation

Let us pray

O God, you are the friend to whom all can come. You give us more than we can ever know, and you give it freely and abundantly. Help us to see you in the faces and lives of those with whom we work, that while we minister, we also may be ministered to. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.