Worship and the Arts: An Exercise in Theological Discernment

This is an exercise I had my students do in class a few weeks ago. The aim of the exercise was to get them to think critically and theologically about the role that the arts might play in corporate worship. Rather than me telling what was at stake, I wanted them to discover what was at stake for themselves, and to defend their choices as much as was possible under the constraints of time. A fifth category I could have added was context, that is, the space in which the act of confession was made and how people were related to each other in that space.

The exercise went so well, I thought, that I ended up replicating it this past week in service of a discussion of theology and the arts. As a fun anecdote, after the first time I had a student tell me that there were 2,401 possible combinations of a confession of sin under these premises. So much potential!

This is how it worked.

Aim of task: Your goal is to enable a congregation to confess their sins. This is the liturgical activity which the musical arts are intended to serve, enhance, deepen, clarify, enrich.

Task #1: Choose one from each category to create a combination of four distinct dynamics.

Task #2: What does your choice open up or close down for a congregation? What possibilities for the confession of sin does your choice open up--personally, relationally, spiritually, liturgically, theologically, missionally or otherwise? What possibilities does it close down? What limits does it place on the congregation in light of the broad range of models for confession of sin which we discover in Scripture and church history?


1. Prostrate
2. Bowing
3. Kneeling
4. Sitting
5. Standing
6. Hands raised
7. Dancing


1. Silent (which would include some kind of instrumental music playing in background)
2. Individually (quietly)
3. Small group
4. All together (praying the same words but perhaps not all at the same time)
5. In unison (praying the same words at the same time)
6. All at the same time (out loud "Korean style")
7. Choir (praying on behalf of the congregation)


1. A Cappella
2. Chant
3. Hymn (ballad)
4. Pop-Rock
5. Gospel/Spiritual
6. World/Global music
7. Jewish/Arabic


1. Personal text (something an individual has written him or herself)
2. Biblical text (from OT or NT)
3. Liturgical text (prescribed in a book of worship)
4. Foreign language (say, Latin or Spanish or Swahili)
5. “Popular” text (for example, something from U2 or Denise Levertov)
6. Litany text (a prescribed set of prayers)
7. Cantor-led (improvised by an individual singer)


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