Missional Theology of IWS: A Working Description

By Eric Bolger

The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies (IWS) offered its first class in June of 1999.  From the beginning its visionary leader infused IWS with his own well-developed and missional theological understanding.  IWS is, as its name implies, focused specifically on training men and women for theological reflection on Christian worship, and for putting those reflections into practice.  The school initially offered only a doctoral degree (Doctor of Worship Studies (DWS)) and targeted musicians with little theological training, though its student body has included pastors and college and seminary professors.  In 2002, IWS added a masters degree (Masters of Worship Studies (MWS)), similarly targeting those without formal theological training.  In both the DWS and MWS programs, students each year attend two intensive sessions lasting eight days each at the Orange Park, Florida campus.  Students also complete extensive course reading and assignments before and especially after these sessions. 

A focus on Godís mission has been the guiding star of IWS from the start and remains the heart of its Vision Statement, which reads:

The vision of the Institute for Worship Studies is situated in the Divine Narrative.  It seeks to serve Godís action in history to express his lordship over all creation through worship.  Accordingly, it aspires to be an institution that:

1.  Focus.  Emphasizes Godís story of creation, incarnation and recreation through which God brings the entire cosmos under the reign of Christ.

2.  Theology.  Draws on the classical interpretation of Scripture, affirmed by the Apostlesí Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Council of Chalcedon, together with the affirmation of an evangelical grounding and ecumenical outreach.

3.  Culture.  Offers an ongoing critical appraisal of Christian worship, with an open mind and heart to an authentic faith and practice in the twenty-first century.

4.  Ethos.  Remains a small, self-sacrificing, simple school of students involved in an intense spiritual interaction with each other, unencumbered by building ownership, big budgets and a large full-time staff.

5.  Influence.  Seeks to ďteach those who teach,Ē continuing to raise up leaders around the world whose ministries are grounded in intentional theological reflection.

6.  Technology.  Pursues its vision through an educational methodology that combines an on-campus experience of academic learning and spiritual community, distance learning components and up-to-date technology.

The missional focus of IWS is also apparent in its Mission Statement.  It reads:

The Institute for Worship Studies forms servant leaders in Christian worship renewal and education through graduate academic praxis, grounded in biblical, historical, theological, cultural and missiological reflection in community.

These goals reflect the commitment of IWS to an organic understanding of a story-formed approach to the Christian faith.  IWS is committed not only to the unity of all knowledge of Godís story in history, but also to all ministry as applied theology.  It does not sever ministry from Godís story, but situates it in Godís story, and seeks to form all ministry by the Divine narrative, not the cultural narrative.

The vision and mission of IWS are made concrete in its curriculum, as well as in the many formal and informal activities in which students and faculty participate.

Students are expected to reflect on the five primary areas related to worship (biblical, historical, theological, cultural and missiological), and all reflection is integrated around a Trinitarian and Christological center.  For example, whereas the first courses in both the MWS and the DWS curriculum focus on biblical foundations of worship, they also purposefully incorporate to some extent reflection in the other areas.  The first DWS course, in fact, is team taught by a biblical scholar and a church historian, with approximately equal time devoted to each perspective.  Other courses in both programs, even those that are more practical in nature, encourage reflection from these five perspectives.

There is an expectation at IWS that theory and praxis always be integrated.  All classes in the masters and doctoral programs require students to read extensively in a given area (e.g., historical studies related to worship) and to apply this reflection to a concrete area of ministry within their own ministry context.  This theory-praxis link occurs throughout each course, and is emphasized in individual assignments, as well as in final course projects.  The culminating course for each program (internship for MWS and thesis for DWS) also requires theological reflection and praxis regarding a specific ministry situation.  This theory-praxis link is supported by a semi-monastic community life while students are in Orange Park.  This community life is essential to IWS education, and includes three shared meals each day, corporate worship each morning, evening practicums and a variety of other communal activities such as an opening convocation, ďtown hallĒ meetings, and informal gatherings.  All of these activities and emphases are intended to be formational, such that both intellectual and spiritual training are fully valued and addressed.  The Institute operates in an informal and egalitarian fashion, with faculty, students and staff all on a first name basis.

IWS is intentionally nondenominational and broadly evangelical.  It employs faculty and attracts students from a wide variety of Christian traditions, ranging from Orthodox to Pentecostal.  Its beliefs and practice are rooted firmly and purposefully in the biblical story and in the ancient and catholic creeds of the church (e.g., Apostlesí and Nicene).  This irenic ecumenicity, centered on a common core confession of faith, is particularized in the classroom, where pairs of faculty from different theological traditions (e.g., Reformed and Anglican, Baptist and Methodist) teach doctoral courses, and students from similarly diverse backgrounds study together.  MWS classes are taught by only one faculty member per course, but the theological and denominational backgrounds of these faculty members are also wide ranging.

The theological and practical understanding of corporate worship at IWS is grounded in Scripture and history.  Worship is understood as a retelling of the biblical story, which has at its center the Missio Dei.  Through the 2,000 years of human history following the New Testament era, God has continued to incarnate his mission in the church, and this historical development of worship theology and practice is a vital resource for reflection on worship today.  Corporate worship can be analyzed into three components: content, structure and style.  Of these three, content is the least negotiable, and the proper content of Christian worship is the gospel, at the center of which stands the Christ Event.  Corporate worship, and the liturgy through which it is expressed, are primary means by which the Christian gospel is rehearsed and passed on.  The structure of corporate worship is rooted in biblical accounts of God meeting with his people, such as those found in Exodus 24 and Luke 24.  The primary structure is one of initiation and response, with God always the initiator and people always responding in faith.  This primary structure is fleshed out at IWS through a historically based fourfold structural model, consisting of the people gathering in Godís presence (Gathering), God speaking to the people (Word), the people responding with thanksgiving (Eucharist or other appropriate acts) and sending the people out to fulfill their God-given mission (Dismissal).  The style of worship is not specified by Scripture and is flexible as the gospel is brought to bear on different cultural contexts. 

From early in its brief history, IWS has defined its mission as ďtraining teachers of worship.Ē  Its goal is to develop leaders for Godís kingdom who are not only practically proficient but also able to train others in leading and promoting worship that takes the Missio Dei seriously.  Corporate worship is itself missional, anticipating the eschatological consummation towards which Godís mission in the world is moving.  Corporate worship also proclaims and enacts the Missio Dei, and concludes by sending worshipers into the world as a missional people. 

June 2007