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What I Learned about Teaching Worship from a Chemistry Professor

"What’s a POGIL?” I asked, half-seriously, half-laughingly. My wife, Sheila, a chemistry instructor in a university was attending a conference for chemistry educators about a pedagogy growing in popularity in science classrooms around the United States. She explained that POGIL is a method for teaching both class content and important skills such as critical thinking and teamwork without using a lecture format.

I was intrigued. As a mentor for worship leaders at Calvin College, I have very little classroom time with my students. Most of my teaching is on-the-go, and I was excited to learn a way to maximize our formal times of learning.


POGIL stands for process-oriented guided inquiry learning. A POGIL classroom or lab consists of students working in groups of three or four students on specially designed guided inquiry materials that allow students to engage in the scientific method. Students are usually assigned roles designed to enhance the functioning of the group and to give students the opportunity to develop particular process skills. In the end, students working in a learning team have two objectives: to understand the material and to make sure that every other member of the team understands the material. Research shows that explaining ideas and helping others learn are among the best ways for students to deepen their understanding and knowledge and to gain the insight needed to solve real-world problems.

Prior to learning about POGIL, much of my teaching was by telling. I would begin by presenting a principle for worship planning, explaining that principle phrase by phrase and incorporating discussion and application along the way. In general, students were engaged in this approach, but it had its challenges. Many students come into the classroom with significant experience participating in worship, and some come with meaningful leadership experience. These students already have underlying values about what should constitute worship, and they have established some basic definitions. Because of this, creating a shared understanding of concepts is challenging. I’ve found, however, that using a POGIL-style guided inquiry exercise often leads to greater comprehension, appreciation, and buy-in.  

A POGIL-style exercise also presents an opportunity to practice process-related skills that are vital to worship planning. When teaching by telling, teachers do most of the work in the classroom. But a POGIL-style activity involves students in roles such as manager, recorder, or spokesperson. In these roles, students learn skills such as time management, delegation, listening, and communication—all vital skills for collaborative worship planning—and all the while help each other to understand and apply the classroom content.

Three Phases of Guided Inquiry Learning

In a POGIL-style activity, the guided inquiry material moves through three phases. In the “Exploration” phase, students are presented with a model and supplied with data, information, and questions that draw their attention to important features or patterns in that model. In the “Concept Invention” phase, students answer leading questions designed to guide them toward a particular set of conclusions, at which point terms can be introduced. In this way, new terms are introduced only after students have developed the related mental construct. Finally, in the “Application” phase, students apply these new concepts to further questions or problems.

“Exploration” and “Concept Invention” Phases

In the “Exploration” phase of a POGIL, students begin not with a concept but with a model to be explored. “The model,” chemistry professor David M. Hanson explains in his book Guided Explorations in General Chemistry, 2nd ed. (Cengage Learning, 2011), “is simply some representation of what is to be learned” (p. v).

In chemistry, students might explore “a diagram or table of information, an illustrative problem, experimental data, or even some written text.” (Hanson, p. v) Students of worship might explore a Bible passage, the text of a prayer or hymn, the liturgy of a particular service, a small portion from a book, or a visual art piece. For example, in teaching about the full participation of the congregation in worship, the model might be an especially inclusive pastoral prayer that names specific groups of people and a variety of needs.

Exploration of the model is guided by a set of easily answered questions that point students to relevant information in the model. Questions that help explore the pastoral prayer mentioned above might be as follows:

  1. In this prayer, what kinds of people are named?
  2. What living and working arrangements are mentioned?
  3. What concerns are referenced?
  4. How are parents prayed for? How are children prayed for? Singles?
  5. Who else is named?

Following these directed questions, the exercise moves into the “Concept Invention” phase. These questions help students bring ideas together, draw conclusions, and develop an understanding of the concept(s) at hand. A question that helps the students draw conclusions and introduces the relevant term might be:

  1. Based on what you observed above, what does full participation of the congregation mean?

In answering these guided questions, students work together to define the concept themselves based on what they observed. By defining the concept in this way, students are less likely to prejudge the subject through their experience and knowledge, and they come at the concept with greater openness to redefinition.

This approach also trains students in basic observation skills. Christian worship is diverse, and worship planners need skills in reading new situations and the habit of drawing open-minded conclusions about the meaning of a given worship practice in a new or different context. The “Exploration” and “Concept Invention” phases of a POGIL-style activity provide some opportunity to practice these skills.

“Application” Phase

Once a concept has been defined and understood, it is time to apply that knowledge and reinforce the learning through an “Application” phase involving both exercises and problems. Exercises are straightforward applications of the concept learned (Hanson, 2011). For example, if the concept learned was the dialogic character of Christian worship, students could be given an exercise of drawing arrows on a service of worship to identify when God is speaking and when the people are speaking. Alternatively, the same concept could be practiced by identifying a song in a hymnal that is God’s words to us rather than our words to God. If the concept learned is the Trinitarian grammar of worship, students could practice this by composing a spoken introduction to a song that highlights the Spirit’s activity in prompting or empowering our praise.

Problems are more complex than exercises, and students may not immediately know how to find a solution. A problem requires a higher level of thinking such as analysis and synthesis and may have questions with several parts. It may combine multiple concepts and could be framed within new situations. Providing students with a particular scenario to address is one example of such a problem. If the concept being taught were Trinitarian worship, for example, students could be asked to respond to a peer who feels that she is not good enough to worship God. Another scenario might involve formulating a response to a worship leader who believes that music is what makes God’s Spirit present in worship.

Process-Oriented Roles in a POGIL-style Activity

Alongside guided inquiry questions, POGIL activities involve assigning each student a specific role. This serves two purposes. First, group work is often smoother when each group member knows his or her responsibilities based on the role assigned. Work can begin immediately rather than being delayed by students needing to negotiate who will do what. Students are less likely to sit back and let the rest of the group do the work if that means failing to fulfill their assigned role. It can help groups avoid other difficulties, too, such as too many people trying to lead, or, conversely, no one willing to take charge. Second, assigning roles with defined responsibilities facilitates the learning of process skills such as leadership, time management, relationship building, and articulating ideas verbally and in writing.

Though there are a number of ways that groups could be organized, one common set of roles for a three-person group is manager, recorder, and spokesperson.  Practicing these roles while learning content can help prepare students for the process skills involved in collaborative planning and the execution of worship services.


One vital skill for worship planners is the ability to manage effectively a collaborative process of brainstorming, devising, and executing a worship service. First, planners need to manage time well. For example, one team member may need to pick up her two-year-old at daycare, and another may need to visit a congregational member who is preparing for surgery. The meeting needs to end on time, yet a service needs to be planned. Second, the tasks for the meeting need to be well distributed. Who will look up and read the scripture passage? Who will have open a Bible search website? Who is keeping an eye on the song repertoire list? Who is responsible for looking up resources in prayer books or searching the hymnals? Who is going to record everything the group discusses? Third, the leader of a team meeting should be aware of whether or not all group members are on the same page. Does everyone understand why a particular prayer was chosen?  Does everyone agree about why these three songs were grouped together? Is it clear why song lyrics will not be on the screen during a liturgical dance?

Managing the planning process, therefore, is an important skill to develop. Granted, it is best learned by doing and by learning from mistakes. At the same time, a process-oriented learning opportunity in the classroom can help encourage this role and give practice in managing a group task while also learning content.

In a POGIL-style activity, the manager has four key responsibilities:

  • Distributing work and responsibilities
  • Keeping the team focused on the task
  • Managing pacing so the activity is completed in the time allowed
  • Making sure that all group members understand answers and have time to record them before moving on


Listening to and recording the group’s work is another vital component of the worship planning process. In the weeks after the meeting the group may want to recall key conversations about song choices, topics for petition and thanksgiving, people with unique talents to involve, a story of grace from the congregation to include in a sermon, resources for good art for worship, or more. Planning teams can assign a person to record all the group’s ideas, leaving free the rest of the group to scan resources.  At the same time, it is important that the recorder is clear on what the group has decided about choices in the services and is assertive in asking for clarification and time to write down information.

In a POGIL-style activity, the recorder's task is to record the group’s official answers on the team report to be turned in.  In doing so, a recorder may stop the group for clarification or request more time to record the group’s answer.


There are times when worship planners struggle to remember or communicate effectively the details of a planned service. Why did they plan a particular element in a service? What does a scripture verse say, or how do the lyrics of a song fit in? Planners may have trouble articulating to the group their reasoning when pressed. It is important for them to develop the skill of communicating the details of their services not only to fellow planners but to all those involved in executing a service. Why does one element follow another? Why is it placed in this part of the service rather than another? At the same time, if a service is planned in collaboration with another person, it is considerate to represent well the thoughts of a co-planner to others. One also needs the habit of asking good questions of a pastor or team coordinator when an answer is not clear to the planner.

In a POGIL-style activity, the spokesperson speaks on behalf of the group both to report what was discussed, decided, and learned and to ask for help or clarification if the group is stuck. In a classroom setting, reporting answers may be done verbally or by writing them on the board. The spokesperson also asks questions of the facilitator when the group has determined that it cannot come up with an answer on its own. Restricting communication with the facilitator to a single group member serves a number of purposes. It requires students to discuss with each other before posing a question to the facilitator; it ensures that the spokesperson is engaged and understands how to articulate the question; and from a logistical standpoint, it eases the burden on the facilitator, who will have fewer questions to answer if these questions can be posed by only one person per group as opposed to any student in the class, and only after they have discussed it as a group instead of every time a single student gets stuck.


During the worship planning process, a pastor may often serve as a facilitator. He or she is not managing the process, but is present to provide key information about the sermon, to clarify points of theology, to give insight into the pastoral needs of the congregation, and to make connections to leaders and programs within the community. Moreover, the pastor is accountable for the overall health of the process and outcomes.

The class instructor mirrors this facilitating role in a POGIL by observing student progress, answering any questions, and guiding class discussion when appropriate. Serving as a coach or guide, the class instructor provides students with valuable experience in taking responsibility for their learning and for progress on a task and in the end provides students a healthy model for working with a pastor in the worship planning process.


A POGIL-style activity for teaching and learning about worship planning can be an effective tool for teaching both knowledge and practical skills. As students explore materials through guided questions, develop concepts, and apply their learning to various problems, activities, and scenarios, they come to a new and deeper understanding of class content. At the same time, as they practice roles of manager, recorder, and spokesperson, students practice vital process skills. In the end, a POGIL-style activity can be a step toward helping students gain the knowledge and skills necessary for planning worship collaboratively in diverse contexts.


Worship is Biblical Exercises:
These are three guided inquiry exercises that help students develop an understanding of what it means for worship to be biblical. Each exercise parses the concept, defined for Calvin College’s worship apprentices as: We follow the Bible’s instructions, letting the Word dwell in us richly in readings, prayers, music, and the arts, while highlighting the person and work of Jesus. Scripture serves as the primary model for these exercises.  The second exercise includes visual art.

Worship is Participative Exercises:
These are four guided inquiry exercises that help students develop an understanding of what it means for worship to enable the full, conscious, and active participation of the congregation. Two exercises focus on the adjective “full.” The first develops the concept more broadly; the second narrows the concept and applies it directly to the subject of gender-inclusive language in worship. The third and fourth exercises deal with “conscious” and “active” participation. 

Psalms of Lament:
This is a guided inquiry exercise that uses Psalm 13 as a model for learning about the key features of psalms of lament, the role of lament in the covenant relationship with God, and the practice of lament in the world and in corporate worship.