Industry Insider: Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies
WORSHIP LEADER (WL): On the website for Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies (IWS), a brief descriptive statement of mission follows the institute’s name: “Forming Christian Leaders in Christian Worship Renewal.” How do you define or envision the words “Christian Worship” and “Christian Leaders”?
IWS: St. Augustine famously wrote: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” Human beings are hard-wired for worship. Everyone worships someone or something, even the most Godless atheist! Christian worship brings about the reconciliation of us worshippers back to the One who made us and loves us. Then, once reconciled to God, we, the Mystical Body of Christ, the worshippers, are sent on mission to participate actively in God’s great reconciliation of the entire created order. That work is led by those who are formed in worship. As Bob Webber wrote, “Worship is the key to the renewal of the Church.” I would add, “And the Church is the key to the renewal of the world.”
WL: Tell us a little about Webber’s legacy and how he is present in the way worship is approached at IWS and ways IWS has grown and changed in the years since Webber graduated from earth to heaven.
IWS: Bob Webber was a well-beloved historical theologian who called the contemporary Church to rediscover its roots in the ancient Church, and to expand the Church’s often myopic tendencies to a much broader 2,000 (even 3,000) year view. His legacy can be summed up in the moniker he coined, “Ancient Future.” His moniker does not imply simply a narrow focus only on patristics, nor an equally narrow focus only on contemporary Christianity, but rather seeing the development of doctrine and practice through the lens of Christian worship as the repository of the Christian faith over 2,000 years. IWS has continued to grow in this ancient future vision, expanding its understanding of the metaphysical foundations of Christian worship through theological, biblical, historical, cultural, ecclesiological, philosophical and missiological reflection and practice.
WL: How do you see IWS changing the worship landscape and how worship is understood at a community/congregational level, both nationally and internationally?
IWS: IWS students and graduates influence quite literally tens of millions of Christians around the world for worship renewal every week. These worshippers are reconciled, reordered, and reintegrated to God, who then sends them out missionally with his fire to love to world back to the Creator. There is nothing more important than that! Bob Webber wrote, “Worship does God’s story.” Again, I would add, “And God’s story in worship does the world.” Our students and graduates have the great privilege of telling the world its true story and to announce the Good News (Gospel) that the entire created order has been reconciled back to the Creator God through His Son Jesus the Christ. This liturgical proclamation starts locally, but impacts much more broadly, even globally.
WL: What are your favorite student stories and what do you see as the most significant and life-changing aspects for those who attend and those who teach or serve as part of the worship program at IWS?
IWS: My favorite stories are told by students and grads who have been converted not just to Christ, but to the Church and to the world that God created. In worship, we tell the world its story, invite the world into the family (Church) to be reconciled, fired with the love of God, and then sent back to the world to participate in that great work of reconciliation of all things. It is a great joy to see the lights go on in students who are gaining the revelation that the story of God in Jesus Christ is for the life of the whole world and not just an escapist strategy.
WL: What was Webber’s vision and dream for IWS and its students and how do you see students living that out and applying their studies at IWS once they leave.
IWS: I think that Dr. Webber’s dream was as a stated above, to see more and more Christians come to realize the immense scope and limitless eternal impact of worship that is truly renewed and connected to the 2,000 year history of God’s people, impacting the world with the love of God.
WL: On your website, it alludes to the fact that IWS is “unique?” How is IWS different than other schools and programs that train those who are involved in serving in the context of worship in the local church? In what ways do you feel IWS and Webber’s worship worldview are making an impact in the Church at worship.
IWS: IWS is unique in its non-denominational low-residency educational delivery model using twice-a-year, one-week intensive sessions with online interaction, applied projects and lots of reading. Our educational philosophy is also unique in its orientation toward being student-directed rather than professor-centered. Although the faculty is highly competent and respected, students learn as much from their interactions with each other as they do from their professors. Since both of the degrees offered by IWS are practical and contextualized, there is a strong emphasis in applying what students learn in specific contexts. This orientation provides the potential of immediate benefit to local contexts, such as church congregations, schools of higher learning, mission organizations, etc.
WL: What does the student body at IWS look like in terms of demographics? Is there a broad expanse of Christian faith traditions at IWS?
IWS: Over 100 denominations have been represented at IWS from all three major streams of the Christian family worldwide: Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox. A full 34% of our students hold non-American passports.. The racial, gender, age and socio-economic diversity of IWS seems to mirror the diversity of the global Body of Christ, and that is a tremendous joy and blessing. It also presents a beautiful challenge to keep our curricula applicable to a multiplicity of contexts.
WL: Since there are some polarities in the Church just now re complementarian and egalitarian and a plethora of other issues and your faculty spans the space from Baptist to Presbyterian to Episcopalian/Anglican and beyond, are there any concerns students might have about having to conform to doctrinal guidelines for a particular Christian faith tradition on papers, studies, and research?
IWS: There may be, although those issues are not prominent. IWS clearly states its commitment to orthodoxy and orthopraxy in its first core value: “IWS is evangelical in nature and ecumenical in outlook, embracing and serving the whole Church in its many expressions and variations of the Christian faith, particularly articulated by the consensus of the ancient Church and its guardians in the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation and the Evangelical awakenings and heritage.” This core value states clearly the commitment of IWS to the historic biblical understandings of faith and practice, with a submission to the consensus of the Church’s historic interpretation of such. Having said that, there are issues that are open to debate, particularly in the realm of egalitarianism v. the various types of complementarianism. Each student’s context should provide clarity for the content of the student’s application project.
WL: Everyone knows that delivering higher education requires endless hard work, adaptability, vision, and commitment and it is very costly to sustain. Many schools founded in the early days of the nation are heavily endowed. How do you manage to have such a stellar faculty with such an affordable tuition?
IWS: IWS keeps overhead costs low. The great hospitality of our host church is a big factor in that, as well as the mission-mindedness of all of our faculty, staff and trustees. While the faculty members serve in other contexts on full-time bases, they love teaching at IWS, and we love having such an outstanding group of scholars here! There is also a strong sense of community that militates against the regnant top-heavy institutionalization that happens in many higher education contexts. Having said that, we have to maintain a minimal level of institutionalization to maintain our accreditations (associated with memberships in both ABHE and ATS) and governmental authorizations.
WL: Where are faith, hope, and vision leading those who lead IWS for the foreseeable future? And what are you excited about in terms of ministry to and within the Church.
IWS: Well, hopefully faith, hope and vision will lead us toward greater love—the love of God and the love of others. That is the very core of worship renewal. There is a strategic plan at IWS that lays out the specifics of our hope and vision for a preferred future we believe God has in store. But, in the end, we thirst to know God and thirst to know God in the other. Nothing is more exciting and fulfilling than that. Everything we do should contribute to that end, the love of God and the love of his creation. If it doesn’t, let’s all go get honest jobs doing something else.
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Andrea C. Hunter is a songwriter, producer, writer, and editor who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the co-founder of Recon Records, a worship and prayer label. Hunter worked for Warner Bros. Records and affiliated labels, Fuller Theological Seminary and Worship Leader magazine, among other entertainment, media, education, and para-church organizations. She has a Masters from Azusa Pacific University.