The Calvin Symposium on Worship
For Viewpoint (Reformation and Revival Ministries)

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.
Pastor of All Saints' Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA www.allsaintspresbyterian.com 


Spending a few days in Grand Rapids in January was a new experience. For a person living in Southwest Florida, there's only one phrase to describe it, "a nice place to visit." Though cold of body, my heart was strangely warmed at the Calvin (College) Symposium on Worship and the Arts (January 14-15, 2000). According to the program, the Symposium "aims to bring together worship leaders and planners, pastors, artists, dramatists, and musicians from many church traditions to engage in worship, fellowship, learning and discussion. . . .The conference program is both ecumenical and Reformed, both principled and practical, both appreciative of a heritage and open to contemporary expression." Doubling the enrollment of 1999, attendance was more than 850 from about thirteen denominations, from California to Canada. About half were from the Christian Reformed Church. The outstanding cast of seminar speakers ranged from Southern Baptist to Anglican.

The well-organized Symposium, originally directed by Calvin College, is thirteen years old. For the last two years it has been under the oversight of the recently formed Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, directed by John Witvliet. Witvliet, a Calvin College (1990) and Seminary (M.T.S., 1992) graduate, also holds a Masters in Music (Univ. of Illinois) and a Ph.D. from Notre Dame (1996). Emily Brink, editor of "Reformed Worship" magazine and the Christian Reformed Church's Psalter Hymnal, has noted that Witvliet is the first CRC person to receive a doctorate in liturgical theology. (1) In training and gifts he seems uniquely qualified to lead the Institute of Worship and organize the Symposium. His vision for the Symposium is to balance theory and technique, to foster both theological discussion and technical training. The plenary sessions and seminars manifested this. They included a wide range of topics, such as thinking theologically about the arts, collaborative theological worship planning, preaching a sacred conversation, visuals for the church year, celebrative responses to sermons, preparing young people for worship leadership, children in worship, children's music, piano master classes, (black) gospel piano and singing skills, blended worship music, music for the Christian year, overcoming the daily grind in worship planning, liturgical dance, hymn-based choral literature, worship and evangelism reconsidered, renewing the richness of singing the Psalms, hospitality in worship, wedding music, music for communion, vocal soloists as worship leaders, and more. These seminars were punctuated with exceptional musical and worship events, all of which carried a "Jubilee" theme. Among the most notable highlights of the Symposium were the stimulating presentations of Rev'd Dr. Jeremy Begbie, director of Cambridge University's "Theology Through the Arts" project. Serving as one of the Calvin "January Series" lecturers, his presentation, "The Music of God and the God of Music," using a wide array of music clips, illustrative slides, and his own masterful piano performance, was a brilliant, truly world-class demonstration of music's power to illustrate theological truths. His "Thinking Theologically About the Arts" was no less illuminating.

In terms of evaluation, the Symposium is highly recommended as a smorgasbord of worship and arts thought and practice. (Of course, one should not eat all that is offered in a buffet.) From blended worship to black gospel, the main streams of worship flowed together in ways that facilitated authenticity and integration. While concern for "outsiders" inside worship was a subject of discussion and seminars, the popular "seeker-sensitive" approach was the object of a few jabs and left hooks. As one speaker said, we need "worship-driven evangelism," not "evangelism-driven worship." More and more, worship renewal thinkers are realizing that renovation consists of more than the CCLI "Top 25 Praise Choruses." There is a great deal more to God-centered worship than longer, more passionate, Arminian-bashing sermons. Worship renewal and worship wars within conservative churches have often been fueled by dipping into "low" church, charasmatic expressions, while neglecting altogether the value of "high church," liturgical forms. The Symposium is a good entry point for exposure to historic, liturgical forms of worship. One seminar included a fairly compelling eight-point apologetic for liturgical worship. Now certainly, some worship practices highlighted or illustrated will not be suitable for Reformation-conscious churches. And if you have an allergic reaction to any hint of women leadership in the church, beware (remember the CRC has "given up the ghost" on this one). Still, with all the theologically informed discussion, enriching insight, energetic equipping, and keenly practical suggestions, there is much for which to commend the Symposium.

1. "Trends in Christian and Reformed Worship," Calvin Theological Journal 32, (1997): 395-407.