Symposium 2013 draws to a close

If on the 2013 Worship Symposium evaluation form there had been a place to vote for the unofficial Symposium soundtrack, many of the 1,500 attendees from around the globe probably would have picked Israel Houghton's 2001 song, "You Are Good."

It appeared several times during Symposium, including during the closing, Communion worship service when it was sung by both those in attendance and a special Symposium choir. Particularly pertinent to Symposium 2013 were these words:

From every nation and every tongue,
from generation to generation, we worship you.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, we worship you for who you are, we worship you.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, we worship you for who you are.
And You are Good.*

For Symposium 2013 truly did represent both many nations and tongues (more than 100 international registrants from some 30 countries around the world) and also many generations (from retirees, some of whom may have been at the first Symposium 26 years ago, to the numerous high school and college students, to the toddler with his parents who already was at his third Symposium!).

Worship as the heart of Symposium

And worship was at the heart of Symposium, as it always is. There were six worship services in all during the three-day event, (plus daily, afternoon Vespers services) – services attended not just in person by Symposium attendees and folks from the west Michigan community, but also attended virtually via the internet where each day people from near and far tuned in on their computers to join those in Grand Rapids in worship (one person Tweeted that he was worshiping online from Brazil!). 

The notes sounded at Symposium were many. Preachers spoke about forgiveness, worry, the giving of good gifts, salt and light, the beatitudes, the Lord's prayer and more. There were also numerous seminars and workshops on a wide variety of aesthetic and academic topics related to worship – more than 100 such sessions led by 80 presenters on such subjects as:

  • Multiethnic Worship: More than just global songs
  • Beyond the Bamboo Curtain: New Asian Songs for Worship
  • The Art of Communication in Worship
  • Preaching in a Visual Age
  • Paper, Pixels, Fabric, Paint: Visuals for Worship
  • Making Worship Videos: Learning with and from Film Makers
  • What can we learn from the early Church about worship?
  • Songs of Celebration and Contemplation from East Africa
  • Blessed Are Those Who Mourn: Finding Lament in Global Praise and Worship Music
  • Worship in Difficult Times
  • Worship That Addresses Needs of Veterans with Moral Injuries

Powerful plenaries by Bailey, Pohl

In addition to those breakout sessions, the 2013 Symposium also included a pair of powerful plenary addresses: "Rethinking Christian Community: Moving Beyond our Ideals and Disappointments," by Christine Pohl, associate provost and professor of Church and Society/Christian Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary; and "Worship in 1 Corinthians: Paul’s Take on the Corinthian Worship Wars," by Kenneth E . Bailey, research professor of New Testament at the Ecumenical Institute (TanTur) in Jerusalem (emeritus), with more than 40 years of living and teaching in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cypress.

And while there was plenty of variety in the different offerings available to Symposium attendees, the overall theme for this year's event (the Sermon on the Mount) also helped hold everything together as preachers, speakers, singers, dancers and more all used the longest piece of teaching from Jesus in the New Testament to ground their presentations.

So, Pohl in her talk on Christian community, noted that in the Sermon on the Mount, we encounter grace and truth. And she asked those assembled in the Calvin Chapel a difficult question: “What do grace and truth look like lived out in relationships?” The question is a critical one, she said, because “we are not free to pursue some isolated, individual spirituality. 

In introducing Kenneth Bailey, the Worship Institute's Emily Brink said: “You will be treated this morning to a rich feast of learning” and Bailey did not disappoint, leaving the Covenant Fine Arts Center auditorium crowd spellbound as he examined in sometimes microscopic detail everything from the Golden Rule, and its Jewish predecessor (do not do unto others what you would not want them to do to you), to Paul's fourth essay in I Corinthians on love (11:2-14:40).

Bailey noted “the river (of love) that flows right through the center of the essay,” in 12:31 to 14:1, adding that he is on a one-person campaign to try to rescue the chapter from the wedding industry! As the laughter died down he added: “This (the chapters in I Corinthians is fine for weddings, but it more than just a nice thing for such a beautiful day.” Throughout his talk Bailey set the scene for his listeners, painting a vivid, historical picture of what life would have been like in the time of Christ and the decades following his death.

Hashtag #wsymp13 

One measure of the breadth and depth of Symposium experiences could be found on the event's Twitter hashtag (#wsymp13) which daily featured a steady stream of pithy observations: 

  • What a fantastic weekend of worship and learning at #wsymp13. Can't wait for #wsymp14!
  • I had such a great time learning about @taize today.
  • Coming up to the final worship. Getting tired, but I'm sure it will be a revitalizing experience!
  • Can't even express how much I've learned and gained from #wsymp13.
  • Praising the Lord with the sound of strings!
  • Can't wait to get home and thank my bible teacher for equipping my knowledge for this conference.
  • My generation: Arabic-speaking Christians -- going strong for 14 centuries. The Middle Eastern church is the FORGOTTEN church.
  • Just worshipped with a congregation of 1,200 singing their hearts out. Not all of my choking up while singing was my cold this time.
  • Excited for an organ/bells vesper service. Great break from a long day of learning.
  • Had a great day of learning, connecting and conversations at @cicw Worship Symposium. 

Beckoned and compelled despite the cold

Even the cold weather (Grand Rapids had some of its lowest temps of the year during Symposium) made it into a tweet or two and also into a couple of Symposium sermons. On day one Greg Thompson, senior pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Va., noted his family's participation in a Martin Luther King Day march and expressed his appreciation for the diverse group of people that had gathered to pay tribute to King and King's dreams for society. He also mentioned that it was cold that day. "Or at least I thought it was cold until I got to Michigan," he added as the Chapel crowd laughed in solidarity. 

Carolyn Gordon, chair of the department of preaching and communication at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., preached the next day, and she too mentioned the weather, while commending those in attendance (another full house) for not sleeping in. Noting both the cold and the time change she was dealing with moving from California time to Michigan time (a three-hour difference), she said she would have been sorely tempted to sleep in and watch the service via the Livestream online video feed. "I would have clicked that button, said thank you Jesus for technology and life would be good." But, she added, "God compels and beckons us to come, so you have modeled for me what it looks like to be a good Christian and for that I say thank you."

Being compelled and beckoned was what Symposium organizers hoped for when they planned the event. In the Symposium program booklet, John Witvliet, director of the CICW, Scott Hoezee, director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, and Emily Brink, program manager of Symposium, welcomed attendees and sounded a theme for the three-day event.

"We are a blessed people," they wrote, "blessed to be able to gather here and to worship together as sisters and brothers in Christ. The language of blessing will be an important part of our time together, since our focus in worship for the next three days will be on the Sermon on the Mount, including the Beatitudes— words of blessing from Christ to believers of every time and place. Each one of you has come with a different story—a personal story, a story of your home, church, country, culture, and ministry. But together we celebrate that we are part of a great overarching story that unites all of us in Christ. In fact, we are bold to say that we all have a part in 'the true story of the whole world,' as told in the great biblical drama of creation, fall, redemption, and the new creation that will fully come when Christ returns. We are part of that large crowd that Jesus taught on the mountain and that left 'astounded at his teaching.' When we leave this place, may we too be astounded anew by the good news of the kingdom, proclaimed by Christ then and now, as we are called to follow Christ in both living and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom in every home, church, country, and culture."

Communion service and continued conversations

As Symposium concluded with a communion service there was no doubt that the words of Witvliet, Hoezee and Brink, written well before the event took place, had come to fulfillment. After receiving the elements, attendee worshippers heard and spoke a litany of sending, their charge to go into the world with the assurance of God's blessing, grace and love. And then they sang for the doxology, a 1984 song called "Hallelujah, Salvation and Glory."

As its final words—"hallelujah, he is wonderful—echoed through the auditorium of the Covenant Fine Arts Center, all those in attendance burst into applause, hearty, appreciative and joyous applause. And then after a moment of silence, the conversations—conversations begun in some cases just days ago and in other cases at Symposia years ago—resumed. Symposium 2013 was over. But not really. Its story was also continuing to unfurl.

Words and Music: Israel Houghton © 2001 Integrity's Praise! Music (BMI), admin. EMICMGPublishing.com