Symposium 2015 Wraps

The 2015 Symposium on Worship brought together more than 1,300 people from across the continent and around the globe to Grand Rapids for three days of conversation around topics of reconciliation and worship.

Early in the 2015 Symposium on Worship, at a seminar on "The 'Turn Toward the Formative' in Contemporary Worship," one of the panelists, Aaron Niequist, a worship leader at Willow Creek Community Church, said simply that: "Worship is meant to be a well-balanced meal."

His comment, as is often typical of pithy yet profound statements from conferences in the year 2015, was quickly tweeted and re-tweeted and favorited by the many social media mavens among the 1,300-plus in attendance at the event, held on the campuses of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary and sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the Center for Excellence in Preaching.

Yet the comment also was an apt descriptor for the very philosophy of the annual Symposium at Calvin, now in its 28th year of bringing together people from not just around the continent (some 30 states and provinces were represented) but indeed from around the globe (at least 100 attendees in 2015 traveled to Symposium from outside of North America).

Symposium is intended to deliver a well-balanced, healthy approach to conversations around vital and faithful Christian worship. The 2015 attendees included pastors, artists, musicians, teachers, youth leaders, church educators, congregational elders and board members, justice advocates, missionaries, professors and many more. The goal going in was to help that multifaceted group of attendees see the many ways in which worship creates ripples that impact life well beyond the sanctuary, and the goal was realized.

Worship forms believers for engagement

John Witvliet, director of the Worship Institute, said simply: "As we worshiped and learned together, one of our prayers was that we would become increasingly aware of the connections between vital and faithful worship and every other aspect of vital Christian living. Worship connects with every ministry of the church. Beyond the church, worship forms believers for engagement in every area of culture and society. This has implications for many aspects of worship."

Those implications were united in 2015 by a symposium theme of new covenant reconciliation, as found in Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians.

Said Scott Hoezee, director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching: “When Paul addressed his beloved Corinthians in what we call 2 Corinthians, he took care to lay out what it means to be people of a New Covenant in Christ and that a major part of that New Covenant is the need to be reconciled to one another across all of our differences and all of our 'jars of clay' frailties. Only through reconciliation in and through Christ can we become God’s new people, ambassadors of God’s grace to a hurting world as we spread the sweet aroma of love and unity to and among all people."

That theme was a unifying thread in the worship services, plenary addresses, workshop, retreats and seminars that comprise symposium. It also presented common ground for worship leaders and planners, a place for folks facing some of the same joys and concerns to come together, to share stories of success and failure, to learn and to commiserate, to be inspired and renewed.

Hashtag #wsymp15

Such stories were evident in formal settings such as plenaries and workshops, but also in informal situations such as shared meals, coffee breaks and, yes, the social media symposium hashtag of #wsymp15 which collected such observations as:

  • As followers of Christ we are ambassadors of reconciliation.
  • Often, in worship, today's problems are yesterday's solutions.
  • Worship should challenge us to learn & grow.
  • We are cultural beings. What does belonging in worship mean to people who have felt...marginalized?
  • Want Change? Be flexible and retain some old traditions.
  • The singing in here is so wonderful. Can't read a lick of music or follow conducting but love listening.
  • We used to have 250 songs everyone knew. Now we have 250,000 songs nobody knows.
  • Christians should worship with wonder on their faces and 'behold' on their lips.
  • The task of discernment is powerfully shaped by our own perceptions of the journey we're on.
  • Nobody is argued out of their fears. They are only loved out of them.
  • You can use privilege to make everyone do things your way or use privilege to explain the faith effectively.
  • The locus of Christendom has moved south. But the resources of the church are still north. This needs to change.
  • Nick asks, how is reconciliation represented concretely in worship?
  • Worship announces, celebrates, & practices the reconciling love of God.

Knuffle Bunny, heartbreak and Paul

Blackmon reads knuffle bunny; photo by Tim Blackmon, pastor of American Protestant Church in the Hague in the Netherlands, noted in his sermon on symposium's first day: "I have to admit on this first day of this worship symposium, pastors and ministry leaders come up for air, a few days of respite after a busy ministry season."

This came after Blackmon began his sermon, entitled "The Comfort of God," by reading Mo Willems' award-winning children's book, "Knuffle Bunny," the tale of a little girl whose trip to the laundromat with her father includes losing, and then finding, her favorite stuffed animal.

"She is heartbroken because she cares about knuffle bunny a great deal," he said. "It's easy to see this in a kid; it’s another thing when you and I lose something we really care about, when a friendship takes a hard left turn, your ministry busts instead of booms. You had to quit the job or worse the job was quit for you. And yes you were heartbroken. Paul had his share of trouble too. If Paul's relationship with the Corinthian church was a Facebook status it would say 'in a complicated relationship.' Paul knows what it's like to constantly lose what you love and what you really care about. As Charles Spurgeon once said: 'Ministry is a work of the heart, and we labor with a broken instrument, with a broken tool, all the time."

But, there is comfort in Paul too, Blackmon said, pointing to three important concepts as seen in Paul's writings in 2 Corinthians 1:1-11: 1) With God trouble is not always what it seems. Martin Luther would say that God always works under opposites, sub contrario. 2) Where your strength ends God's strength begins. Confidence in your own abilities must die Paul said. 3) We share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ. Your trouble with Jesus is our trouble.

Liturgical batting practice; a charge to sow

Meg Jenista, pastor of Washington (D.C.) Christian Reformed Church, picked up on some of those same themes the next day in a sermon called "God's All Surpassing Power," based on 2 Corinthians 4:1-12. She began her sermon by comparing the work of worship to batting practice: "The relentless calendar fires Sundays at us one after the other after the other. You barely get a piece of one before you're squaring up for the next pitch. You are here carrying the burdens that you have as a human being and the burdens you carry as pastors and worship leaders. You are here carrying the sacred secrets that have been shared with you. Look around you; we are not here alone. This is a room full of people who love the church so much that it hurts. The testimony of Paul's life tells us that he too is a pastor who knew what it was to love a church so much that it hurt."

And the themes were there too in the event's final worship service, in a sermon on 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 called "God's Generosity" by Denise Kingdom Grier, lead pastor at Maple Avenue Ministries in Holland, Mich.

Denise Kingdom Grier; photo by"We are convinced that God is able to bless us abundantly," she said, "so that in all things and in all times, we will have all that we need and abound in every good work. He who supplies seeds to the sower and bread for food also will supply and increase your store: the store of seeds that will enlarge the harvest of righteousness. We are then convinced of what the apostle Paul says: my God will supply all of my needs. And so the charge for us today beloved is to sow. Sow all of the tools you have acquired here this weekend at the symposium for the benefit of God's beloved. Sow as a demonstration of gratefulness. This is how we give glory to God."

A plethora of topics

And while worship began and ended each of the three days of symposium, in between were a variety of opportunities for attendees to learn, grow, stretch, talk, listen and be challenged. It happened at plenary addresses on such topics as "Public Worship and the Many Layers of Gospel-Shaped Reconciliation" and "Church History as an Indispensable Source of Wisdom for Contemporary Ministry." It happened in seminars and workshops on such topics as:

  • Skills for Leading the People's Song in a Musically Multilingual World
  • Worship that Announces and Shapes Reconciliation
  • The Treasure of African American Worship Traditions
  • Preachers and Musicians Should Be Friends
  • Worship, Youth Ministry, and the Faith of America’s Teenagers
  • Coming to the Table in a Multicultural World
  • Negotiating the Widening River of Congregational Song
  • Hip Hop and Worship: Dealing with the Dilemma
  • Singing the Creeds
  • Psalm-Surfing
  • Abraham Kuyper’s Surprisingly Relevant Theology of Liturgy

In addition art played a significant role in the annual event and the theme of reconciliation, including this year an exhibition called “Between the Shadow and the Light: A Traveling Exhibition Out of South Africa” in the college’s Center Art Gallery, an exhibition born of a June 2013 trip to South Africa that brought together a team of 10 North American and 10 Southern African artists to engage issues of remembrance, resistance, reconciliation, representation and revisioning.

No wonder then that when symposium wrapped up with a Saturday-evening communion service one presenter/attendee felt compelled to tweet this (accompanied by a picture of her grinning from ear to ear): "Our heads are exploding, our hearts are full, and our feet are hurting -- heading back home."

It was a gratifying final thought for those who plan symposium; bringing people together and sending them home overflowing is what the event is all about.

~ by Phil de Haan