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Anne Emile Zaki on Global Growth in Mutual Learning

An Egyptian seminary professor and preacher explains the importance of “a posture of general humility” so that global Christians can learn from and worship with each other.

Anne Emile Zaki teaches courses in preaching, spiritual formation, psychology, communications, and worship in the practical theology department at the Evangelical Theological Seminary (ETSC) in Cairo, Egypt. From 2003–2013 she worked as a research and development specialist for global worship at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), and she still is a CICW collaborating partner. She preaches and teaches at conferences around the world. In this edited conversation, Zaki explains how international guests at CICW’s annual worship symposium influenced CICW and opened doors to global networks and mutual learning.

Where did your interest in global culture begin?

Since my young years, I’ve been interested in global culture and anthropology. I grew up in Egypt, where my dad was a pastor and general secretary of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt (Synod of the Nile). At age 16, I earned an Egyptian Ministry of Education scholarship to study abroad for two years. I chose Pearson College on Vancouver Island, where two hundred students from eighty countries learn the skills of international peace building. We learned about each other’s differences from living, studying, and volunteering together. We got to meet with international artists and world leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Hanan Ashrawi of Palestine.

In 1995, I enrolled at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I arrived knowing nothing about the Christian Reformed Church and unprepared for so much snow. I loved the spiritual formation on campus, and Chaplain Dale Cooper (emeritus) became my mentor. But there was very little global awareness on campus. Few knew that Cairo is one of the world’s largest international metropolises. People asked me—and they weren’t joking—whether I lived in a pyramid or rode a camel to school. I helped organize Rangeela, an annual event for international students to share their culture.

And when did you become interested in global worship?

I graduated in 1999 and married Naji Umran, and we studied and worked in Egypt and Canada. We returned to Grand Rapids in 2002 so Naji could finish his master of divinity degree at Calvin Theological Seminary. Dale Cooper told me about CICW, and CICW hired me as a resource development specialist in global worship. That job whetted my interest in global worship.

I spent my first few years gathering tapes, CDs, hymnals, and other worship resources from around the world to build up a ministry center for global worship. CICW gave me so many opportunities, such as writing a handbook on global worship to help people understand worship when visiting churches in other cultures and traditions. I also translated Arabic Christian songs into English. 

How did you move from gathering global resources to meeting international Christians?

Before I began working at CICW, a handful of pastors from Japan were invited to its annual Calvin Symposium on Worship. I sought to enlarge this initiative by expanding the invitation to pastors and worship leaders from other countries as well. At its height, we had 163 people from thirty-nine countries.

Bringing in international guests changed the map for symposium. We were very intentional to connect with them. The level of welcome led to new partnerships. When CICW published Global Songs for Worship, we needed help from GCOMM (now GCAMM) and Global Ethnodoxology Network. Ethnodoxologists introduced us to people like David M. Bailey, Ron Man, Paul Neeley, Robin Harris, and Roberta King. We were invited to consult and speak at international conferences. We started having a global footprint.

When the former Reformed Ecumenical Council and World Alliance of Reformed Churches merged in 2010 to become World Communion of Reformed Churches, CICW was asked to form a global team to plan all the worship services, and I had the privilege of being part of that team. I did the Arabic translation of WCRC’s “Worshiping the Triune God statement. All these connections helped us identify more international guests to invite to the symposium. 

What was your role in increasing the number of international contributors to the CICW worship symposium?

I handled invitation letters, visa requests, and flights to get international guests here. I benefited from the help of CICW staff who are networkers. Because the international guests came so far, we hosted them for a week. They had a travel recovery day, time to visit local sites and Christian bookstores, an international day of learning, the symposium, an after-symposium celebration of learning and sharing, and opportunities to visit or preach at local churches.

John Witvliet sees patterns and connections in everything. He and CICW are deeply Reformed, yet supremely ecumenical. People who first came to symposium as guests, such as Karen Campbell from Northern Ireland and Eric Sarwar from Pakistan, became contributors and introduced us to their networks. I also had the opportunity to bring in my own connections, such as Middle East scholar Kenneth E. Bailey, who wrote Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. I grew up knowing him as “Uncle Ken” in Cairo because of my dad’s church connections. I got to know Palestinian theologian Mitri Raheb, WCRC president Najla Kassab from Lebanon, and worship experts from around the globe.

Was bringing in so many international guests sustainable?

Not really. The symposium at Calvin still has guests and contributors from many cultures and countries. However, in 2005 we also began experimenting with doing symposiums abroad in specific countries where at least two denominations agreed to work together. For the cost of bringing ten people to Grand Rapids, organizers could invite a hundred people in their home countries. Many organizers, such as Yvette Lau in Hong Kong and Marnus Havenga in South Africa, had previously attended a CICW worship symposium.

As liaison, I’d often create a team to run the administration stateside. I hired overseas translators for all materials. CICW sent speakers as needed and left behind useful books. We would cover our flights, and the host country provided room and board. I attended only if I had a speaking role, so I went on six of the twenty-five or so international symposiums between 2005 and 2023. These worship symposiums have happened in Bangladesh, Egypt, Uganda, El Salvador, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines, Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, Malaysia, Nepal, the Netherlands, South Africa, Singapore, and more. María Eugenia Cornou took over all that when I left.

How did you avoid projecting a “we’re here to teach you” attitude?

One of the things I’ve learned most from CICW is its posture of general humility about injustices and where it and churches have done wrong. Those of us who contribute at international symposiums go to learn, not to show off or sightsee. We go to listen and repent. And we’ve learned so much, whether that’s from experiencing corporate prayer as a concert of prayer or rediscovering the beauty of rest or the power of Bible memorization.

The spring 2023 symposium in Kathmandu, Nepal, drew 275 pastors and Christian leaders from throughout the country. I was there to speak on preaching renewal. The Nepali church is a fervently praying church based on solid biblical teaching. It has grown so much since the 2011 symposium there and is also expanding to the diaspora in India. I was impacted by the respectful mutual partnership in planning, leading, and follow-up. Like María Cornou said, “Nepalis planned the 2023 symposium, and we from CICW fit in as they asked.” 

What else was going on in your life while you developed global worship resources and learned from international Christians?

We expanded our family from one to four sons, and I earned an MDiv at Calvin Theological Seminary. In 2009, we moved to Kelowna, British Columbia, to work as youth and interim pastors and also work in Naji’s family orchards. During my entire time in my CICW job, I never worked more than twenty hours a week. Naji is a great parent and really good at running life at home without me—freeing me to be able to do so much. We married knowing that our ultimate call was to live and serve in Egypt. All our varied experiences and training prepared us for our work today. 

Have you seen evidence of CICW concepts spreading around the world? 

I’ve seen so many examples; here’s one: I remember sitting in an interview for a couple applying for work at an international church in Cairo. They explained how they liked well-thought-out worship and disciplined creativity when using the arts in worship. They defined worship as a conversation between us and the triune God, with God as the One who calls us together. They spoke of worshipers as an assembly, not an audience. Although they were quoting all these worship institute concepts and vocabulary, they had no idea they were speaking to someone connected with Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

How have all your CICW experiences shaped what you’d like to see happen at ETSC?

My work at CICW was not just about worship, but also about preaching, pastoral care, sacraments, and training worship leaders. Whichever country I go to now, I feel like I already know something about or someone in their church or culture. CICW has translated some of the early-2000s Faith Alive Resources series “So You’ve Been Asked to . . .” [plan worship, lead prayer, etc.] into other languages. I am thinking of translating it into Arabic and discerning the right time and way to introduce it in Egypt. I hope to start an annual symposium for Middle Eastern churches. 

The Middle Eastern symposium would draw on resources from a worship center at my seminary that I’m designing to be like the CICW central office. I hope to establish and direct it in the next two years or so. I hope it will have the same essence and aura as CICW and will renew worship in the entire Arabic-speaking community around the world. Though I don’t have access to something like the Lilly Endowment, I trust God will provide donors who understand that funding worship renewal contributes to evangelism and church growth. 


Read more about Anne Zaki’s ministry trajectory, from organizing Rangeela at Calvin University to responding to the Arab Spring and speaking at Calvin’s acclaimed January Series. She is a frequent contributor at the annual Calvin Symposium on Worship. Zaki preached in English during this Heliopolis Evangelical Church worship service in Cairo, Egypt.