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Dave Vroege on Teaching Worship in Ukraine


Dave Vroege, pastor of All Nations Christian Reformed Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, traveled to Ukraine in fall of 2011 with his family and Greg Scheer, a music associate at Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. They spoke at a three-day worship conference in Kiev, Ukraine, and also to church leaders in Mukachevo, Ukraine.

How would you describe the people who attended the worship conference in Kiev?

There were around 50 people; about half were men, and half were women. Many were older teens or in their early twenties. That people of such young ages were there was impressive and gratifying. Some who came were pastors. Most were music leaders using piano, guitar, bass, or voice. Many churches sent more than one person, which benefits a church because they can talk with one another or split up to take in all the sessions. Many were of Baptist or Pentecostal background. More Presbyterians who would have come could not due to a regional meeting those very days. 

From what I could tell, most were what we might call middle-class or lower-middle-class. Many were from Ukraine. Some of those from Russia had travelled 33 hours by train to be there! The host institution, The Association for Spiritual Renewal, invited two local speakers—an Orthodox priest who is an expert on liturgy and a Baptist minister who is a national leader in worship music.

The worship conference in Kiev was intended to help people enter more fully into worship. Did you see signs of that happening?

It’s hard to single out behaviors after three days with people from another culture. However, one sign was the responses after the conference. Many came up to personally thank us for presentations and to ask where they could learn more. The difficulty is that it seems there’s very little theology of worship in the Russian language. There’s a great need!

Another sign was their very positive response to the closing worship, which was more "typically Reformed," different than their usual experience. We modeled it on what we’d taught about worship that is Trinitarian, dialogic, scripture-filled, and uses self-effacing contemporary musical leadership. By "self-effacing contemporary musical leadership," I mean how Greg led music on the guitar but was so intentional about not standing "up front" and singing "to" the worshipers. He practically hid behind the music speaker, so that, as one conference promoter put it, "I could hardly get a picture of you, Greg!" His example of worship leadership left an impression on participants.

Which ideas or topics that you presented raised the most questions or got the most response?

They really appreciated walking through the Psalms and thumbing through our Bibles together. I got a lot of responses when I mentioned different features of the Psalms and asked for examples. Also, Greg's session on the Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture, reflecting on how our worship is or isn't like our surrounding culture, elicited a lot of responses. And when Greg asked how Ukrainian worship reflects the categories of the Nairobi Statement, they were literally on the edge of their seats, wanting to respond and to discuss the future together.

In what ways did the Christians you met in Ukraine seem the same or different—compared to your home congregation—in how their faith and life concerns intersect?

"Seem" is a key word, as spending only two weeks there certainly doesn't make me an expert. Like many of us in North America, Ukrainian Christians struggle with secularism and materialism. What's different is that their secularism is covered in a veneer of nominal Christianity. Nearly everyone there would self-identify as Christian. However, very few really believe and live according to God's Word. 

Because of that, evangelical Christians struggle to convince their nominally Christian neighbors that they are not a cult or just plain weird. For instance, folks who belong to the Orthodox Church have a lot of special holidays that aren't really connected to the Christian faith, so when evangelical Christians don't observe those days, they're seen as strange at best and offensive at worst. By “evangelical,” I broadly mean Reformed, Baptist, Pentecostal…any person or church which holds to scripture and Christ's salvation as vital and believes Christ is alive, real, and makes a difference in day-to-day life.

Another struggle in the evangelical church is that since it's fairly young, its leadership is also "young" in the faith and therefore needs support, education and maturing. We met elders in their early twenties, which is not impossible in our culture, but also not typical.

How will your time in Ukraine change how you pray or worship from now on?

I pray now much more conscious of the larger church. Every Sunday morning I pray for congregations that I've been a part of in the past.  Now I will also pray every week for the Christian Reformed congregation in Mukachevo, Ukraine.

Also, as pastor in a smallish congregation, I am the main worship leader. And, after having worshiped in a cross-cultural setting like that, having more fully experienced the communion of saints, I find myself more ... relaxed in leading Sunday morning worship. That is, it's a physical change. I can more fully bask in God's provision and grace to our congregation on a given Sunday, because I've better learned that he is providing for his people all over the world.

What would you most like Christians elsewhere to know about Christians in Ukraine?

I would like other Christians to know that Christ's church is growing in Ukraine. In spite of challenges, Ukrainian Christians are "standing firm." And Ukrainian Christians are very hospitable. I am so grateful to Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Christian Reformed World Missions for this opportunity!

See photos and listen to “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” in Russian” on Dave’s and Greg’s travel blog, Mukachevo Minutes. Compare your congregation’s worship to the Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture(from p.16) and check out a video from John Witvliet on An Open and Discerning Approach to Culture.