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Engaging in Learning, Growing in Faith

As part of the 35th annual Calvin Symposium on Worship in Feb. 2022, twenty guests spoke with about 200 students in various courses and student organizations about the relationship between public worship and their areas of study. The program demonstrates the catalytic connections that can be made and faith formation that can happen through integrating attention to Christian practices in all areas of study.

As part of the 35th annual Calvin Symposium on Worship held in February of 2022, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship launched a new Catalytic Connections program to engage Calvin University students on the topic of worship in their courses and student organizations. Goals included:

  • strengthening and making visible connections between public Christian worship practices and a wide variety of classes at Calvin University in ways that support the learning objectives of each course;
  • equipping students to perceive and articulate those connections;
  • inspiring and challenging students with opportunities to engage thoughtful Christian leaders around the world who have expertise and gifts in making these catalytic connections in their communities.

In total, the program brought 20 guests to speak to about 200 students in 12 courses and 2 student organizations. Summaries of each session can be found below, along with responses from both faculty and students that demonstrate the success of the program! In particular, the program demonstrates the catalytic connections that can be made and faith formation that can happen through integrating attention to Christian practices in all areas of study.

Workshop Descriptions and Reflections:

With Calvin’s Asian American Association (Center for Intercultural Student Development), director Jane Bruin and guest Manabu Taketani helped students build a framework for culturally-sensitive approaches to small group Bible study and mentorship within Asian communities.

  • “Today we explored effective ways to create a lasting community. We discussed what it meant to create groups of students who would mentor and support one another both academically, socially, and spiritually in our daily lives. We learned what a good and thriving community can look like and some steps we can take to form that sort of community here at Calvin. What most surprised me about today's session was that some of these communities and mentorships lasted beyond their couple of years of participating in the association. It shocked me that alumni would come back for big events and would still have some connections with the current students at the university.”
  • “Building community is important to Christian worship, and community can also be built with worship as a foundation. I was surprised by how complex the topics that we discussed were. I think maintaining close relationships with people is so important, and something I don’t think I was taught growing up.”
  • “I think today's workshop was interesting because we could see the "family system" work and function at a bigger school. I think it would work better at Calvin because we are a smaller school and we can therefore foster tighter friendships between members. Furthermore, this would allow deeper conversations that eventually lead to engaging God's word.”

In Assessment in Cognitive Impairment (Special Education), Prof. Kate Strater invited student teachers to engage resources developed by Barbara Newman and LaTonya Penny for shaping inclusive worship practice. They will connect the implications of these approaches to assessment practices designed to honor, uplift, and include every person made in God’s image.

  • “At the beginning of my 3-week intensive assessment course, students were hesitant, and possibly a little confused, as to why we would target a book addressing worship in a class about assessment. Dr. Penny wove these together beautifully by using Luke 5:17-26 as a cornerstone text, likening the work of teachers to the actions of the friends in this story who navigate barriers to lower their friend through a roof to Jesus. The man’s friends discerned a need, assessed the barriers, and found a way to support access to Jesus. . . . Through this lens, we were able to consider assessment (or discernment) of needs and barriers as critical practices shaping inclusive in worship and classrooms.”
  • “To me, the most inspirational thing about Dr. Penny's session was the fact that she connected her personal life (differently abled kids) to the content that she intended to explore and communicate to us.”
  • “Dr. Penny’s narrative drove home the importance of thinking in terms of community, rather than solely considering the individual.”
  • “I learned that, by helping one person feel more accepted, we may be helping more whom we don't know about.”

With the Calvin Peacemakers student organization, advised by Prof. Matt Lundberg, Ted Lewis presented about the Biblical roots of restorative justice and how practices, dispositions, and virtues such as vulnerability, justice, mercy, and remorse are integral to the worship life of the church. Special attention was given to the Beatitudes, the topic of the 2022 Symposium worship services.

  • “Many Calvin students who joined us were not familiar with the concept behind restorative justice, so this presentation provided a great way for students to learn about what restorative justice is and how to practice it in their daily lives.”
  • “I was challenged by thinking of the "poor in spirit" in terms of vulnerability--both the vulnerability caused by crime and the vulnerability required by restorative dialogue.”
  • “I did not know much about the Beatitudes at all before this event.”
  • “Ted Lewis directly connected the Beatitudes to our work in making peace. I thought his emphasis on facilitating communities of peace was especially impactful for Christians in their church communities. I was inspired to help people move from the head- to the heart-zone in listening to others, facilitating peace, and modeling Jesus' love and care for the voiceless.”

In Corrections and Incarceration (Criminology), Prof. Mark Mulder and guest Aaron Griffith explored how worship practices can be a part of how worship communities respond to concerns about mass incarceration.

  • “Students benefitted from Griffith’s virtual presence in the ability to dialogue and ask excellent questions (I was really proud of their engagement). For instance, Griffith quoted Luke on the last page of the book (“proclaim freedom for the prisoners”) and a student challenged him that that should be read as more metaphorical than literal—after all, we need justice for victims and safe societies, so not all those who have committed crimes should be set free. The comment gave Griffith pause and he nimbly noted that in the same breath Jesus noted that he had also come “to give the blind sight”—and he did that quite literally. Perhaps freeing the prisoner is more literal than we assume?”
  • “I think Griffith's idea that we need to be proximate to people that are suffering in our lives and our worship is the key connection between our study of justice and Christian worship. I was inspired to get out into the community and intentionally surround myself with people who are directly suffering and oppressed through the carceral system.”
  • “It really inspired me to hear that Christian education in prisons is empowering.”
  • “Professor Griffith talked about how his book did not bash on Evangelicals because he is one of them. He went on to say that he doesn't want them to go away, he wants them to do better. It was a very inspiring moment to see him use the mistakes and injustices as ways to encourage them to grow and get better.”

In The Craft of Writing (English), Prof. Elizabeth Vander Lei and guest Kristen van Eyk explored how the dialect, register, and idiolect of language in worship evokes religious experience and conveys theological insights.

  • “Professor vanEyk pressed students to consider what distinguishes liturgy and habit, noting that one thing is sacredness, or attention to the divine—attention that arises from the murky place where emotion and thinking intersect. As we’ve talked about poetry and meaning in English 260, we’ve also identified this as the place that the poet targets in her reader—a place that poetry reaches through repetition, metaphor, sound sense, and other poetic devices that are also found in liturgy. . . . In these ways, Professor vanEyk focused students’ attention on the most important course SLO: ‘Demonstrate a sensitivity for the effect of words and sentences and images on the reader’s experience of the writing.’”
  • “Poetry helps you get to know other people, which I had never thought of as a gift from God, but we talked about how it is.”
  • “This class honestly convicted me. The content discussed today is encouraging me to reevaluate my life/rhythms/habits.”
  • “What I'm most inspired by today's lesson is the fact that writing and reading and just words in general all eventually center back to God. . . . When I read, I add beliefs and aspects into my identity. When I write, I learn more about myself that allows more transparency and honesty into my life. At the end, because I am made in the image of God, I learn more about God through it all.”

In Faith and Public Life (Semester in Washington, D.C.), Prof. Emily Helder convened an ecumenical group of pastors to discuss with students how preaching and other aspects of worship can ground and encourage faithful and thoughtful ways to engage in public life and the political process.

  • “The panelists were quite encouraging of young adults who can serve as a prophetic voice in calling out hypocrisy, exclusion, and self-righteousness and expressed hope that the institutional church would lean in and listen to these voices, perhaps allowing the church to break in redemptive ways. Rev. Watson was also especially pastoral in this section of the panel, encouraging students to be gracious with themselves if they are experiencing a period of retreating from the institutional church. Written reflections after the panel from several of my students whose identities have led to marginalization in the church were particularly poignant on this topic.”
  • “I was most inspired by the female pastors on the panel. I am going to strengthen the connections I explored by getting coffee with them later to talk about how feminism and the Bible intersect.”
  • “We discussed leading worship and how to deal with political differences among the body of Christ. We talked about unity, and the difference between true unity versus hiding problems under the surface. I was inspired by some of the stories the pastors told about people in their congregations who were very different, but still unified in the body of Christ, and were able to serve each other communion even though in their careers they held opposing beliefs.”
  • “Politics have taken over churches, but these pastors are what I wish everyone immediately thought of when they think of being a Christ follower.”

In Hispanic Culture in the United States (Spanish), Prof. Scott Lamanna and guest Carlos Colon considered how worship in Hispanic churches reflects the cultural values and theological convictions of their communities.

  • “One of the social factors we examine in this class is religion, and we consider both Catholic and Protestant expressions of Christian faith within U.S. Latino communities. The course readings tend to emphasize differences between the two groups over commonalities. Carlos Colón provided us with a more nuanced understanding during his presentation, as his faith journey includes influences from and respectful engagement with both of these major branches of Christianity. In doing so, he helped students avoid stereotyping or overgeneralizing the religious experiences of Latinos in the United States.” 
  • “Another course SLO states that students will reflect on the type of person that God calls them to be in a multiethnic and multicultural world. Carlos’ talk contributed to the achievement of this goal as well by helping students reflect on what it means to pursue worship that truly reflects the diversity of the body of Christ.”
  • “I thought that it was really cool that for the most part we have very similar worship. It was very unifying to hear that we sign a lot of the same songs but in a different language.”
  • “I was most inspired by hearing the speaker play different Spanish worship songs that he wrote.”

In Music in Global Society (Music), Prof. Tim Steele and guest Emmett G. Price III explored the wisdom and formative practices of worship music among Christian communities of the African diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean.

  • “Dr. Price helped students understand that [studying different cultures] is not merely an exercise in academic research, but serves practical purposes—indeed, insights gathered through research can shed light on . . . the separation of the Black church in America from European Christian denominations as a reflection of trauma, and on the process of reconciliation, which requires compassionate and active listeners.”
  • “What inspired me was his advice about how to participate in the project of reconciliation. In the context of music, he said to expand your musical palette as much as possible because it opens up your ears and your hearts to hear the perspectives of people who may be different from you. As someone who may go into worship leadership, I want to take his advice and be as open as possible about engaging with cultural differences.”
  • “Price gave us the ultimate encouragement: that he thinks the church is in good hands when people who think critically about music and culture are leading it. Dr. Price discussed the possibility that we might actually be able to reconcile musically before we reconcile in other ways. By being inspired by the music of others, we can bring disparate traditions (e.g. jazz, soul, classical) together in a way that is edifying to all. I'm inspired to keep studying jazz and Black people's music in order to enrich my piano playing and singing in church.”

With Calvin’s Organ Studio (Music) and a panel of guest organists, Prof. Rhonda Edgington discussed the rewards and challenges of a being a part-time organist/church musician, especially when this work is combined with other careers.

  • “One student wondered of our panelists how long it takes them to prepare a service. This student is just beginning to learn hymn playing, and the thought of regularly preparing multiple hymns seems overwhelming! Answers ranged from basic facts like the number of hours a particular organist needs to prepare a service, to tips such as the advice that improving one’s sight-reading makes preparing weekly hymns and service music go more quickly, to more philosophical ponderings on what excellence costs and its rewards, as well as the fact that with such a shortage of organists around the country, almost any level of hymn playing can be appreciated in the right congregation.”
  • “I got good advice from part-time church organists, but was surprised by how every organist advocated listening to the congregation. Worship is a communal activity, not led by an organist.”
  • “I am really passionate about my faith and music, and it was really assuring to hear that serving as a church musician can be done along with another full-time job.”

In Public Health Capstone (Public Health), Prof. Kristen Alford and guests Warren Kinghorn and Tom Pruski, invited students to consider how worship practices can be a part of how worshiping communities promote holistic human flourishing, including health and wellness.

  • “I think we all approach the intersection of faith and health in different ways. To add some perspectives from others deeply rooted in this work was critical for my students as they are currently trying to identify the language and connections between their faith and their research topic.”
  • “I was most surprised by the ways Dr. Kinghorn’s expertise around mental health and faith in the pandemic hit home for me, and the way he described health inequities as being present before Covid (which of course they were) but then the pandemic presenting a vector for those inequities to disproportionally harm those affected by them really spoke to me. I think working towards a more whole fully healthful community through faith practices like careful self-discernment and lamenting what has been exposed are key to explore in my own life, but even more so in the communities around us as we try to do better than we are today.”
  • “The ideas the speakers brought reminded us of the importance and power of humility, particularly in our professional lives. They gave me so much to think about, and I’m grateful we were able to hear from Dr. Kinghorn and Dr. Pruski! Something that stood out to me the most was the idea that control stunts us as lovers. It’s our natural tendency to desire control, yet we have to relinquish that control to keep Jesus at the center. He informs how we love others, and it’s out of this love that we are called to act.”
  • “I had been telling myself to go back to church community and start connecting back, but was still on the verge. Today they inspired me to really seek and connect back with my community and the importance of it. We are all going through together and really being with others in same faith is unique opportunity and time.”

In Science and the Common Good (Honors Program), Profs. Dave Koetje and Kevin Corcoran explored with students in Calvin's Honors program how public worship invites us into practices and habits that shape our dispositions toward certain kinds of intellectual humility.

  • “It was interesting to think about the way humility is present in worship and the way lament is connected to worship and to humility. I was encouraged to think about how self-centered a lot of modern worship is, and how present the pronoun "I" is in a lot of worship songs.”
  • “I did not realize that humility as a virtue was first introduced with the Christian faith.”
  • “What inspired me most was the list of ways I can practice humility in conversations, for this is something I need to work on. This can help me strengthen the connections with my loved ones when I disagree with them. If I put my pride aside and let them speak freely and disagree with me, then I am letting them know that I love and respect them despite our differences in opinion.”
  • “My community includes a substantial refugee population, so learning to listen better to their stories and what they have to teach us about worship was my major takeaway from this session.”

In Studies in Middle Eastern History (History), Prof. Darrell Rohl interviewed Fr. Michael Nasser of the Antiochian Orthodox Church to help students learn how this living Christian community continues the faith and worship practices of the ancient communities they are studying through historic texts and artifacts.

  • “As we have explored the several ecumenical councils of the period, their controversies and debates, historical figures involved with these controversies, and the implications of these councils on historical Christianity, Father Nasser’s visit allowed us to see how these decisions remain relevant today. . . One issue, in particular, that Father Nasser helped us to better understand was the deep significance of whether the Virgin Mary is “Christokos” (Christ-bearer/Mother of Christ) or “Theotokos” (God-bearer/Mother of God) [a theology debated in Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 and Second Council of Constantinople in AD 553). We had initially had a vigorous debate between our Protestant and Catholic students about this, with the Protestants being very hesitant to accept a Theotokos position because they felt that it elevated Mary into the dangerous territory of idolatry, while our Catholic students defended this position because of Mary’s importance within contemporary Catholicism. . . . Father Nasser helped us to see that this debate was really not about Mary at all, but fundamentally about who Jesus is: in both options (Christokos or Theotokos) Mary remains the same (-tokos, the bearer), but it is Jesus who is presented differently (as merely a human messiah/Christ or as God himself). From his position and training within Orthodox Christianity, Father Nasser was well-equipped to make this historically crucial theological distinction in a way that helped both me and my students to much better understand why this seemingly small difference was such a big deal for centuries.”
  • “Father Nasser also spoke quite eloquently and with reference to personal experience about how ‘worship’ isn’t just the musical portion of a church service but something that ought to be our whole lives: how we live, what we do, who we help, and how we serve both God and our neighbors. This was a valuable challenge for me personally and, I believe, for my students.”

In Sustainability Analysis (Engineering), Prof. Julie Wildschut and guest Mark Torgerson explored how the space utilization and the use of energy in buildings for public worship align with our call to care for God’s creation.

  • “Students were assigned a semester-long project where they applied an analysis method on a product or process within the built environment of a local church. To set the stage, we invited Dr. Mark Torgerson to join us. . . . Dr. Torgerson shared foundational theology for creation care, that humanity is directed to cultivate the earth, seek its flourishing, and tend it like a righteous ruler. He went on to share how all of creation was made to praise God. The prophet Isaiah describes a righteous city where all creation is flourishing. But sin has broken our relationship with God and is hindering our built environment and non-human creation from praising the Creator.”
  • “I was inspired by Torgerson's comment on how ‘God promises to make things new,’ not ‘make new things.’"
  • “I enjoyed the discussion about aesthetics. In my other classes that discussed theology and environment, this was seen as something trivial and unimportant. I appreciated the concept that aesthetics are important, that God loves beauty too. It inspired me to be surrounded by Christians who love the environment as much as I do. I think I will take away some of the conversation points about how to talk to people who do not value it in the same way.”
  • “I think it was really encouraging to hear someone within the church talk about the importance of sustainability, and argue for why we must be intentional about taking care of the earth. I have not felt super connected to the church recently because of the stark opposition to green ideas (among other issues) but it was really refreshing and encouraging to hear about faith spaces where sustainability is prioritized.”

In Theological Reflections in Ministry: Leadership (Congregational Ministry Studies), Prof. Joanna Wigboldy and guest Rich Villodas discussed the importance of character as the first qualification for worship and other leaders in Christian ministry, and what it means to lead out of God's equipping rather than the leader's own strength.

  • “When I talk to students, they almost universally use the word “busy” to describe themselves, and as students prepared questions for Rich I heard their skepticism that they could fit that practices that Rich discusses into their lives. It was important to me, then, for them to hear from Rich how and why he prioritizes these practices. . . . Rich reframed our interior examination as necessary for us to love and lead well, and not hurt others out of our own pain. A leader who engages in interior examination listens well and is a calm presence in time of conflict and disagreement. Most importantly, though, interior examination partnered with contemplative rhythms fosters a deep connection with God, which allows us to lead out of ‘the resources of the Spirit of God.’”
  • “I was inspired by what Rich Villodas said about finding time for prayer and solitude with God, even if we can't take an entire Sabbath. It's not about the legalism of what to do or not to do, it's about making an intentional connection with God.”
  • “Rich Villodas said the greatest gift we can give to our congregation and the best way to get them on board with what we'd like to communicate is by modeling it through our own transformation.”