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Preparing Students to Become Lead Worshipers

A glimpse into the training involved to prepare students to lead worship.

At Calvin College, we see our worship leaders as "lead worshipers" whose role is to invite and enable all who are gathered into full, conscious and active participation in worship. We empower many students to participate in leading daily chapels and Sunday evening LOFT (Living Our Faith Together) services. The primary leaders are the Worship Apprentices, a team of a dozen or so students who are accepted into a special training and mentoring program. There are additional students who serve on teams of musicians and actors and dancers and liturgists, all participating in leading worship at Calvin.

Training Worship Apprentices

After the team is chosen in late winter, the Worship Apprentices begin to meet together. The first gathering of the new team is with the current apprentice team at its weekly meeting, as an introduction to the program and an initial exercise in "passing on the torch." The new team meets a couple of times in the spring, for fellowship and some introductory leadership training. Then the team arrives two weeks before the new academic year begins for intensive training.

During the two-week training time, we follow a pretty rigorous schedule. We worship together twice a day, with the mentors leading the opening devotions and the students working in pairs to plan and lead in the afternoons. Our theological lessons, providing the foundation for everything that we do, are taught in the morning, and the afternoons are full of practical advice for worship planning and leading in the afternoons. We lead the apprentices in exercises that help them to think about the purpose of worship, how to read scripture meaningfully, ways to borrow music from various traditions, models for leading a community in prayer, ideas for using creative arts, and how to pull all of these things together as we plan worship for our community.

Our theological lessons, providing the foundation for everything that we do, are taught in the morning. We use what we call "Principles and Practicals" cards which say that at Calvin, worship should be Covenantal, Participative, Holistic, Expansive, Reverent, Spirit-directed and Expectant. Each theological lesson begins with the biblical underpinning for these beliefs.

The more practical tips also can be found in condensed form on these cards. For those who lead by speaking and reading and praying, we offer advice on how to prepare and practice out loud. For those who sing or play instruments, we advise them to consider themselves leaders who enable the whole congregation to participate in the act of worship. Even for those who provide hospitality and tech support, we offer advice for making their role so inviting and free from distractions that it helps the congregation to worship freely.

Our prayer is that, by the end of this intensive training time, the Worship Apprentices are equipped to become "lead worshipers" for the Calvin community. We continue to support them with good fellowship and further teachings during our weekly team meetings and during our mentoring sessions.

Our Worship Apprentice program involves significant mentoring far beyond their practical training. We meet one-on-one with our apprentices for about an hour each week. We may start by offering them feedback on their particular tasks, encouraging them about those things that went well and advising them how to improve those that could be better. In our conversations we also may figure out how to deal with conflicts within teams (as well as with roommates or professors or families!), we work together on discerning what kind of call God may be placing on their lives, and we talk about future goals and how to achieve them. Perhaps most importantly, we spend some time in prayer, asking for God's continuing guidance in the work that we're undertaking together and for his protection over all parts of our lives.

One final exercise for their continued growth as leaders has been the opportunity for the Worship Apprentices to pass on what they've been learning. The CICW offers a High School Worship Conference each spring, and the apprentices are invited to offer workshops for the high school students. This has proven exceedingly effective in helping them to process what they've learned and to find new ways to teach it to others.

Preparing More Student Leaders

For other student leaders at Calvin, we offer occasional workshops, so that they can better lead the more informal worship events in the residence halls and so that they may begin to step into leadership in chapels and LOFT as well. For instance, there was a three-part series that taught some basics for those who pray (for the needs of the whole community and with space for personal petition), for singers (how to use the voice to lead congregational song), and for instrumentalists (giving good cues for singing and listening to other members of the team).

The entire LOFT team goes on an overnight retreat just before the fall semester begins, both for some basic preparation for leadership and for bonding as a team. A team of leaders who know each other well and care about each other is better equipped to lead others well too. During this retreat they also plan the very first worship service of the year.

We have sometimes offered workshops in dance or drama or the dramatic presentation of scripture. For example, Dennis Dewey, an expert in presenting scripture from the heart, spent a day giving personal instruction for student leaders.

Just as we require all of the Worship Apprentices to attend the Worship Symposium offered by the CICW, we also encourage our other student leaders to go to that conference. At the Symposium, they participate in diverse and inspiring worship services and attend workshops that have practical and/or academic value. We also encourage our students to go to other conferences (such as the Arts Conference at Willow Creek) to continue to gain knowledge and experience from a variety of opportunities.