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Visiting Scholars Connect Worship and Life

Academic study can be a deep resource used to strengthen faith and ministry. It gives us language and frameworks to respectfully discuss vexing worship issues.

Academic study can be a deep resource used to strengthen faith and ministry. It gives us language and frameworks to respectfully discuss vexing worship issues. For example, is it ungodly to care about beauty in worship? Is lament a Christian word for whining? How and when is the Holy Spirit active in worship? 

Visiting scholars hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) address such questions. They offer historical insights, fresh research, and real-life examples that can enrich congregational worship and discipleship.

“It’s a particularly gratifying thing to see how God uses teachers and scholars to strengthen the church.  Visiting scholars really help us live into this vision. These generative teachers and scholars bring so much to us—new cultural perspectives, new areas of expertise. They help us nurture an environment of learning," says John D. Witvliet, CICW director.

Mutual learning

Hosting visiting scholars is a way for CICW to model a culture of convening conversations and asking questions. This openness flows from realizing that everyone in the body of Christ needs each other because we each have experiences and gifts worth sharing.

Calvin College began hosting two or three visiting scholars a year in 2001. It lifted that annual limit in 2009, and, during the 2012-2013 academic year, hosted seven scholars for a semester or more. The Worship Institute hosted two of those seven: Maria Eugenia Cornou and Joseph (Joey) Novak.

Visiting scholars receive an office, research access, and opportunities to connect with colleagues who are doing similar work. They also receive help to find housing and to settle in to life in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Calvin doesn’t pay the visiting scholars. 

Maria Cornou is from Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she taught biblical studies and was
administrative director at International Baptist Theological Seminary. She holds degrees in public accounting and theology and is finishing a PhD in theology from the Evangelical University of the Americas in San Jose, Costa Rica. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and, as a visiting scholar, is researching Latino Protestant congregations in Kent County, Michigan.

“Calvin has an amazing abundance of research resources. The cross-cultural experience is giving me fresh insights. I’m building relationships with very proficient scholars and a network of talented men and women open to sharing their time and knowledge. I have the opportunity to engage more in the field of worship, learning from CICW’s publications, book reading groups, staff meetings, and events,” she says.

At one staff meeting she gave an illustrated talk about how Protestantism began in Spain among Catholic monks who were contemporaries of John Calvin. In 1569, they published the first Protestant Bible in Spanish. Known as the Reina-Valera translation, this Bible is as beloved among Spanish speakers as the King James Bible has been in the English-speaking world.

Joey Novak explained at another staff meeting that he depended on The Worship Sourcebook and other CICW resources as the director of chapel at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. He now pastors First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca, Michigan, and, as a visiting scholar and PhD candidate, is researching the prayer for illumination in the history of Reformed liturgies.

“The prayer for illumination is a special prayer offered by most Reformed churches either before the reading of Scripture or before the sermon. So far I’ve studied 69 unique prayers for illumination in three Reformed communions, and only one-third make explicit mention of the Holy Spirit,” he said. This matters, because whether or how often preachers ask the Holy Spirit’s help to hear, proclaim, and understand Scripture he/lps form worshipers’ sense of God being active in preaching.

Catalyzed connections

One of CICW’s ten core convictions is intentional integration between worship and all of life. Most visiting scholars have worked and studied in several fields, disciplines, and places. Their interdisciplinary lives spark creative connections for new research and relationships.

Andrew (Andy) M. McCoy, a visiting scholar from July 2010 through June 2012, spent his time at Calvin studying the Psalms to develop a theology of Christian worship amidst suffering. He was especially interested in the role of lament in global praise and worship music.

This interest springs from McCoy’s degrees in vocal performance, counseling, and divinity. McCoy plays piano and guitar. He’s a registered counselor whose work focuses on survivors of sexual abuse. McCoy has worked for Campus Crusade for Christ. His PhD dissertation, Faith at the Fractures of Life, examines how Christian faith transforms human response to suffering. He earned it at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

While at Calvin, McCoy preached at chapel services, presented and hosted sessions at two Calvin Symposiums on Worship, and helped people involved in youth ministry think through relationships between congregations and parachurch ministries.

Steven R. Guthrie was a visiting scholar from January through June 2012. He worked in church youth ministry and music ministry before becoming a religion professor at Belmont University, where he founded the religion and arts major. His articles and books deal with music, theology, and the Holy Spirit’s role in creative arts. He also does keyboard, percussion, and vocals for SixtyFour, a Beatles cover band in Nashville, Tennessee.

Guthrie has helped CICW connect with leaders in the contemporary Christian music industry, such as recording artist Ginny Owens and John Thompson, director of creative and copyright development at EMI-CMG Publishing.

Practical results for congregations

Because they love crossing academic and cultural bridges, visiting scholars know how to talk about their research to non-specialists. As active church members, the scholars are eager to share how their discoveries can help Christians and congregations.

Guthrie has often wondered why scholars write more about the words of hymns than the music of hymns. As a visiting scholar, he researched cognitive science on how “bodily activity and rituals and practices shape our thinking. I’m interested to discover more about how singing, speaking and reciting together—rituals that people do together in worship—shape our thinking.”

He explains that the Holy Spirit uses congregational singing to help us hear, see, and experience the joy of unified diversity. Singing worshipers must listen and respond to each other to stay together in harmony, volume, rhythm, and pitch. Guthrie says that, as the Holy Spirit works through our singing, we learn creative mutual submission.

Lisa DeBoer teaches art at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. During her visiting scholar time (June 2011 through June 2012), she continued her research on the role of visual arts in North American churches. She’s noticed that when Protestant churches use visual art in worship, it’s most often a stock image of an individual alone in nature.

“Those images of the individual alone in nature are not bad or wrong. But they don’t reinforce the communal corporate nature of the Body of Christ. If we pick those images week after week, we’re accidentally working against the sense of shared worship that we should be encouraging,” DeBoer cautions.

Featured Links

Learn More

Read “Visiting Scholar Resources You can Use” to plan a session or series for your worship arts committee, church education program, small group, or classroom.

Learn more about the Calvin College  Visiting Scholars program. Read a news story about Calvin visiting scholars during the 2011-2012 academic year. From 2001 through 2013, the various departments, institutes, and centers of Calvin College hosted 45 visiting scholars from 13 countries for at least three months. From 2001 through 2013, the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies also hosted 15 visiting scholars for one to four weeks.

Some churches get into trouble discussing worship differences because people have strong emotions but lack a common conceptual framework or language for worship.

Start A Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, board, worship committee, or church education meetings. These questions will help people think about how to use scholarly insights to enrich your congregational worship and discipleship.

  • Where would your congregation fit on a scale of “going-to-college-makes-people-lose-their-faith” to “some-of-our-best-influences-are-scholars”? How do these gut feelings affect your congregation’s eagerness to learn from academics, books, or other scholarly resources?
  • Share examples of worship discussions that went downhill because people mainly talked about what they liked or didn’t like. What ideas helped to redeem those discussions?
  • What memorable insights from scholars, books, or other academic resources have made a difference in how you view the church, your congregation, worship, or living out your faith?