If your church has split over worship, you have plenty of company. And in those congregations that have not split, there is all too often a festering, unresolved conflict over the music used in worship, the choice of hymns or songs, the order of the service. These so-called worship wars have been extensively reported. But even as many congregations continue to fragment, others are experiencing revitalized worship that is scripturally grounded and Spirit-filled. Thiscounter-trend has not been widely noticed. It should be.
On January 14 and 15, more than 850 people gathered at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan for the annual Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts. The large turnout exceeded expectations, and the conference planners, led by John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, were stretched to the limit. They responded with ingenuity and good cheer, and the result was a program that lived up to this year's theme: Jubilee.
Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the symposium was the integration between theological reflection on worship and hands-on practical instruction. Jeremy Begbie of Cambridge University gave two extraordinary lectures supplemented by visual images and musical examples (Begbie himself is a skilled pianist and oboeist). The reality of the Trinity, he suggested, may be apprehended more fully via music than by our visual imagination—a vivid demonstration of why we need to see "theology and the arts" integrated, not treated as a preserve for dabblers whom we indulge now and then.
The same people who packed the auditorium for Begbie's lectures proceeded from thence to a wide variety of workshops, led by Horace Boyer, Marty Haugen, Mark Hayes, and other practitioners. There were not separate tracks, one for eggheads, one for practical folk. One of Haugen's sessions, for example, showed how "the rhythms within music, the cadences of our sung texts, the spaces of silence and sound within worship—all these smaller elements can help model and illuminate the larger rhythms of the Christian year."
A small group of us came to Calvin not only for the symposium but also for an ongoing Lilly-sponsored book project on contemporary worship. Sunday night, a day after the symposium ended, we attended the student-led worship in the college chapel. The place was packed with students who were there without prodding. The music was exuberant. Scripture was read, and there was a time of confession. But there was also a full-length sermon, powerfully preached by a recent Calvin grad who must be one of the few African American pastors in the Christian Reformed Church.
One of our group, Mike Hamilton of Seattle Pacific University, said that he had attended similar Sunday night services at Christian colleges all around the United States. I left Grand Rapids deeply encouraged.
John Wilsonis Editor of Books & Culture and Editor at Large for Christianity Today.
Christianity Today's July 12, 1999 cover story, " The Triumph of the Praise Songs| How guitars beat out the organ in the worship wars," examined the recent history of church music. Meanwhile, Books & Culture's November/December 1998 cover story, "At Play in the House of the Lord," looked at why worship matters.
See more on the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at the institute's Web site.
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