Worship Symposium 2016

01 2016SymposiumheaderI’ve just returned from a week of great encouragement and wonderful input. Though the weather in Grand Rapids, MI proved to be snowy and cold, it didn’t make any difference to the 1,600 conferees who had gathered from 40-plus states and provinces, 40 different countries around the world, and almost 50 different denominations and Christian traditions – all to spend 4 days together in worship…. as well as to think and consider together how our worship happens. It was my first time to attend but the 29th time for this annual symposium to take place. I was fortunate to be invited by missionary colleague in Japan, Nancy Nethercott (TEAM), to be a part of the “Japan Team”, a group of Japanese worship leaders who were invited and sponsored to attend this event. Larry Spalink (CRC missionary in Japan) also served as one of the leaders for our team.

Japan Team (1)The annual Worship Symposium is an event sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) and the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin College.

Since 1500 of my fellow Covenant pastors were gathered for our annual “Midwinter Conference” a few hours away in Chicago during these same days…. I admit to feeling a small bit of guilt in “not being there with them”, but also felt a great sense of gratitude that “I could be here with new friends” this time around and take in a completely new experience.

With over 100 seminars and workshops interspersed with large worship and plenary gatherings it became clear that one could only participate in a limited number of options. What follows are my impressions of some of those highlights although I have made no particular effort to put them in order.


The theme of the entire symposium was the book of Isaiah, particularly the beautiful promises of encouragement that occur in the latter half of the prophet. A message by Reggie Smith from Isaiah 53 was particularly challenging as we began the first morning of the symposium.02 Reggie Smith


I attended a seminar where several worship leaders talked about their secrets for song selection for worship services and shared some of their favorite resources for music that is not generally well-known. It was a lively and enlightening panel discussion.04 Worship Leader as Pastoral Musician


Mary Hulst, chaplain at Calvin College, gave a great presentation on how she prepares her sermons for the weekly chapel services to college students. While it felt like I was back in “preaching 101” in seminary it was a great reminder of some of the basics as we approach scripture each week and attempt to be faithful in preaching the good news in and out of season.

05 Mary Hulst
06 Peter Yonkers (1)Peter Yonkers, author and pastor, challenged each of us to use a “unifying image” while preaching. Just as a “sermon sentence” helps the preacher / listener state the central theme of a sermon in words, a unifying image can help the listener – through imagination, pictures, poetry and other images – to hear and remember the central gospel theme in a sermon.

Excellent messages from many other pastors and preachers were part of our group worship times.


Barbara Newman’s plenary address on “Universal Design for Worship: Shaping Worship for People of All Abilities.” was memorable for me. In the world of architecture there is a “universal design” which has become standard and which attempts to make buildings accessible to all people from the start. What if we were to think this way for worship? What if we were to design our worship services from the start…. so that many more people (blind, hard of hearing, physically challenged, ADHD, autistic, aging, etc.) would feel truly welcome?

08 Universal Design for Worship
It’s easy to somehow hear this as merely a call for the church to be more politically correct or to “try harder” in our welcoming. Yet, Newman, a church and school consultant for the Christian Learning Center Network, made it quite clear that the blessings of being open and responsive to all members of the body of Christ goes in BOTH directions. People with special needs are helped as they are welcomed into a worship filled with more than words…. pictures, dance, actions, colors ….. and the church is blessed by receiving the many contributions and blessings of those who we often only see as “challenged”, rather than truly “gifted”. In short, ALL of us are made up of strengths and weaknesses (represented by Barbara in her presentation as “green – our strengths”, and “pink -our weaknesses”). Proper theology allows us to immediately see “green” as well as “pink” when encountering a visitor who may for example be confined to a wheel chair. She described the body of Christ as many pieces (each having both green and pink parts) that all need each other in order to create the beautiful puzzle and picture which is the church. When this isn’t understood and taught, everyone loses. She was an excellent educator and her simple and clear examples left us all with much to think about.


Whenever worship is the topic, you can count on the themes of “old versus new”, “tradition versus innovation”, or some similar description of what has come to be known in American church life as the “worship wars”. L. Gregory Jones of Duke University helped us think about the need for these two – Tradition and Innovation – to be held together rather than to be pitted against each other. He stated (in quoting another theologian who slips my mind right now), “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” How can we utilize the riches of a long tradition, push forward with new innovations, and still avoid the pitfall of rejecting either one? Jones used the example of Jazz music to make his point, describing and making use of a live jazz group on stage to discuss how improvisation and a fairly free style of flow (innovation) comes about within a fairly strict set of musical guidelines such as keys, rhythms, and chord structures (tradition).

03 L Gregory Jones


In all of the group worship times a sense of joy and coming together was obvious. Different styles, different ways of doing worship, different countries and languages represented… all of this was part of the experience. A theatre group from Northwestern College in Iowa presented many beautiful scripture passages to us through memory and acting. (They are pictured along with Richard Mouw and the musical group “Urban Doxology” in the banner at the very top of this post.)  A night of gospel music was outstanding… and conferees were invited to be part of a grand gospel choir on stage for the evening…

07Gospel Choir


As a finale to the event all 140 international guests as well as the symposium leaders, presenters, and organizers shared in a final supper. Good food, song, and words were shared by participants as we considered the many blessings and gifts that had been given to us by our Father in heaven through interaction with each other. I hope I’ll have a chance to participate in this symposium again someday…. in the meantime, I leave challenged to think and pray more deeply about my role as a worship leader.10 IMG_2605


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4 thoughts on “Worship Symposium 2016

  1. Thanks for a great report. I’m afraid my reporting on mid-winter was quite a bit sketchier! That great quote, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living” is from Jaroslav Pelikan!!!

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  2. Hi, Tim,

    Am anxiously awaiting the news you will share with us next month!!! I pray for you almost daily, but have to admit surgery to get a new knee, rehab and getting back to work just in time for tax season threw me off my game for a little while. But back to good prayer times again, and a lot of reading God’s Word…so encouraging and uplifting!

    So glad to hear of your change to attend the worship rally. Calvin College, Christian Reformed Church…my childhood. One of Dad’s cousins was a professor at Calvin, and how we loved him!!! Deep, deep voice, sang with the Calvin Choir that traveled at times, had a WONDERFUL sense of humor and wrote a chapter for my book. How we loved him…he was my dad’s favorite person…and they are probably laughing together in heaven right now!

    God obviously knew you needed this refreshing time, don’t feel guilty. He loves you, and this didn’t happen by accident.

    Love you,

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