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By Nathan Bierma


Wholly, Wholly, Wholly

Calvinists and conga drums in Grand Rapids: a report from the seventeenth annual Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts.

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It hit me when the Sankofa student drum group started playing during the Scripture reading. The drummers hadn't blown their cue; they were supposed to be playing during the Scripture reading. The moment came during a chapel service on Isaiah 60, and when they stood up and started thumping away, the reader began: "Arise, shine for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is upon you. … " The driving, growling beat of their congas seemed to punctuate the imminence of the prophecy; their rhythm was arresting, surprising, and fully fitting. I'd never heard the passage read that way before, and never heard its call that way before. It was like Isaiah was trying to get our attention all over again, all these millennia later.

And that's when it hit me: if Calvinists are pounding congas like this in the middle of a reading, worship has come a long way in this place and this faith tradition. The thought recurred throughout the final day of the seventeenth annual Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which the chapel opened. Raised in West Michigan in the Reformed tradition, I'm not conditioned to get goosebumps in church. Worship here has long been reverent, formal, solemn, and—at its worst—bloodless. It used to be that you were no more likely to hear banging congas during the Scripture reading than you would be to see elders riding unicycles around the sanctuary. You wouldn't have picked Dutch Calvinists—we who took until the 20th century to agree that speaking English and singing hymns were allowed in church—to call for an international dialogue on cultivating meaningful and refreshing methods and habits of worship.

Yet this past weekend, Calvin College was indeed the destination of world travelers from 30 denominations and as many states and provinces, from Hungary and Hong Kong, convening for reflection, suggestions, and demonstrations of worship that is resonant and not just ritual. The 100-plus seminars gradually seemed to coalesce under one theme, intentionally or not: worship and wholeness. Worship as an integral part of a spiritual life that is whole, and as a celebration of a creation being remade whole.

Such an outlook on worship is an improvement, said Robert Webber in an address, over equating "worship" with "music," as we often do. Shrinking our definition of worship in this way, he said, is a nod to a culture that has "turned inward," reducing sacred activity to the arena of the self, and dilutes praise to the point where it is merely "congratulating God for being God." Even worse, it repeats the Greek mistake of exiling the divine to beyond the world, regarding him as just "an essence who sits in the heavens" rather than the author, intruder, and restorer of the created order. If worship is to aptly laud this God, Webber said, it must go beyond slapping God on the back for his greatness and begin to participate in this creation story.

After that, Kansas City composer Mark Hayes spoke on incorporating musicians and variety into worship in a way that is "seamless," not just a collection of performances but threads in a tapestry. As worship planners, Hayes said, "Our job is to create and hold a sacred container in which the Spirit can move and work … and in which every word sung and spoken contributes to this environment." A church benefits from gathering in as many participants with as many different gifts as are present in the congregation—even, he said, non-singing choir members who serve as planners and coordinators—but it must constantly "guard against worship becoming fragmented." Downstairs, Quentin Schultze, Calvin's resident offspring of Abraham Kuyper and Marshall McLuhan, and author of the new book High-Tech Worship?, was leading a parallel discussion about integrating technology into worship. Integrating—not just plugging in PowerPoint and letting it dazzle us. "Everything must be knit together so that it is whole," Schultze said, "even though it is made of many parts."

Hayes' term "sacred container" was still ringing in my ears as I sat down to hear the gregarious Mark Torgerson, professor of architecture and worship arts at Judson College in Elgin, Ill., speak on "Sixty Years of Change in Worship Space Design," armed with slides of a few sacred containers. If worship is to be seamless, it must be woven into its surroundings, and vice versa. Torgerson flashed a picture of the soaring Gothic interior of Manhattan's Riverside Church, next to a picture of a modest Quaker meeting room with wooden benches around a central table. How would prayers differ in each place? Would not worshipers address an awesome, majestic God in the first, and an immediate, incarnate God in the second? Today, church architects attempt to design shapes for both at once. Some of the most exotic results can be found in the hidden architectural haven of Columbus, Indiana—from the blank expression of Eliel Saarinen's boxy First Church of Christ to his son Eero's tent-like, intimate hexagon of North Christian Church.

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