December 16, 2010 | Phil de Haan

The annual Symposium on Worship takes a wide view of worship.

 In the beginning, the Symposium on Worship at Calvin College—known in the early years as the Symposium on Worship and Church Music—took a broad approach to conversations about worship. A conference brochure from 1989, the second-ever symposium, provides evidence.

There were just eight seminars listed that year for what was essentially a one-day event attended by 30 or 40 people. Included in those eight offerings were not just sessions relating on church music, but offerings such as “The Worship Space: Architecture and Art,” led by Calvin professor of art Edgar Boeve; “Does Lament Have a Place in Worship,” led by Calvin professor of philosophy Nicholas Wolterstorff; and “The Liturgical Year as Spiritual Pilgrimage,” led by then-Wheaton professor of theology Robert Webber.

Today, as the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) and the Center for Excellence in Preaching, neither of which existed in the late 1980s, prepare together to host the 24th-annual symposium, held January 27­–29, 2011, that early pattern holds true.

The symposium still covers a wide range of topics when it comes to worship. Sessions in 2011 will examine everything from praying and singing the Psalms to nurturing faith in children, youth and adults to partnering with the global church in places like North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Iraq and Syria.    

Drawing 1,400-1,500 yearly

Among the changes: symposium now draws some 1,400-1,500 people each year, including 140 overseas participants last year representing 40 countries from China and Congo to Uganda and New Zealand. It also annually includes more than 200 college and high school students who come from across North America for an immersion into worship history and trends. And the conference now stretches over three full days with more than 100 seminars, workshops and interactive sessions, plus worship services that begin and end each day and a variety of smaller services, including vespers. All told, the planning team and service leaders have planned 12 worship services for 1,400 possible participants over a three-day period.

“It is an incredible amount of work to plan this event annually,” said Worship Institute associate director, Kathy Smith, “a lot more work than it was in the early days. But, as symposium has grown over the last quarter century, it also has developed a consistency and a reputation for both breadth and depth, largely due to the leadership of (institute director) John Witvliet who, as a Calvin student, was on the planning committee that put together the first events. It has become, dare I say, an event that has people looking forward to visiting Michigan in January thanks to a committee that spares no attention to detail and that considers every aspect of symposium with an eye and an ear toward how God's name might be lifted and praised.”

Positive feedback

Attendees concur. Feedback from a recent Symposium praised the three-day feast and the ways in which symposium sparks their creativity and gives them energy at the start of a new year. They also appreciated the ways in which symposium got them thinking about worship in their own settings. In response to the question, “What new question will you ask about worship as you return to your congregation?” attendees noted a plethora of things they were pondering after three days of Symposium, including the following:

*Are people hearing themselves in the prayers of the people?

*Does worship focus you toward eternity?

*How can we use more lament in our worship planning?

*Are we bringing our sufferings fully to the Lord in our worship?

*How do understand your "participation" in worshiping God?

*Do we see worship as a formative event?

*What will help us engage more of our senses?

For the symposium planning team such questions are what the annual event is all about. Scott Hoezee, director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching, housed at Calvin Theological Seminary, has attended symposium in recent years as a host and planner. He also attended in the 1990s as a pastor, an experience he remembers fondly.

International growth

“I think the growth (of symposium) is due in part to word-of-mouth as people who have attended have found it to be so helpful that they then encourage others to come,” he said. “I attended various symposia as a pastor and always remember them to be dynamic events, loaded with energy and bristling with insights across a wide array of worship-related themes.”

Hoezee added that he has been encouraged in recent years by the event's growth in international attendees.

“It is always great to gain a fuller sense of the worldwide body of Christ,” he said, “and our international guests help to provide that as we see how rich and varied and wonderful the wider church world is. Many of the international guests themselves benefit from the opportunity to travel, a rarity for some of them, and also to see a part of the worldwide church they cannot see or experience as well at home.”

Symposium planners credit the work of the Worship Institute's Emily Brink and Anne Zaki as a big factor in the overseas attendance at Symposium, but the pair is quick to deflect the credit. Zaki, lives in Kelowna, B.C., where she serves the Worship Institute as resource development specialist for global worship, while also working as middle east ministry coordinator for the Christian Reformed Church in North America and as an associate pastor at Kelowna Christian Reformed Church. She said simply that while the symposium has something to say to those from international contexts, those overseas participants also have an important message for the North American church and the resulting conversations have led to flourishing partnerships.

A global vision

“The CICW has always had a deep commitment to the global church,” Zaki said, “and symposium is a good example of how those relationships develop. This growing international presence, while beneficial to us in North America in serving to widen our picture of the worldwide church of Christ, has also birthed multiple opportunities for partnerships with local churches to host worship symposia in other countries including Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Egypt, China, Japan, Mexico, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Taiwan, and Nepal. We in North America get a much bigger understanding of the awesomeness of the Body of Christ as we listen to their stories and sing their songs.”

About the only thing anyone would see fit to change about symposium is when it occurs. January in Grand Rapids, as Smith alluded to, can be a little chilly. But, said one recent attendee in filling out the feedback form: “Hold it in May,” before adding: “I enjoyed it very much and learned a great deal (I am 70). I hope to come again.”

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