Reflections on the Worship Symposium ’19 @ CICW

Sometimes, the most important developments in our lives are the ones that almost get derailed before they start. My attendance at the 2019 annual Worship Symposium at the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship hosted by Calvin College was one such. In an especially insightful devotional entry the Word for Today writer Bob Gass addresses those ‘with enough baggage to derail a freight train.’ No exaggeration, he was talking about me – and specifically in the area of music and worship leadership and ministry. No one has the power to hurt you quite like ‘your own’ and (as I now teach) no one has any idea how much healing one actually needs until one finally goes to God in search of just that. I had made up my mind that my time in worship ministry was over. The ‘season for this ministry’ had run its course and it was time to see what God had for me coming up – except that it never worked out that way – and eventually the terrifying realisation that despite what appeared (to sane and reasonable minds) to be a mountain of evidence that I should NOT be in worship ministry in any dimension (indeed, the evidence that I should either find a different church altogether or find a better religion altogether or get shot of religion full-stop seemed entirely definitive), it began to become clear that in the questions that were emerging from my very painful experience/s, the seeds of the next chapter of my life and times in worship ministry were taking root. However, I had and have changed: I had finally become separated from the need to be understood. The Symposium had been on my radar for several years but now the prototypical contours of worship ministry seemed to be so far away from where I had reached that as I browsed the CICW website #wsymp19 just seemed to be for all these nice, ‘regular’ music ministers, worship pastors and directors, clergy, etc. I have no formal position these days; how was I even eligible?! And so I finally decided that I was NOT going to Grand Rapids, MI. End of story.

God, however (and not for the first time) had other ideas. Not only did the Holy Spirit work patiently in my life, but suddenly a range of other doors opened and I began to realise that what I needed was a worship renewal experience – and an opportunity to see something other than the contents of my own world in the UK. And so very late in the day I began to line up the dots. It was not cheap. It was not straightforward. But slowly, inexorably, it began to come together, and when the good folks in the CICW office found a lovely person to give me a ride from Chicago to Grand Rapids in time for me to not miss the beginning of the Synposium, I finally fully accepted that this was the right thing and relaxed. Of course, when we do that, God has more room to work….!

The reason for the comprehensive nature of that preamble is because in setting the scene for the exposition/reflections that follow, I hope to ensure that anyone reading this is clear that this is not going to be some hagiographic love-in. I came into #wsymp19 desperately trying to manage the depressive rage that has followed the hurt and anger that I have experienced in genuinely trying to give all that I had to worship ministry and being misrepresented, abused and then ignored. That I experienced the most important worship experiences of my life to date over three days in January 2019 – along with some quite outstanding conversations/interactions – is not only a testament to the work of CICW but also to how much God loves each one of us and refuses to give up on us.

For years I have contended that actions of music ministry cannot wilfully refuse to meet their musical obligations and still be spiritual. I was thrilled to be able to attend the day-long retreat on Thursday, ably led by Greg Scheer with three wildly different sidekicks: veteran hymn editor and musicologist Emily Brink, whose impact on me was greater than she could ever have realised, the justifiably-esteemed Tony Alonso (whose work is seriously impressive and who has also confirmed that it is possible to be a theologian and a composer – which, given that this was something I was very unsure about, was also extraordinarily helpful) and Liz Vice, whose experience and testimony as a fellow diasporic Black Christian musician was really great to hear (we had some very good chats later). I have been clobbered for asking ‘too much’ of church musicians in the UK, but these guys were not allowing fluffy stuff at all as they laid down the gauntlet for writing for congregations. I had formally decided that trying to write any new, musically credible, theologically-on-point music for church members to sing was a complete waste of time and a stewardship failure for serious composers. But that ship got tipped upside down and while I’m still not sure how this works from now, I realise that the enemy of souls was committed to me remaining at odds with congregational communities in my own mind. The fact is that all churches have great strengths and horrific weaknesses. It happens that some ‘congenital’ weaknesses in my church coincide with my specialist skills and interests. But there is no law which says that I am entitled to an easier ride than anyone else – and there are MANY congregations to write for! What a blessing to have reached that place.

The next two days were spent discovering how days 2 and 3 of the Symposium work. It is impossible to attend all three workshops on both days and find time to eat a leisurely lunch in the Commons. It is also impossible to stay on track with one’s carefully planned workshop schedule when conversations begin all over the site. And having come all that way and spent all that money, at first I was panicking about trying to not miss out on anything – but by Friday afternoon I had calmed down and worked out that my job was to make plans, but then go with the flow and see what happened. And so I intentionally jumped about from session to session, looking to get a flavour of the different conversations taking place and allowing myself to change my mind when appropriate. I also spent a great deal of time on Friday with the book tables, soaking up examples of writing that are available in the UK through Amazon etc, but not usually through being able to pick up and leaf through. I even explored the actual campus bookstore, which had a pretty impressive section on suffering/grief, and learned several new names to explore. As one can no longer carry several books onto any flight without astronomic cost (oh, how I love Southwest Airlines now!), I had to work out what was on Kindle, what I’d have to buy upon my return to the UK, and what I could get into my luggage. But all of that was time very well spent.

The launch of the new African-American hymnal One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism was a moment for celebration, questioning and participant observation. Dr. James Abbington and his colleagues have done a marvellous job in representing a very wide array of liturgical music traditions in the African-American church/es and Friday’s plenary featured some choral support from current members of the James Abbington Church Music Academy along with the outstanding Hammond organist Michael Jordan (Austin, TX) and Calvin College’s very own Lisa Sung, whose clearly-ever-evolving gospel piano chops brought more than one wide smile to various professional gospel exponents and listeners who enjoyed seeing/hearing an Asian-American lady ‘play church.’ I’d like to join in the tributes to GIA for their facilitation of this hymnal, and also to mention the enormously impressive musicological scholarship of Dr. Birgitta Johnson (she is the real deal as an ethnomusicologist; too many of us just like using the word to make themselves feel good) and Dr. Lisa Weaver, whose critical-pastoral oeuvre was also very impressive (and with whom I hope to have the privilege of talking liturgical theology in serious detail in the future). Do not pick a fight with these two if you haven’t done your homework! They were also in the last workshop on Friday and contributed to an amazing discussion which did me a power of good. And that was due in very large measure to John Witvliet – but more on him towards the end. I also need to make mention of Brian Johnson, representing the UCC, who spoke briefly but powerfully about the ‘horizontal’ dimension of worship and our duty to ‘ethics’ as well as ‘aesthetics’ (that’s my interpretation of what he said). This is not beginning to be stressed enough in Black churches in the West so I took his point!

With the only exception to what I am about to say being that in one worship service the brass quartet appeared unable or unwilling to listen to the tempo of the congregation and/or organ, which ruined what would have been some otherwise very memorable music-making, and in that same service one (very talented) guitarist tuning their guitar on two separate occasions during spoken prayers (both of which elicited very strong emotions within me as I was really connected to the liturgical flow of what was a very-well-planned service): all the worship services that I attended at #wsymp19 were an unbridled joy and the highlight of my experience. Clearly an awesome amount of work had gone into getting these services together. A ‘classical service’ with organ and the GRR Choral Scholars was just exceptionally well-conceived and although John Ferguson could not be present, James Bobb did sterling work at the organ bench (this guy is the best American ‘classical’ organist that I have ever heard and I’ve heard a good few!). Towards the end, one of my favourite anthems (the Farrant/Hilton Lord, for Thy tender mercy’s sake) was used as an actual part of a prayer of confession, and when they closed that prayer out with the “Alleluia” it was as if my heart stopped beating.

Eric Sarwar’s psalmfest from the Indian subcontinent was an uplifting but yet very sobering experience. Eric’s leadership in English plus various languages of the region whilst playing harmonium was supported by some excellent violin and ‘cello playing, along with two backing singers (one male, one female), keys, one of the leading lights of the ethnodoxology movement on dholak and a Brazilian assistant professor of church music on Latin percussion. Cultural diversity was everywhere in this service, not least in the varied languages and cultures represented in the intercessions etc, and although this was (and maybe was always going to be) one of the least well attended sessions, it was a huge personal highlight and I will be using some of those psalm melodies in my own sacred jazz ensembles.

I did look in on the African-American worship service where all concerned seemed to be having an amazing time. At times I am concerned about the unregulated emotionalism of such services but it seems as if there is an actual form guide (whether written or not) for CICW services and that structure offers scope for real discipline. As more than one person put it, “COGIC came to Calvin!”

I’ll mention one more worship service: The Heart of the Divine Parent which featured piano, bass, drums, vocals, accordion and violin. I found myself wanting to say that it was ridiculously musical but then realised that such a description would be unhelpfully hyperbolic. And then I realised that the assignation I was seeking was ‘ridiculously spiritual.’ Everyone in this band had made a Levitical commitment and boy, did it show! The vocal arrangements were also significantly above average, and when Nikki Lerner sang the old spiritual Sometimes I feel like a motherless child without any form of accompaniment you could have cut the emotion in the air with a knife. Now, it needs to be re-stated that all the other services I attended were all exceptional, but these are the ones in this blog post. I wish I had time to deconstruct Timothy Blackmon’s homily (‘worship is a place where some of us go to hide from God…’) but that needs more time and scope than we have here.

Calvin College is an amazing place and I very much hope to be able to return and to be part of what these folks are doing. Huge thanks and congratulations to Cindy de Boer, Kristen Verhulst and their colleagues. Seven years ago I met John Witvliet at another church school in Michigan and he was the epitome of graciousness itself. I had enough money for one of his books, but really wanted both. He discerned that and took from me what I had, gave me both and sent me back to the UK with some excellent advice for future studies and a blessing. What he and the CICW have achieved is nothing short of miraculous, and the CICW has an enormously valuable role to play as we all work with Divinity to see the borders of the Kingdom grow. I am one of those Christians who does believe that Jesus is coming again, and that worship is the single eternal ministry that we will be engaged in forever – in this life and the next.

If you’ve never been, I implore you to now ignore all of the above and go for yourself, and see for yourself. If I am still alive and sufficiently solvent in January 2020, I look forward to seeing you there.


2 thoughts on “Reflections on the Worship Symposium ’19 @ CICW

  1. Wow… had an awesome time Alex….although I feel I have grossly understated the enormity of this conference and just how emotively and Holy Spirit imbued the worship experience was for you and the privilege of being a part of it.

    I do hope I might meet you there….but tiny steps my friend….I would like to look at understanding tone and harmony. But I also know I want to seriously look at praise and worship in more depth and in spirit and in truth! so unless they are doing a beginner’s session in hymn and gospel exposition I may not see you for a while.

    Nevertheless enjoy if you are still there and don’t overdo it and i hope to see you when a break in your schedule allows.

    Take care and God bless


    1. Thanks so much for this, Paulette. And yes, the game has changed completely now. The truth is that someone like you would already be in an excellent position to get a great deal out of the same event. BUT the dissonance would include that there is absolutely no way that one can utilise almost every aspect of this sort of dedicated teaching in music and worship in our world church. Whether in our country, or other countries, our approach to sacred music and corporate worship in our church is in a terrible and arguably completely unfixable state. So that will always be hard, but God has a plan. Speak when I’m back. God bless you too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s