Leaders from across the world gather for worship on campus

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The 27th annual Symposium on Worship welcomed over 1,600 church leaders to campus this past weekend. Leaders came seeking worship renewal, fellowship and training. Perhaps the only thing they struggled to find was a parking spot.

While the symposium is sponsored by a Reformed institution, the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, the conference is largely ecumenical, inviting preachers and worship leaders from a large number of denominations both in North America and worldwide.

Dr. John Witvliet, the director of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, said there is “a palpable sense of the worldwide church” felt at the conference each year.

Vivien Timothy travelled from Port-Harcourt, Nigeria, to attend the symposium. She spoke about the beauty of the worldwide church converging at the event.

“You are able to come together with different people,” Timothy said. “It gives you this feeling of peace and unity. We have a togetherness as Christians.”

“It is powerful to be in the Commons [Dining Hall] face-to-face with people literally from around the world,” Witvliet said.

But beyond ethnic diversity, the symposium was also the youngest crowd that has ever attended.  Twenty-five percent of attendees were under 25 years old, with a wide representation of various colleges and high schools. Fifty percent of attendees were under 40 years old.

“The goal is to affirm every single generation,” said Witvliet.  “It is crucial to have teenagers and people in their seventies.”

For many attendees, the Symposium on Worship is also a time for spiritual renewal, encouragement and encountering new worship practices.

“It is a fellowship opportunity and rejuvenating for worship leaders,” said Laura de Jong, a member of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship staff and the Building and Worship Service Coordinator for this year’s conference. “It is a breath of fresh air and gives leaders something to take back to their congregations.”

For Timothy, the symposium is about discovering new ideas to bring back to her congregation. She discovered the use of drama in worship after seeing a performance on Cain and Abel by the Drama Ministries Ensemble of Northwestern College.

“Trust me, I have read the story [of Cain and Abel],” Timothy said, “but today, it gave me more insight about the message God is trying to say to us. … This is something I will never forget.”

“There is a strong sense of spiritual encouragement and vitality in the conference,” said Witvliet, acknowledging the importance of having this conference on campus and giving church leaders a chance to connect and learn from each other.

The conference was structured around morning worship services and plenaries, followed by smaller workshops in the afternoon.

Main plenary sessions were led by Jeremy Begbie, a theology professor from Duke Divinity School who spoke on the mystery of worship, and Dr. John Witvliet, Mark Charles, Eric Sarwa, and Anne Zaki, who spoke on the church’s need to pray on a global level in corporate worship.

Todd Cioffi, assistant professor and advisor for the Congregational Ministry Studies department, noted one critique of the worship services at symposium.

“Sometimes we wish it could be more pedestrian,” Cioffi reports hearing from past attendees. Some leaders feel that that services are done so well, they struggle to take elements back to their congregations.

The experience is not something most churches can replicate each week, given the broad range of ethnicities, denominations and traditions represented. However, Cioffi hopes the symposium might inspire leaders to take small pieces back to their congregations.

Perhaps the best way to view the worship services at the symposium, Cioffi said, “is a great holiday feast.”

About the Authors

Nathan Groenewold

Nathan Groenewold is the Chimes co-religion editor for the 2013-14 school year.

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