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New Institute to Promote Study and Renewal of Worship

By Phil deHaan '84

A bold new institute at Calvin College will bring both scholarly thinking and practical resources to Christian communities interested in worship.

Said John Witvliet '90, newly appointed director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship: "Our working mission statement as we begin this new venture is twofold. We want to promote scholarly study of the theology, history and practice of Christian worship. We also want to contribute to the renewal of worship in local congregations across North America."

Witvliet is uniquely suited to his new task. A music major at Calvin College he went on to earn a master's degree in theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, a master's degree in choral music at the University of Illinois and master's and Ph.D. degrees (in worship and theology) at the University of Notre Dame. His academic credentials are buoyed by his experiences as researcher, writer, musician and congregational worship leader.

He will be assisted by Cindy Holtrop, a graduate of Dordt College in Iowa and Calvin Theological Seminary, who has experience in congregational ministry, high school teaching, radio broadcasting and bibliographical research.

Witvliet said the timing for Calvin's new Institute is ideal since in recent years worship has become a topic of vital interest for many congregations.

"Worship commands almost instant interest and attention," he said. "Worship provides a lens through which to sense the deepest spiritual convictions and theological commitments of a community."

Witvliet notes that worship in all denominations used to be consistent from church to church, with changes coming slowly, if at all. But in the last decade uniformity of worship style has been replaced by incredible variety among churches and even, sometimes, within individual churches.

"In the last decade every Christian tradition has seen changes in patterns of worship," he said. "More than ever large numbers of people from the congregation are taking ownership of the approach to worship in their congregation. That's exciting."

Witvliet notes that their approach to worship has become a significant defining factor for churches. "It (their approach to worship) is realigning how congregations think of themselves," he said. "It's more important, in many cases, to a congregation's sense of identity than denominational affiliation. That's new; that's very significant."

Studying such trends -- looking at current shifts through historical spectacles -- will be one of the tasks of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

"Surveying, probing, asking questions about change will be central to what we do," said Witvliet, "but we will use the patterns of the past to illuminate where we are today. We also will be careful to not become so obsessed with current issues that we miss the bigger questions. For example, while it is important to look at the hotly contested question of musical styles within a worship service, this question can easily overshadow more significant issues regarding the way worship supports the mission of the church, the way it expresses the deepest theological convictions of a community. For example, one topic that we've almost entirely neglected is the role of the Lord's Supper and baptism in Christian worship."

The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship will look at three types of topics applying to worship: the history of worship, the theology of worship and the practice of worship. In studying worship the Institute plans to be interdisciplinary -- bringing together artists, theologians, cultural anthropologists, missionaries, musicians, historians, sociologists and pastors -- and worldwide -- promoting learning about and from Christian worship in all times and all places.

The Institute also will serve a wide audience, respecting and cultivating the strengths of the Reformed evangelical tradition in which Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary stand as well as engaging Christians in other traditions.

And the Institute aims to be constructive, encouraging public worship that is both spiritually vital and theologically rooted, while avoiding unnecessary divisions over worship styles.

The Institute will provide and support courses at both Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in the study of worship, scheduling as many such offerings as possible at times that make them available to the West Michigan community. It also will develop library resources to support the scholarly study of worship and to provide practical worship resources for local congregations. It will sponsor scholarly conferences (and subsequent published volumes of research on worship-related topics) and host guest lectures and artists. In , the Institute will host the national conventions of the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada and the Choristers Guild.

And it hopes to promote worship renewal in local congregations by sponsoring such events as the annual Symposium on Worship in the Arts (held at Calvin each January) and the quadrennial Conference on Liturgy and Music (COLAM) of the Christian Reformed Church. It also will sponsor outreach efforts to local congregations across North America, including tours by Calvin music department ensembles -- especially the Campus Choir which will increasingly be dedicated to developing and performing creative music for congregational worship under Witvliet's direction.

Finally, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship will be available to consult with congregations that seek to promote renewal of worship. The Institute will develop resources for several commonly asked questions: How do we find a good worship leader or church musician? How do we design good worship space in our new church building? What are resources for choosing the best of both historic and recently written music?

The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship will be housed on the campus of Calvin College, but will work closely with Calvin Theological Seminary and the Christian Reformed Church of North America.

Phil deHaan is Calvin’s director of media relations.

Symposium on Worship in the Arts


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Last revised by Nathan Vandenbroek on 12/7/97.