House Church Talk - Wholly, Wholly, Wholly: Calvinists and conga drums

R.L. Johnson rjohnson at
Tue Feb 3 09:32:00 EST 2004

This is an interesting view on the evolution of worship in the church today.


Books & Culture Corner: Wholly, Wholly, Wholly
Calvinists and conga drums in Grand Rapids: a report from the seventh annual
Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts.
By Nathan Bierma | posted 02/02/2004

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
seventh 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

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

Whole worship comes only from people seeking to be whole, said Steven
Garber, Fellow at Calvin and the C.S. Lewis Institute in Washington, D.C. As
readers of his book The Fabric of Faithfulness know, Garber is prone to
quote Bernard of Clairvaux and Bono with the same earnestness. Garber began
with a line from Donne: " 'Tis all in fragments." The Fall—and, more
recently, the scattered and amorphous nature of modern life—has wrought the
"fragmentation of human life," a maddening incoherence, Garber said.
Restoring coherence requires "a seamlessness between worship, worldview, and
way of life." There was that word again: seamlessness. Garber noted how
Leslie Newbiggin's consummate chapter in The Gospel In A Pluralistic Society
is entitled "The Congregation as Hermeneutic of The Gospel." The church
tells and lives the story of "a coherent cosmos that was badly marred by the
fall," and testifies to that story's completion. In the process, worship
converts spectators of a ceremony into participants in a story. In an
institution long known for liturgical stiffness, that message kept
reverberating throughout the weekend like the beating of drums.

Nathan Bierma is an editorial assistant for Books&Culture magazine and a
freelance research assistant for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

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