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‘Think, celebrate, sing’: Symposium looks at role of arts in worship

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Saturday, Nov. 19, at Bethel College was a day to think and talk about worship and the arts – specifically hymnody and preaching – and in the evening came a chance to experience it.

Bethel’s first major symposium in a decade, “Think, Celebrate, Sing: Worship and the Arts,” brought to campus two nationally known resource people in the areas of church music and preaching: John Ferguson from St. Olaf College and Thomas Long from Emory University.

“I like to think,” said Patty Shelly, professor of Bible and religion and one of the symposium planners, “that the Kansas wind blowing yesterday and today is the wind of the Spirit, blowing into [campus].”

The major donor for this inaugural symposium – intended to kick off “a continuing cycle of lectures, workshops and performances exploring the relationship of worship and the arts,” Shelly said – was Rosella Reimer Duerksen of Tucson, Ariz., who has spent her career in church music (playing, directing and teaching), is acquainted with the top scholars and teachers in that field, and suggested having Ferguson and Long as the resource people.

Long and Ferguson, for their part, each expressed their appreciation for the welcome they received at Bethel. Long grew up Presbyterian and Ferguson comes from the Lutheran tradition.

“I am amazed at the mission and hospitality of this school,” Long said. “I travel a lot, and it’s not always this way.” Ferguson added: “I want to echo Tom’s comments – I can’t remember feeling so at home so quickly.”

The two had separate, plenary input sessions on Saturday morning, and concurrent workshop sessions – from Long, discovering the poetry in Scripture and using it in interpretation and preaching, and from Ferguson, choosing songs for worship – in the early afternoon. The daytime symposium concluded with a conversation between Long and Ferguson about the ideal pastor/church musician colleague.

Long’s morning topic was “creating vital and faithful worship in a time of change.” “Virtually every congregation in America is experiencing tension around worship,” he said. “Some know it and some don’t.”

Though this tension might be partly expressed in the terms “contemporary worship” and “traditional worship,” Long said, those labels are beginning to break down.

He spoke of some things to hold onto and others to let go or significantly change. Among the former: a fear of idolatry; the connection between worship in God’s house and mission outside in the world; worship as corporate.

To disconnect liturgy from service is to weaken and dilute both, Long said. “The Communion meal isn’t over until the world has been fed.”

“Probably the most controversial thing I’ll say all day” was his admonition to bring children to worship (and keep them there) as soon as they are old enough to sit in one place for an hour. Children have parts in the story of faith, in addition to needing to learn how to worship, he said.

Among the “changes” Long recommended were “to recover the drama [of the Christian story] in order to recognize what’s happening in Christian worship”; “musical eclecticism” that goes beyond including the occasional piece of “world music” and pays attention to hymns and songs that promote Christian formation; and hospitality that is more than friendliness to people who are “just like us” but reaches out to welcome those who are nothing like us. “Despite our attempts to make the church homogenous,” Long said, “the Spirit won’t allow it.”

Finally, he said, worship needs to “get more intentional about including an encounter with mystery. It’s hard, because worship committees can’t plan this. It’s something not made by humans, but humans need to [get out of the way and] give it space.”

Ferguson began his plenary session with a tongue-in-cheek remark, that the symposium program had “a typo – there should be a question mark” after the title of his presentation, “Music as Exegetical Art.”

“More accurately, it should be: ‘Church Music as Exegetical Art?’” he said. “Can music communicate – interpret the meaning of – the text? I say yes, of course, although there continues to be speculation and disagreement. I’ve always believed music has enormous potential to communicate and to function exegetically.

“My responsibility as a performer in the context of church music,” said Ferguson, well known as an organist and arranger, as well as for his hymn festivals, “is the exegesis and development of the text. How do we approach it? For whom are we setting it?”

He went on to illustrate with his own setting of the Magnificat (Mary’s Song), commissioned several years ago and on the program for the Bethel hymn festival that evening.

“Music is an art form that unfolds over time,” Ferguson said. “No matter how creative the structure, the final question is: ‘Does it work?’”

In their conversation to end the afternoon, Long said his ideal musical colleague would be “a church musician – not to take away the excellence of the musician, but to have someone who contributes to the Christian formation of the members of the congregation.”

“Church musicians crave and need a colleague with whom they can collaborate and be professional friends – whom they can seek out for support and to whom they can give support,” Ferguson said. He also wants someone “who understands my need for a different kind of preparation. Doing three completely different hymns is like giving three mini-homilies, each in a different language – I need plenty of lead time.”

The crowning event of the symposium was “We Sing of God’s Love: A Hymn Festival” that Ferguson had planned in conjunction with the symposium committee and which called on the talents of an orchestra of Bethel instrumentalists and community musicians and a mass choir of around 200 voices – all three Bethel choirs along with those of several local churches.

The service consisted of hymns – some sung with the audience-congregation, many with arrangements or settings by Ferguson – Scripture readings including a dramatic interpretation by John McCabe-Juhnke, Bethel professor of communication arts, of Luke 24: 13-35, the “road to Emmaus” story, short reflections by Long and an offering for Harvest of Love, the local food bank ministry.

The offering brought in nearly $2,000, prompting a thank-you note from Eric Massanari, pastor of Shalom Mennonite Church, on behalf of the Newton Ministerial Alliance, that read in part: “It was a wonderful evening of song, prayer and praise. The generous gifts … will help provide food and resources for many in the community.”

The visual arts were also part of the symposium, through the cut-paper banners created by members of Hope Mennonite Church in Wichita that hung in Memorial Hall for the hymn festival and in the work of Martha Becker Yoder, a Bethel graduate who spent 22 years working at the University of Iowa Museum of Art before accepting a call to pastor at West Union Mennonite Church, Parnell, Iowa.

Yoder has focused her artwork over the past decade on images from the book of Revelation. An exhibit of her work was on display in Bethel’s Fine Arts Center Gallery in the weeks before as well as during the Worship and the Arts Symposium and she gave a presentation on her work Sunday afternoon, Nov. 20, in Bethel’s Krehbiel Auditorium.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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