Q1 “What is the nature of worship in a Christian educational setting?”

Q2 “How does worship form people and communities theologically and spiritually as it functions as an expression of spiritual and theological beliefs and values?”

Q3 “What voices, experiences, and modalities are not typically represented in our worship, and how can we craft services that give expression to these and invite the community to experience God in new ways?”

These and other leading questions lie at the heart of more than 50 projects related to worship at North American seminaries and divinity schools over the past two decades. The schools involved in these projects were recipients of Vital Worship Grants awarded by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) with support from Lilly Endowment Inc.

Support for worshiping communities

The Vital Worship Grants program (previously known as the Worship Renewal Grants program) fosters vital worship in congregations, parishes, and other worshiping communities in North America, and is especially focused on projects that connect public worship to intergenerational faith formation and Christian discipleship. Those themes can unfold in many facets of worship including Bible reading, preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, intercessory prayer, congregational song, and visual arts. They are implemented in grant projects at emerging and established churches; at seminaries, colleges, and schools; at hospitals and nursing homes; and at other organizations. The grant recipients are located across North America and represent a wide variety of Catholic and Protestant traditions. The program has awarded more than 850 grants since 2000.

The projects at theological schools have been a key segment of the grant program, supporting catalytic leadership within seminaries and divinity schools, offering new opportunities for student learning, and — not infrequently — preparing students to lead future grant-supported initiatives in congregations and other organizations in which they became leaders. 

Impact on campus and community life

The value of these grants can also be seen in the impact on campus and community life, as they began new worship services or reinvigorated established patterns. One divinity school found that a series of grant projects enlivened their worship and community life, made connections between worship and other areas of study, led to curricular changes and extracurricular activities, and increased connections with local churches that provide internships and post-graduation positions.

Many of the themes of these grant projects have been similar to themes and trends in the overall Vital Worship Grants program, including theological reflection related to worship; focusing on elements of the liturgy; engaging the Christian year in profound and innovative ways; incorporating the arts in worship; honoring the transcultural nature of worship while exploring various contextual realities; developing theologically grounded worship leaders and planners; and including all abilities, traditions, races, and gifts in worship.

Some theological schools’ grant projects had goals of increasing attendance at campus worship services but tied that attendance to a deepened understanding of worship and enhanced abilities to plan and lead worship. One project director wrote: “Beyond our highest hopes, our worship has become lively, engaging, and participatory. Worship is something to which the entire community looks forward and which draws us together as a community.” Another reported: “Most exciting and energizing were opportunities we had to see how collaborative worship planning processes resulted in creative, energetic, and Spirit-filled worship services even as the processes themselves became enriching spiritual practices for the participants.” 

Yet another talked about “the tendency in a seminary setting to see everything as an academic exercise, but that the work of planning/leading/reflecting on worship functioned as a spiritual practice that engaged both mind and heart, integrating classroom learning, theological conversation, practical details, and prayerful attention to the diverse insights of others on a given worship team.” 

At the annual Vital Worship Grants colloquium hosted by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, every school, congregation, or organization displays a poster highlighting its grant-funded work. During breaks and other designated periods, participants browse all the posters, getting fresh ideas for their own work.

Challenges and areas of growth

Many project directors faced the challenges of involving busy students and faculty engaged in full lives of study and ministry. Regarding carving out time for communal worship, one school reported that their challenge is they have “such a transient and diverse community; we only have 45-minute slots, and, not only that, we are not a church, yet we gather together for worship.” Yet grant recipients realized the importance of persevering in spite of the challenges. As one school put it: “the primary goal of the project was to provide students with opportunities to become practical theologians of worship who develop reflective skills necessary to create and lead thoughtful, theologically substantive, worship in diverse ministry settings.” That goal was met in many meaningful ways.

Students attributed three primary areas of growth to the project in their comments.

  • First, they became more aware of the vital connection between worship and theology. “All worship decisions are theological decisions,” wrote one student. “From what we wear to the kind of bread we eat at the Lord’s table and who serves it.” 
  • Second, they grew in confidence as worship leaders. “These courses gave me a chance to practice worship actions in a laboratory setting,” one student wrote. “I appreciated the opportunity to get feedback and gain confidence for when I am presiding at communion or offering a blessing or benediction as a chaplain or church pastor.”
  • Third, students reported a growing awareness of the importance of embodiment and authentic presence of the leader in worship. “I realize now how important it is to be present in worship to what is energizing or to what is happening spiritually and theologically,” one reported. “To be a good worship leader, I have to do more than simply impose words I have prepared for a litany or prayer or sermon.”

One project director discovered that the way to “transform the liturgical life of students is a liturgical spirituality, focused around themes of vocation.” He wrote: “We found that worship renewal is more than rearranging chairs, making prayer more enlivening, or teaching how to dramatically enact the scriptures. Students desire a contemplative, prayerful experience, one that emerges out of the depths of liturgical tradition, including incense, liturgical architecture, and attention to the specific rites, including the prayers. Such a regular form to worship is important for them, because it enables them to bring their very lives to the Eucharist, to participate in a ritual in which they encounter the healing touch of God.”

Theological reflection on worship

Many project directors emphasized the importance of examining their worship theology in the context of renewal. “Renewal involves more than simply incorporating new ideas and elements into a worship service,” wrote one project director. “Renewal happens when people examine their theology of worship along with exploring new practices and developing better techniques for worship.” Applying that concept to personal experience, another project director wrote: “Worship renewal is not so much about changing the liturgy as it is about how the liturgy changes us.”

Participants in the grants program also reflected on the wonderful opportunities to meet each other and other worshiping community project directors at the Vital Worship Grants Colloquium, held at Calvin College each June. One reported that “seminary and college communities have their own challenges of pedagogical and liturgical practices within an ever-changing congregation and the wide ecumenical diversity of those contexts. Meeting leaders from other institutions, sharing a meal and extended conversation, was most helpful.”

Questions to consider

As we have reflected on these grants as a whole, we offer several thematic questions to guide conversations for theological educators and on-campus liturgical leaders:

  • What kind of collaboration among seminary administrators, campus liturgical leaders, and course instructors in worship, preaching, and the arts best promises to strengthen worship on campus?
  • How can worship practices in a theological school be more responsive to the unique convergence of gifts, insights, and concerns among its students, staff, and faculty?
  • How can students be mentored well and given appropriate agency as they take up roles of leadership of a community’s worship practices?
  • How often should each school revisit its approach to common worship, in light of the continual flux of students, staff, and faculty?   
  • How can the mission of a theological school be reflected explicitly in worship? How can worshiping communities be invited to pray more intentionally about the tasks, virtues, and risks of teaching, learning, and conducting research?
  • How can distance learning students be invited into shared liturgical practices, including common prayer?
  • How can theological schools collaborate with local churches in order to enhance mutual learning and common worship opportunities?

About the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship

Since 2000, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) has awarded more than 850 grants to foster vital worship in congregations, parishes, and other worshiping communities in North America. This has included more than 50 grant awards for theological schools.

CICW is a multidisciplinary study and ministry center located at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Funding for the institute is provided by Calvin College, Lilly Endowment Inc., and the Henry Luce Foundation.

A new stream of teacher-scholar grants

In addition to grants for worshiping communities, a new stream of grants is being launched this year that recognizes the unique role that teacher-scholars play in nurturing the life of Christian worshiping communities. These inaugural teacher-scholar grants will engage disciplines traditionally associated with worship such as theology and music, but also philosophy, history, education, African American studies, and women’s studies. These projects have a variety of emphases — intercultural music, patristic preaching practices, worship and earth care, worship across the spectrum of ability and disability, Sabbath keeping practices, women’s leadership, congregational worship and affordable housing, worship and social justice advocacy, and more — but have as a common purpose a desire to both deepen people’s understanding of worship and strengthen practices of public worship and faith formation.

The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship is grateful to offer these worship grants programs with support from Lilly Endowment Inc. If interested, information about the Vital Worship Grants Program is available online at worship.calvin.edu/grants. You may also send an inquiry to worshipgrants@calvin.edu.

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