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Learning with Brothers and Sisters Across the Globe: A report on a church music conference in Taiwan and an invitation to a symposium closer to home

Some of you may have noticed my new byline as “senior research fellow” for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. With the completion of the new hymnal Sing! A New Creation, I had thought of kicking back a bit, but instead I accepted an invitation to join the growing staff of the Institute, which has had a close relationship with Reformed Worship throughout the Institute’s short five-year history. So now I serve in two arenas for the support, encouragement, and renewal of worship on the congregational level.

The Calvin Institute, like Reformed Worship, is committed to worship planning and leadership in a global context. Increasingly, what goes on in local congregations is connected to the whole world. The challenge of the gospel calls every congregation to “discern the body” in its worship, and the body of Christ extends through all of time and across the globe. We reflect the global dimensions of the larger body in the songs we sing, in the prayers we offer, and in our commitments to partner with Christ in building both his church and kingdom.

How do you, as a worship leader on the local level, become connected to the larger global picture? To start, you can read journals like Reformed Worship. You can also attend conferences that permit you to meet and worship with people from other places, traditions, and cultures. Last year, for example, Angela Tam from Hong Kong attended the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts. She then issued an invitation to the Institute to send someone to the May 2002 conference of the World Association of Chinese Church Musicians (WACCM), to be held in Taiwan. As a result, we’ve begun a new interaction that is already bearing fruit as we learn from each other. The Calvin Institute has begun translating some worship articles into Mandarin for her to use in teaching, and we have invited a WACCM speaker to the next Symposium on Worship and the Arts (see inside front cover).

The World Association for
Chinese Church Music

The World Association for Chinese Church Music (www.waccm.com) meets every other year in various Asian countries. I had no idea of the strength of these Chinese Christians who are such a small minority of the vast population of China!

Imagine planning an international conference where everyone but those from the host country needs to fly, and many of them need visas in order to come! That was the case in Taiwan, when almost six hundred Chinese Christians from seventeen nations gathered for worship, learning, and fellowship. The Association has twenty-six chapters in as many cities (including chapters in Vancouver and Los Angeles; Malaysia has five chapters). Some of the older members were born in mainland China and lived through “the very bad time when the Communists came in 1949, and all church music stopped; we could only sing songs quietly in our homes,” as WACCM chairman David Yeung put it. Many of the musicians were professionals in other occupations, like Yeung, who was a chemist by profession and a musician by avocation. Born and educated in Shanghai, Yeung retired early and now lives in Hong Kong, where he devotes all his time to composition and to WACCM. Angela Tam is one of the younger generation who now travels back regularly to China. She teaches at a seminary in Hong Kong and makes annual treks to one or more of the eighteen seminaries in China, staying a month at a time to teach worship and church music.

Here are a few highlights of the conference:

  • Conference leaders made a strong connection between music and evangelism, urging music leaders to commit themselves to music as ministry for the sake of the gospel. One choir director, for example, won’t accept members who are not also members of evangelistic cell groups in her church. And she has three choirs!
  • Church choirs were outstanding. Ten (!) different choirs (each 20-35 members) sang—from Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong as well as Taiwan. Each performed new anthems by living Chinese composers, many of whom were present.
  • Hymns were not as prominent as choral music. Most of the hymns were from the nineteenth-century gospel song tradition, translated from English by missionaries of past generations. I saw little new work by hymn writers, with the exception of a presentation by I-to Loh (see p. 30).
  • For the first time, worship in Praise & Worship style was included in the conference. In fact, three of the four services were very similar to Western-style P&W, even to singing the same few popular hymns (“Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “Holy, Holy, Holy”) and choruses, both in Mandarin and English. Several young Chinese worship leaders, some from the United States, led conference-goers in enthusiastic singing of their own songs. Conferences like this help to disseminate new songs worldwide: for example, the Anglican from Australia sings alongside the Baptist from Singapore. The leadership was strong, with all the flavor of typical P&W patterns, including screens, individual mikes, and physical gestures.
  • Many of those attending had advanced degrees in music, often from the United States and Canada. This was a very well educated group of people.
  • As might be expected in Asia, technology was first rate, with sessions simultaneously translated from Mandarin into English (so I knew what was going on!). A CD of the Tuesday night event was distributed on Friday; that event had been telecast live on ORTV (www.ortv.com), one of the cosponsors of the conference. (ORTV has long championed contemporary popular music as a means of spreading the gospel.)

It was a joy to be able to attend this conference and learn from brothers and sisters in Christ who share an ethnic and cultural identity that has remained strong in spite of great distances from each other and from mainland China. Their ancient cultural roots go deep, and they are poised for greater contact with mainland China as that vast country becomes more open. They are passionate about church music as an avenue of both praise and renewal. Many of them suffer as Christians in climates very hostile to the gospel. But here they were able to give free and joyful expression to their faith together, becoming equipped for greater service in the church for the sake of the body of Christ. That would be a good goal for any of us as we consider attending a worship conference or two this coming year.

Planning for the Next Symposium on Worship and the Arts

The major conference of the Calvin Institute is the Symposium on Worship and the Arts, held annually the second weekend in January. Coming to Michigan in January is not exactly conducive to a crowd that wants to skip sessions and enjoy the scenery! But Symposium certainly has become a place for worship leaders from across North America and even from around the world to meet together. Registrations have grown every year; this past January for the first time registrations were closed early after reaching 1,200 registrants!

Increasingly, churches are sending groups of people, not just one pastor or worship leader who then returns to a congregation where no one else has experienced the worship and workshops. For this past conference, for example, one California church sent the pastor and five other leaders; an Illinois church sent two vanloads of people. On the way home, participants began to share their ideas and excitement. In each case, these discussions led to further correspondence as the churches seriously considered ways of strengthening and renewing their congregational worship.

So consider attending with a group from your congregation. See the inside front cover ad for more information. And be sure to register early!