A Decade of Learning

Emily Brink Reflects on Life after RW

Dr. Emily Brink is the beloved founding editor of Reformed Worship. During her 20-year tenure she helped many churches navigate the change from a clergy-centric to a more laity-involved worship style. Brink is a lover of life and all people, and she continues to grow and learn wherever God takes her. Recently, Joyce Borger, the current editor of Reformed Worship, caught up with her to ask what she has been up to in the last 10 years and what she has learned during that time. Even in these brief reflections Brink has much to teach us about living a Philippians 1 life.

REFORMED WORSHIP: Life has been anything but dull since you retired from serving as RW’s founding editor in 2006. What have been some highlights in these last 10 years?

EMILY BRINK: After leaving the work of RW and the work at the offices of Faith Alive (the former publishing arm of the Christian Reformed Church), I moved to the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), also here in Grand Rapids. CICW is a very dynamic place—it’s one of 11 institutes at Calvin College, and is also connected to Calvin Theological Seminary. So I didn’t really retire—just changed jobs! 

As for highlights, at CICW I worked on several teams preparing large projects, including finishing up the work I began at Faith Alive on The Worship Sourcebook (co-published by Faith Alive, CICW, and Baker Books), preparing 15 worship services with an international team for the inaugural assembly at Calvin in 2010 of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and serving for several years as program director of CICW’s annual Worship Symposium. Out of all that I have to mention especially many ecumenical and international connections, including the presence of guests from around the world who come to the Worship Symposium each year, now from more than 30 countries. Every year some come who have never seen snow before; that makes up somewhat for the January cold! 

A personal highlight has been return invitations to participate in worship conferences in different countries, especially in Asia, where many schools and churches host their own worship symposiums, exploring in their own context many of the same issues we deal with in North America. I’ve always learned as much or more than I offered, and I wish that North Americans could worship more often with churches from different cultures. Actually, with all our diversity in North America, anyone can. I recommend visiting worship services on occasion in churches nearby or far away that are very different from people’s home congregations. It’s a stimulating experience, raising good food for thought on many levels. I wish more people everywhere could experience the joy of celebrating that what we share in Christ goes deeper than the differences we have in varied cultural and ecclesial traditions. 

RW: What have you learned about worship in the last 10 years?

EB: So much! But what has always amazed me is that most important worship issues are pretty much the same in churches large or small around the world. Everywhere people are concerned for the next generation; for the effects of technology that have brought faster rates of change; for how to incorporate a broader view of the arts in worship. Everywhere people are hungry for resources that will help their worship leaders grow in understanding the deep purpose and meaning of worship. But that hunger takes very different shapes in different places. Some countries are rich in resources, others very poor.

In the West we think often of needed resources in planning worship, music leadership, and preaching. In many African countries, the huge need is for theological training—only 5% of pastors in Africa have been to a Bible school or seminary, yet the church there is exploding. The choral heritage is strong and rich in Asian countries like Singapore and Indonesia. Congregational singing of their own home-grown worship songs is so exuberant in the young church of Nepal that they actually get serious pushback from Hindu neighbors who want them to quiet down! (And I’m not speaking of electronic amplification; I’m speaking of their voices!)

I wish I heard more exuberant singing in more North American congregations. Instead, North Americans are too often infected with shyness from an attitude of professionalism that promotes the thinking that exuberant singing is for trained musicians, not for all believers. I experienced two congregational prayers in Pakistan in the same service; both were lengthy and fervent, led not by the pastor but by other congregational leaders. Though not able to understand the language, I asked and learned that the first one, early in the service, was a prayer of thanksgiving; but the second one, after the sermon, was of intercession and petition. That country’s Christians continue to experience persecution. North American prayer leaders could learn from their wide scope of congregational prayer.

RW: Have there been any surprises?

EB: A deepening awareness of the suffering of so much of the Christian church, and how suffering and praise somehow go hand in hand, building the faith of our brothers and sisters. I have heard passionate, joyful singing among those who live in the midst of persecution, and I learned in a new way that praise is a command! 

I visited one Presbyterian church in Syria in 2010 that had taken in over 500 Iraqi refugees who were waiting for assignments from the UN to travel to new countries that would become their home. It was humbling to be among them. That church building has since been bombed, with many of its Syrian members now refugees. But the remaining church members still gather each Sunday to praise God for protection the previous week and to lament over what has happened. The current situation is ever so much more disheartening now than in 2010. The media bring stories of great suffering right into our living rooms, calling for prayer in our homes as we watch and certainly in our churches when we offer our congregational prayers. They are our brothers and sisters! The surprise too often for me in North American churches is the ignoring of the suffering church in our congregational prayers.

RW: You are known as a lover of psalms. Has that changed at all in the last 10 years?

EB: If anything, my love for the psalms has deepened, especially when I see how they have nurtured and sustained the faith of Christians in places like Hungary and Pakistan. Christians in North America sing mostly praise psalms or short verses extracted from psalms, but once you’ve been to those and other places, you sing psalms of lament with greater urgency, praying for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done.

I’ve also been delighted with so many new and fresh psalm settings. I grew up thinking the psalms were “old hat” compared to hymns. No longer! Working on the psalm settings when editing the 1987 Psalter Hymnal really changed my spiritual life. And being on the committee for Psalms for All Seasons (2012) was a very stimulating adventure that brought in many new songwriters and composers that have made the psalms fresh again. I would love to see psalms from that collection in weekly use, with all the rich variety there, from jazz to chant, from well-loved metrical psalm settings many of us grew up on, to fresh and even biting expressions to keep us alert to the many ways the psalms help us pray in every circumstance of life and call us to work for justice. Churches in the Reformed tradition still need to reclaim the regular practice of psalm-singing in worship.

RW: Will the psalms continue to have a place in worship a decade from now? If so, what makes them endure?

EB: God’s Word will endure forever. And the psalms are God’s gift to teach us to pray. Once we start “eating” the psalms, to borrow from Eugene Petersons’ title, Eat This Book, we’ll be well-nourished for a life of prayer and work. The creative use of the psalms in worship is growing and growing—only limited by our imaginations. The stories told in the book 150 by Kevin Adams will help jump-start your church’s imagination in the direction of “sustainable psalmody.”

RW: What are your hopes for the church’s worship in the future?

EB: Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17 is that we would be one as he and the Father are one. The church has always struggled with unity in the midst of diversity. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, there is much to be grateful for, as well as much to lament in terms of the way the church has continued to splinter.

The song of the church has always been amazingly ecumenical; we treasure songs from many different traditions. For example, Catholics sing “A Mighty Fortress,” and Protestants sing “Here I Am, Lord.” So I rejoice that the song of the church can reflect unity in the body of Christ. Satan always seeks to divide, and contemporary cultures continue to reflect deep divisions—economically, racially, socially, generationally. Contemporary Islam is divided against itself, causing terrible suffering among Muslims and Christians alike. Jesus calls the church to unity, and, as the Belhar Confession puts it, unity is “both a gift and an obligation.”

The call to reconciliation—that great work of Christ given to the church, extends also to our communal worship, and my hope is that we see more and more of that gift of unity and reconciliation come to expression within and among our churches for the sake of the world God loves.

Readers of Reformed Worship live mainly in the Western culture which has been very individualistic, with personal choices often trumping loyalties to the larger institutional church. Our society increasingly distrusts institutions, but the hunger for community is as strong as ever. RW continues to be a beacon of encouragement, providing worship resources as well as challenging churches.

My hope for congregations is for people to live in such submission to and love for one another and their closest neighbors in ordinary day-to-day living that invitations to worship together on Sunday become increasingly natural and organic. I hope that churches where divisions still separate generations and cultures will be challenged by the hope and joy that Christ provides when we learn how to love each other deeply. That unity has been sought in the past in denominational, ethnic, economic structures—essentially homogeneous comfort zones. But that is not where our priorities can rest.

I must say that when wanting to see the diversity in a given city, I’ll find it reflected more often in Roman Catholic worship services than in Protestant ones. Last year in Pakistan, a retired Anglican bishop in an ecumenical and interfaith gathering said, “Denominationalism is a curse from the West.” Strong words. We have been seeing for some time already the move away from denominational ties to independent churches and mega-churches where worship is excellent in terms of skill and performance of musicians and preachers. But it is too easy to be passive in those churches; the real life of the congregation is found in their small groups.

There are numerically many more small congregations where worship and fellowship may not be so exciting but it is faithful and nourishing in terms of listening to God’s call to love each other and neighbors—not only nearby, but also far away. One exciting new dimension is to see the growth of the church behind bars. What wonderful testimonies from changed lives are coming from prisons! When we reflect on how Christ emptied himself to enter our messy world and got killed for the way he challenged the religious establishment of his day, we might want to consider how we might be called out of our comfort zones to enter our messy world, overturning tables in our temples as well, even being willing to suffer.

RW: What advice would you give someone just beginning a career as a worship pastor?

EB: As I was writing these words, someone posted on Facebook an old interview I did 20 years ago with Robert Webber (RW 39, March 1996, “Don’t Get Hung Up on Style”). The wisdom Bob provided there is still right on target: he spoke about the importance of settling the matter of worship’s content first, then structure, and only then its style.

I’d add to that, immerse yourselves in the psalms. Take to heart the encouragement that comes so often in Scripture: “Do not be afraid.” And, above all, get to know and learn to love the people you are called to serve. Here’s a text that will guide you, one that functions as a core text for CICW and for my own life as well—a prayer of the apostle Paul:

This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God (Phil 1:9-11).