For a couple of days last week I did something I truly enjoy – namely, giving away money. But not just giving it away. Rather, giving it away for the cause of worship renewal.
For nearly 10 years I’ve had the privilege of serving on the grants review board of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship – yes, that’s a mouthful, I know. The board is composed mostly of church musicians and worship scholars who make grants ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 – to churches, campus ministries, hospital chaplaincies, prison fellowships, and more (but mostly to churches). We give away hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. And each year we invite the grant recipients – those who are just starting their projects and those who are just completing theirs – to a grants gathering in Michigan.
I tried to explain all of this to my brother in law over dinner the night before our grants gathering began, and he said, “Oh, worship renewal. That’s where you get rid of all the hymnbooks and sing off a screen at the front of the church.” Something about the way he said it made me think he wasn’t in favor.
“No,” I said. “That’s not quite it, though I realize a lot of people think that’s what worship renewal is.”
So, what is worship renewal? Hard to explain. Often worship renewal begins with a pastor’s heart. My favorite grant story – from a few years ago – involved a hospital chaplain at a children’s hospital. Families would come from miles around with very sick children, and often they would stay for weeks, even months, at a time.
The hospital chaplain asked herself how worship in that setting could allow parents and family members to express what they needed to express, and not surprisingly her grant proposal made ample use of the psalms, most of which are laments (meaning that most psalms begin with pain, loss, fear, sadness, and disappointment, exactly what the parents and family members in that situation were feeling). When the grants gathering took place that year, I had only known this person through a seven or eight-page type-written grant proposal. In fact, I remember tearing up the first time I read this particular proposal. Her pastoral instincts, I thought, were just right. I wanted to meet her.
And so, at the gathering, held each year in late June, I made a point of finding her and shaking her hand and telling her how much I loved her proposal and the passion she had for the faith of the children and families who were in her care.
My favorite grant proposal this year came from a pastor in northern New York State whose church’s steeple was struck by lightning a year or so ago and burned to the ground. Nothing survived in the smoldering ruins except for a couple of wood beams from the support structure. The grant proposal asked if the church could identify a local artist who would fashion something from the beams – a cross, as it turned out – that could be used in the newly re-built church as a way of remembering what was lost and also as a way of being reminded of God’s great goodness and providence.
I shook this pastor’s hand too and told her what an important ministry she had, leading her people from sorrow to joy.
Sometimes grant proposals grow out of more than good pastoral instincts. Some of the best proposals over the years have grown out of an important question – such as, what is the connection between baptism and spiritual formation? Or, how about the role of the Lord’s Supper in congregational reconciliation?
The truth is, our little board has read so much over the years that has been so inspiring and uplifting. So many gatherings of Christian people across North America are working so hard, with such passion and creativity in their worship lives, that we as a board are often left speechless and humbled and grateful.
I always come home to my own congregation with a renewed determination to be as creative and dedicated in my own worship planning as the people who received grants. Their work inspires my own. Their work gives me hope for the church.