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John Witvliet, Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, explores how Christians can create refugia spaces in worship through thoughtful public prayer and courageous practices of lament.

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Go here to explore the website for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship

Here is John Witvliet’s faculty page at Calvin University.


Debra Rienstra: Today I’m talking with John Witvliet. John is director of The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship here on the campus of Calvin University, a position he has held for the past over 20 years. He’s also a member of the faculty both at the University and at Calvin Seminary. John is with me today to talk about worship as a place of refugia and how the church all over the world finds ways to form the people of God through worship. Hey, John.

John Witvliet: Hey, Debra. Good to be talking with you today

DR: Thanks for letting me visit you today. We’re in your office here on Calvin’s campus. What is the Institute staff busy working on this week?

John Witvliet: Yes. Well, it’s a wonderful week–just about every week is. And this week it’s finishing touches on the program for this year’s Worship Symposium. It’s getting ready to host a wonderful new group of students in our new ministry leadership cohort–incoming Calvin University students. It’s harvesting learning from participation in several international events throughout the summer, everyone coming back with lots of learning, new friendships. A lot to reflect on.

DR: Nice. I don’t know how you do all you do. Just putting on that Symposium every year is so impressive, and there’s always something new and inventive and a little bit different about it too.

John Witvliet: Well, it’s remarkable to know all, to have a sense of all the amazing things that are happening in churches in spite of what the media might tell us. And one of the big challenges every year is knowing, even though we have a hundred presenters every year, how many additional presenters we could have. There are simply dozens and dozens and dozens of remarkable pastors, musicians, artists, worship leaders, theologians. So many other areas of interest that contribute to the conversation.

DR: That’s a good problem.

John Witvliet: It is.

DR: Yeah, so you’ve directed the Institute for a long time, and you have deep connections with many people in many denominations here in North America and all over the world. What is it like to have that kind of perspective, being able to glimpse so much of the church at once?

John Witvliet: Yeah. Well, it is very exciting, even as we think about all those potential conference leaders. Our grants program especially has put us in touch with dynamic people in so many different denominational, cultural contexts—different kinds of ministries, not just congregations, but also people in campus ministries, chaplaincy, neighborhood ministries, community development ministries and others. So it’s very heartening, I would say on the whole. Though, once you get all excited about how many amazing leaders, projects, areas of innovation there are, it actually then makes it in some ways doubly painful to know just how divided the church is–particularly in this cultural and political moment—and how difficult civil discourse is. So in some ways the greater the joy, the greater the sense of pain. I suppose maybe that comes together and there’s probably a good theological rationale for it. But that’s what it’s like.

DR: Yeah. We’ve been exploring the idea that people of faith are called to be people of refugia. What are some examples you are seeing where the Christian church is listening very well to that call. What does that look like?

John Witvliet: Well, I, as I thought about this question I kept thinking of churches or worshiping communities in unusual places, at the margins as at least defined by many. We’ve had remarkable grant proposals from pastors that lead congregations outdoors on the streets for people who experience homelessness, or inside of a medical facility where families with children with chronic or terminal diseases might be spending weeks at a time, or you know in college or university campuses where a group of students might feel quite threatened for one reason or another. Or especially when we think internationally about communities that worship in, say, Pakistan, where there’s significant persecution as a way of life. Or I think even in these past few weeks of what it’s like to go to worship in Hong Kong amid all the protests. So I think there are dozens of examples, but I, as I have reflected on this question, I do find my mind and heart drawn to some of these examples. And whatever comes to mind as sort of a typical church, in many ways these places often expand our understanding of what worshiping communities consist of or could be about.

DR: Yeah, we’ve been thinking about refugia as a response to a time or a situation of crisis, and one of the things we’ve been discovering is that it’s the people who have been in crisis and had to survive through refugia that can best teach us how to be the church. And it sounds like you’re allowing that to happen or cultivating that through the Symposium and the grants.

John Witvliet: Well, at least trying to notice the beautiful examples where that does happen. You know, one of the frustrations–or maybe I’ll say it this way–one of the countercultural opportunities we have are to highlight voices like the ones we’ve been talking about, where trauma, difficulty have been close at hand. But then to realize these might not be the people that draw the biggest crowds at first. They might not have the commendation of the worship industry in all its muscular capacity to promote products in the, in the marketplace. And there are people working to be faithful in all those arenas, to be sure, but nevertheless sometimes those market forces tend to attract attention in other directions. And so, one of the things we have to have the opportunity to do is to try to be a bit countercultural in lifting up the kinds of voices that, that might not otherwise be quite as noticed.

DR: Yeah, so you have focused largely but not exclusively in the Institute on congregational worship—the worshipping assembly—and what could it mean for an ordinary congregation to learn from these people from places of refugia in crisis? How can the ordinary congregational worship time be a place of refugia?

John Witvliet: Well, I think. Yeah, that’s a big one there, but I’ll try to be as concrete and specific as I can. I actually think one of the urgent needs for most ordinary congregations is to think more thoughtfully about public prayer, prayers of the people, intercessory prayer. In many contexts, that may be a mere five minutes. In way too many contexts, it’s not happening at all. It stuns me. How many communities have just given up on any kind of practice of public prayer. But when congregations can be very intentional: every week, start with five minutes, and ensure that every week, that there is a reference to needs in the neighborhood, that every week whoever’s leading that prayer pauses to think: what pain in this room can I give voice to, in a gentle and pastoral way? If a person just pauses and asks that question, so that the practice becomes a practice of extraordinary thoughtfulness and awareness, amazing things can happen. And it really can all happen with that five minutes. Hopefully a little more but at least that as a, as a sort of catalytic place.

DR: Yeah, such a simple thing. Well, it isn’t really.

John Witvliet: Right.

DR: You and I have both done that pastoral prayer in our congregation and it’s one of the things I find most difficult to prepare for and to do well. It is difficult to do, but liturgically speaking it’s fairly simple as a liturgical element. It’s very flexible it can—yeah. So how do you explain churches neglecting that practice?

John Witvliet: Well, you know churches all across North America love music in general. Songs in every style have gotten longer, not shorter. Preaching hasn’t gotten shorter and the announcements never seem to get shorter. So what’s left to cut? For some odd reason in so many traditions it’s been public prayer. Could it be because it’s hard work? Could it be because it actually can be a downer to pray for things that are really painful? I think that’s more of it than we’d realize. And I think also it’s politically fraught, and so it’s just easier to avoid it rather than to have to figure out how to name and pray about things that we all know matter a great deal, but about which there are such different opinions sitting in the congregation in any given week. But avoiding, neglecting it—I am sorry—is the wrong answer. And I’ve come to feel more strongly about it every year.

DR: Yeah, I have experienced the pastoral prayer as a sacramental moment in many a worship service. It’s the—we do it after the sermon—it’s the moment when the sermon becomes real and sinks in, it’s a point of connection to all the things you hear about casually in the announcement time. Yeah, so I would affirm, too, that that can be a beautiful moment of refugia in the worship service that—yeah–has a lot of formational potential.

John Witvliet: Absolutely. It doesn’t happen often, but we’ve become aware of some congregations where it is a communally prepared moment. My favorite story to tell is of a church where every Saturday morning four or five people show up at a local coffee shop bringing newspapers and they debate, discuss, discern together. Their commitment is, every week we will pray for two places around the world. We will pray for two concerns in broader culture. We will pray for two things in our neighborhood outside of our church and we will pray for, then, a couple of key concerns in our community’s life. In that community, they, for each of those eight or ten items, choose one photograph, image, newspaper headline and they project those one at a time. In the choice of those eight or ten images then is a communal discernment project. But people who’ve been a part of that kind of preparation often will testify, I never read the newspaper the same way. It trains us to pray our reading of the news. It, and it trains without even having to really call that much attention to it, it forms a congregation to say or to expect that of course we’ll be concerned about the world, and we’ll be concerned about the neighborhood. It’s both, always. We’re concerned about what happens outside the church and we’re concerned about what happens inside the church. And all that gets done because someone put a very thoughtful pattern together and said ten images or ten petitions thoughtfully prepared together. And all this can be done without adding a single dollar to the church budget, which is universally appreciated.

DR: It does presume that your community has a newspaper, though, which one can’t presume anymore.

John Witvliet: No, that’s right

DR: You have to figure out some way to discover those things.

John Witvliet: Well, right. So yeah, but if you had to sort out which two social media topics and concerns, it works the same way and would, could be done with urgency. And I would say it could be done beautifully with a group of junior high or high school kids just as well, and they would have passionate ideas about what topics ought to make it into the prayer and what a powerful formative exercise that would be.

DR: Yeah. So let’s talk about formation a little more because when we think about congregational worship as a formational practice, what are some–that’s a wonderful example—but what are some other examples of how worship can form Christians into people of refugia?

John Witvliet: Yeah. Well, there are so many, so many examples. One is as simple as giving that language and the metaphors that surround it to us in beautiful, vivid ways. The image of nesting under the shadow of God’s wings, for example. Where are we going to discover that? Well, we might discover it in, in personal Bible reading, but if that can be brought to life as we sing together and speak together, metaphor will do its work.

DR: We need a refugia hymn competition.

John Witvliet: I think that would be just fine.

DR: Get your staff on that.

John Witvliet: Yeah. I also think, you know, how powerfully formative it is, especially when we’re able to name this, that one of the best parts about participating in public worship is that, even in relatively homogeneous communities, we are there with people who are very different than us. Different in disposition, you know, personality. Even more wonderful, when we’re there with generational difference and cultural difference. But that, you know, being formed to learn to love that solidarity and sense of each other is very, very powerful. And at its best can resist all the attractions of individualism. But that always feels like one that we have to not only practice but also name…

DR: Yeah.

John Witvliet: …That when we name it, the formative practice becomes more, even more powerfully formative. So, and especially when we name it not just by describing it analytically, but when we name it in the form of testimony. When people say, I love my church because I get to be with people so different from myself—and they had, put in that testimonial tone. To me, it sort of beautifully multiplies the formative aspects of practices.

DR: Yeah. So the idea of refugia presumes—if we talk about the church as a people of refugia, that presumes that we are not the dominant force in culture. And I wonder if that presents a point of resistance. That we don’t want to think about ourselves as people of refugia because some part of us wants to think of ourselves as the dominant force in culture. So how do you regard the North American church in terms of its resistance to being a church of empire rather than a church of refugia? Where do you see those tensions?

John Witvliet: Well, my sense is there are, there are dozens, hundreds of, hundreds of congregations that have never been in positions of cultural power that have always been oppressed and that because of that very reason have actually been more inclined to experience worship in this way. And then there are hundreds of congregations, thousands of congregations that really do think that they are or should be in a significant or dominant cultural place. And I would fully concur that in those contexts, thinking of worship as a place of refuge can be a little unnerving maybe.

DR: Yeah, it could be it could have its dangers because that turns into exclusivity.

John Witvliet: Right. Or there could it could actually be not so much refuge as just insularity, right?

DR: Yeah, so that’s where connections to other churches, other people who are different becomes so important

John Witvliet: Crucial.

DR: Yeah. Let’s talk about lament. In a couple other interviews for this podcast, the need for lament has come up, particularly in the context of species extinction and human-induced climate change–or climate chaos, as we’re saying now. And of course there are always many reasons for lament. So how can churches do lament well in worship? I know that the Institute has worked on that. So, how can they do it well? And what difference would it make if you do lament in worship?

John Witvliet: I think it is, it is compelling, very important, beautifully modeled in the Psalms. It’s such an important topic. We’ve been working on it for 20 years. One of our conclusions is, people love the idea of lament more than the practice of it.

DR: Oh, really?

John Witvliet: The assertion, “lament should have a bigger place in worship” seems common now. I mean hardly a week goes by without some affirmation of that. All right, now go into the worship planning meeting, in the preparation of the selection of songs on Sunday, the preparation of prayers. Drop three, five, ten lines inside of a prayer about lamenting species extinction. Feel the temperature in the room drop ten degrees.

DR: That’s climate change.

John Witvliet: Yeah, there it is. Yeah, but there is on the part of many–and of course this, it varies so much by cultural location–the more comfortable the cultural location the less patience there is with actual practices of lament. Oh, when we’re comfortable we love for our worship to be comforting and comfortable.

DR: Yeah, and joyful and full of praise.

John Witvliet: Exactly. When we are living in places of difficulty, oppression, that lament is just natural. It just, it emerges out of our experience of life. But especially in the more comfortable suburban parts of society, even sermons that call for lament are often not followed by it. And this is, this is a continuing tension and dynamic that we have to work with. I think there are ways to grow and deepen this practice. I think that what happens on Good Friday is the single best place maybe to start. That services of healing that, you know, distinct times of gathering around particular pastoral needs are beautiful. And I also think that very perceptive pastoral leaders can with careful attention begin to grow practices. But they have to be ready for the resistance that often does come.

DR: Yeah, some pushback.

John Witvliet: Yeah.

DR: Yeah. Yeah. So the Institute has focused a lot of energy, as I said, on the worshipping assembly over the years and then you mentioned a number of situations that you’ve been observing recently outside conventional worshipping assemblies. Do you see a shift from worship as primarily the congregational worship in the sanctuary to other spaces?

John Witvliet: Well, there certainly are vigorous conversations and movements, really, around house churches and communities of faith that are forming in new ways. It’s always hard to know how pervasive the movement is there. And there are some creative practices–Christian colleges, university campus ministries. But also in certain workplaces in other communities where people are gathering at different times of the week. In some ways these are all variations on, you know, early church daily office services of, you know, morning prayer or evensong. But maybe it looks like, you know, ten people gathering at the end of the day in a certain workplace or college campus. So that, that certainly happens. And then part of this conversation is always challenged by limits we have in the English language about this term worship, which we simultaneously use to refer to a particular assembly of people but also to a way of life, a lifestyle. So there are always linguistic problems that emerge here where people will say, why do we put so much emphasis on worship in church when we worship in our daily lives? And it’s important to attend to that little linguistic problem and to try to figure out how to say, in the end, don’t we want both to be vibrant?

DR: Sure, yeah.

John Witvliet: Yeah, exactly. So for us, it’s always the challenge of never thinking of public worship as an end in itself or as disconnected from every other form of prayer and other Christian practices all week long. In many ways I’d like to think of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship as the place that reflects on the connections between public worship and everything else. That gives us a rather big job description.

DR: Of course, yes. There’s a lot of conversation these days about prominent figures who are calling out the church or even leaving the church because, instead of being a place of life-giving refuge, the church has become a place that people need refuge from. I know you, you’re aware of that. What implications might that phenomenon have for worship?

John Witvliet: Right. It’s a big one and it’s, it has so many layers, it’s hard to know where to start. But I think it’s so important for every church to ask the question: Who finds it painful to be among us and why? That would be the very first thing. And I think that, that honestly answering that question requires a lot of listening, a lot of self-awareness, and that the Gospel demands that we ask that question. And that in the end, as painful as asking that question can be, in the end it is the route toward freedom and joy. But that’s crucial.

DR: That’s dying and rising.

John Witvliet: Exactly. I do think, also, that critiquing the church is oh so easy. And that the people to listen to are the prophetic voices who can make those critiques while conveying their own love for the body of Christ. And that this is very hard discernment work, but when any of us lobs a critique and then starts, you know, feeling pretty good about ourselves afterwards, that, that’s a danger sign. And sometimes that tone or approach to the rhetoric is unfortunately what gets a little rewarded in the media and the blogosphere. So all to say, I think we live in a time that is extraordinarily painful. And that, if that kind of the depth of awareness isn’t in our bones as we think about others that we’d like to critique or ourselves and how we’re not doing so well—if we don’t have that, maybe to go back to a little lament in the tone, that we’re likely to have conversations that are not as healthy and life-giving as they need to be.

DR: Yeah. What is your wish for the church for the next twenty years?

John Witvliet: I think, I think one of my deep prayers is that we will not fear depth. The depth of pain, the depth of beauty in the Trinity, the depth of wonder in what Jesus really invited us into with the Lord’s Supper, which has so many more layers of meaning than often we begin to explore. That we, the depth of learning to love music that other brothers and sisters love deeply. And coming to find out not only why they love that so deeply but also the power of discovering what it means to sing those songs. Of depth of learning to not just admire an artist’s work but to be moved by it and to come to understand it. So I suppose the opposite of this is superficiality, and my goodness don’t we live a lot of our days at that superficial level.

DR: Yeah, yeah. What are the places you go to now for your own refugia, whether literally or metaphorically?

John Witvliet: Yeah. Well, for me it is so powerful to be at the table every week. Singing my own way, you know, alongside of all kinds of people that I know and don’t know, often singing a combination of songs some of which I love a lot and a few of which I’m not yet loving, you know. But it just, it–exploring the depth of that practice is huge. I’m grateful for seasons of summer which we’ve just completed, where in the middle of every summer I get to spend an extended amount of time thinking about Advent and Christmas. It’s my summer Christmas time. I love it—a chance to really dwell in depth with biblical texts for Advent and musical choices. And then I would, I would say that it’s the gratitude for the opportunity to be in places that are very different than home, that–some years more than others–but that for any number of reasons I’ll have the chance to be in, on Sunday morning in a church and I’ll think, this church is about as far away from home as I could imagine and then you discover all these amazing, you know, common reference points and aspects of the Gospel of Jesus that are communicated so beautifully, compellingly. Those are some.

DR: Yeah, that’s the communion of the saints.

John Witvliet: Yeah.

DR: Yeah, for sure. Anything else I should be asking, anything else you want to say?

John Witvliet: No, I think not. I just think it’s a marvelous question, the whole metaphor of refuge. I mean, it’s inviting us to dwell inside of this powerful scriptural image. Even the invitation to think about it for a few days is a remarkably formative exercise. So, I’d say the podcast is doing its formative work.

DR: I’m glad. Thank you. John, I’m so grateful for your work with the Institute and for your work with so many congregations and people of faith all over. Thank you for your time with me today. 

John Witvliet: Thank you very much.

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