Practical gleanings from MSM Worship Symposium 2015

The Rev Dr Niam Kai Huey closing in prayer at one of the worship sessions.

When exhorted to “Remember Who You Are”, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? In other words, what forms the core of your identity?

The Methodist School of Music (MSM) Worship Symposium, held from 23-25 June 2015, aimed to help participants reflect on our identity as Christians: “Made in the image of God, to be the salt and light of the world”. How is this identity expressed in our worship of God? Participants were led to explore options through four components:

➢ Worship services that highlighted the importance of reading Scripture, participation, understanding the function of music and keeping a “balanced musical diet” in worship;

➢ The use of a newly-launched Asian hymnal, Let the Asian Church Rejoice, during all the worship services;

➢ Plenary sessions that featured Music in Worship, and others that highlighted elements of worship that should be borne in mind when planning worship sessions;

➢ Sectional presentations that touched on essential discussion topics for worship leaders, pastors, and worshippers.

The symposium is held once every two years, and this year’s symposium was co-sponsored by the Trinity Annual Conference Board of Worship & Music.

Four special guests were invited to speak: Dr Ruth Duck, Professor of Worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary; Ms Tanya Riches, well-known worship leader, singer/songwriter and speaker; Prof Jeff Barker, Professor of Theatre and Speech at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa; and Dr Joel Navarro, a Professor of Music at Singapore Bible College, School of Church Music.

On the second day of the symposium, Dr Duck and Tanya jointly presented a session titled ‘Of Hymns & Songs’, where they shared their respective experiences and processes of crafting hymns and contemporary worship songs.

Dr Duck spoke about providing alternatives to male-centred language in hymn lyrics, and also about “moving from idea to image” when writing a hymn. She said: “Hymn lyrics tend to be rather abstract. We need to use more specific language so they are more relatable for people.” She even shared how she improved rhymes in her lyrics using a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary.

Tanya talked about maintaining balance between administrative and creative work, the challenges facing budding songwriters today, and how being in the production of music could take the focus off producing congregational songs. She said: “We need to find the ‘spirit breath’ in the Word and bring this to the Church.”

She then shared a song from her new album, Grace, which emerged from stories of people in her homeland, Australia, who have disabilities. She and Dr Duck also presented a song that they had collaborated on, titled ‘You Are the One God’, based on Psalm 139.

Later that afternoon, Prof Barker led a plenary session on the topic ‘Story & Worship: What’s the Connection?’ Eschewing the usual lecture format, he interspersed his talk with several demonstrations of incorporating storytelling in worship sessions – an effective way of letting his audience experience the impact of story in worship.

“For many in the church,” he notes, “the word ‘worship’ has become aynonymous with ‘music’.” Yet, he pointed out, God is a storytelling God, and Jesus is a storyteller – Bible stories are not just for children, but for adults too. Storytelling, therefore has a place in worship, in visualising and hearing anew the biblical texts, some of which were part of the ancient Hebrew performative tradition.

Prof Barker also noted the declining practice of giving testimony in our churches. “These are stories of God continuing to work in our lives!” he said.

One of the exercises he brought us through: Writing about a moment we knew we would follow Jesus our whole lives; doing so in present tense, describing what we saw, heard, felt or thought in that moment, giving ourselves only three minutes to do so; and then sharing what we had written with another person. I was struck by how my own conversion story, which I had both written and shared before, had far more immediacy and potency in this format than in my usual narrative mode.

The next day, Dr Navarro likewise took the route of live demonstration in his plenary session titled ‘Singing songs from the Global Church’. Taking the audience through some songs published in Let the Asian Church Rejoice, he showed keen appreciation for the cultural background from which the songs arose, and the nuances of meaning and instrumentation that would have accompanied them.

He said: “We stress the importance of worship reflecting aspects of the cultures the church wishes to reach and the cultures that comprise the surrounding communities. Otherwise, those cultures are likely to receive a message that they are not welcome at all.”

More than 150 participants attended the symposium, including those who served in traditional-style worship services as well as contemporary-style worship services in their church. Ms Eunice Li from Living Waters Methodist Church said: “The worship symposium was a blessed time of worshipping God, appreciating new Asian hymns, building of skills (e.g. worship leading) and meeting sisters- and brothers-in-Christ from local and overseas churches.”

The next MSM Worship Symposium is slated for 2017 – do come, and be edified and equipped as worship servants and worshippers in your local church.

An exercise: Writing about a moment we knew we would follow Jesus our whole lives; doing so in present tense, describing what we saw, heard, felt or thought in that moment, giving ourselves only three minutes to do so; and then sharing what we had written with another person.

A scene at the Scripture Reading & Drama workshop by Prof Jeff Barker.
A new Asian hymnal was launched at the Symposium.

Photos courtesy of Methodist School of Music

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Grace Toh is Assistant Editor of Methodist Message (MM). Additional reporting by Chia Hui Jun, Editorial Executive at MM.