This month’s profile features Ron Rienstra.
Interviewer: Ron, you are the chair of COS’ worship committee. What does that involve?
Ron: Plenty! Because we don’t have a Minister of Worship right now, it’s the worship committee who is minding the store. And since I’m the chair of the committee, much of that work falls to me, with lots of help from Maria Stapert. We function as its executive team.
So, one thing I do is help Maria look after the care and feeding of our army of musical and liturgical volunteers. There are so many! Doing it right means sending personal thank-yous, being on the lookout for new folks to recruit, giving feedback to liturgists and prayers and musicians and planners. I don’t do nearly as much of this as I could. I also tackle administrative questions which might otherwise go to a Minister of Worship. An example from this past week: we have a small budget at the guitar center left over from some years ago; what instruments might we need to purchase that we could get there? I sometimes field liturgical questions and theological questions – not long ago I supervised the committee’s work overhauling our ordination liturgies, and the committee regularly discusses the issue of inclusive liturgical language for God and people. I also field pastoral concerns. Someone will come up to me after church or write an email. They have a suggestion or a complaint — about a song’s tempo, or the language of a portion of the liturgy. Someone else wonders why we sang the same song three weeks in a row, someone else is offended by something in the Intercessory prayer. These are often a cause for pastoral care. If they are significant enough, I pass them on to Karen or Andrew to follow up.
I set the agenda and prepare for the committee’s monthly meeting. One thing we do at those meetings is review a seasonal liturgy. So, for instance, at this past month’s meeting, we observed that our Lenten liturgies are pretty Lenten in some spots but not others. After looking at it carefully, we decided not to edit the current one, but to put together a brand new one. So, a team of three people will write a new Lenten liturgy for next year. I’ll supervise that process. There’s a grab bag of other issues that come to us each month. For example, I was asked whether it would be easier for COS to go with all grape juice at communion rather than using both wine and grape juice. I’ll bring that to the worship committee and we’ll discuss it next time we meet.
Interviewer: From your point of view, Ron, what are the keys to a really good worship experience?
Ron: The first and most important thing, I think, is to remember that God is already present to meet us in worship. What’s key for planners and leaders is this: to invite people to bring their full and authentic selves – bodies and souls, mind and heart and will, doubt and belief, lament and joy – in order to meet the God who meets us in worship. That’s complicated, but one piece of it is that there are elements of performance in leading worship that are important to do as well as we can – we perform them in a way that serves the purposes of the liturgy and the work of the Holy Spirit through it.
Interviewer: I’m interested in your phrase, “elements of performance.” Megachurches get a lot of flak for turning worship into entertainment. What are your thoughts on that?
Ron: Well, they do get a lot of flak for that. If congregants are habituated to be passive participants in worship, if they are merely consumers of religious goods and services that are produced, performed and presented by paid professionals, that’s a huge problem. But in my opinion, it is naïve to ignore the performative aspect of worship service. When we play music, we are performing it – but in such a way that the congregation is invited to participate. The standards for what make excellent performance in a theater or music hall are different than those in a sanctuary. Let me give you an example. I thought that the brand-new musical arrangement we did of Psalm 32 this past week was great. Except that there was one musical choice made at the end of each verse, a delay of the harmonic resolution. That choice was beautiful, but it didn’t foster congregational participation. Folks were a little bit hesitant about singing the last note of the melody. So, if I were to do that song again, I’d change that. The same principles apply for reading of scripture, for praying and preaching as well. A poor performance gets in the way of us being open to God.
Interviewer: So, what I hear you saying is that the key to worship leadership is engaging the congregation – inviting it in.
Ron: Yeah, exactly.
Interviewer: What goes into planning a worship service?
Ron: I can speak for myself, here at COS. First, prayerfully reading the lectionary texts and finding a few central themes. The whole service does not have to be centered around some sort of thesis sentence. If I did that, I might go in a different direction than the preacher, and I typically need to have the service planned before the sermon has taken shape. But the church year tells a salvation story, and each week has its place in it. That is the big story I want to serve. If I can do that with an angle that emerges from the texts of the week, so much the better.
One of the main tasks in planning is to pick the songs. Some are pre-chosen. We have seasonal liturgies, and some of the musical pieces are fixed. At least for now, we will always do that 16th century Agnus Dei in Lent before the great prayer of thanksgiving. For the other slots, I often start by compiling a big list of possible songs. Then I begin deploying filters. The most obvious filter is resonance with the particular theme for that Sunday. Another is the liturgical season. Another is familiarity — where this song fits on a scale from super familiar to brand-new. Because COS has so much music in every service, we have a much larger working repertoire than most churches do. Kurt Schaefer told me that every time we do a new song in guitarchestra, he puts it in a binder. That binder is now up to 299 songs that the guitarchestra has introduced to the congregation. That’s more than many congregations’ whole repertoire! I would guess our congregation knows pretty well more than 1000 songs. So, at COS, there is not only tolerance, there is eagerness for something fresh each week. Singability and playability are other filters – what can COS handle? Do we have a violin this week? A percussionist? A second vocalist to sing harmony? Musical flow is another filter – what key is each song in? Can we move from one song to the next – especially in the communion sequence – smoothly? Liturgical purpose is another filter – what is this song doing? Praise? Confession? Dedication? Thanksgiving? There’s also a dialogic filter: Who is speaking in this song? For instance, last week we had the song Come to Me, which is Jesus speaking to us; the congregation responds by singing, “I will arise and go to Jesus.” So, you have both partners in the covenantal drama speaking. I also think about the flow within the communion sequence. Most weeks I want to end on a relatively upbeat note, something celebratory and looking forward to the great banquet feast.
Interviewer: Another thing you do is lead the guitarchestra. My impression is that the folks in the guitarchestra really enjoy what they are doing.
Ron: Yeah, for sure!
Interviewer: Can you tell me more about that?
Ron: It’s just FUN. We do enjoy making music together. And we enjoy each other’s company – we’re friends. I think the Guitarchestra was started years ago as a way to loop in younger and less experienced musicians to play in an ensemble on Sunday morning. Because of that we rehearse three times as much as a regular Sunday ensemble. That means we spend more time together, and we’re a bit more relaxed on Sunday. When it began it was just a bunch of guitars and me on bass. As it has evolved, we added instruments. First, I think, was a violin that could play a melody and help cue the congregation. I don’t remember exactly when or how all the other instruments came into the ensemble, but for instance, we added Kurt on the accordion for sustained notes — smooth peanut butter we call it – and now Callum has joined him. Now we have far fewer guitars and a wide riot of various fretted instruments –mandolins, and tenor mandolin, banjo, and Karen’s hybrid banjolele. We also have other bowed instruments occasionally – violins and a cello, a couple of basses. Kurt suggested the other day that we rename the ensemble, not Guitarchestra, but “Frets, Bows, and Bellows,” which I think is cool. Rehearsals are really fun. We laugh a lot and tell music stories. We enjoy playing together and working out arrangements in rehearsal. Should we go faster here? Louder there? Have some of us drop out for verse 3?
Interviewer: So as much as you enjoy the guitarchestra, my impression is that you also enjoy classical hymnody, right?
Ron: Oh, for sure! I mean, Guitarchestra plays plenty of classical hymnody. Just because we’re not a pipe organ doesn’t mean we can’t do pre-20th century music! Part of what I love about COS is our musical eclecticism. It’s one of our core values. When any of us plan a worship service, we select a congregational diet of worship songs from a very wide repertoire. So, if church music is a flowing stream, we want a sample from all the tributaries. We want music from classic hymnody, retuned hymns, new hymns, hymns from the liturgical renewal movement, indigenous and indie music, spirituals, and global songs from the whole church – we want all of those genres represented. In fact, when I plan worship, I very deliberately think of a collection of buckets and I ask myself “Do you have a song for just about every bucket?”
Interviewer: What is your advice to those of us on the other side of the worship service, us pew sitters?
Ron: My best advice to the congregation is to come to worship with a sense of expectation, of coming to meet God. Come with a sense that there is something you might learn, something you might feel, something you might experience, whether surprising or deeply familiar – come with that whole bundle of expectations ready to go. And come ready to be “re-membered” as the body of Christ – along with all sorts of people who are unlike you. We all have different histories and personal preferences. What makes worship good is almost never about whether you liked it – whatever that means – but whether you met God.
Interviewer: What else about worship can you think of that you would like to communicate to the congregation?
Ron: I’m deeply grateful every week for worship at COS. There is so much about what we do that gives me life and hope. And I’m reluctant to soap-box – but I do see a problem that I wish more people saw. Since we don’t have a minister of worship, a disproportionately large share of the work of worship – the primary thing the church does — has fallen on a handful of volunteers. I don’t think the congregation knows how much time and effort those volunteers put in. And I suspect most of the congregation feels that COS is doing pretty well – that the quality of our worship has not diminished in any way in the last few years.
Interviewer: I think you are right – that is the impression.
Ron: But as someone who sees things from the inside, it’s apparent to me that the quality of our worship has declined. Granted, it’s a slow decline because we had a lot of momentum built up over the last decade. But the trajectory isn’t a good one. We don’t do enough recruiting, training or follow-up. We don’t do enough encouragement and feedback. We aren’t writing or arranging or finding new music. We are recycling ideas rather than generating new ones. We need more consistent theological supervision and pastoral oversight. Crucial volunteers are burning out, sometimes putting in 15-20 hours a week. Maria does a great job supporting them; however, if an emergency caused one to step away from church responsibilities, the wheels could come off the bus quite easily. The path we’re on now isn’t sustainable.
And this is not to mention the whole issue of the BES service and finding ways to enrich worship leadership there and cross-pollinate the two services. But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation!
The truth is, there are stark budgetary realities. I don’t know whether they reflect congregational priorities, but there’s no money set aside for a minister of worship. I guess that makes me sad because worship has always been one of the core pieces of our mission at COS – one of our distinctives, one of the gifts we most appreciated having received and giving to others, one of places where we considered ourselves leaders in the denomination and the church at large.
Interviewer: That is indeed sad. Thank you, Ron. We are all grateful for your dedication to worship and the time and energy you have invested in it!
This interview was conducted by Jim Bradley on April 2, 2019