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For years, two small groups of believers gathered to worship at 3000 South Race Street in Denver, Col. A group of English-speaking believers met upstairs; a group of Chinese believers in the basement.

Then one day someone asked what might seem like an obvious question, but which until then had gone unspoken: “Why don’t we worship together?”

And so began an experiment. In October 2012 the two congregations joined, and Hillcrest Christian Reformed Church emerged.

“It was,” Rev. Joy Engelsman recalled, “the beginning of a brand new story, but one with its own joys and challenges.”

Engelsman, a Christian Reformed minister and member of Hillcrest CRC, calls it a whirlwind courtship, where you run to the altar and then figure out how you’re going to work together.

The new church wasted little time in seeking good counsel. This included applying for a Vital Worship grant through the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. The grants aim to foster well-grounded worship renewal in congregations and worshiping communities throughout North America.

The following spring, Hillcrest learned that it had received a grant.

“As a merged church, we were overwhelmed with issues of theology, fellowship, mission, and programs,” said Engelsman. “We hardly knew where to start.

“The grant program helped us to focus our energy and attention in a very specific area, and the ongoing accountability and support from the (Worship Institute) grants team kept us on track toward our goals.”

Engelsman, who took the lead for Hillcrest in the project, said the goal was to bring unity in Christ in the midst of so much diversity.

She said the grant also helped the church explore styles of worship that would best assist in faith formation in order to help the Hillcrest congregation grow as disciples of Christ.

Engelsman said it hasn’t been easy, and there have been many obstacles along the way. But through the resources provided by the grant, much prayer, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, more conversations are happening and more activities are bringing groups within the congregation together. People are gaining a greater understanding of how different cultures enter into worship.

“The project has done much to bring the two congregations together,” said Engelsman. “We learned the same things at the same time. We sat in Sunday school classes together; we learned each other’s songs. We are continually trying to plan worship together.”

Claire He, a graduate student, musician, and one of the leaders of a Chinese student ministry at Hillcrest, came to faith in Jesus Christ just a couple of years ago. She said her faith has grown this past year as she’s discovered the dialogic nature of worship.

“The concept of dialogic worship makes more sense to me now. It has helped me to grow in my relationship with Jesus, because worship is a conversation with God, not a single direction lecture,” said He.

“In worship there are times when God talks to us, like the sermon and Scripture reading, and there are times when we talk to God, like confession and assurance, congregational prayer, and offering.

“The selection of songs is closely related to the content and structure of the sermon and service. Now I realize that everything in the worship service is there for a purpose.”

Engelsman and He came to Grand Rapids in late June for the 2015 Vital Worship Grants Program colloquium—a chance for grant recipients from 2014 to share what they learned through their projects with the 2015 cohort who are just beginning their projects.

“Colloquium is meant to create a space for conversation and collaboration and learning for our grant recipients,” said Rev. Kathy Smith, associate director of the Worship Institute and program manager for the Vital Worship Grants Program.

“With these grants, together we're working to foster vital worship in congregations, parishes, and other worshiping communities in North America. Our grants last for just a year, but we hope that the impact lasts well beyond the grant year itself.”

Engelsman said that getting together with other grant recipients at colloquium to commiserate, educate, and illuminate was a huge blessing. Grant recipients come from many different backgrounds and geographic locations, she noted, but they share a deep desire for worship renewal, and three days of conversation can be rejuvenating.

Those sentiments brought a smile to the face of Worship Institute director Rev. John Witvliet, who has been at the helm of the institute since its founding on the campuses of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in 1997.

Shared insights, Witvliet said, are in fact a critical part of the Vital Worship Grants Program. “We learn a tremendous amount (from grantees). We first learn from the wisdom demonstrated in designing them (the grants), and we also learn from the insights gleaned from implementing and adapting them as they unfold.”

That learning has been a hallmark of the Vital Worship Grants Program since it began in 2000. Since then, the program (formerly known as the Worship Renewal Grants Program) has awarded more than 700 grants to churches, schools, and seminaries across North America for projects that can generate thoughtfulness and energy for public worship and faith formation at the grassroots level. 

Some 100 of those 700-plus grants have been awarded to Christian Reformed churches and/or parachurch organizations in Canada and the U.S., from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, from California to New Jersey.

Each year, the grants represent a broad spectrum of locales, projects, and denominations. And each year numerous stories, Q&As, and videos are posted at Although grants do not fund the creation of books, in some cases grant projects have provided the groundwork for eventual publications.

Smith says the institute functions as a trusted conduit for the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc., which generously supports the Vital Worship Grants Program. Lilly, which has as its major areas of concern religion, education, and community development, gives the Worship Institute money for the grants program, and then trusts it to make good decisions about how to allocate the funds.

An advisory board of pastors and teachers from a variety of backgrounds assists the Calvin grants team in the annual selections.

Thus in the spring of 2015, another 29 projects were awarded Vital Worship grants. The projects represent congregations and schools from 15 denominations, 18 U.S. states and one Canadian province, 25 congregations and church plants, two regional church bodies, and two college and seminary communities.  

At the June colloquium, project directors and team members for all 29 grants gathered on Calvin’s campus to dialogue not only with each other, but also with Worship Institute staff and with the recipients of 2014 grants, who came back to campus to share the results of their year-long projects.

Those interactions between grant recipients just beginning and grant recipients at the end of their project year is something new grantees appreciate.

“The Vital Worship Grants program models a communal learning style that can be practiced in other church renewal efforts long after the grant project is completed,” Engelsman said.  “We are grateful for the generous grant funds but just as thankful for the lessons about dreaming, communication, listening, eating, and cooperating together toward an agreed-upon goal."  

As the congregation at 3000 South Race Street in Denver celebrates the completion of their grant, they recognize there is much work yet to be done. But Engelsman credits the important work done through the grant as putting Hillcrest “a few more steps down the road.”

“I believe that we will look back at this worship grant experience, and say, ‘That was one of the moments that the Lord used to bring us together and strengthen us for missional service in the kingdom,’” she said.


Explore and Apply

The Vital Worship Grants Program seeks to foster vital worship in congregations, parishes, and other worshiping communities in North America. This grants program is especially focused on projects that connect public worship to intergenerational faith formation and Christian discipleship. These projects take many forms. The program encourages proposals to be developed through a collaborative process from emerging and established churches; seminaries, colleges, and schools; hospitals, nursing homes, and other organizations. To apply, visit The next application due date is January 10, 2016.


Institutes and Centers at Calvin College

Calvin College’s centers and institutes enrich the programs of the college and create worldwide impact by addressing significant needs and strategic opportunities in pursuit of the college’s mission.

Center for Social Research (CSR) conducts social scientific research on behalf of Calvin faculty, the Christian Reformed Church, and a wide array of local, national, and international organizations. The CSR’ss skill set includes research design, data modeling and database design, surveys (online, by mail and in-person), qualitative research, geographic information systems, data visualization and publication design.
Year founded: 1970

Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship exists to coordinate and provide leadership for the project of advancing and improving intentional Christian scholarship at Calvin College. Since its inception, the center has sponsored numerous scholarly projects, many of them collaborative, resulting in scores of published books, articles, conferences, art installations, concerts, lectures, and reading groups.
 Year founded: 1976

H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies is a research center and special collection focusing on John Calvin, Calvinism, and the Reformation. The center offers hands-on classes for students spotlighting its rare books, lectures, presentations, conferences, summer seminars, and a program of fellowships for faculty and graduate students from other institutions and for pastors in the Reformed tradition.
 Year founded: 1981

Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW)promotes the study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in congregations. CICW provides courses on worship, offers online resources, hosts an annual conference, sponsors books on worship, and furnishes grants and consulting services to congregations that seek to promote worship renewal.
 Year founded: 1997

Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics continues Paul Henry’s quest to promote serious reflection on the interplay between Christianity and public life and foster civic engagement. It provides resources for researchers, supports publications and conferences in order to disseminate scholarly work, and seeks to highlight the best thinking on faith and politics for the larger public.
 Year founded: 1997

Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning is devoted to the study and promotion of pedagogy and learning from an integrally Christian perspective. It focuses on teaching and learning from pre-kindergarten through college and fosters research, curriculum innovation, and professional development. The Kuyers Institute frequently brings professionals together for workshops, conferences, collaborative research opportunities, and coordinated publication projects.
Year founded: 2004

Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity pursues three aims: to promote a deeper understanding of Christian movements from the global South and East, to partner with scholars in these regions to support their Christian thinking and cultural engagement, and to provoke a reorientation in the global North toward the concerns of world Christianity. The institute carries out its mission through supporting faculty-led projects, scholarly lectures, and research and faculty development projects worldwide.
Year founded: 2006

Van Lunen Center: Executive Management in Christian Schools provides world-class executive management education essential to the future of schools based on the historic Christian faith. Its Van Lunen Fellows Program helps Christian school heads develop into dynamic executives who lead from faith-based values, knowledge, and habits.
 Year founded: 2007

Calvin Center for Innovation in Business engages students, faculty, and the broader business community to support and develop the Calvin College business department, raising the level of business education and scholarship at the college to ensure that students are well equipped for lives of service and leadership in business.
 Year founded: 2010

Clean Water Institute of Calvin College is devoted to improving drinking water conditions in developing global regions. The institute focuses on improving community health by advancing the understanding and practices for providing appropriate drinking water solutions, with primary emphasis on the protection, development, treatment, and delivery of drinking water supplies in developing global regions.
Year founded: 2015


Supporting Calvin College in Prayer

  • Pray for wisdom for the leadership of Calvin College as the college continues to look ahead at some of the opportunities and challenges facing higher education.
  • Pray that each of the 850-plus students in the most recent graduating class will find meaningful work and serve God as agents of renewal wherever they are.
  • Pray for the incoming class as they are beginning their journey at Calvin. Pray that they will grow closer to God during their time at Calvin.
  • Pray for Calvin College’s mission to remain clear, compelling, and relevant.
  • Pray that all faculty and staff will remain committed to integrating faith into every learning opportunity.

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