Posted by: Johnold Strey | August 2, 2008

WELStock ’08

“What is ‘WELStock’?” you ask. WELStock is my unofficial nickname for the WELS National Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts. Every three years, the WELS Commission on Worship sponsors this event, the largest Lutheran worship conference in North America, with over 1,000 participating in worship, workshops, and recitals over a four-day period. But the event title needs a little more zing and zip, methinks, and so if one merely merges the denomination acronym with “Woodstock,” well, you get WELStock. But don’t worry, there were no tie-dye chasubles! Just excellent concerts and choirs, worship and music, education and fellowship with like-minded Lutherans over a four-day period.

Originally I had grand plans to write a little post each day about the WELStock experience, but alas, a reunion with hundreds of fellow worship- and music-minded WELSers, many of whom I know personally, just didn’t allow for computer time. So here’s a post-conference summary of the experience.

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The other three Gloria Dei members who attended WELStock ’08, at the entrance of the GAC campus

Since the last WELStock in 2005, the host location has been Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. The 2005 conference was the only one of the five so far that I wasn’t able to attend (they have been held every three years since 1996), so this was my first exposure to Gustavus. It was a beautiful campus in a beautiful part of the Midwest (open space and grass is a beautiful site for someone living in the compacted Bay Area!).

Monday evening was the opening concert, including a volunteer choir made up of WELS members from around the country who had been rehearsing together for a day, and independently prior to the conference. This was one of the few times that I was in the assembly and not the choir. While I enjoy singing in choirs, it was a treat to sit back and just take in the music. My favorite Bach cantata (BWV 4), “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands), was a part of the overall program (for more on this cantata, see the essay on this blog: part one, part two). One member of our congregation in Belmont was one of the flutists in the orchestra.

As you might expect, worship was the big highlight. You can teach about worship all you want, but actually experiencing worship done well with vast resources does so much more for teaching people the great possibilities that exist for solid, Lutheran worship. Many examples of the excellent potential for worship were seen in the new hymnal supplement just released by the WELS Commission on Worship, Christian Worship Supplement. This newly published resource was a major component of worship and several workshops at the conference, and every registered participant received a free copy of the supplement as a gift from Northwestern Publishing House, the supplement’s publisher.

Presiding at Wednesday morning’s service

As for a personal highlight, I had the privilege of presiding at the morning communion service on Wednesday (July 30). A fair estimate of the number of people in worship on Wednesday morning would be around 1,200! I serve a much smaller congregation (we averaged 74 people in Sunday worship last year). I had always pictured myself in a larger setting, but I never would have envisioned presiding at worship with over 1,000 people present. There’s nothing to compare it to! I was very nervous at the start, but by the time we were done with the service, I wished that it could have lasted longer. Looking over the crowd of people that didn’t seem to end felt like a little, albeit very insufficient, glimpse of what the communion of saints will look like in heaven.

The conference included six different time slots for workshops. I had one workshop, offered in two different time slots, titled “Worship Education and Exploration Month.” The workshop was based on a month-long worship immersion program that we used a year ago at my congregation. We tried to adapt a curriculum that was put together from a non-Lutheran source, but it just was too difficult to work around some of the theological issues in the curriculum. So I looked around for other existing Lutheran resources that could accomplish the same goals and put together a worship immersion program that congregations could use to encourage worship renewal in their own settings. Between the two workshops, I had about 55 people attend. There were a bunch of people I knew in the second time slot; it felt kind of strange to have high school and college classmates and friends of my in-laws attending and taking notes in the workshop. But I hope there was something worthwhile there that others could use in their own settings.

A combination you’ll only find at WELStock: A beer in one hand, a “101 Bach Chorales” book in the other, and a T-shirt that says, “Organ Music Rocks.”

Like any good WELS event, there is always a shindig in the evening. Despite my weary self and tired eyes, I headed over to the party each night for a few adult beverages and some friendly conversation, because I knew I wouldn’t get to see most of these people again for quite some time. But the best shindig night of them all was Wednesday night. A certain musical family in WELS is known to have Bach chorale sing-alongs whenever they get together (those of you “in the know” know exactly whom I’m talking about!), and WELStock is no exception. Just picture about 40+ Lutherans with a beer in one hand and a copy of “101 Bach Chorales” in the other hand, sight singing together in 4-part harmony. Lutherans come out of the womb singing in 4-part harmony. It was a real hoot!

WELStock closed off at midday on Thursday with a concert presented by a teen honors choir, made up of about 130 high school students from WELS congregations around the country. One of our own teens from Gloria Dei made the final cut for the choir and had a blast in it. It really made me proud to see all those young people up there singing excellent music in praise of our excellent God and Savior. Of all the teen choirs I’ve heard at past conferences, this group was hands down the best!

The WELS Teen Honors Choir, made up of 130 high school students from around the country, presented the closing concert on Thursday

The hardest part was heading home. I don’t mean the late flight back to California (although that was hard, too!). I mean leaving the little taste of heaven that some 1,200+ fellow Lutherans experienced over this week. “Mountaintop” experiences like these fuel my life and my ministry for a long time. But just like Peter, James, and John at Jesus’ transfiguration, one does have to come down from the mountain and get back to reality. Fortunately, the National Worship Conference gave us a little glimpse of the coming reality that awaits God’s people in heaven. And after an experience like this, no one will walk away and wonder how praising God for all eternity will be a boring experience. Bring it on, I say!

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