Worship team plans services that 'branch out' in faith


By Linda Green
United Methodist News Service


The tree on the logo for the 2008 United Methodist General Conference serves as the inspiration for the music and worship directors of this spring's gathering in Fort Worth, Texas.


It is also a symbol for how Mark Miller, of Plainfield, N.J., and Marcia McFee of Truckee, Calif., are branching out creatively as they design the worship experiences for the April 23-May 2 gathering.


McFee and Miller said their plans for the church's top legislative assembly were shaped by the logo and the theme "A Future with Hope." The logo was inspired by Jeremiah 29:11 and designed by Polly Shafer of Pine Bluff, Ark.


McFee suggested using trees salvaged from Hurricane Katrina-damaged Gulfside Assembly, a United Methodist retreat center in Waveland for the altar, Communion table, pulpit and baptismal font.


"It came to me like a lightning bolt," she said.


"It was like throwing it in a wood chipper, and it all comes out in this amazing, holistic way that is connected," said Miller. "The music feeds into Scripture, Scripture feeds into images, which feed into who are involved."


The holistic principle is evident in how Miller and McFee have teamed up for the assignment of leading worship for General Conference. Each has a lengthy resume, as well as experience leading worship at annual and jurisdictional conferences. With General Conference, they decided their individual skills would blend well.


"We complement one another because we have different skill sets (that) enable each of us to do what we do better by working together," McFee said.


The Rev. David Wilson, vice chairperson of the program committee for the Commission on General Conference, said Miller and McFee were selected because "they bring so much talent, energy and experience to this position" and that together "their creativity would enhance the worship experience."


"Each brings their own unique experience when leading worship. Combining talents like theirs would create an amazing worship experience for the General Conference, and we certainly believe that they will," he said.


Seeds planted
Throughout the assembly, the worship experiences will use the symbolism of the tree to maximum effect.


The tree is the symbol of "our salvation in a very deep sense," Miller said. But the image of the tree planted by the river of light to heal the nation, as found in the Book of Revelation, is most significant, he said. He hopes the conference will help lead to a "healing of the nations."


To emphasize the church's global nature, trees from around the world will be used during worship. Each day, a bishop will lead a prayer, and a tree from his or her episcopal area will be projected on a screen behind the altar.


The harvest from seeds planted last fall will be used as part of the General Conference worship space. In 2007, McFee distributed envelopes of seeds on which people wrote prayers, and the seeds were planted by churches in the Fort Worth area.


"We are trying to connect the whole connection to our worship at General Conference," she said. McFee and Miller also found numerous songs about trees and seeds from across the world as they mined songbooks.


Worship will include more visuals and use of technology to give delegates and visitors a multisensory worship and singing experience. "We will use a lot of imagery and bring some of what is happening in new frontiers in worship into our setting," McFee said.


Exploring new frontiers is nothing new for McFee, who is the author of The Worship Workshop: Creative Ways to Design Worship Together, an interactive resource for worship teams and published by Abingdon Press. She has preached, taught and led worship at a variety of United Methodist gatherings in the United States — including the 2006 Mississippi Annual Conference — Europe and Asia as well as for events for other denominations.


Loosening up delegates
A two-time delegate to General Conference, Miller said he has had experience with the kind of spirit that pervades the gathering of nearly 1,000 delegates. He wants to help the delegates "loosen up."


"Having been there and felt that, I feel like I have a better handle on what we are facing," he said. "Hopefully there will be different key points where I can help people remember not to take themselves so seriously and remember that they are not in control but that God is."


Like McFee, Miller has been a worship leader, teacher and performer of sacred and gospel music across the church. He is director of music and instructor of church music at the Drew Theological School, Madison, N.J., and minister of music at Covenant United Methodist Church in Plainfield. He is also a lecturer at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University, New Haven, Conn. He has directed music for numerous annual conferences and youth events, and he has composed hymns.


According to Miller, individuals may engage in personal devotion, but worship is "gathering with people to have an encounter with God."


McFee defines worship as a place where people are transformed and made one in Jesus Christ.

"The intentional crafting of the liturgy, the pronounced words and the way the words dance with the music and rituals are formative and moving," McFee said. "If those pieces can really form us as a people who are in dialogue together and know that the spirit is moving among us and that God is present in a powerful way and that Jesus is walking with us, then we would have done something grounding for the whole body."


The services will include many people sharing their musical gifts, including a 23-member children's choir from Uganda, techno-drummers, a deaf choir, a praise band, and choirs from Texas and across the United States. Music will encompass a variety of genres — Gaelic, Celtic, rap, contemporary gospel, spirituals and traditional hymns — as well as songs in African, Spanish and Korean languages. "We are trying to sing songs from all over the globe," McFee said.