Elly Boersma: A passion for worship

Elly Boersma’s path to ministry in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) wasn’t straightforward. Raised in Surrey, British Columbia, Elly graduated from Simon Fraser University with a BSc in Kinesiology. God’s Spirit eventually led her to Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she graduated with a MA in Worship.

Elly, 27, now serves as Pastor of Worship at Covenant CRC in St. Catharines, Ontario, where I attend. I recently interviewed her to discover how God led her to her present position and to plumb her thoughts on being a young leader in the CRC.

Did you experience defining moments in which you heard God’s call to ministry in worship leadership?

Music has always been a big part of my life. My parents started me in piano lessons when I was seven years old and my love for music grew from there. If it weren’t for people investing in me from a young age, I might not be where I am today.

When I was in Grade 11, I went on a short-term mission trip to Mexico with my church youth group. I remember being out on a big field of dust, worshiping God with a thousand other young people, seeing the band on stage with a vacant keyboard, and feeling something move within me. I had a deep longing to be up there playing the keys with the band, leading the people in worship.

Years later, I returned to Mexico several times as a leader for the same trip I took as a youth. Each time it kept being clear to me that worshiping God is my heart’s desire and that I want to help lead people in worshiping our great God! I was working at a custom foot orthotic manufacturer at the time and completing my undergraduate degree in Kinesiology. I liked what I was doing and how it combined my love of sports and biomechanics, but I was always more eager to go to a worship team practice in the evening than to go to work in the morning. I wondered what was holding me back from pursuing my passion.

One worship service in particular confirmed God’s calling on my life to pursue worship leadership. At my home church, we were supposed to have a slide show with images of our city, along with, in the background, lyrics to Chris Tomlin’s “God of This City.” My pastor had worked hard on putting it all together and I could see the disappointment on his face as the images appeared, but no music was heard. In that moment, something stirred within me that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit telling me, “You know the song. You need to go up there and play it.” After much hesitation, I gave in and went up to the piano. As I was playing the song on the piano, the same voice said, “No. I want you to sing it.” That was the first time I ever sang a solo in public. It was a huge stepping-stone for me. The comments I received after the service were a confirmation that God has gifted me so that I may use my gifts for his glory.

While at Calvin Seminary, I traveled back to Mexico. The same worship leader who had led ten years earlier when my heart first stirred on that field of dust was leading worship again. I had the privilege of playing keyboard with his team, leading the crowd of more than one thousand young people, and witnessing God’s faithfulness, grace and goodness in my life.

You’ve chosen to serve in the CRC. As a young leader, what excites you about the CRC as a denomination? What concerns you?

I love the history and strong doctrinal focus of the CRC. This denomination has emerged from asking deep theological questions and seeking God through the study of Scripture. Many leading theologians today are from a Reformed background. That is because of the continued thirst to know and understand God through his Word. The CRC places a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God and that we can worship God in all of life because every square inch of this universe belongs to him.

Sometimes I think we get caught up with tradition and looking back to how things have always been done in the CRC so that we forget to turn and look forward. Many church programs are inward-focused. While faith nurture and spiritual growth of our members is important, it is also important to reach outside of our walls. If we stick too closely to our roots, we may unintentionally leave others out. We need to understand that we are not a culture, but a people of God.

How did God lead you to take up your present position at Covenant CRC ?

I had been looking at many different churches when a friend informed me of the position at Covenant. As God was leading me to Covenant, I felt torn between St. Catharines and another opportunity at a church in the United States. After much prayer and conversations with those close to me, the one thing that shifted the scales and pointed me to St. Catharines was the coffee house, Lockside Cove Café, owned by the church. In that small building, I saw huge opportunities to serve outside of the church. I saw ways we could reach out with music and worship to our community and be a presence in the neighbourhood throughout the week. I look forward to seeing how God will continue to use Covenant CRC for his glory.

On May 21, 2014, at the Classis Niagara meeting at Rehoboth CRC in Niagara Falls, Ontario, you underwent an examination to receive approval to become ordained as a Commissioned Pastor in your role as Music Coordinator at Covenant CRC. Now your title is Pastor of Worship. During the examination, you were asked to briefly share your philosophy of worship.

I was told I had five words or less in which to share my philosophy of worship, so this is what I told them:
Worship is to be (1) Biblical (What we do in our worship needs to align with what we read and understand in Scripture, and should include Scripture, focusing on the person and work of Christ.), (2) Communal and Intergenerational (From the very young to the very old, we are all children of God, and we are all called to worship God in community. Communal worship unifies us as people of God.), (3) Trinitarian (God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and if we focus only on the work of Christ, we miss out on the fullness of God.), (4) Dialogical (Worship needs a balance of speaking and listening. God initiates worship, calling us to worship him. God challenges, comforts and awakens us, and we respond with praise, confession, petition and dedication.), (5) Covenantal (Worship reminds us of God’s promises and allows us to recommit ourselves to this relationship.)

You’re in your 20s. Does your age have an impact on how you do ministry in a multigenerational church?

I think it does. In many churches, aging is seen as bad in leadership because people think they become irrelevant as they get older, but I find in a multigenerational church it’s not good to be too young either. Sometimes it feels that it is best to be in your 30s in ministry because you have gained enough wisdom and experience that those older will listen and respect you, yet you’re still able to relate to the young. I feel like I need to work harder to earn the respect of those older than I, and I am constantly aware that I look younger than I am.

Have you experienced challenges as you’ve dealt with the needs and expectations of people of different ages? How about blessings?

I would say the biggest challenge is learning to serve both young and old, and encouraging everyone to set aside their desires and preferences when we have many different ideas, needs, and preferences. In catering only to preferences, I think we lose focus of why and whom we are worshiping. How good and pleasant and challenging it is when we come together in unity to worship God.

The biggest blessings for me in a multigenerational church setting are seeing a young drummer develop her skills on a worship team, children coming forward with their grandparents to light candles for Advent, a five year old belting out the chorus to an ancient hymn text, and all ages joining hands as we sing the benediction. These are just some of the many blessings of working with all ages.

Have you brought worship experiences to the community outside the church building?

I can’t take any credit for getting it started, but one thing that drew me to Covenant and St Catharines was the Lockside Cove Café. A couple musicians from the church had started a music ministry program there called Friday Night Worship, where they would play music, read Scripture, serve coffee and have snacks. We now have Friday Night Worship approximately every six weeks and advertise with posters around the community and at other churches, in hopes that it will continue to grow. It is a great space to make church accessible to those who may be intimidated by a formal church building.

How have you tried to engage the congregation to experience worship in unique ways?

I think experiencing worship in different ways can be as simple as engaging all the senses. We expect sound in worship. We expect to speak and to listen, but what about touch, and taste, and smell?

This past Lent season, leading up to Easter Sunday, Covenant CRC did a series on the different “I AM” statements of Jesus in the book of John. For each of the statements, we asked for items from the church for each Sunday to best visually represent the theme of the day. For “I am the Light of the World,” we brought in many different lamps, and had them all hooked up on the stage up front. When it came to “I am the Bread of Life,” we decided to engage the sense of smell in worship, and set up breadmakers around the sanctuary that were baking bread as we worshiped. Throughout the service, the scent of fresh baked bread filled our nostrils, making us recognize just a taste of what it is to hunger for God, the only one who can truly satisfy us.

In a calling that demands creativity, an integrated life, and fresh energy each week to organize and lead worship services, how do you stay energized and focused?

Drinking lots of coffee! I love interacting with people, so one thing that helps me is talking and networking with others, especially with those who are also working in the church or in worship. Through those conversations, we are able to help give each other ideas to stimulate creativity, sort out challenges or issues we are experiencing, and encourage one another to persevere, despite those weeks when it feels everyone is against you and nothing is going right.

I would be nowhere without relying on God. I know I am unable to do this work successfully without God being the source of my strength. Lots of prayer, and knowing that I have prayer support from many people around me, helps me to stay energized and focused even in tough times.

Also, maintaining a healthy social life with friends and spending time outdoors in the Niagara sun keep me refreshed and energized.

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