Institute of Worship: down but not out


Cooranbong, New South Wales

For the past 12 years the Institute of Worship, based at Avondale College of Higher Education (NSW), has been leading a worship renewal movement in Adventist churches throughout the South Pacific Division (SPD). Now, with its funding all but ended and its founder and director, Dr Lyell Heise, moving into retirement, Institute staff are holding on gamely but have accepted the need to scale back their operations significantly. 

Be intentional and strategic about worship ministry. Be so underpinned with good theology that you’re able to be more flexible in regards to culture.

What is the Institute of Worship? If you’ve ever attended an Adventist Hymns and Songs of Praise event there’s every chance the Institute was behind it. If a child you know has been learning piano using the popular Play Today books, you can thank the Institute. Perhaps you’ve been part of an Institute of Worship orchestra or maybe your church has participated in one of the Institute’s training events.

The “worship wars” of recent decades have pushed many Adventists towards two opposing groups: the immovable defenders of the traditional “three hymn sandwich” versus the “happy clappy” hook, line and sinker hillsongers. The Institute of Worship has intelligently, biblically and prayerfully charted a course through these troubled waters, identifying authentically Adventist worship styles that help congregations express their unique character. Key themes are creativity, balance and broad involvement, including intergenerational participation.

“Be intentional and strategic about worship ministry,” Dr Heise says to churches. “Be so underpinned with good theology that you’re able to be more flexible in regards to culture.” 

“How do we keep our vision going?” asks Pastor Joe Talemaitoga from the PTEC university church in Suva, Fiji. “It’s going to rely on vibrant, inspirational worship. This was modelled so effectively by Lyell and his team. We continue to run our worship services based on what we learned and had demonstrated to us by the Institute of Worship.” This year Pastor Talemaitoga moves into the role of secretary for the Fiji Mission and wants to see every Adventist church in Fiji benefitting from the insights PTEC gained during its worship training. 

Over the past 12 years, the Institute has delivered worship conferences and other training events in each of the four unions, in every conference around Australia and New Zealand and in many of the island missions. “We have a longstanding invitation from Vanuatu,” Dr Lyell Heise says. “They’re really keen for us to go there.”

But right now, a worship conference in Vanuatu is looking unlikely. Funding from the SPD ran out at the end of last year, as did the significant financial support of a private donor. Dr Heise is retiring from his senior lecturer position at Avondale but says he’ll continue working with the Institute as a “labour of love”.

“The Institute of Worship has now been downgraded to a part-time office with voluntary retired staff,” Dr Heise says. “I’m retiring from everything but maintaining a volunteer interest in a number of projects.”

News of the Institute’s funding cuts has been met with dismay from supporters around the Division. But they’ve also rallied and put plans into place to ensure that momentum is not lost. The SPD’s new Discipleship Ministries team is keen to benefit from the Institute’s expertise and plans to consult with Dr Heise on matters worship-related. Avondale College has agreed to take the Institute under its wing and will provide office space and technical support as Institute resources are made available on a new website.

Avondale president Professor Ray Roennfeldt regrets that he can’t offer more support. “College doesn’t have resources to fund training and events,” he says. Avondale is also launching a separate Spirituality and Worship Research Centre, which Professor Roennfeldt says will have a broader focus.

“The Institute of Worship Orchestra will keep going. We think we’ll do Hymns and Songs of Praise at Homecoming this year,” says Dr Heise, referring to Avondale’s annual alumni gathering. Clearly his love of music is a key factor in his continued involvement, salary or no salary.

Another factor is the success the Institute has had in mentoring young people in the area of worship—both musically and theologically. Many of these young people were Avondale students who worked part-time with the Institute and have gone on to leadership roles in local churches, taking their skills and insights with them.

“There are still many young people interested in these issues,” Dr Heise says. “It’s one of the reasons I’m still willing to continue.”