The opening worship service of the 2004 General Conference will literally start with a bang.
Four different drum groups will begin the General Conference - a start that will be "really symbolic of the ways in which we will gather the whole world around us," says the Rev. Barbara Day Miller, music director for General Conference.
She sees the opening as one of the "wow" moments of General Conference.
"This is going to be a highly visual worship experience," she says. Bishops are being invited to dress in their country's traditional attire, and dancers will be dressed "in the costume of the world," she says.
Red streamers, symbolizing the sign of the spirit, and banners will be carried in as the drummers beat out the welcome. General Conference, which convenes every four years, is the top policy-making body of the United Methodist Church.
"I just really think when all this comes together in this great 'alleluia,' that people really will be aware that they are a part of something great in the whole world and that it's all gathered for this moment," Day Miller says.
For the 2004 General Conference, 998 delegates from all of the U.S. annual (regional) conferences and the church's central conferences in Africa, Asia and Europe will converge on Pittsburgh April 27-May 7. The event will draw numerous additional church leaders, media representatives and other visitors.
Planning the General Conference worship services has been Day Miller's passion since being named music director in spring 2002. She has listened to more than 120 audition tapes from groups around the world and has selected about 60 groups to perform during the two-week conference.
One of her concerns was finding a way to represent the whole church, she says. Her prayer is that General Conference will be a time "where we make space for everybody's song."
"And I use that to also mean to make space for each other, individually and culturally, to be able to see when we all gather, the real diversity of the people called United Methodists," she said.
She is responsible for coordinating music for the 10 worship services, the daily communion services and various other events.
"It was very important that there be a real range of different styles of groups, different styles of music, different languages of singing, different configurations," she says. Whether that has meant incorporating a brass group, jazz ensemble or liturgical dance group, she wants to ensure that the worship reflects a "full range of expression," she said.
Ticking off some of the planned performances, she notes a mass youth choir; a mass children's choir beginning with first graders; at least two different dance days; a brass ensemble; a full orchestra; a jazz group; contemporary praise bands; and a gospel choir. "There's a choir of women coming from Russia, and … many more," she says.
Day Miller, who is assistant dean of worship and lecturer in liturgical practices at United Methodist-related Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, will also be bringing a group of 10 students from Candler to serve as the resident singing group during the two-week conference.
"I think my work here at Candler has a lot to do with preparing me because we are a really diverse seminary and truly ecumenical as well as truly Methodist," she says.
Day Miller has been involved in other large worship events, such as the United Methodist Clergywomen Gathering in San Diego a couple of years ago, which meant planning multiple services a day. She also coordinated worship services for "Exploration," the international youth gathering, and she planned the annual conference in North Georgia.
So far it has taken "eight notebooks and wonderful volunteers who are fearless" to organize this undertaking, she says.
"It takes a high level of organization and also a sense of humor," she says. "We really are gathering with a sense of joy. We know we will be blessed in our efforts."
One of the blessings, she says, has been talking to so many talented United Methodists across the connection who are eager to be at General Conference.
"These people are essentially involved in a sacrificial kind of giving in order to come," she says. "I mean, there is no money to bring choirs in. All these people are earning their own way to the General Conference. And the fact that they all really want to come and gather and give this gift in worship is great joy."
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. News media can contact her at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.