Q&A with Bart Millard about worship arts
Bart Millard, lead singer of the Grammy-nominated Christian band MercyMe, was at Grand Canyon University recently to discuss a new partnership in which he will serve as director of the school’s new Center for Worship Arts. The bachelor’s program will prepare students for careers ranging from national recording artists and songwriters to lighting technicians and worship leaders at local churches. He sat down with Dr. Jason Hiles, GCU’s dean of the College of Theology, to share his thoughts on the program.
Q: Tell us how you got connected with GCU.
A: MercyMe started a tour five or six years ago called the Rock & Worship Roadshow, and GCU became a sponsor and a partner of the tour. We hit it off. We fell in love with the way GCU does things, and apparently you all liked us, so it worked out really well. … There used to be a time when seminary would have music programs back in the ’80s for choir directors and stuff like that, and then the worship movement started and it kind of came down to ‘If you had good hair and knew three chords, you can be the worship leader at a megachurch.’ It was a scary place to be. For the longest time, myself included, you had one of two options: You either skipped college and pursued your music career, or you went to college to work on a Plan B for when your music career didn’t work out. Either way, it was not a great option. I was like, man, there has got to be a way to equip students for what they’re passionate about and to prepare them for what they feel like they’re called to do, and not just set themselves up for when they fail so they have a safety net. Out of that, the next thing you know I’m talking to Brian Mueller (GCU’s president and CEO) and all the really smart people here and we started talking about this vision. I kept saying “somebody” should do this. Now I’m here, so you see what happens.
Q: How did you know it was God’s plan for you to start working at GCU?
A: I really feel like it was Spirit-led. As many times as I tried to avoid it and say, “I’m not the guy,” it just kind of kept snowballing. So I’ve had a piece of it since the very beginning. The first time I sat in a room with the heads of the school and talked to them, I said, “Man, they get it.” The fact that GCU is willing to take this journey and that their best interest is to try and equip these students to literally go out and change the world, it was a no-brainer for me.
Q: As you look at the changing cultural landscape in the United States over the last few decades, that’s a tough dynamic to deal with for a lot of churches. What do you think worship will look like in days to come?
A: I think you’re in a day and age when the worship leader is not that far from the Christian music artist that’s traveling. A lot of leaders like Kari Jobe were leading worship in their church. The next thing you know, she’s a stinkin’ rock star. She doesn’t like that label, but that’s the way people treat her. By the nature of it, if you write music that is impacting the church, with the way social media works and the way you can get information out so quickly, you could write a song for your local church and literally overnight it could be a sensation. It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing. It’s just if you’re writing music that impacts a church, then why shouldn’t it impact others? I think worship is getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And I think you’re hitting a time where, for a worship leader to have a better understanding of how to function within the local church but also have knowledge of the music industry – everything from music business to production to songwriting to publishing to everything else, all the hairy stuff that nobody wants to deal with – the more you prepare a student for all of it, the better off they are.
Q: Based on what you’re saying, it almost sounds like there is an incredible burden in terms of responsibility that lands on the leaders of this industry. Do you feel that way?
A: There should be a burden for the Chris Tomlins of the world … the same burden (there is) for the worship leader that is in a church of 30 people. I think the same responsibility goes for both of them. God has raised them up for that moment, whether it’s 10,000 people or 10 people. And to take it for granted or wait for something bigger, that’s a scary place to be. So my prayer is that there would be more of a sense of this burden that what they’re doing is incredibly serious and that they’re doing kingdom work. It’s the greatest calling there is. To have students start to understand that it’s that big of a deal, that it’s more than good hair and three chords, and that they have been the one who has been called to stand before the body of Christ and prepare them for the Word and usher them to the throne, it’s a huge burden and an awesome, awesome opportunity.
Q: What are some of the most positive trends you see emerging in the Christian music industry – the kinds of things you would like to see echoed in the churches?
A: Worship music is probably more popular than ever. You’ll have your cynics who say they’re missing the point or whatever, but the bottom line is people are revolving around music that is glorifying Christ. The core of that has to be a good thing. The purest will say we’re ruining it. But whenever a song like “Oceans” is at the top of the charts for 8 billion years, how is that a bad thing? … Ultimately, that is going to point more people to Christ than ever before, so it has to be a good thing.
Q: You have been instrumental in casting a vision for the Center for Worship Arts and shaping the program. Tell us a little about that vision and what those programs will be.
A: GCU, if you don’t know, being a for-profit Christian university, there are things you can do that other schools can’t. One is that you can almost create this sort of micro-music industry. Imagine a student coming in as a freshman and let’s say they are a musician or a songwriter or whatever. We can create projects, we can create songs that will show up on iTunes. “Oceans” is a great example. Everybody knows the song and they know Hillsong. But most don’t know the girl’s name who actually sings it. They know her voice. With the same idea, GCU can be writing worship songs out of here that will go into the church, and you may have these songs show up on iTunes that represent this program more than just the person. We’re not trying to create rock stars or egos. We’re trying to create music that outlasts us. We’re trying to create something that will honor and edify the church long after we’re gone. GCU has the opportunity to be part of that, the opportunity to make albums and to get them out there and have students learn how to promote these records and do stuff on YouTube, and do business management, and do publishing and writing. Every aspect of the music industry, GCU has the opportunity to get their hands dirty with that and learn first-hand. … If and when someone comes through and you catch lightning in a bottle and write a great worship song, it will get the most attention for the program. But the backbone of the program will be the people who leave here and become the worship leaders in the local church. I think they’re the ones who are going to change the world. That’s the beauty of (the program) being emphasized in theology. For students to be grounded in Scripture and to know exactly what they’re singing about … to be able to put into words what changed you and what’s important about the Gospel so you can reach all walks of life … to see students leave with that mentality and to know who they are in Christ, it makes everything worth it. That’s the type of student GCU will look back and be incredibly proud to say that they were part of this school.
Q: Can you share a little more about the practical learning experience and mentoring process?
A: The practical learning experience, that’s where I’m hopefully relying on you (Hiles) because you actually teach people. I just talk a lot. But the mentoring thing, hopefully what I bring to the table will be the same way that Jerry Colangelo has allowed athletes to interact with business students. It’s an experience like no other. We want the Toby McKeehans and Matt Mahers to be here and interact with these students and write with these students. … All the things people like me spent 20 years to figure out, to try to pour that into these students will be invaluable. What’s so amazing is there’s probably about 20 or 30 people that I’ve had direct conversations with about this, and every single one of them is like, “I’m going to be upset if you don’t include me.” They all have something to say and they all have something they learned the right way or wrong way that they want to invest in these kids. The mentoring thing, I think, is what’s going to set this thing apart from anything that’s even close to it, even though I don’t think there is anything close to what’s about to happen. … We want these students to see the ins and outs of the industry firsthand. The most important thing we can do is show that, not only are there people who are going to perform onstage, there are people who will do lighting or sound. We’re going to try and show them that, whatever role they play is just as significant as the next role. Your calling to run lights is not any less important than Kari Jobe’s because it is a calling from the God of the universe, and we want you to take it seriously and do it to the best of your ability. We’re going to try to show how all this ties in together. It’s legitimate kingdom work.
Q: If I’m a student and getting ready to go through this program, what can I expect and what sorts of things will I be introduced to?
A: You will be introduced to not just whatever it is you think you are called to do. You will be exposed to all of it. There’s really no line between the local worship leader and the Christian music artist, if you will. You’re going to learn everything from how to engage and interact with a church staff on an everyday basis and not to go crazy, and really how to deal with people, all the way to music business to touring to promotions, production, digital presence, songwriting … every aspect of the business. For me personally, I can look back and tell you the things that have been career changing for me that, if I had known then, how different it would be. We’re going to try and pour all that into these students. Our ultimate goal is that when they graduate they will be more equipped and are in a better place than they were before as far as fulfilling their calling, whether it’s local worship leader or in the Christian music industry.
Q: You were in college for a brief period of time (“I’m still a sophomore,” Millard interjects) and left that to go into the Christian music industry. If I’m a young person and have a passion for music and there is college on the other hand, what it is about this program at a university that would capture my imagination and keep me engaged?
A: For me, the reason I went into college and didn’t finish is because there was nothing like this program out there. I would eat, sleep and drink music. That’s all I was about. I (initially) went to college because that’s what you’re supposed to do. I worked in a local church at the same time and started working with a praise band, and started falling deeply in love with this (music, gesturing with one hand) but this (college, on the other hand) was taking up so much time. I couldn’t figure out how the two were going to work together. I wasn’t going to spend all this money (for college) to do something in case this (music) failed. So, my sophomore year in college … honestly, my grandmother, of all people, she named the band. She told me, “Mercy me, get a real job.” That’s where the name came from. True story. No spiritual meaning, just “get a job.” My grandmother was the one who said if you put your passion and your heart and soul into what you’re called to do – she was paying for my college – and she said, if that’s what you’re called to do, I’ll put the money there and not college. It was insane that she would say that, and I’m so grateful now. That being said, if this program existed then, it would have been a no-brainer for me. One of the biggest reasons I’m here, I dealt with guilt and shame because it’s hard to tell people, “Well, I gave up college to sing.” That’s like the worst story ever, you know, especially then when you’re like eating Ramen noodles. It was hard for a long time. If there had been a program like this, to where I know this is what I want to be a part of. … The fact that this door could open for somebody and they could go through this program knowing I have a passion for this and knowing their parents are on board because they are going to get a bachelor’s degree. As crazy an idea as this sounds, that bachelor’s degree supports and equips them for what they deeply love and what they feel called to do. I love the idea that GCU sees the opportunity to, instead of convince them to do something more rational, is to equip them to do this with a reckless abandon. If you feel like you can change the world, by all means change it and do it with every part of your being. And for a university to say they’ll get behind that and equip you the best way possible, that’s huge.
Q: This is a little bit different than many programs in the sense that it is a worship arts program connected directly to the College of Theology. Is there any significance to that?
A: If it wasn’t, I think it would be a little bit of a waste of time in my opinion. And what I love about it is I never had to bring that up. GCU already got it. The fine arts and the business school, they are vital roles. But what it comes down to is, you can learn all that stuff, if you’re not grounded in Scripture and you don’t understand what you’re saying and can’t articulate what you believe. … There’s an ongoing joke that most musicians don’t carry a Bible because their hands are full with their guitar, and they’re OK with that. It’s kind of a scary place to be. It has to be more than just being able to sing. For people to know the Scripture, to hide the Word in their heart and to know it inside and out and know exactly who they are in Christ … unfortunately, that sets you apart from most of the industry. You are light years ahead of the game if you are grounded in the Word. I don’t care if you’re in this program or you’re a nurse, if you’re not grounded in the Word, you’re setting yourself up for some tough times. I think it’s vital, period. For a worship leader to not emphasize theology is a fish out of water. To create a generation of worship leaders that know the Word, oh my gosh, you’re going to change everything. You really are.
Q: When I listen to your heart and hear what leaders like you in the Christian music industry have to say, it seems like this is a matter of leaving a legacy. You really want to do something to pour into the next generation.
A: The nature of a believer is that you have the desire to be part of something bigger. The idea of being part of something that is having an impact on the church is overwhelming to say the least. … We sat in a meeting with Brian Mueller talking about this. Your president has an incredible heart. He is the most impressive visionary I’ve ever met. I thought I could see stuff. That dude is 18 miles down the road. It’s amazing how he can catch the vision. One of the things he said to me that really stuck with me … we were talking and he starts processing and all of a sudden he starts talking, “You know what, Notre Dame has an amazing football program. It’s a legacy, everybody loves Notre Dame football. Whether you ever played football or go to see a Notre Dame football game, you want to be part of Notre Dame because of the legacy it has created.” He was like – and I so want this on a T-shirt – he says, “What if worship was our football?” He goes, “What if that was our legacy? What if GCU is creating something? If it’s a legacy, the sky is the limit.” I started thinking. My son Charlie, he’s 8 years old, and he’s just like me. He loves music and I think he’s really talented for an 8-year-old. For most Christian colleges, unless your youth minister or your pastor is an alumnus there, you’re not sitting around at age 7 going “I’m going there.” It’s not necessarily the Notre Dame, if you will. But my 8-year-old, he went to the Roadshow and he saw this and he’s seen what’s going on, and at 8 years old he’s like “I want to go to GCU.” I’m like “What?” He says, “I want to be part of that.” … This could happen. You could have students in seventh, eighth grade; they’re not seniors trying to make a last-minute decision; they’ve already decided. They’re like, “I’ve seen what’s coming out of this program. I’ve seen these songs on iTunes. I’ve seen these songs impact the church. I’ve seen people singing stuff. And I may not understand all that they’re doing right now, but I know I’m going to be part of this one day. It’s what I want to do.” To hear my son say that about GCU, I was like, “Man, this may actually happen. There may be kids who have their mind set on coming here.” That’s creating a legacy.
I do want to say, this legacy is not new to this school. During the Rock & Worship Roadshow, it’s like the second-biggest tour in the country for the last five years. This last year, we had some spots where the GCU praise band came out and performed. When they came out to play, honestly I was a little nervous. I was like, “OK, here we go, a college praise band. Is this going to rough?” I didn’t know. I’m not exaggerating when I say they stole the freakin’ show. They got up on this little stage in the middle of the crowd and they started leading worship and it was as if the crowd was just waiting for it to start. Thousands of people stood and they were worshipping with this little praise band from GCU. That moment, I’ll never forget that moment. There’s a legacy here that is already in place. We have a true freshman class coming in, but there are people who have paved the way already. For them to get up and do what they did that night, I was deeply, deeply proud to be part of this school. Man, they knocked it out of the park.