Divine guidance on the road to ‘Worshipology’
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU Today Magazine
Think about some of the meant-to-be moments in your life. You can recount some extraordinary coincidences that got you to those destinations, but you may not have explanations for them outside of divine intervention.
Such is life these days in Grand Canyon University’s new Center for Worship Arts, which seeks to turn students into performers who can lead everything from a church service to a Christian band. Worship Arts leaders say that things they can’t quite fathom keep happening. Years from now, they no doubt will look back on these times with a sense of amazement, but for now, as the story is still unfolding, they are embracing the joy of being part of events that sometimes defy explanation.
One such occurrence came on the first night this semester of Worship Arts Summit, a two-hour weekly class in which students, many in their “Worshipologist” T-shirts, write their own Christian music. They often are guided by visiting experts — including center director Bart Millard, lead singer and founder of the band MercyMe. On this night, Millard brought along former touring partner Tim Timmons, a prominent Christian songwriter who was visiting campus.
John Frederick, the center’s worship coordinator, had planned an evening built around the theme “Union with Christ,” focusing on how the spirit that brought Jesus back from the dead is alive in us and we need to completely trust Him.
Frederick didn’t know Timmons was going to be there until just a few hours earlier. He had met him only once, at a conference years ago, and he hadn’t shared with Timmons his plans for the program.
And yet when Millard started the class by introducing Timmons and asking him to say a few words, Timmons offered a passionate discourse about his 10-year-plus battle with cancer and proceeded to talk about the precise topic Frederick planned to cover, emphasizing that “the cross is a door.”
“That’s what we were going to do tonight!” Frederick said from the front of the room.
“I was just writing down some of those very same thoughts on New Year’s Eve!” Millard said from the back of the room, and he felt so moved that he, like Timmons, gave an equally long, equally impromptu talk centering on, “You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to trust.” It felt therapeutic to Millard because during a concert he never gets more than two or three minutes between songs to talk about his faith. The brutal honesty was riveting.
“I was the overachiever trying to make sure God was OK with me,” Millard said afterward. “Everything was kind of in chaos. I hit this wall that was like, ‘There has to be more or I’m done.’ I was just done. It couldn’t keep up. And then a friend came back into my life and said, ‘Hey, just in case you’ve forgotten, there’s nothing you can do to make Christ love you more than He already does. There’s not one ounce more you can do.’
“So it’s like I’m trying to get God to be OK with me and the whole time He’s screaming, ‘I’ve been OK with you since the day you called My name. I’ve never stopped.’ I don’t know how I missed that after all these years.”
Days later, still shaking his head about the experience, Frederick said, “When something like that happens, you see that there is a deeper spiritual governance to this. That’s the cool thing about teaching theology — you’re on the journey yourself. It creates a sense of camaraderie with the students.”
That togetherness was evident in the first Worship Arts Showcase, during which students performed 20 songs they had written during the fall semester. When they weren’t performing, the participants and other students clearly had a good time cheering on their peers.
“I’m blown away by how close they’ve gotten,” Millard said. “At the end of the night they were all together saying, ‘This was one of the greatest semesters of my life.’”
One of the students who performed was Caleb Keck from Newark, Ohio, who sang a solo, “The Love You’ve Shown,” and said of the experience, “I’m speechless just to be in the program and to be able to perform for people like Bart.” Keck left active duty in the U.S. Air Force after seven years to come to GCU. “Something I’ve told people lately is, ‘This is the most unsure thing I’ve ever been so positively sure of,’” he said.
Frederick is sure of one thing: He wants the students to write music that is authentic, reflecting the journey they’re on with the people leading them — and, down the road, the people they’ll be leading. The way Frederick put it to them in one session was “Create from a place of ‘I don’t care if anyone likes this.’”
“It’s easy, actually, to make people excellent musicians and to manipulate lights and sound to make people feel good,” he said. “But I think all of us on the faculty feel like it needs to come from a real authentic place, what Eugene Peterson calls ‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.’ It’s almost like marriage — that’s your commitment to a local people. It’s not just incidental. And I think the students are starting to breathe that air. A lot of them are walking that path already.”
Newcomers certainly can see it.
Kim Nielsen and her high school daughter Michaela, visiting from Omaha, Neb., made the Worship Arts Summit part of their campus tour and were taken aback by the spirit of it. Earlier in the day, Michaela felt gratified to see several male students reading the Bible when she walked into the Student Union.
“You feel such unity — it’s safeness,” she said.
Kim was moved by the talks Millard and Timmons gave and also liked what she heard at Chapel, where Brian Mueller, the University’s president and CEO, was the speaker that day. “Just to hear the heart of the people in leadership has been impressive to me,” she said.
Timmons picked up right away on what Millard, Frederick and Dr. Jason Hiles, dean of the College of Theology, bring to the table: “They’re so focused on the students that it’s as if they’re being changed themselves. I love their knowledge and heart and spirit. I think it’s exciting just being friends with these people.”
Studio will be great addition
So what now? Continued growth, obviously. “We have people left and right trying to sign up for it,” Millard said. The effect of the Worship Arts program can be seen in tangible ways on campus, such as the fact that a third Chapel band is performing this semester.
Millard and Frederick both talk excitedly about the new recording studio for the program being built on the fourth floor of the University’s new classroom building facing Camelback Road. It is scheduled to be ready in August.
But one lesson they have learned in this first year is how much they can accomplish anywhere with the right group of people. Frederick thought back to the time, years ago, when he was shopping at Target and came across one of Millard’s first albums. He bought it, took it home and loved it. Now he’s working with him.
“I feel like his heart is in the same exact same place as Jason and mine and all of us involved with this program, which is to make really authentic, intentionally discipled worshippers and to leave legacies in the church for Jesus,” Frederick said.
The road of faith? Sometimes you need a map, and sometimes you intuitively know you’re headed in the right direction … and you can’t explain why. You just know.
Contact Rick Vacek at 602-639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.