How Chapel musicians got in such good harmony
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
People have noticed. Going to Chapel on Monday mornings at Grand Canyon University has long been an emotional experience for many, but the emotions have been heightened this year by the hey-isn’t-this-great performances of the Chapel bands, all three of them.
But before we get into the adjustments that made the music better than ever and find out what it’s like to bare your musical and devotional soul before about 6,000 fellow students, a correction of sorts: Don’t call them the Chapel bands.
“We try to stay away from calling it a band. Really, it’s a worship team,” said Jared Ulrich, the Spiritual Life worship manager. “Band has the connotation that puts the emphasis on the music side of things.
“We do talk about the three specific bands, but very rarely does that come up because the three bands collectively are part of the worship team. That helps them, I think, feel more unified. It’s more like, ‘I belong to the worship team.’”
Accent on team. Prospective worship team members must (1) submit a video of them performing, (2) fill out an application, (3) go through an interview and (4) audition for a panel of decision-makers. It’s just like trying out for an athletic team, and only 20-30 students are invited to the final audition out of the more than one hundred who apply.
“I think when the students walk in and they see this panel of people, it’s like, ‘Oh my!’ This is not, ‘Go sit at the piano and play something and we’ll tell you if you’re good enough,’” said Pastor Tim Griffin, GCU’s dean of students. “From the very beginning of the process, students realize this is no thrown-together program. They realize we’re taking this very seriously and you’re not going to get an opportunity here just because, as Bart (Millard, director of the Center for Worship Arts) puts it, you have good hair and can play the guitar.”
Once this year’s 21 musicians, six worship leaders, six vocalists and five technical-support people were chosen, they had a new role that went far beyond the music.
“Probably the most important distinction from how it’s been is that it’s a student leadership position, just like an Resident Adviser or a Life Leader,” Ulrich said. “First and foremost, being selected for the worship team means that you’re selected to be a student leader on campus, and with that come all the expectations and responsibilities that come with that role.”
Before Ulrich’s arrival three years ago, a staff member led the worship music. Handing it over to students — and putting Ulrich in charge — changed the dynamic of how students approached what is now their job.
“That creates a greater sense of ownership by the students — they put more into it versus just affirming the stuff we play,” Griffin said. “It isn’t just a music gig. They are taught, trained and held accountable to be a leader among students on this campus and everything that comes with it, not just singing a song or playing an instrument. That raises the bar on expectations.”
Another important change was to keep each of the three musical groups together. Each group has seven musicians (leader, co-leader, two electric guitars, bass guitar, drums, keyboard) who will stay together for the entire school year. Each group gets to play at Chapel and The Gathering once every three weeks. That builds relationships and trust.
“We’re friends, and so we hang out whenever we can outside of just doing this,” said worship leader Chris Jennings, a senior majoring in Christian Studies. “That’s a really big part of it — chemistry and being friends. If you’re playing with people you don’t know very well, that’s going to translate onstage. It’s been noticeably different this year, and people have said as much.”
The appreciation factor is huge. Every member of the worship team has to reapply every year, and don’t think for a second they don’t realize what they have.
“It’s definitely a super cool opportunity,” Jennings said. “Not many college kids can say they get to do this. I’m speaking for the whole — we’re all super grateful. I think at the end of the day it comes down to where our hearts are in it. Because I know everybody on the team, and I know our hearts are in the right place.”
Another worship leader, junior Christian Studies major Josh James, put it this way: “It’s what we were created to do. We were created to worship God. When you do that with so many people at once, it’s like, ‘Grand Canyon, find your purpose’ in an arena full of people coming to do the very thing God created us to do. For me, it’s a picture of forever, especially with this many people. Worship God forever — this is like a little taste of that.”
Ulrich met with the worship leaders in an all-day meeting in August to figure out the roster of 30-40 songs that would be used during the school year. The top groups on the GCU charts are Hillsong, Bethel Music, Jesus Culture and Elevation Worship.
The meeting is a spirited give-and-take. What students like is not necessarily what fits the tastes of Ulrich and Griffin, and vice versa.
“I have to forgo my tastes,” Ulrich said. “This is what students are listening to and what they’re connecting to at their churches. It’s more poppy, electric, synth-based, with beats and a lot of added tracks. It’s new, which is good, so what we try to do is help them maintain balance.
“We try to be very intentional and strategic with the songs that we sing. We don’t pick it just because it sounds good or has a cool guitar riff. What are the lyrics saying? What is the theological message? What’s the theme of the song and how does that help us connect with and worship God? As long as the worship leaders can give me a fairly serious and intelligent answer that shows that they’ve thought through it, OK.”
The arrival of GCU’s Center for Worship Arts for the 2014-15 school year also has impacted the music. Eight worship team members are Worship Arts majors, and two have it as their minor. As that program grows, it no doubt will have even more of an impact.
“When we started, we got students from all over the University landscape, but now we’re seeing more of them from Worship Arts,” Griffin said. “It’s going to be like our athletics program. You can’t add more athletes to the program — you just can’t. You’re going to have about 400 athletes, and you’re going to get better and better athletes as time goes on.
“Well, same thing here. We’re going to have about 35 students on the worship team who are going to get better and better because we’re going to have more students than opportunities.”
The final Chapel of the semester is a Christmas service Monday morning, featuring GCU’s choirs as well as the worship team. There won’t be a guest speaker, but the music alone figures to draw in the audience more than ever.
“There’s always been a great culture here for participation,” Griffin said. “I think there’s always been a great sense of, ‘This is where we go to worship.’”
It wouldn’t be the same without the energy of the worship team. The music is an important part of the message, and, hey, it is great. If you need proof, just listen to all those students singing along.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.