Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the April issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version of the magazine, click here.
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
It’s 9:30 a.m.
Do you know where your rock band is?
If your rock band is of the typical rock band ilk, then the lead singer, axe man and the rest are likely asleep in a hotel room after an eardrum-decimating concert that ended around midnight.
But at 9:30 a.m. on Mondays at Grand Canyon University, with the sun’s rays just spilling over Camelback Mountain, the Lopes know where their band is, though calling it a rock band isn’t at all accurate despite the electric guitars. By that time, the group has dug its heels into the stage at 7,000-capacity GCU Arena, the same stage where the Beach Boys, Casting Crowns and Third Day have played. The musicians are in the midst of Monday morning rehearsal as they prime their vocals, oil their musicianship and smooth out any kinks before the beginning of Chapel, the wonderfully unique thing that happens most Monday mornings at GCU.
Unlike most universities, GCU likes to start off its week with a 45-minute Chapel service that includes a 25-minute talk by a guest speaker — usually a Phoenix-area pastor — and 20 minutes of praise and worship songs by the Chapel band, or as Spiritual Life Worship Manager Jared Ulrich calls it, the Worship Team.
“We try to avoid the word ‘band’ because it suggests a more ‘rock star’ connotation,” Ulrich said. “There’s so much more work that goes into what we do than just a band playing music.”
Musicians from one band on the team are on stage for sound check, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, like their fellow GCU students. The technical crew has been at the Arena even earlier, since about 7 a.m. The band is zipping through its set: “Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me,” the vocalists harmonize to “One Thing Remains” by Jesus Culture. Then the group stops midsong. Vocalist, guitarist and worship leader Mallory Denson, a Worship Arts major, pipes in, “Chapel band crew — can we get batteries for Garrett? His pack is cutting out.”
Soon after, guitarist and vocalist Luke Robinson, co-worship leader and fellow Worship Arts major, asks the crew, with a smile, “If I scratch my mustache, can you
guys hear it?”
The band wraps up rehearsals an hour later, and by 11 a.m. team members are backstage for the preservice prayer. Then the bright lights come up, the drums reverberate and the Worship Team launches into its set.
The group is one of three eight-member bands that are part of the Worship Team, which lends inspiration to Monday morning Chapel and Tuesday night’s The Gathering.
More than 100 students audition annually to be part of one of the bands, each of which includes two worship leaders, a worship leader apprentice and five musicians. In addition, a six-student tech team is responsible for sound, lighting and video for the 30-member Worship Team.
“It’s a pretty rigorous audition,” said Robinson, who didn’t make it onto the team is freshman year. “Definitely a lot of people want to be on the Worship Team.”
Musicians and vocalists fill out a questionnaire online and submit a YouTube video of a performance. Those who get a callback do an interview with a panel of judges who “take into consideration personal talent, personal devotion and walk of life,” Robinson said. There’s also a live audition with the band.
“We look for musical talent but also spiritual maturity. Those go hand-in-hand,” Ulrich said. The bands’ format hasn’t changed much since Ulrich’s arrival in 2014 (before then, a staff member led the worship music). Much like Chapel is unique at GCU, so is the Worship Team, which is entirely student-led.
“If we have issues, we talk to Jared, but it’s really up to the leaders what we do with that conflict,” Denson said, adding that another unique aspect is that the team performs in an arena. “Not a lot of colleges get that.”
Also, the bands stay together for a year. Robinson wanted to join the Worship Team for the great opportunity. “I thought, how incredible this is to play alongside one another. You live alongside one another. You become best friends.”
Those relationships continue offstage. Worship team vocalist and sophomore performance major Brooklyn Peterson said with a smile, “They all come over to my apartment and we make breakfast burritos together. It’s like team bonding.”
Denson added, “We’ll buy our team lunch sometimes. We’ll buy them coffee. We have two-on-ones, meetings that we have with everyone on our team … see how the semester’s going.”
Drummer Michael Joy said the best thing about being in the band is that Worship Team members become family.
“But also, seeing the progression throughout the years. I’ve been here since 2013, so seeing the progression and the hearts of the students and how much they want worship … it’s awesome.”
Guitarist Garret Crane said, “I feel like, especially in The Gathering on Tuesday nights, there’s such a connection with the student body and the band. I feel like we’re just one. It’s not just a band playing for people; we’re playing together. That connection is so unique among every other church or university that I’m aware of.”
Peterson said being part of the Worship Team is not just a big opportunity — it’s prime training ground for future worship pastors. But, she added, “The friendships that I’ve formed with them are really strong and valuable.”
Robinson said simply of being with the band, “I am forever changed.”