Worship Arts students filling needs in local churches
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the November issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by David Kadlubowski
The reverberations of the Center for Worship Arts are being felt all over the Valley, and not just from the latest Canyon Worship album.
Though the program is only in its fifth year at Grand Canyon University, it is starting to become a feeder system for churches in Arizona and beyond. Sure, some students have shown signs that they will turn their training into singing careers, but worship ministry careers will be far more impactful in the long run.
“We’re thrilled,” said Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology, “because we sense that’s the sort of student who’s really going to connect with the sorts of things we’re doing – the core of the program.”
Two of those students, Mallory Denson and Aaron Bolton, have that in common and much more. Both graduated last April with degrees in Worship Arts. Both sang on the Worship Team, which performs at Chapel. Both have gone on to worship leader jobs at Valley churches. And both have a fine appreciation for the program’s combination of instruction in music and theology plus its sense of community.
“Oh man. It changed my life,” said Denson, who in August took over as Worship Director at Paradise Church in Phoenix. “By having professors who were so intentional and so helpful to your spiritual life, academically and spiritually, GCU completely made me secure in my calling and made that affirmation happen in my calling, especially when I got onto the Worship Team as a worship leader. That grew me so much. “GCU really impacted my life in ways that I never would have imagined. I got to know who God was in such a different way.”
Bolton, Associate Director of Worship at Gateway Church in Scottsdale, had this assessment: “I think a real cool part of the Worship Arts program is the community that’s there. One of the awesome things I was able to bring from that into my new job is just a community of people and other musicians that I can lean on for support. If we need a last-minute fill-in, there are people I can ask, ‘Hey, are you free this weekend?’”
To be sure, it is a much more difficult transition than just finding an extra musician or two. “You’re not doing schoolwork anymore. You’re doing life,” Denson said.
Instead of classes and exams, her days are filled with meetings, scheduling, overseeing technical issues and managing the other musicians. And that’s just for one service a week – imagine if the church expands that number, something she said it’s praying on.
“Even if you’re not in the office, you still are doing your job because you’re being there for people, you’re praying for people, you’re meeting with them, knowing about their life and how to pray for them and how to be there for them,” she said.
Bolton started attending services at Gateway in his freshman year at GCU and began working there soon after, so he had a head start on what he’s doing now. But that hasn’t minimized the challenges.
“I love it, but it has been a learning and growing process for sure,” he said. “I feel like God has brought me to a completely new place that I was not at in college, and it’s been difficult but really good.”
One of the requirements of the Worship Arts program – that students have a significant relationship with a local church – has paid dividends. Worship Arts students don’t just learn how to write a great worship song or perform for an audience. They also receive a strong spiritual education, and becoming a worship pastor puts all those skills to work.
“The Worship Arts program does very well at giving you the understanding of why worship is important and the reason we do it,” said Ronnie Petkovich, another April graduate working as a worship pastor at an Arizona church (Living Faith in Prescott).
Bolton’s worship pastor at Gateway, Matt Birkenfeld, said of these opportunities, “It’s a great way for those students to apply what they’ve learned.”
But as the learning curve has continued in their new jobs, Denson and Bolton have found that there’s so much more to figure out. Abby Jones, Lead Pastor at Paradise Church, said Denson has done a great job of bringing people together in worship – and “she instructs us in such a worshipful way.”
“We’re absolutely thrilled to have her,” Jones said. “She’s a strong leader, and she’s done it with such a good heart.”
On a recent Tuesday night, a crowd of more than 100 got a chance to hear the Canyon Worship 2018 student artists, including Denson and Bolton, perform their songs. It is the third full-length album produced by the program but was the first such concert to celebrate their work.
It might as well have been a job fair, too.
“I’ve already picked two or three of them I’d want to hire,” said Kirk VanMaanen, Pastor of Christ Church Peoria.
He might have to get in line.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].
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