One Thousand Days Transformed - The Campaign for Cedarville

by Jim Cato

For 40 years, Jim Cato ’83, Associate Vice President of Christian Ministries, has dedicated his life to music and ministry at Cedarville University. As he approached retirement this spring, Cato sat down with Cedarville Magazine to look back on his tenure. His legacy is marked by a steadfast love for students, a passion for worship that transcends music, and a commitment to living a life that faithfully reflects Christ. His influence will continue to resonate through the lives of those he has touched, shaping the future of worship and ministry at Cedarville University and beyond.

Q: What brought you to Cedarville?

I grew up in a pastor's home in the 1960s, an interesting time with all that was going on culturally there. I grew up in a time when externals became very important because we [the church] didn't want to be like what was going on in the culture. So you have to work really hard at doing all the right things and looking right. But out of that backdrop of emphasizing externals, I still heard the Gospel and put my faith in Christ. I knew Christ, but there was a lot of confusion about what that looked like. I was still somewhat confused when a friend of mine said, “You gotta come to this place called Cedarville." So my wife and I packed everything up in a U-Haul, and here we came. And when I got here, for me, it was a significant change. It was just a real breath of fresh air for me.

Q: How did you grow spiritually at Cedarville?

My wife and I basically have just spiritually grown up here. This was the early 1980s, but still, at that time, Cedarville was striving to be biblically conservative, but to be culturally relevant and engage culture, not to be afraid and to separate from culture, which is what I grew up in. And I began to grow and learn about grace.

Q: How has worship at Cedarville evolved during your time here, and how have you evolved with it?

 Well, you know, when I came here, chapel was a piano and an organ and a hymn, one hymn every day, and then we would have what we called back then special music. It was that way for decades until it began to change over 20 years ago when the Student Government Association (SGA) began to use bands. Because of what was going on in our culture, churches began to shift from piano- and organ-driven music to bands with what they called the praise and worship movement. Basically, in chapel we are trying to minister to 18- to 22-year-olds. And so we try to have a musical language that is going to be a common language for that congregation here.

When we are talking about the worship culture, most people are thinking music, and I think it's dangerous to say worship equals music because what happens is we begin to worship styles and forms, and that's why music is always controversial. So I think for me, in my 40 years here, it's been an ongoing seeking and struggling to say “What does it really, truly mean to exclusively worship God and not styles and forms?" They'll change. But what is non-negotiable about worship? And so the search is to find that out.

Q: What philosophy of worship have you sought to instill in Cedarville students? What makes God-honoring worship?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “It is the voice of the church that is heard in singing together. It is not you that sings. It is the church that is singing. And you, as a member of the church, may share in its song." So we also have to take a hard look at whether the styles and forms we're using musically are helping the church sing or not helping the church sing. These choices we make either become a help to people to worship and focus centrally and completely on God or a hindrance to that. So my goal for helping the students here is to strip away the stuff that doesn't help and to press in on the stuff that does help.

There's a good passage of Scripture that talks to this where Jesus is with the woman at the well. She's a Samaritan woman. She knows that Jesus is a Jew. She recognizes Him because He knows everything about her. And she believes He is God, and the first thing she says is, “Let me go to the temple so I can worship." And Jesus says something very interesting. He says “The time is coming now when you will worship in spirit and in truth." So He's saying this is not about styles and forms and buildings. This is about truth and this is about spirit.

True worship involves three things that I can really see. It involves, if it's all that we are, intellect, emotion, and will, which would be what I would call obedience. So we need to, in our intellect, learn who God is, saying good theology of who God is. That should move us emotionally and drive us to obedience. When all three of those are aligned, I think you've worshiped.

Q: How did Cedarville’s traveling teams, specifically HeartSong, come to be?

Historically, when I came here, we had the Kingsmen Quartet, which was a male quartet, then we had the Abundant Life Singers, then we had the Swordbearers, then we had the Sounds of Joy, a ladies trio. And you know, as it is with musicians, there's going to be competition, because we had all these different styles of teams. And so I had this dream of not just having different names, but let's just have one name. They're all the same. They're worshiping God in having a unified theme that kills that competition.

Q: What impact has HeartSong had on Cedarville and beyond?

Brandon Waltz ’87 and I came up with what we call the HeartSong Way. And we say it’s the practice of centering on Jesus so we will know and live and speak the good news about Jesus. To worship exclusively, to engage others in worshiping only God, to grow together, to make Bible study and meditation and prayer priorities in our lives, to live connected, to pursue authentic community as brothers and sisters in Christ, to serve selflessly, and to enjoy anticipating and acting on the needs of others first. We want to represent well wherever we are. I think that’s part of the success of HeartSong. If we do these things well, this is going to protect the good name of Cedarville, the good name of HeartSong, and more importantly, the name of Christ. And we want to be good representatives of all three of those things.

Q: What are your hopes for HeartSong in the future?

My heart would be that we stay focused on the right things. The music’s going to change. Right now, in the church, there are some of the best hymns that have ever been written, and they’ve been written in the last 20 years. Something like “In Christ Alone." “His Mercy Is More." So I trust that God always has songwriters. He’s always had people who are expressing who Jesus is and what He’s done for us through song. And I don’t think that’s going away, because music was God’s idea. We keep forgetting that. But it must grieve God’s heart when we are fighting over how we worship Him because of certain styles and forms. So my heart moving forward with HeartSong is that they never emphasize style and form over the truth of what it means to love God only and serve Him sincerely and live obediently to Him.

Q: Reflecting on your 40 years at Cedarville, can you share a particularly transformative memory or event?

There will be lots, but I will tell you that they all have to do with students. That’s why I’m here, why I came, and why I stayed. There are so many moments where students have challenged me, loved me, wept with me, laughed with me. My passion to try to help prepare the next generation of those who will lead in music and churches has been a real joy. And there are days that I just stand and I just stop in chapel and I just turn and look at the students and weep, and I say, “God, how in the world have you let this old guy be a part of this for so long?”

Q: Any closing thoughts on worship?

Worship is not a moment in time. It's not something that you can package. Worship is as limitless as God Himself. So I hope at Cedarville, we are learning that worship is something that's intricate to all that we do and everything we say and how we love each other and how we care for each other and how we walk in obedience. That this life of worship is more important than some kind of perfect chord that we hit that makes everybody's hands go in the air and makes something mystical and magical happen in the room. And I think that's why the blend of this musical aspect and the passion to obey God in living out the Great Commission, you know, music and evangelism, music and discipleship, this all mixes together to cause us to have a life of worship. I hope that's what we're doing here. That’s what I'm trying to do.

Q: As you prepare to leave Cedarville, how do you hope to be remembered?

I don't really think about that. I kind of live in the moment. I hope it would be that I really love students. And that in my brokenness and failure I do love Jesus, even though it doesn't always come out that way because I'm broken. I hope the students know that I love Jesus and I love them.

Share This Article

Interested in Cedarville?

Request Information

Are You Looking for an Expert?

Cedarville University is known throughout the country for its faculty experts who speak into national and international topics. You can find the expert you are seeking by searching our "Media Experts Guide" for detailed profiles and contact information.

Media Experts Guide »