One Thousand Days Transformed - The Campaign for Cedarville

by Nicholas Carrington

Robert Rhodes ’16, worship pastor of Dayton Avenue Baptist Church in Xenia, Ohio, saved a video from his senior year of college and still watches it over eight years later. As he talked about it, the chills running through his body were almost palpable. “It gets me excited about what the Lord’s going to do when He calls us all home,” he said.

It’s a video from a chapel he helped put together in his days as a worship major and chapel band leader. In it, Cedarville students, faculty, and staff sing “Revelation Song,” a tune with lyrics based on Revelation 4, but it is not the normal arrangement made popular by The Newsboys. The song is broken down into 13 languages, and an orchestra accompanies the normal chapel instruments. Roughly 15 students on stage step forward and, in their native tongue, lead the Cedarville family in worship that may preview the diversity of Heaven.

“It was one of the most incredible moments from my time at Cedarville,” Rhodes said. That kind of worship, rooted in Scripture and crafted with excellence, is what faculty in the worship major strive to inspire.

When the worship major was still a seed in the mind of Roger O’Neel, Professor and Director of Worship, he brought in 15 worship pastors to till and water the soil, to give the idea life. What sprouted in 2008 was a program focused on equipping worshipers to serve the local church, a program that took music seriously but was even more devoted to cultivating the hearts of the people who would lead others in praising their Savior.

O’Neel calls these graduates “lead worshipers.”

The process of cultivating lead worshipers begins before students are accepted into the major. The application process requires a musical audition, but also spiritual references, an essay, and an interview; the latter three are meant to give worship faculty an idea of the applicant’s spiritual condition. “We want them to have the heart of a worshiper before they get here, and while they’re here, we want them to develop that heart further,” O’Neel said.

To accomplish this goal, the curriculum is divided into three sections: music, worship, and theology. Students endeavor to become better musicians (music) and understand how to run a team of volunteers, work with church staff, and direct services (worship), but faculty also take the scriptural principles that lay the foundation for God-honoring worship seriously (theology). John Chilcote, Assistant Professor of Worship, emphasizes that what Christians sing in church “has to be doctrinally correct, theologically complex, but also tangible for the person singing it.”

So the program requires students to take 12 credits of Bible courses beyond the required Bible minor and study a theology of worship to ground them in scriptural principles. “They get a systematic look at worship, regardless of culture or style of worship, so they know there is a biblical foundation for what we’re doing,” Chilcote said.

The theological grounding changes the way students see their future work, but it also reshapes their view of worship in general. “It’s helped me understand more of what worship actually is, that it’s not just music, but it’s every aspect of our lives,” said Emily Campbell ’24, a recent graduate of the program. That understanding has allowed her to better grasp how to guide people in worship. “Everything we do in a church service is communicating something, so we need to be intentional about where we put songs and Scripture readings. The way we structure a service matters.”

While that praise comes out in multiple ways in our churches, music is a significant part of how Christians worship. The worship program may not be a music degree by definition, but it takes music education seriously. Students study contemporary voice, guitar, and piano, as well as contemporary music theory. “We look at Broadway to the Beatles to U2 in the classroom,” O’Neel said. “Contemporary music is what’s being played in our constituent churches, and to serve those churches, the musical training has to be applicable.”

Worship majors must declare a primary and secondary instrument: one must be voice and the other either guitar or piano. After each of their first two years, students have an official evaluation where faculty critique their ability with their chosen instruments. “They have to be playing their instrument at a certain level, and there are a series of criteria we have,” said O’Neel. When students fail, faculty members give them specific direction on what needs to improve before they can pass.

These evaluations are just one of the ways students prepare to lead worship after graduating. With Cedarville’s accelerated and online graduate programs in worship, Cedarville graduates and worship leaders around the globe can earn their Master of Arts in Worship and Theology or a 12-credit graduate Certificate in Worship Leadership while continuing their work and ministry. Graduate study allows students to go deeper into their theological grounding and further develop their practical worship leadership skills.

All of Cedarville's worship programs provide ample opportunity for students to get out-of-classroom experience. Chilcote estimates that about 95% of their worship students are leading or serving in worship capacities somewhere, whether on campus, in churches, or both.

Rhodes took full advantage of opportunities at the University. He sang and ran sound for the jazz band, toured with the Cedarville orchestra, and led chapel bands. The ability to learn through collaboration with other students and mentors made him feel more confident in his abilities. “Cedarville is full of incredibly talented people. I loved getting involved and learning by doing,” he explained.

Other students join one of the traveling bands: HeartSong, Resonance, or Rekindle. These groups provide worship sets for churches, camps, and events. Campbell has sung with HeartSong and Resonance and served as the choir director for All the People, a gospel choir organization on campus. “The diversity of what the Lord has given me to do has been so helpful,” she said. She recounted a time on HeartSong where an acoustic set at a Christian camp led to an unplanned and extended time of prayer among the campers and counselors. “I was in awe that the Lord allowed me to have stewardship of singing those words that people needed to hear in that moment.”

While the chances to lead on campus are numerous and beneficial, working in a church setting is different. Once worship majors get to senior year, they complete a required internship under the tutelage of a seasoned worship leader in a local church. Chilcote feels this part of the program is vital to preparing students for the church setting. “It’s essential to put into practice what we’ve talked about in the program. Cedarville has a strong worship culture, but it’s not a church worship culture,” he said. “You’ll never have volunteers and musicians the way you do here; you’ll never have systems and structures the way they are here. It’s just different.”

In the required internship, students see the three aspects of the program in action. But that experience also reinforces the greatest exhortation from their studies: to lead worship well, students must become lead worshipers.

That idea has been at the core of the worship program since the beginning, when it first started to grow from fertile soil. Now that the undergraduate major is in full bloom and graduate programs have also been added, the emphasis on being a strong worshiper remains the heartbeat.

“Music is the biggest skill you’re going to use, but it’s not going to be the foundation,” Chilcote said. “You don’t want people to be better musicians because of how you lead worship; you want people to be better worshipers.”

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