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Church performing arts ministry trains students to create symphony of praise

CORDOVA, Tenn. (BP)–A church’s 16-year commitment is reaping rewards through an amazing number of aspiring and accomplished musicians who use their abilities at church and in the community.

In 1984, Bellevue Baptist Church of Cordova, Tenn., began a performing arts center with a class to teach 12 students to play stringed instruments. By fall of the same year, the center had grown to 28 students with three teachers.

Today’s center offers classes in voice and 16 instruments. Almost 340 students and 34 teachers keep the center’s classrooms full. Both private and group lessons are offered at modest fees that pay faculty and cover some expenses.

Bellevue’s long-term investment in growing musicians has contributed to a strong music ministry of 3,200 persons, 1,850 of them in graded choirs. Instrumental groups include three marching bands, 18 ensembles and 11 handbell choirs. More than 4,100 persons participate in various choirs.

“One day, while still a young minister of music, I realized I was praying for some other minister of music to develop singers so they could send them to me,” recalled Jim Whitmire, who has served for 25 years as Bellevue’s minister of music. “I realized I needed to develop my own musicians and then send them out. It’s a two-way street. Our church has 27,000 members, and I think God will hold us accountable for the people we do not teach or at least offer to teach.

“I don’t want large numbers to discourage small churches,” Whitmire said. “The principles I use to build a music ministry work in any size church.”

The context in which numbers are important is in the wide involvement of the congregation for major music events, such as the singing Christmas tree, the Easter pageant, and a Fourth of July extravaganza.

Carter Threlkeld, minister of instrumental music for 17 years, said 800-900 persons are required for special events. Some of those serve as ushers, scene painters, seamstresses, cast, orchestra, nursery workers and hostesses.

PAC teachers, all members of Bellevue, also participate in either the orchestra or choir.

The center’s goals are to grow musicians and teach them to use their talents for ministry. For example, the bands march in the Strawberry Festival and at the Christmas parade in Memphis. Providing opportunities for students to play or sing at schools and nursing homes makes participation in the center a ministry with a mission. Threlkeld said he believes in marrying music and ministry.

The maturing of students comes in three phases — learning to walk (learning to play or sing), living out a witness (through performances in nursing homes, prisons and other community ministries), and leading in worship (becoming part of the adult choir or youth and adult orchestras).

Creatively named instrumental ensembles are closely associated with the center. For example, there are Victory Violins, High Strung (strings), Flutes of the Spirit, Fiddlers of Faith and King’s Brass, among others.

Lisa Love, string director, was in Bellevue’s choir program as a child and began teaching at the center when she was 14.

“I travel with the High Strung group,” she said. “On one trip to Nashville we were practicing outside our hotel. It was a beautiful night, and the hotel clerk came out.”

Lisa said the students saw the real reason they were in Nashville when one of the student’s mothers witnessed to the clerk who was saved that night.

“It was incredible,” she recalled.

Students at the PAC use similar accolades to describe their experiences, both in learning and in ministry opportunities.

Adrienne Littlefield, a 14-year-old who began violin studies at age 5, said she feels “really blessed to have Christian teachers and being able to play in the orchestra, being around the music leaders in our church and learning to praise God with music instead of just pleasing yourself.”

Cello player Ryan Shelton, age 15, began lessons about five years ago. Those lessons were just for cello. He also plays piano, bass, violin and trumpet.

“It’s amazing the level of teaching you get here,” he said. “You are surrounded by musicians.”

Shelton said he participates in more ministry opportunities, including mission trips, “now that I can play instruments.”

Mollie and Larry Anderson, sister and brother, attest to the value of the PAC and music ministry in their lives.

“It has helped me a lot,” said Mollie, age 14 and a flute student. “I used to be really nervous about playing in public, but now I can concentrate.”

Trips to play in nursing homes, she said, “really bless me.”

Larry, 17 and a trumpet student, said the PAC faculty “is not just teaching me trumpet, but they are teaching me Christian values.”

Marching band, street band and nursing home ensembles provide him vehicles to witness “one on one and the opportunity to see people saved,” he said. “Music opens up a lot of doors.”
A major feature on the total music ministry of Bellevue Baptist Church is in the July issue of Church Musician Today magazine, available from LifeWay Christian Resources at 1-800-458-2772.

Additional (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library. Photo titles: YOUNG CHILDREN LEARN TO PLAY, FLUTE LESSON and CARTER THRELKELD.

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  • Charles Willis