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Diversity of styles, Baptist-written songs priorities for convention music director

James Cheesman, worship pastor of First Baptist Church Farmersville, Texas, served as music director at this year's SBC meeting. Baptist Press photo

NASHVILLE (BP) – Though the crowd at the 2023 SBC Annual Meeting was much larger than a typical Sunday service at First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas, Convention Music Director James Cheesman said leading this year’s worship was an opportunity he didn’t want to miss.

“It was really awesome. It was an amazing experience,” said Cheesman, who has served as the worship pastor at FBC Farmersville, a church of a few hundred members, for eight years.

“I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity. God answered so many prayers. Above all, it’s an opportunity for Southern Baptists to come together to worship and lift up the name of Jesus.”

A choir made up of singers from Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and FBC Farmersville helped lead worship at the 2023 SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Baptist Press photo

Cheesman led a diverse group of musicians from all around the country including the combined choirs of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and FBC Farmersville.

“It was a lot of work getting ready for it, but in the end, it was all worth it,” Cheesman said. “It was an experience I will never forget.”

Cheesman was first approached by Bart Barber, SBC president and pastor of FBC Farmersville, about being the convention’s music director even before Barber’s election at the 2022 meeting.

When Barber was elected on Tuesday of that meeting, a late phone call to Cheesman from an IHOP in Anaheim finalized the decision for him to lead the next year.

Barber submitted Cheesman’s name to the SBC’s Committee on Order of Business, and messengers later approved the nomination.

Cheesman said he immediately began getting congratulatory texts and phone calls.

Some of his first phone calls were to the previous year’s worship leaders. Eventually, Cheesman said he finalized a list of core values he had in mind when preparing for the next year’s meeting.  

Those core values included:

  • Showing the unity and diversity of the SBC
  • Celebrating the diversity of worship styles within the Convention
  • Featuring many songs written by Baptist artists/hymnwriters
  • Including multiple extended times of reading Scripture during worship

Cheesman tackled the first value by selecting a diverse group of singers and musicians. Around 8-10 different churches were represented on the full team.

Once the team was assembled, Cheesman began working on the songs, musical styles and arrangements to be used by the team.

“What I wanted to do was pick well-known songs, but in a diversity of styles including New Orleans jazz, gospel, bluegrass and contemporary,” Cheesman said.

Some of the songs written by Baptists selected were “Victory in Jesus,” “Total Praise,” “How Great is Our God,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name” and “Wherever He Leads I’ll Go.”

An extended time of Scripture reading was also included with each worship set.

Two other highlights for Cheesman were performing an original worship song of his own titled “Do Not Grow Weary” as the final song of the Convention and partnering with the International Mission Board to create a video of IMB missionaries collectively singing a pre-recorded song played during a set.

Cheesman said his approach was partially inspired by his time at Southwestern Seminary, where he earned a degree and where he serves as an adjunct professor.

“Those core values, particularly Scripture-guided worship and the importance of congregational participation in singing, those are huge values at Southwestern,” he said.

“I think the students definitely grab ahold of that vision and are seeing the importance of that philosophy. “

As the dust has settled a few weeks after the meeting, Cheesman said he is thankful for the support from Barber, the convention worship team and FBC Farmersville.

Although he is appreciative of the praise he has received, he added, “I don’t think we’re called to pursue any platform.”

“For me, my calling was never to be a big name or pursue any size of church, it was just to serve the Lord faithfully.”