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Singer-songwriter’s honesty kindles worship, standing ovation in chap

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Standing ovations are always given for a reason but rarely do they have as many different reasons as the one given at the end of chapel Nov. 20 at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Part of the ovation was gratitude from the people at the chapel for being led into the presence of God in worship. Part of the ovation was for the man who had led them there. Part of the applause was for his testimony about how God had helped him overcome homosexuality. Part of the ovation was for those and from those who felt freed from the “unspeakable” sins with which they struggle. But all of the applause was to the glory of God, who had worked in miraculous ways to make that moment possible.
Dennis Jernigan, Christian singer and songwriter, in testimony and song bared his heart to the 1,100 people in Truett Auditorium, and as they stood and applauded, he was overwhelmed to tears by their expression of love and support for his worship ministry that has often been criticized by other Christians.
“It was a feeling of being overwhelmed by acceptance and by God’s love,” said Jernigan, who said he came to Southwestern not knowing how he would be received but with just one purpose: to help people become aware that “God is here, he’ll understand and he’ll meet you right where you are.”
Jernigan’s pastor, Chuck Angel, said he saw the chapel “as a great day of hope.”
Angel, pastor of New Community Church in Muskogee, Okla., said the seminary students in the chapel service represented a generation of Southern Baptists who are “cultivating a life of intimacy with the Lord and a passion to know him and openly express love for him.”
Angel added because Southern Baptists have a foundation of truth and a legacy of Bible study, evangelism and missions, they represent a great hope for the future if they are able to combine what they have with “deeper expressions of knowing the Lord.”
“We’re not forsaking what’s gone before but building on what’s gone before,” Angel said.
Jernigan, a lifelong Baptist who said he rarely gets invitations to minister at Baptist churches, described the chapel as important to him because it demonstrated that he was “accepted by those who are a part of his heritage.”
Jernigan began the hour-long chapel leading the audience in worship with the words of the songs projected on a screen for those unfamiliar with his music. Any doubts about how he would be received were quickly erased as the people stood and sang “You Are My All in All” and “When the Night is Falling.”
When the people sang the words, “With our hands lifted high to the sky and the world wonders why, we’ll just tell them we’re loving our King,” nearly every hand in the chapel was raised to God.
After singing “You Are My Glory” as an expression of God’s heart to the people, Jernigan shared his personal road to redemption. He recalled always being gifted musically and sensitive to the needs of others. He also recalled being teased as a “sissy” and struggling with homosexuality as a child. After hearing some people from his church and other Christians talk about how they wanted to “ship all the queers out of the country” or do worse to them, he was afraid to ask anyone in his church for help.
Later while a student at Oklahoma Baptist University, he confided his feelings to a Christian man because he thought the man, who was married and had children, could help, only to be taken advantage of sexually by the man. He said he tried to commit suicide but the fear of eternity away from God stopped him from carrying out his plans.
He began to live the homosexual lifestyle “to the fullest,” even while doing promotional work for the school. He applied to Southwestern and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1981 thinking that while there God could change his life. “I didn’t know what else to do,” he said.
Jernigan recounted that a friend said he had dreamed that he, Jernigan and another friend were in the music ministry together. The friend said his mother had had the same dream. Instead of seminary, Jernigan went to live in Oklahoma City with his friend’s family.
While there, he attended a Second Chapter of Acts concert where one of the singers confronted those in the crowd who were hiding what they believed to be unspeakable sins. She told them during the next song to lift those sins to the Lord. Jernigan said he did and in a moment he knew he had been changed.
In the days that followed, Jernigan sang through the Psalms and began to express his prayers as songs to God. As people heard these songs, they felt “as if they were hearing things they felt deep inside but had never been able to verbally express,” Jernigan said.
Eventually Jernigan and his wife, Melinda, who he married in 1983, began Shepherd’s Heart Music as a way to make the music available to others. He still describes his music as his heartfelt expressions of love to God.
Jernigan said the past 17 years have been a continuous journey with God, but one thing that has helped him is knowing verses like Zephaniah 3:17 that speak of God’s delighting in his people and singing over them with joy.
After sharing his testimony, Jernigan challenged the chapel audience to do what he did 17 years ago — to turn their unspeakable sin over to God. Nearly half the audience, some with hands raised and some with tears, stood as Jernigan sang a song of commitment.
Jernigan ended the service by leading the audience in a soon-to-be-released song, “This Is My Destiny,” and in “When the Night is Falling.” And though the ovation, which would have continued had Jernigan not stopped it, expressed how much the people appreciated his ministry, Jernigan said he felt “a major blessing of God’s presence in the corporate worship of the people at Southwestern.”
“Dennis is not a worship leader,” Angel said. “He is a lead worshiper. Dennis is not a cheerleader for God. He simply worships and trusts God to call the hearts of those present into worship along with him.”

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  • Matt Sanders