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Youth worship bands help church sharpen discipleship, outreach

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–As recently as a generation ago, student participation in music ministry at most churches meant singing in the youth choir or playing in a bell choir. Especially gifted students might have had the rare opportunity to play piano or organ for the congregation.

At one Texas church, however, student participation in music and worship is undergoing a revolution.

When youth pastor Bill Bray arrived at Glenview Baptist Church in Fort Worth six years ago, he noticed that participation in the youth choir was lagging. Because involvement in the choir was a prerequisite for going on mission trips, many youth were missing out on ministry opportunities.

Bray saw the need for a change in the direction. Convinced that student-led worship could work to draw youth into a deeper commitment, Bray “threw together a band.”

“God provided four guys, and we had student-led worship for the first time,” Bray said.

Today, five youth praise bands are active at Glenview, comprising 40 to 50 students as instrumentalists and vocalists ranging in age from 12 to 18, or from seventh to 12th grade.

Three of the five bands lead worship each Wednesday evening for the sixth grade “Power Zone” and for the junior and senior high youth groups. The bands also take turns leading worship for the whole church, frequently on Sunday evenings, and often on Sunday mornings as well.

The youth praise band ministry has produced a CD of youth-led worship music, which has expanded their ministry to other churches and groups.

The bands frequently play at rallies, retreats, camps and Disciple Now weekends throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area. A few years ago, one of the bands, made up solely of junior high boys, helped lead worship during Youth Ministry Lab at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. Some of the bands have gone on trips to Russia, Mexico and Honduras as part of Glenview’s mission outreach to youth and the world.

Interestingly, Bray had no background in music. So, he said, “at the beginning, until we got coordinators who were musical enough, I would just feed the students songs and say, ‘Here are the chords, here are the charts, here are the CDs — learn them.’”

There were some rough patches at first, especially in the quality of the music –- and especially as the ministry grew, and more and more students — many not formally trained in music — wanted to get involved.

Bray knew God was in it when 70-plus students attended a meeting for youth interested in being in a band. Nevertheless, the ministry team must continually strike a balance between “involving as many youth as possible” and the need to “uphold a high standard of musical excellence.”

The effort has been worth it, with Bray noting that the youth bands “really involve [the students] spiritually, teaching them to lead out in worship. It forces them to be responsible in their own walks with the Lord.”

Bray maintains the spiritual emphasis by requiring every band member to participate in weekly accountability and discipleship groups in addition to their rehearsals and practices as a band once a week.

“We’ve tried to raise the bar with [the band members], and let them know that they have the responsibility to lead other students into the presence of God,” Bray said. “And to do that, they need to be in the presence of God themselves on a regular basis.”

Casey Meisinger, a junior at Lake Country Christian School, plays lead guitar, sings and is a youth band leader at Glenview. He said he agrees with the emphasis on both musical quality and spiritual growth. Participating in the youth worship band has “completely changed my view of worship,” he said. “I don’t view it now just as a way to sing and play. I view it as a way to express to God how much we love Him.”

When he started with the band, Meisinger “just wanted to play … it started as more of a musical thing. But now it is more of a spiritual thing.”

He said his band, through both the music and the emphasis on discipleship, has “gotten pretty close.”

“We’re getting to the point where we’re like family now. We all have the same goal in mind, to work together and keep our minds set on what we are doing to glorify God.”

Youth intern David Martin, now the coordinator of the praise band ministry, was one of the four members of that first youth band Bray “threw together.” Having recently married and graduated from college, Martin plans to begin studying youth and music ministry at Southwestern next fall. He credits Glenview’s pastor, Dennis Baw, a guitarist himself who had played in rock bands in his youth, for “loving youth and encouraging the music,” and for “letting the youth lead the church in worship.”

Under Baw’s leadership, Glenview was one of the first Southern Baptist churches to adopt a contemporary music, praise and worship format in the early 1980s. But he also has encouraged his ministry team to recognize the importance of the classic hymns of the faith. He wants them taught to the youth and incorporated into worship services along with contemporary praise and worship music.

At Glenview, it is common to hear “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Amazing Grace” sung by the youth group along with more recent compositions.

This mixture of old and new songs is an important connection between the generations in the church. “Our people are so thrilled when they hear the youth learning and playing the older hymns,” Baw said.

The ministry team at Glenview has found that music is a key component of any ministry that seeks to lead students to Christ.

Bray said that unchurched or unsaved “musical kids find out about our students playing and say, ‘Oh, you play guitar? Cool. So do I. I’m in a band, too. What does your band do?’ And that provides a bridge between them.”

“In today’s youth culture, music plays such a huge role…. It’s just amazing,” Martin said. “We tried to cut the bands back to playing just two Sundays a month, but our students went crazy. They said, ‘No. No. No. We need to have the bands all the time.’”

One former youth praise band member at Glenview is now the member of a Christian rock band that is signed to a major secular label. He is carrying his talents and his witness into that world.

In addition to the church praise bands, Martin himself played in a Christian band, Two Ton Fish, which had a ministry and impact beyond the church. While playing with them, Martin led one of the band’s soundmen, Justin Ray, to the Lord. Ray was killed two weeks later in the shootings at Wedgwood Baptist Church in September 1999.

Students in the bands also serve as mentors for their underclassmen in the church. Following the example of older students and with the support of youth ministers, Tiffany Hambrick, a ninth-grade student, became the first female to lead one of the youth praise bands. She has played guitar for seven years.

Just as older band members have inspired her, Tiffany sees her effect on younger students, especially girls. She said many young girls have asked her about learning to play the guitar. But she is more aware that she needs to be a spiritual example to other students.

“I want to see our group grow in Christ,” she said. “I don’t want to go up there and play guitar just to be playing guitar for people. I’ve learned that it’s not about me…. It’s about God and about helping people grow in Him.”

Baw, who calls Tiffany “a tremendous young lady” and half-jokingly said she plays guitar better than he does, is enthusiastic about the discipleship he sees the youth bands developing.

“We have tons of young people who are surrendering to fulltime Christian service,” the pastor said. “They are real about the spiritual quality. It’s not hype. Sometimes I will stop by on Sunday afternoon when they are practicing, and they won’t be singing or playing at all. They’ll be on their knees, praying.”

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  • Marc Rogers