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How Colleges Are Specializing Training for the Next Generation of Worship Leaders

More Christian music programs are accommodating students who want to play sanctuaries rather than concert halls.
How Colleges Are Specializing Training for the Next Generation of Worship Leaders

For college students preparing for music ministry, new and evolving programs offer more options than ever.

Christian colleges, like institutions across higher ed, feel increasing pressure to offer specialty training for lucrative fields like business and science, sometimes with humanities programs taking cuts. At the same time, several major music programs are growing—in part out of a confidence that the student demand and job market is there. The church will always need writers, performers, leaders, and creators.

“We feel obligated to develop these resources,” said Michael Wilder, dean of the Conservatory of Music and Division of Arts and Communication at Wheaton College. “I think there’s a need for it, and there’s interest for sure.”

While most institutions have preserved their bachelor of arts in music or bachelor of music degrees as traditional routes for performance-oriented students, many students enrolling in those programs are also interested in worship leadership training. They may enter college with a calling to lead but without the same skills as those aspiring to become professional musicians.

When the conservatory introduced its worship arts certificate program in 2019 (a credential that can be added to another undergraduate major), faculty saw immediate interest from the students, many of whom were already participating in worship leadership in local churches or the school’s chapel programs.

Cedarville University, within its School of Music and Worship, offers separate degree tracks for “music” and “worship” students. Similarly, Colorado Christian University (CCU) has preserved its distinct majors in performance, education, composition, and worship arts.

At Cedarville, students in the worship arts program can receive private instruction tailored for someone planning to lead and perform contemporary worship music (focusing on pop-influenced vocal styles and instrumental techniques). This specialized vocational training is a draw for many students but would not prepare a student to audition for a graduate program in vocal performance at most conservatories.

Paige Senseman perceived a call to music ministry as soon as she began teaching herself to play guitar at the age of eight. Even that young, her musical training had a distinct purpose: serving the church. “I was learning to master my craft so that I could lead worship,” she said.

When Senseman applied for Cedarville’s bachelor of arts in worship program, she found herself in an audition struggling to read and sing an unfamiliar melody. “I was failing miserably at it,” said Senseman, who assumed she’d disqualified herself. Instead, the patient and encouraging faculty member who walked her through the difficult audition became her future professor.

For students like Senseman, who feel called to music ministry and desire formal training, there can be many barriers between them and traditional postsecondary music education.

What about high school students who discover they feel called to music ministry but have never taken a piano lesson or participated in band or choir? Can these passionate, self-taught musicians carve a path to full-time music ministry that includes formal training and a college degree, despite not having followed a traditional trajectory?

Increasingly, the answer is yes. Christian colleges and universities are offering new programs that are designed to accommodate and develop musicians with varied musical training.

Cedarville offers a highly ministry-oriented bachelor of arts degree in worship, while Colorado Christian University’s bachelor of music in worship arts is weighted more heavily toward traditional theory training and course work in music technology. These curricular differences will have a real impact on the students’ experience and their professional development.

Among the new emphases in these worship arts programs are internships or practicums and songwriting. Worship arts students at Cedarville, CCU, and Wheaton must all complete a practicum or internship of some kind.

“A lot of students grow up seeing worship leaders on stage that, you know … It’s a very big production and they’re writing songs that go around the world … but they’re missing a lot of the components of leading worship [for] two people or a service of fifty,” said Daniel Wakefield, director of worship arts at CCU.

Wakefield noted that leading worship can be difficult and that students training for ministry should have to encounter some of the challenges they might face later. “It’s not that I want our students to experience bad things,” he said, “but to experience real life. How do you create genuine engagement?”

At CCU, worship arts students are required to take at least one songwriting course, and earlier this year, Cedarville announced that it would be offering a minor in songwriting starting in the 2021 fall semester.

“We’re preaching through our songs as worship leaders,” said Senseman, who plans to enroll in the songwriting minor at Cedarville. “We are putting words in people’s mouths, so we need to be very, very careful how we do that.”

Cedarville also announced that Matt Papa, Dove Award–nominated singer and songwriter known for favorites like “His Mercy Is More,” would be joining the music program as an artist in residence. Papa will work with students in Cedarville’s various music programs, specifically their bachelor of arts in worship and new songwriting minor.

Cedarville’s recruitment of Matt Papa for its worship and music programs may represent a growing trend in Christian institutions of seeking out successful writers and musicians in the worship music industry to help train students hoping to serve in ministry. Worship artist Tommy Walker joined Biola University as an artist in residence in 2019. Azusa Pacific University’s Angeles Worship Initiative includes a Worship Arts Lab, which features guest lectures and events with performers and songwriters.

Experienced leaders in worship ministry, music education, and academia certainly have diverse opinions about what kind of education is most beneficial or necessary for young musicians. Advocates of the traditional conservatory model will cite the value of rigorous theory and history requirements, the development of skills like orchestration, and the mastery of challenging recital repertoire.

Defenders of music training tailored specifically for worship leaders point to practicality as well as the importance of spiritual formation. Redesigning or creating new music programs to incorporate courses in leadership and theology will yield students prepared for careers in music ministry, not music performance.

Wilder does not believe that one model or emphasis is inherently better than the other. “I want all of these Christian schools and all of our conservatories, whether they’re faith-based or not, to flourish,” he said, “and I think there’s room for them.”

Kelsey Kramer McGinnis is a musicologist, educator, and writer who covers worship for CT. She holds a PhD from the University of Iowa and has served as an adjunct professor at Liberty University.

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