A cry for meaningful worship

Where are our talented musicians hiding?

Nigel Sumerlin

One of the greatest experiences I was blessed to receive from Monterey Bay Academy was playing bass for the praise team, which was led by our multitalented religion teacher Daniel Gregory. Pastor Gregory was especially gifted at finding and organizing talent to create a smooth, high-quality worship program. We practiced for two hours, two or three times each week, intensely working through each song, down to every intro, bridge, close and transition. When we performed, the effort we put into the music was obvious in the quality of the performance. We felt pride when we put our instruments down and filed off the stage. We had put hours of effort and attention into creating something of quality that we could offer to those in the pews and to God.

Fourteen months later I stepped onto campus here at Union College, ready to see what varieties of music and worship a Seventh-day Adventist collegiate environment had to offer. I was disappointed to find lackluster praise bands thrown together at the last minute, playing mainly contemporary Christian music that was simple and mundane. Coming to a college with twice the number of students and twice the talent of my former high school, I expected to see multiple praise bands creating powerful, high-quality music to offer to God. Instead, I found hastily assembled groups of talented people going through the motions, performing the same old songs without spirit or soul.

I soon discovered that there is by no means a lack of talent on campus. There are brilliant guitarists, powerful vocalists and skilled drummers creating music in the safety of their dorm rooms, the church basement and Engel Hall. But I rarely saw that talent organized on the College View Church (CVC) stage. Yes, college is greedy with our personal time, but we can make time for what we feel is important. The problem with worship on campus lies not with an absence of talent, but with misplaced priorities.

Worship is an essential component of a Christian community. We are brought together to socialize, to praise and to pray. Friday nights and Saturday mornings are times where we are allowed to stop being students and be nothing but members of an Adventist Community. Music is one of the most valuable aspects of this experience, as it has been since our faith was founded 2,000 years ago. We stand and combine our voices to lift up praise that will travel far higher than the roof of the sanctuary.

But what happens when we feel no desire to stand together or join our voices with those on stage? What happens when the music stops reaching our hearts and we are left bored and complacent?

“I don’t want to go to vespers to get tired of vespers, I want to go to vespers to be reenergized and reaffirm my love for my Lord and the Sabbath,” says AJ Valcin, a four-year senior at Union College. “There are 800-900 students here, and if we’re barely cracking 30 percent for vespers attendance we are doing something wrong. People are willing to skip out on vespers many a time because they are more or less expecting the same thing.”

A lack of energy in the first 15 minutes of a worship program may cause students to either check out, or not attend at all. Quality music not only reaches further into peoples hearts, but creates a desire to be an active participant.

Although no school or church is perfect, not all colleges in the Adventist community suffer the same affliction as we have. Olivia Chavez, a transfer student, stated “Worships at La Sierra were definitely something that was worked hard on to perfect. The quality of the music was always high, and you could tell that the groups spent a lot of time and energy into making each worship piece unique and different from the regular song that it was. If it was ever thrown together last minute, there was no way that you could tell.”

Chavez went on to tell me “The atmosphere of worship at Union . . . seems a little dead,” a sentiment that I’ve heard expressed by Union students in a number of casual conversations. “Honestly though,” Olivia continued, “it’s not something that I am driven to be a part of. It’s nothing special or unique, and it doesn't seem like worship is super important at Union. Even though they have lots of worship opportunities, none are special or spectacular.”

Although praise music with a high production value is impressive and capable of creating a powerful worship experience, Chavez also revealed a negative consequence that can result from creating music with stringent standards. “I think doing worship, especially the music, was a really sought after thing. I wanted to participate in it lots of times but never got the chance. I think people viewed it as a real privilege to be able to perform in the worship services, but like I stated before, only a select group of people did it the most.”

At Union College, we are a family. This comes not only from having only 900 students enrolled, but also from the warm and welcoming atmosphere that is cultivated within these few city blocks.

Candace Tyler, a transfer student from Southern Adventist University, expressed that she is thankful for the worship culture at Union, saying, “One advantage of attending a smaller school is that I have had the chance to be on praise team. Although Union does have some incredible musicians, lucky for me, you don't necessarily have to be one in order to help lead out.”

By making the stage open for all who desire to praise God through music, we have created a special environment that is unique among many Adventist colleges. As a family, students at Union should not be intimidated to share on-stage their love for God and their Christian experience. We are fortunate to study and worship at a school where there is no barrier between the pews and the stage.

Nonetheless, the music we create should be the best we have to offer. We owe our energy and time not only to God, but also to the students we are leading in praise. Each note we play is an offering to God and expresses to our community and the world how much we are invested in what we bring to Him. Valcin accurately said to me, “We can’t just practice together one night and call it good. Adequate preparation translates into a quality program.”

This is not a problem revolving around Campus Ministries or ASB. The solution will come from the multitudes of talented individuals on campus seeing a hole and taking the steps to fix it. The many student-led Sabbath School programs are an example of the dynamic and open environment we have on campus for students who are willing to take change into their own hands. This article is not a critique — it’s a call to action.

Nigel is a freshman pursuing a double major in history and psychology.