By Kirk Sheppard
Whitewater Crossing Christian Church, located on the west side of Cincinnati near Cleves, Ohio, is doing something revolutionary with its worship.
Four years ago, the former Westwood Cheviot Church of Christ was a traditional church. Choir robes, liturgy, and classical music were the standard. Then a change in leadership occurred, and over the next few years many changes were facilitated, leading to a relocation project and the construction of a new building. Given the church’s history, perhaps the biggest change came in the area of worship. It became much more contemporary, with a band and new songs.
People said they were crazy. The new site they selected seemed to be in the middle of nowhere—a horse pasture between two mobile home parks. With 300 people and a lot of faith, the move was completed and growth happened! Two years after the churched opened its doors under a new name, Whitewater Crossing Christian Church (WCCC) was averaging 900 people in three services. Things were moving along well. And then, just as we believed we were hitting our stride, singer-songwriter Paula Stefanovich, who had been leading worship and directing our choir, announced she was leaving.
One Door Closes, Another Opens
When Paula announced she was leaving to focus on her solo career, people were sad but knew God had a plan. Senior minister David Vaughan had an idea; like many of the bold decisions the church had made over the past several years, this was new, fresh, and revolutionary in many ways.
Vaughan reached out to platinum recording artist Jaci Velasquez and asked if she would be interested in a worship artist in residence (AIR) arrangement. Thankfully, he was able to bypass Jaci’s agents, managers, handlers, and all the red tape as he introduced his vision to her. She came to visit as a guest worship leader and both WCCC and Jaci saw the arrangement as a good fit. Jaci suggested others in Nashville who might be interested in the idea.
Currently the church works with six AIRs, including local favorite Titus Chapman (former member of Christian rock band ZOEgirl), Alisa Childers (finalist on the FOX reality show, “The Next Great American Band”), Denver Bierman (of Denver and the Mile High Orchestra and formerly of the popular group FFH), Michael Boggs (a regular worship leader for Women of Faith), Michelle Swift and her saxophone playing husband Craig, and international recording artist Jaci Velasquez. Other guest worship leaders who have been featured but are unable to commit to a regular rotation include former member of NewSong, Michael O’Brien; former member of Avalon, Melissa Greene; and southern gospel tenor, John Starnes. That’s quite a lineup for a little church in the middle of nowhere!
Boots on the Ground
One key position was needed to make the vision a reality. WCCC needed a “boots on the ground” organizer. Vaughan reached out to Phil Coleman, who had filled in from time to time when Paula had been unavailable. Phil had led worship in several churches in Cincinnati and Indianapolis through the years, and his musical expertise and administrative skills merged to create a positive experience for the church and the worship artists.
Vaughn says, “Having a full-time staff person to coordinate the AIR program is essential. We are fortunate to have a humble and gifted man here to do this, which is absolutely critical to the success of this model.”
Participating worship artists travel from their homes (or previous gig if they’re on the road) on Saturday to rehearse at 3:00 p.m. with the band and vocalists for the Saturday evening service. They spend the night at a local hotel and return for the two Sunday morning services before heading home or on to the next gig.
Coleman spends the week communicating with the artists by e-mail, text, and phone, and collaborates with them and Vaughan to design the worship set around current sermon themes. A talented keyboard and piano player, Phil communicates with the vocal team (which features several church members in a regular rotation) and choir so they can maximize their limited rehearsal time with the artists.
Part of Our Family
The artists have shown humility in their service and have adopted our church family as their own in many ways. None has displayed the kinds of arrogant tendencies you might expect from people of their talent and caliber, and they’re very complimentary of our band and choir.
Jaci Velasquez, who has a strong Hispanic fanbase, has been instrumental in planting seeds for our church’s Latin Bible Study. She also attended our youth program’s “Purity Night” and spoke to the teenagers about sex and spirituality. Denver and his entire band (along with our choir) were the featured entertainment for our Christmas Dessert Theater. Many of the artists have provide encore concerts on Saturday night, where the church can get to know more about them and enjoy them in a small, intimate concert setting.
Many singers and songwriters do not have the opportunity to get involved in a local church because of their concert ministry schedules. This team model allows us to work with seasoned professionals as they are available throughout the year. They all have seasonal peaks and valleys. We’ve given them an opportunity to fill in their schedules as well as connect to a local body of Christians. Each of our worship artists considers WCCC a home church. When possible, they bring their families along. Spending time with family in worship is a rare occurrence for a traveling concert artist. It’s a win/win for them and for us!
The Best Kept Secret in Town
Because we do not want people to attend church based on personalities, the schedule of worship leaders is not announced to the congregation on a regular basis. Since each artist has a unique style, our worship stays fresh. From the Latin-influenced pop style of Jaci Velasquez, to the trumpet playing and jazz style of Denver Bierman, to the “New Country” guitar-driven style of Michael Boggs, each week is different. This keeps things interesting and lets church members who aren’t fans of certain music styles know things will be different the following week.
Vaughan says, “Our Artists in Residence program enables us to provide diversity, creativity, energy, and excellence in our worship. It keeps us from becoming personality driven—unless the person is Christ!”
As of now, the AIRs have committed to continue in 2012. Many of them coordinate their schedules well in advance, making their dates at WCCC a priority. Our choir feels honored to work with such talented musicians, as do our band and vocal teams. Church members look forward to seeing the various artists each week and have taken an interest not only in their careers, but in their families and day-to-day lives as well.
The Growth Continues
WCCC continues to grow. Four years since its reopening, average weekend worship attendance averages around 1,300 people. Unique ministries like their CARS ministry, the Latin Bible study, a Sunday school class for public safety workers, as well as a strong children’s ministry have had a profound impact on the community. Statistically, the church shows its numerical growth evenly in all demographics. There are as many 20-somethings as there are 30-somethings as there are 40-somethings as there are senior citizens—and the numbers continue to grow at the same rate. Recently, 130 people made decisions for Christ in a single weekend.
The AIR model is just one ministry within a church that is on its way to even bigger things. With Christ at the center of it all, the potential is limitless.
Kirk Sheppard is a minister and freelance writer in Harrison, Ohio.
Whitewater Crossing Christian Church is located at 5771 State Route 128, Cleves, OH 45002.
The Artful Church
Some churches are stuck in a routine approach to worship that leaves little room for the arts. But energizing your church is easier than you think. It just takes a little creativity. Here are some ways other churches have used art to honor God.
• Orchard Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan incorporates visual arts into their worship setting. During Lent one year, volunteers hung up wind chimes outside, tying each with a cloth cord to silence it. It served as a visual reminder of how Jesus withdrew to the desert, and how Lent invites us to follow Christ’s lead in preparation for Easter.
• Christ’s Church at Mason in Mason, Ohio gets kids involved in the arts through MAD (Music, Art, and Drama) Camp each summer. The camp gives kids the opportunity to learn more about Christ while getting expert training in music, visual arts, and drama.
• Mosaic, in Los Angeles, ministers through comedy with Monkey Butler, an improv comedy community. Monkey Butler hosts workshops and performances to help members hone their skills. They focus on spiritual growth and encouragement for members and the community.