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Bryant Malone leads "Something' 'Bout Sunday Morning" alongside fellow Worship Leader Institute students | Photos by Erik Tryggestad

Keeping it a cappella

A weeklong workshop at the historic Madison Church of Christ isn't just a tool for song leaders, organizers say. It's a means of reinvigorating voices-only worship.

MADISON, Tenn. —Yes, Keith Lancaster knows about the decline of Churches of Christ in the U.S. He’s read the stories and seen the numbers. 

And he’s visited more than a few dying congregations.

“Too many of them on Sunday morning feel like a funeral service,” he said. “And yes, Jesus died, but there’s more to the Gospel story: 1 Corinthians 15!”

In the midst of the decline, some Churches of Christ have added instruments to their Sunday services, moving away from the fellowship’s long-held practice of a cappella worship. 

Keith Lancaster leads singing at the Worship Leader Institute.

But Lancaster, a worship leader, recording artist and founder of Acappella Ministries, sees voices-only worship as “a neglected part of our turnaround.”

Churches need “vibrant, meaningful — can I use the word contagious? — contagious worship that makes you want to be a part, to want to sing,” he said. “The No. 1 job of the song leader should be to draw everyone into participation.

“And if we do that and we do it well, I think our churches would not be on the decline, and I don’t think people would be considering going to the instrument as a silver bullet of church growth.”

Churches need “vibrant, meaningful — can I use the word contagious? — contagious worship that makes you want to be a part, to want to sing.”

Lancaster and a class of 90 men gathered just north of Nashville recently for intensive training on everything from breath control to Bible study. 

The Worship Leader Institute, a weeklong program taught by nearly a dozen musicians and theologians and even a speech pathologist, seeks to give the students what Lancaster called a “comprehensive a cappella worship education.”

Or, as Bryant Malone put it, boot camp for song leaders.

“We had 12 hours of classes per day!” said the music minister for the Southside Church of Christ in Rogersville, Ala. But the long days were rewarding, he added, as was the camaraderie he built with his fellow ministers, who gave each other honest feedback.

“You’re not really going to get that at home,” Malone said.


The workshop took place just off Ira North Memorial Boulevard, a recently renamed swath of Gallatin Pike, in the meeting place of the Madison Church of Christ. 

Ira North Memorial Boulevard was created in 2017 by a Tennessee State Senate resolution.

Ira North Memorial Boulevard was created in 2017 by a Tennessee State Senate resolution.

In its early 1980s heyday, when the dynamic, red-jacket-wearing North preached for the church, its membership topped 5,100 souls. 

Nearly four decades later — after years of neighborhood gentrification, a church plant or two and a few disagreements — about 800 worship with the 85-year-old congregation. 

But the auditorium’s lower level was packed on the Sunday when the Worship Leader Institute was in town. Lancaster’s son, Anthony, the Madison church’s worship minister, led a contemporary hymn, “Behold Our God.” Church members poured from the pews, responding to the invitation. Ministers and elders knelt with them in prayer.


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Anthony Lancaster leads “Behold Our God” during Sunday worship at the Madison Church of Christ in Tennessee. This week the church hosts about 90 men from around the world during the Worship Leader Institute sponsored by Acappella Ministries #christianchronicle #madisontennessee #madisonchurchofchrist #acappella #worshipleaderinthemaking #worshipleaderinstitute

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Then the institute’s teachers and students gathered on stage as Malone led the soulful “Somethin’ ‘Bout Sunday Morning,” written by his brother, Jerome.  (Shown here in a video from a previous Worship Leader Institute.)


After worship, the students were in classes by 1 p.m. In the church’s small chapel, some reviewed hard-to-lead spots in new hymns. Others listened to Carlus Gupton, a ministry professor from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., as he taught about the DiSC profile system to help identify their behavioral differences and strengths.


In the church’s foyer, a broad circle of students counted off “one, two, three, four” as Gyula Cseszkó discussed song-leading technique. 

There’s more to it than just waving your hand, said Cseszkó, conductor of the Ballarat Symphony Orchestra in Australia. The movements must be precise, and different time signatures require different patterns. 

Students at the Worship Leader Institute practice keeping time under the watchful eyes of professional orchestra conductor Gyula Cseszkó.

Students at the Worship Leader Institute practice keeping time under the watchful eyes of professional orchestra conductor Gyula Cseszkó.

Cseszkó, known as “Jules,” worships with the Southeast Church of Christ in Melbourne. He attended his first Worship Leader Institute about 10 years ago, when there was a smaller group of students, and said the experience was life-changing. 

Now, “this thing is a juggernaut,” he said, “and I feel blessed to be a part of the effort to revive the culture of a cappella singing in our brotherhood.”


During the afternoon, small groups of students met with Keith Lancaster and his wife, Sharon, to get to know each other and share dreams for their congregations.

“We sing to have a connection with God and a connection with each other.”

“I’ve seen such growth and change in these men,” Sharon Lancaster said. “They accumulate all these tools to use that they really didn’t have before … a toolbox of skills.

“It really means a lot to me when we go to their congregations, and we see that it’s changed them.”

She keeps a list of the students and prays for them by name.

“I tell them, ‘You don’t get off my list until you pass away,’” she said.


The classes continued throughout the week. Students learned about voice care from Melissa Kirby, a speech-language pathologist who sings with the a cappella Zoe Group. They worked with music professors including Mike Rogers of Abilene Christian University and appeared in videos filmed by the Lancasters’ daughter, Melissa, of Durant Studios.

They also participated in a “flash mob” at the Rivergate Chick-fil-A, an annual tradition in which they disperse throughout the restaurant before collectively breaking into song. This year’s selection was “Lean on Me.”

Malone, who is used to leading singing for predominantly black congregations, said he enjoyed swapping notes with his brethren from predominantly white churches. 

He appreciated the focus on detailed worship planning and shared his thoughts on spontaneous, emotion-driven worship. One takeaway from the institute, he said, is a desire to integrate the worship styles — and the worshipers.

Related: Flash mob of worship leaders breaks out in Chick-fil-A

If song leaders “do what God really wants us to do, we connect with them, help them make it through their struggles, help them through their faith,” Malone said. “We sing to have a connection with God and a connection with each other.”


The students left with homework.

Every year, Keith Lancaster encourages the students to commit to a yearlong service project. Some choose to initiate cross-cultural, multiethnic (and sometimes multilingual) worship services, bringing black, white and Latino believers together to join their voices and share their lives.

Other students commit to spread their love of a cappella to the next generation, launching Sunday school classes for children and teaching them to read music using “shape notes,” a method many Churches of Christ haven’t used since the mid-1900s.

John Lim

The institute’s students range in age from teenage to golden years. One of this year’s participants was John Lim, a junior at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., who grew up in the Pasir Panjang Church of Christ in Singapore.

The workshop was a lot more than “How to Lead Songs on Sunday 101,” Lim said. In addition to technique, he learned to appreciate “a fuller theology of worship” and “a fuller theology of worship leading.” 

“Often I hear that the reason we sing is because Scripture commands it; it’s a rule we need to keep,” Lim said. “If that’s as far as our worship theology goes, then, of course, our churches seem lifeless and our song leaders unenthusiastic. Of course Christians come to Sunday assemblies lethargic and leave relieved that it’s over. 

“That’s why the ‘worship wars’ happened — and are still happening — because we believe that worship is a set of dos and don’ts.”

Worship isn’t merely a rule, Lim said. Instead, it is “entering the sacred presence of the Lord and falling flat on our faces before him when we behold his surpassing magnificence.” 

That’s a lesson Keith Lancaster hopes more song leaders will learn. 

Universities associated with Churches of Christ, including Harding, offer multiple degrees in Bible and ministry. Many churches require their preachers to earn such a degree.

“But we don’t do nearly enough to encourage our song leaders, those who plan and lead worship, to attain professional training,” he said. And worship “is as important as anything we do. Of course, it’s an everlasting blessing that we’re going to get to worship forever — and sing.”

Filed under: a cappella Acappella Ministries Church of Christ Churches of Christ Keith Lancaster leading singing National News The Acappella Company Top Stories worship Worship Leader Institute

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