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A Stage to Serve: Campus worship leaders, music students launch into careers in full-time ministry

Music is an integral part of spiritual programs on the Liberty University campus, and many of the students who lead their peers in worship have been launched into careers where they continue to share their talent and passion for music so they can unite believers and bring glory to God.

Judson Harris sings at Convocation in 2018.

Every year, over 1,200 students audition to join the Liberty Worship Collective, a group that leads the campus in worship through the Office of Spiritual Development. Of those, less than 3 percent will be selected to attend a year-long mentoring program before leading worship with the team at on-campus events and at festivals, conferences, and special services across the globe.

Current Liberty Worship Collective vocalist Judson Harris works part time for Vertical Worship at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago. Harvest has six different locations in the greater Chicago area.

Harris grew up in a ministry-focused home. He first heard about Liberty through a friend at church when he was in high school. The talented vocalist is grateful for Liberty’s influence on his life.

“Liberty has introduced me to some of the best people that I have ever met in my life,” Harris said. “I was really blessed to grow up in a Christian community back home, but there have been so many people who have converged here on this mountain and have achieved their dreams through this university. I would never trade my time here for anything.”

Harris earned his undergraduate degree from Liberty in English and is currently pursuing his M.A. in English. He said studying at Liberty has changed how he views his future.

“You come into college thinking that you have to figure everything out in four years, but it’s really not that way,” he said. “Being around all of these people at this institution has helped me realize that my dreams aren’t always concrete. The true dream is being around people who love Jesus.”

Harris has been a critical asset to the Collective while at Liberty through his leadership skills and his songwriting ability. He assisted in the Collective’s self-titled album released in 2017.

After graduation, Harris will continue to work with Liberty alumni and current Vertical Worship leaders Kyle and Lauren Smith, who were also former members of the worship team at Liberty.

“Before Kyle and I started dating, we started writing a lot of songs together,” Lauren Smith said. “It’s so cool to see how God brought us together through music and through a Christian school.”

The couple completed their undergraduate studies in Interdisciplinary Studies in 2014, but they decided to remain at Liberty in 2015 to help lead the Collective while Kyle finished his master’s degree. They married that summer.

But it was in 2013 when Lauren met Liberty alumnus and renowned songwriter and recording artist Meredith Andrews, who was invited to be a guest worship leader at Convocation. At the time, Andrews and her husband were both part of the Vertical staff at Harvest Bible Chapel.

Lauren Smith (’14) leads worship at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, Ill.

“(She) and I just briefly chatted backstage, but I really believe it was in that moment that the Lord was connecting our hearts,” Lauren Smith said. “Afterwards, Kyle and I went to lunch with (Andrews) and her husband and she told us a little bit about Harvest Bible Chapel.”

Andrews suggested that Harvest offer the young couple an opportunity to spend some time in Chicago for that coming summer, which they accepted.

“We just kind of knew that the Lord was calling us to go out there. … God gives such good gifts to His children, and He knew that Kyle and I wanted to be a part of a church that wanted to write songs for their congregation,” Lauren Smith said.

The couple eventually accepted full-time worship positions there.

“We typically stay at one of the Harvest locations for Sunday worship, but sometimes we’ll lead at one of the other (five) campuses in the area on a Sunday,” Kyle Smith said.

Liberty biblical studies alumnus Clay Finnesand was a member of the Liberty Worship Collective from 2016-17. He credits his alma mater for the influence he now has on the Christian community through leading worship and songwriting.

“I don’t think that I would be where I am today if it had not been for Liberty and the opportunities that the school afforded me during my time there,” Finnesand said.

During his sophomore year, he auditioned for one of Liberty’s traveling music teams, and after playing with the group for a year and a half, he was offered a position on the school’s new Worship Collective. In this role, he was one of the primary singers who led the student body in worship during Convocation and Campus Community.

Kyle Smith (’14) leads worship alongside his wife, Lauren, at the different campus locations of Harvest Bible Chapel.

“It’s incredible sometimes to look back at my time on the Collective and think that we were a bunch of college kids leading thousands of peers in worship,” Finnesand said. “It was quite an experience, for sure.”

Now, Finnesand travels the country as a songwriter, meeting with different churches and artists weekly to write songs as well as assisting a church in Atlanta with some of its worship services.

In 2019, Finnesand released his latest album, Springside and will be introducing fans to some new music this year. Finnesand has released two albums over the last four years as well as multiple singles.

Many students entering careers in worship ministry are trained through Liberty University’s School of Music, which not only works diligently to equip students with the skills they need but also, and more intently, prepares their hearts. The school’s Center for Music & Worship launched in 2005 and remains the largest and most comprehensive program of its kind in the world.

Senior music and worship student James Cox said that his life has been impacted by the way he has been taught to view worship ministry.

“If you are called to be on a platform leading worship, you are called to a pastoral position,” Cox said. “Some people think that worship is just the cup of tea before the sermon, but really worship is a way to prepare the heart to receive what the Holy Spirit is doing and then afterward you can respond to that.”

Cox said his professors have gone above and beyond to teach him more than just how to lead a team of musicians.

“Since beginning here, my understanding of the Gospel message in its entirety has grown exponentially,” he said. “We’re getting so many different outlooks on life, but it’s all centered on the same thing and that is the Gospel of Jesus and His personage, His character, how He is unfailing and unrelenting, and how that applies and connects to worship.”

Cox said that before he becomes a worship pastor, he will have the opportunity to gain hands-on ministry experience through the School of Music’s internship program this summer, where he will be assigned to work with a church in the U.S.

Clay Finnesand (’17) plays in a 2016 concert at Liberty University.

While Cox and many other Liberty students will be interviewing for jobs this spring, senior music and worship student Maggie Effler already has one awaiting her when she returns to her hometown of Marion, N.C., after graduation in May. She will serve as the director of music at her home church, Pleasant Gardens Baptist Church.

Effler was offered the position last summer, and Pleasant Gardens agreed to allow her to work virtually for her final year of undergraduate studies before joining them in May.

“I do all the planning, all the staff meetings, all the choir rehearsals, and the worship team rehearsals from Zoom,” Effler said.

She said her training at the School of Music has helped her understand the responsibility that comes with being in worship ministry.

“I totally believe that you can go into secular jobs and you can work to glorify the Lord and that’s what you are called to do,” she said. “But when you are working in ministry, it’s such a different angle because you are focusing specifically on bringing the congregation and the community to the Lord.”