Stacey Gleddiesmith became the Director of Columbia’s Worship Arts program in 2014. She’s known for her theological depth, her musical talent & skill, her artistic sensibility, and her love for her students. We sat down with Stacey to hear more of her story, why she continues to love her role at Columbia, and her convictions about the critical place of worship in the Church.
How did you first become passionate about worship arts?
I’ve always been attentive to the worship of the church, even when I was a child. It was a calling God put on me when I was quite young, but I didn’t recognize it or start pursuing it until later.
When I was 8 or 9, my church was discussing whether or not kids should be welcome at the Lord’s Supper. My parents asked me what I thought, and I made a smart aleck comment: “Oh yeah, I’m always hungry at that point in the service, and it would be good to have a little snack.” My parents were annoyed with me for not taking the question seriously. I remember realizing it was a more serious thing than I had contemplated, so I thought for a while and then said to my parents, “If I’m following Jesus too, I don’t know why I can’t be a part of his meal. I’m pretty sure He invited me.”
So even at that age, I was contemplating things like the significance of the Lord’s Supper. Not that I was such an amazing kid, but looking back I can see that it’s always been a way that I’m wired.
It wasn’t until I was studying at Trinity Western University that I had official worship-leading responsibilities. In my fourth year, I was put in charge of Sunday Night Alive, which is similar to what we call Vespers here at Columbia. It’s a one-hour service, completely student-led, student-attended.
I was excited about that opportunity. The first time I led, I thought, “This is great, I’m just going to choose all my favourite songs.” I’d never been able to do that before. So we led them, and it went OK. But I knew there was something missing. It wasn’t a service that moved in any real direction – it just circled.
That year of leading Sunday Night Alive had a big impact on me in terms of prompting questions like, “What is worship? What does it mean when we gather? How do we lead that in a way that walks in step with the Spirit?” That’s where a deeper passion and call was sparked in me.
Where does music fit into all that?
My parents are very musical and my family sang all the time. My mother is famous for her car songs. We did a lot of backpacking as a family, and we would sing as we hiked to keep the bears away.
When I was 4, my mom put me in Suzuki piano lessons and I took piano lessons right through Grade 12 in school. When I went to TWU, I took voice lessons and was in choir and vocal ensemble as well as being on a chapel worship team.
At what point did you decide to focus on worship arts as your primary vocation?
That journey took a while! After I graduated from TWU, one of my three part-time jobs was my first-ever music director position with a local church. It was a challenging time for me to start because they had just cancelled their traditional service, so I landed right in the middle of a worship debate. I’m grateful for how gracious that church was toward me.
As I was working there, I realized I needed to know more about the technical side of the music industry, so I ended up completing an audio engineering certificate. Then I began to pursue ethnomusicology. I worked with a mission organization in a recording studio in Ethiopia. We recorded and broadcast Somali music as a way of encouraging the tiny beleaguered population of Christians in Somalia.
When I came back to BC, I started a band, hoping to pursue a career as a musician. But we kept losing drummers. Feeling frustrated, and not sure where my life was headed, I happened to attend a local worship conference. In the prayer room at the conference, the woman who prayed over me said, “This passion for seeing worship done rightly in the church seems to be significant for you – maybe you need to explore that.” That was a turning point for me.
I started looking into graduate programs in Christian worship, but quickly became frustrated when I realized that every graduate degree in worship arts focused almost exclusively on church music. That wasn’t what I wanted; I wanted to get at some of the deeper threads. I wanted to understand Scripture: why it’s important for us to gather as a church and what that gathering accomplishes.
I ended up attending Regent College and completing a Master of Divinity with a concentration in Christianity & the Arts. I tailored my own program by focusing as many assignments as possible on the theology and history of worship.
What drew you to the role of Worship Arts Program Director at Columbia?
It was the program itself that drew me.
When you look at undergrad programs in worship arts, like the graduate programs I researched, they are almost exclusively church music programs. Columbia Bible College was a little different. It fit my skill set really well. I can’t think of another program in Western Canada where I could teach deep theology of worship: digging into the full narrative of Scripture, into how God moves and how we respond (which is the most basic definition of worship), into the purpose of gathering as believers. At the same time, I’m able to teach pastoral theology and practice, the practical skills a worship leader needs – to plan and run a worship service, to gather volunteers.
All too often we think of the worship leader as a ‘music person,’ but the reality is that you’re serving in a pastoral role whether it’s called that or not. So we help students understand what that means, and to understand themselves as a pastor. I also have the opportunity to work in various other art forms, and to teach students to understand how different art forms can help us understand God, ourselves, and our world.
Why is it vital for students to be equipped in the area of worship? What are some of the deep needs you observe in the church when it comes to worship?
It’s common for us to approach the gathered worship of the church flippantly. We approach the sermon with deep seriousness and attention, but we tend to think of everything else in the service like the decorations on a cake—it just makes things look pretty. When we do this, we miss what Scripture actually teaches us about worship.
I’ve come to understand the gathered worship of the church as the primary location of discipleship and formation for the community and for individuals. And yet, we don’t take that seriously. As long as you can strum a guitar and sing, you’re thrown up front as a worship leader. Quite often, churches approach finding a worship leader with a certain amount of desperation, and we often feel we don’t have the right to expect much training (because we often don’t place our money behind these roles).
Yet we’re entrusting our formation and the formation of the community to this person. I think we’re in peril when we don’t have worship leaders who are theologically informed and practically trained.
It excites me that our program helps students understand the biblical definition of gathered worship. They gain a really solid theological foundation that they can then apply practically in a church context.
What kind of difference can it make to a congregation when worship leaders are leading this way? How does this influence the life of a church?
I tend to think in terms of “cultural liturgies” – the term used by James K Smith (author of Love is a Habit). Cultural liturgies are patterns in our culture that are working to shape us. Sometimes a cultural goal is aligned with the Kingdom of God, but more often they’re shaping us away from that. This is what the apostle Paul is talking about in Romans 12:1-2.
Sometimes a church leadership team gets excited about a new vision they want to move toward as a church. But the congregation is sometimes locked into patterns of worship that keep them from moving toward that vision.
What I try to do with my students is to help them recognize when cultural patterns are entering the church. Sometimes when there’s a congregation that’s struggling to move towards a vision, it’s because we’re actually trying to worship two gods at once. We’re trying to have the goal that our culture teaches us to seek after, alongside the goal of the Kingdom.
For example, one of the highest goals that our culture teaches us to pursue is self-actualization. If I get everything I need and want, I’ll be happy and fulfilled. Clearly that goes against the other-centered Kingdom. A lot of the style battles in our churches are actually about personal preference – I want the music I want, the way I want it. That’s an indication we’ve been shaped by our culture. We’ve warped worship to be about “What am I getting out of this? How am I being fed?”
Instead, we can look around and say, “How is this growing us together?” So if a song comes up and it’s not my favourite, but I look over at Mrs. Wiebe in the next row and remember that it’s her favourite hymn because it was sung at her wedding—I can take joy in her joy.
We need patterns that constantly move us away from that self-orientation. What I’ve seen is that when we pay attention to our patterns and how they are shaping us, we can ensure that we are shaped toward the Kingdom of God: towardcommunity, simplicity, peace-building, generosity. Those are the qualities that can grow in congregations where this kind of worship-leading is taking place.