Hope College’s Worship Team

It’s 10:30 a.m. on a crisp Monday morning. Students, fresh out of class, filter into Dimnent Chapel. The pews quickly fill, and it is only a matter of time before the first chord is played, the first voice raised in worship. Live music, performed Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. 

Chapel services, along with their Sunday night counterpart the Gathering, are such a commonly attended event on Hope’s campus that it can be easy to take it for granted. However, hours of preparation, practice, and prayer go into each performance, uniting the thirty plus faculty and students that make up Hope College’s worship team.

The process begins in the summer. To prepare for the upcoming school year, worship team members arrive on campus a week early. From there, they are divided up into three teams labeled Team X, Team Y, and Team Z. Each team has two leaders, senior members of the worship band who help coordinate practices and performances. 

Within hours of meeting each other, the teams are already rehearsing for their first performances. Not only do the musicians need to learn new music, but they’re also required to learn the “back catalog” of old favorites. As a result, this first week is filled with long hours practicing. 

In order to streamline the process, team leaders meet in advance with Bruce Benedict, Hope’s Chaplain of worship. The first order of business is deciding what songs will be rehearsed. Benedict describes this process as a chaotic brainstorm. “[In] June and July, we’ll start a big Spotify playlist,” says Benedict, “We might have 50, 100 songs on there.” From there, team leaders work with Benedict to narrow down their options. 

Quite a few things go into selecting a good song. For starters, song choices have to be tailored to the preferences and abilities of the musicians that play them. This year especially, each worship team has developed their own unique style. Team Z, led by Kylea Canada (‘24) and Tim Wageman (‘23), decided they would practice a more “modern gospel” style of music, drawing inspiration from more contemporary artists. For instance they chose to play “I’ve Got Joy” by CeCe Winans, a song from her 2021 album Believe For It. In contrast, the music of Team X is often accompanied by a string quartet, giving their music a much more classical feel. 

The Hope College worship team performs during a Christmas service, December 2022.
(Photo Credit: Hope College Worship Instagram Page) 

Emily Schwartz (‘24) leads Team Y along with Joshua Hoekstra. She describes how the sing ability of the songs factors into the decision making process. While the worship team band are all talented musicians, most members of the audience are not. Emily describes how she and Josh spend a lot of time “picking keys picking keys that the majority of the congregation can sing along in,” with the goal of including everyone in worship.

There are other considerations as well. Songs can be selected to go with what is being preached at a particular service, reflecting scriptural or thematic connections between music and message. The day of the service also plays a role. A monday performance at chapel may have a different tempo and energy than a friday performance. The Gathering is a more formal, church-like service, which requires its own style of music. However, Benedict tries to give the musicians the final say in the matter.  He always “[wants] the students to pick things that they like, that they feel like they’ll be able to do well.” 

In order to “do well,” worship team members have to practice a lot. Four performances a week equates to around one hundred and thirty services each school year, and keeping song selections varied takes work. For the band performing at chapel, rehearsals start at seven in the morning in order to finish before classes. Teams also practice from eight to ten at night the Wednesday before the Gathering. 

Those brave enough to volunteer for tech-manning the lights, gear and sound systems of the band-have to show up even earlier, at six thirty, in order to set up the stage. Once the performance goes live, the tech crew takes up a variety of other roles: controlling the lights on stage, the slides on the screen, and even mixing audio for the live stream.

However, as Emily Schwartz points out, the community aspect of the worship team helps performers get through the long rehearsals. In her words, she has “truly never met a group of people who are more committed to showing up and loving each other.” Whenever one team is playing at an event, the others are always in the front row of the crowd, singing along and showing support.

All of the hard work culminates at the last Gathering of November, when the Hope worship team records their live CD, a tradition that has been upheld since the early nineties. To prepare, each worship team chooses three to five of their new songs each year, polishing and rehearsing them for the CD release. The result is up to fifteen student lead tracks, all recorded live in Dimnent Chapel. Benedict describes it as “a huge night” for everyone involved.

As Hope heads into the spring semester, students are given more liberty to experiment and try new songs. “It’s… more of a free for all,” says Benedict. After an intense fall semester, the teams “know each other, trust each other, and know what works.” As a result, they can tackle more difficult and interesting music. Benedict stresses that nobody slacks off once the CD goes out. After all, Hope students will always be in the chapel, ready to listen at ten thirty sharp, and the worship team will always be ready to perform. 

Worship team leadership, from left to right, Tim Wageman (’23), Kylea Canada (’24), Eric Salisbury (’23), Nina Rider (’24), Emily Schwartz (’23), Josh Hoekstra (’24), Cam Sejna (’23). While leadership positions are typically held by seniors, a large graduating class this year has given some Junior members an opportunity to fill the role. (Photo Credit: Hope College Website)

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