Behind the Scenes of the Storied A Capella Offerings of The Hills Church of Christ
Dallas is home to one of the richest religious music scenes in the country. Over the summer, we'll be attending services, both big and small, of many denominations, as well talking to musicians , directors and pastors.
The Hills Church of Christ's 8:30 a.m. service is now their only a cappella worship service -- there are also six instrumental services now. But before they added those, The Hills main camps in North Richland Hills was the largest of the nation's 13,000 a cappella-only Churches of Christ.
With the lyrics on the big screen over the stage, the church sings classic hymns like "Holy, Holy, Holy" and "Blessed Assurance." It's one of the few a capella services in the area. "We do the a capella services well," Lead Worship Minister Ryan Christian noted. "It's vibrant, so they still love coming to attend that."
The Hills only offered a cappella services until six years ago. They began offering instrumental services hoping to attract new members, to the disappointment and disapproval of some of the more traditional members of the Churches of Christ. But their risk seems to have paid off: the instrumental services are more popular, especially among new members, and attract a more diverse congregation. The 11 a.m. service at the North Richland Hills campus even has a Spanish translator.
The a cappella services are led by one of the church's three twelve-member praise teams, which rotate each week. During every third week, when one's group is scheduled to perform, the members meet for about two hours on Wednesday night and then on Sunday morning for about two and a half hours, including the service time.
The Hills has only four full time worship ministers: Christian and Epps are in charge of the North Richland Hills campus, and then the Southlake and West Fort Worth campuses both have their own music directors. While it isn't required, all of the a cappella vocalists and all but three of the instrumental team are members of the church.
The church's main campus has a two-story lobby that includes a coffee shop, a gift shop, a kid's playground and TVs with video of the service. The attire of the congregation seems to match the music of the service; the a cappella service is a little more formal, with a good deal of suits and ties, whereas the instrumental services include more jeans. The Hills attracts about 5,000 total weekly attendees to its various campuses and services, with more than a thousand attending the single a cappella service.
Lead worship minister Ryan Christian has seen The Hills' music program grow and evolve. Christian, who began working with the church full-time sixteen years ago, is the church's first ever full-time paid music employee. Christian has been involved with their music since he joined twenty years ago; he was on of the 'praise teams,' as the twelve-member ensembles of vocalists are called. The music program consisted of all volunteers until Minister Atchley reached out to Christian about joining full-time. At the time, Christian was working at a local bank and, initially, was very reluctant. However, after helping out part time for a few months and praying with his wife, Christian quit his job with the bank and joined The Hills.
Growing up in Lubbock, Christian was more interested in sports than music, and even played basketball for a year at Abilene Christian University. Not only did he have a late start, the accounting major was never involved with the actual music program at ACU. Still, during his time at ACU, he sang with an a cappella group that toured churches throughout the year, even performing in Eastern Europe at one point. He's even won two International Chorus Championships gold medals as a baritone for the Dallas-based men's chorus The Vocal Majority.
So while the more contemporary instrumental services are more popular, Christian's background was much more experienced in a cappella music. In fact, Christian didn't know how to play any instruments until six years ago when they added the new worship band. Since then, he's learned how to play the acoustic guitar and piano.
Another full-time paid staff member, Jeremy Epps leads the instrumental services with Christian. Before The Hills hired him almost six years ago when they were adding the instrumental services, Epps worked at a recruiting firm in Dallas. Epps has played music since he was a teenager and began leading worship services while attending Abilene Christian University.
John Ward, a 28 year-old part-time paid staff member, is in charge of the high school arts and worship ministry. Ward, who formerly went by John Spengler, has been playing in bands since he was in junior high. The former front-man of It is Well has played in various venues around the area, including the (now-closed) Gypsy Tea Room in Deep Ellum.
While he's only been with the church for about two years, Ward appreciates the church's diverse music and congregation. He's worked with other churches, but he especially loves that The Hills has "the strengths of the heritage and wisdom of an older generation mixed with the energy and vivaciousness of youth." He largely attributes that to the fact that they "run the gamut stylistically," offering the more traditional a cappella service as well as the more contemporary instrumental services, which, he says, "is similar to what you would hear at a music festival or anything else we as a culture listen to. We're in the same world around the same people as everybody else. The intent is the obvious difference, but stylistically anything from M83 to the Civil Wars is fair game."
"Our church sings out, sings passionately," Christian told me. "There is a unifying factor that all together we're worshipping God and we're seeking Him together."
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