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.
At 11 a.m. on Sunday, casually dressed musicians took the stage for Highland Park United Methodist Church's contemporary service, which is known as Cornerstone. As one of the lead singers, a man dressed in jeans and a jacket, began to clap along with the music, Karla Nivens, the other lead singer, encouraged the congregation to sing with her.
The congregation, which filled almost every one of the church's stadium-style seats, accepted the invitation. Most simply stood relatively still and blended their voices with the rest of the members, but a few members joyfully raised their hands and danced with the music.
Behind Nivens, the band, which consists of both paid staff and volunteers, included two keyboardists on the left side of the stage. In the middle of the stage behind the lead vocalists, a drummer kept rhythm and shouted encouragement to the congregation throughout the songs. Toward the right side of the stage, a guitarist switched between his electric and acoustic guitars throughout the show. On the far right, a choir with singers of all ages swayed, clapped and sang along.
In case you couldn't see the stage, the auditorium had two projection screens that showed the song lyrics over live video of the performers.
During all the songs, concert-style lights flashed around the stage and into the audience, fulfilling Cornerstone's 'contemporary' description.
Some songs included impressive guitar solos, others included harmony between the lead singers and choir. In between some of the songs, the lead singer would recite scripture over soft piano or acoustic guitar, which definitely amplified the effect of the Biblical passages.
Most of the songs were covers of popular contemporary Christian songs. The most captivating were Grammy-winner Chris Tomlin's "Indescribable" and Grammy-nominee Gungor's "Beautiful Things," which was performed with beautiful harmony.
Worship leader and choir director Karla Nivens told me that the songs, which aim to emphasize the sermon's topic, are chosen on the Tuesday before the service by her and a group of the Church's staff, which includes people with different personalities, different musical tastes and different backgrounds and ages. The diversity of the group is reflected in the diversity of the music, which often covers a wide variety of genres. They try to include songs for everyone in their audience, which includes an eclectic group, from kids to older married couples to younger singles and everything in between. "It's accessible to everyone," Nivens says. "It makes a larger crowd more at home while at church."
Nivens grew up in Dallas, Texas, and, on top of singing, she can play the piano and the saxophone. After graduating from Tyler Street Christian Academy in Dallas, she graduated from Texas Tech and went on to teach elementary music for DISD. She joined the church, as well as the Cornerstone band, about ten years, and took her current full-time paid position around March of this year. Before becoming Cornerstone's lead singer, she toured with gospel singer Kirk Franklin, as well as singing back-up for various artists, including Yolanda Adams and Michael Bublé.
Highland Park United Methodist Church is one of the fastest growing churches in the nation and currently has over 15,000 members. The church, located next to SMU, offers a variety of services at various times, including the traditional Methodist service with organ and choir music, which they call "Sanctuary," and the even more traditional Cox Chapel. The contemporary band only performs at the Cornerstone services, because each service has its own music staff. Because of the variety of services, Nivens told me, sometimes entire extended families come to HPUMC together and then split up and attend different services.
Nivens informed me of the aim of the church: "Our goal, first and foremost, is to meet the needs of our congregation. We want people to be better and closer to God when they leave than when they came in."