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.
Inside and outside, Downtown Dallas' Fellowship Church campus is very modern. It has almost no religious imagery, looking more like a concert venue than a typical church. The Beach Boys were playing over the PA in the lobby. The stage was decorated for the current theme of the sermons, "Riding Giants," with surfboards and a lifeguard stand on the stage and colorful images of waves and beaches on the big screens.
At the 11:30 service on Sunday, June 23, 2013, the downtown band of mostly volunteers included multiple vocalists, a bassist, electric and acoustic guitarists, a drummer, a pianist, people playing the hand drums and a ukulele. They played covers of popular Christian songs, including some by the famous Hillsong Church in Australia, as well as covers of popular songs like Imagine Dragons' "On Top of the World." With the lyrics on the screen, some of the audience put their hands up and swayed with the music while most simply sang along with the high-energy band.
The band members, who appeared to mostly be in their late teens or twenties, also performed some of Fellowship's original songs, which "Worship Leader" Derric Bonnot says were almost all inspired by stories of their church members.
22-year-old guitarist Blake Sjerven alternates weekly between performing at the downtown campus and other DFW campuses. Previously, Sjerven took a year off and performed and recorded music in Austin, Texas, but expects to return to school in the fall at North Central Texas College. 18-year-old guitarist and vocalist Joel Villagran, a recent graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School, has performed at the downtown campus since he was 15, and has attended the church since he was about 13. Outside of playing with FC, Villagran is currently forming a band to play heavy metal.
While they practice on their own during the week, the band rehearses for about three hours on Saturdays and then they have full production run-throughs starting at 7 a.m. on Sundays.
Bonnot, says that Fellowship's music is, "kind of a soundtrack of what God's doing in our church." Bonnot recognizes and embraces the fact that their church's music has an appeal outside of traditional Christian music, as the church tries (and succeeds, as I found) to really welcome people who haven't been really religious or involved with churches in the past. Bonnot performed and toured with a band that played secular venues and songs before joining the church full time in 2007.
Fellowship has multiple campuses, but the various bands play the same songs at the different locations. The sermon by Pastor Ed Young is shown at all the campuses on a movie theater-sized screen, as well as streamed online.
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The church also has an organization called Fellowship Creative, which consists of hundreds of volunteers who are interested in music, art, video, design, writing, photography, marketing and production. Fellowship Creative has even released five albums, which, other than their Christmas album, comprise all original music.
At the end of the service, Pace Hartfield, who oversees all the church's creative works and marketing, emphasized Young's message over soft instrumentals. Unlike Bonnot, Hartfield was trained as a pastor, but that doesn't keep him from exuding the same energy and enthusiasm as the band.
Led by campus worship leader Scott Leger, the downtown Dallas Fellowship Church campus band was hands-down the most entertaining performance I've ever heard at a church before. Sure, there's lots of church music that happens to be good, but Fellowship provided amazing music that happened to be church music.