Cedarville’s HeartSong seeks genuine worship through music and ministry
by Katie Milligan
Cedarville University’s HeartSong worship ministry has been turning hearts to Christ through song on campus, at churches and at summer camps for over a decade. Now, they’re gearing up for the production of a live album.
Jim Cato, the associate vice president of Christian Ministries, has been involved with HeartSong from its beginnings. He first took a job at Cedarville in 1983 as the overseer of the Swordbearers, one of several worship groups on campus along with the Kingsmen Quartet, the Abundant Life singers, and the Sounds of Joy women’s trio.
These teams, composed of a pianist, a technician, and singers, mainly performed at churches. Their style resembled that of a choir, often standing in a straight line on stage and singing to a boombox or cassette tape.
Cato’s main job was to coordinate the group’s church performances, but as his career continued, he felt the need to combine all the worship bands together under one name, and in 2005 HeartSong was born.
“I didn’t like the feeling of any competition between different teams,” Cato said. “We all do the same ministry, same mission, same focus.”
Now, 13 years later, HeartSong has evolved into a thriving ministry. Cato, along with the director of production services group Brandon Waltz and ministry and event coordinator Ashlynn Kelly, keep things running smoothly. Cato and Waltz serve as the visionaries who think in terms of the big picture, mapping out the mission statement, each year’s teams, album plans and other big ideas.
Kelly, who graduated from Cedarville in 2014 and was a HeartSong member, focuses on more detail-oriented matters, such as travel arrangements, song and set choices, rehearsal schedules and social media upkeep. Each is crucial to the ministry’s success.
HeartSong is a campus job and a year-long commitment. The audition process to join begins in August immediately after Getting Started weekend. There are 32 slots to fill on four teams, with four already occupied by team leaders who were chosen the previous season.
Team leaders have many responsibilities, including running rehearsals, checking up on their team members, contacting travel destinations and keeping records.
Senior biblical studies major Chris O’Mara is a four-year HeartSong member and a three-year team leader.
“Our job isn’t just to manage resources, but to manage people,” O’Mara said. “If a team leader doesn’t love their team, the team won’t find unity.”
HeartSong’s remaining 28 slots are open to all current students, and usually between 230 and 250 students audition. The audition requirements fluctuate depending on the student. Musicians usually play a song along with an accompanist, and singers normally perform a solo as well as sing parts. In addition, all HeartSong hopefuls attend a 20-30 minute interview process with Cato and Waltz in which they share about themselves and their passions.
“It’s really fun because you get to see the incredible talent of the Cedarville student body,” Kelly said.
Following auditions, the 4 teams — Red, Green, Blue, and Orange — are constructed around the formula of one drummer, two vocalists, one acoustic guitar, one electric guitar, one bass guitar, one keyboardist and one technician for lights and sound.
Many factors go into deciding which people to put together, including previous experience and talent level. The staff spends nearly all night praying over the decision before sending out emails to notify students of their positions around 2 a.m.
“It’s a big puzzle,” Kelly said. “So much goes into it, but we trust in a sovereign God who is going to work it all out for His good.”
Once the four teams are chosen, the real work begins. All teams go on a weekend retreat in which the staff introduces a master list of songs for the students to learn, practice, and memorize.
Senior communications major Tori Butts, a three-year member of HeartSong, admits that at first, the memorization is overwhelming. But the staff teaches its students to both memorize and internalize the lyrics, taking their true meaning to heart.
“When we’re up on stage it doesn’t just become going through the motions,” Butts said. “We’re preaching the gospel to these people, and we’re also preaching the gospel to ourselves.”
Each year the song list is revamped based on what the staff feels it needs and is carefully adapted to the diverse array of HeartSong audiences, whether it be conservative or modern churches, youth group retreats, or summer camps. The staff prioritizes making each group comfortable. To do so, they annually retire or refresh songs, ask local churches what they’re singing with their congregations, and constantly ensure that their song lyrics are theologically rich and embedded with truth.
“We’re not just up on the platform singing fluff. We want to be able to preach the gospel through what we’re singing,” Kelly said. “It’s a big responsibility for a worship leader to put into other people’s mouths what they’re going to be singing to the Lord. It’s a huge weight, and we don’t take that lightly.”
During the school year, HeartSong performs in chapel on CU Fridays and during All-Access visits. The four teams meet twice a week: Once for a three-hour rehearsal, and once with all four teams for practical ministry training with Waltz. During practices, led by team leaders and supervised by Cato and Kelly, the teams fine-tune their sets as well as form a tighter bond.
Ministry training consists of learning how to navigate conflict resolution, counseling with Mindy May and evangelism with Jon Wood. Team members also learn how to apply each of HeartSong’s mission statement principles: Centering on Jesus, Worshiping Exclusively, Growing Together, Living Connected, Serving Selflessly and Representing Well.
“When we send teams out they’re equipped for ministry, so they represent Heartsong’s ministry, the name of Cedarville University, and ultimately the name of Jesus well,” Kelly said.
But what makes HeartSong unique is the touring aspect of their ministry. Five weekends out of the school year, they travel to church camp retreats to lead worship. The touring, however, begins in the summer, when each of the four teams embark on a 10-week tour in which they travel all over Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky.
While teams are on the road, only a small portion of their time is spent leading worship. For the rest of the weekend, they function as a normal camp counselor, doing activities with the kids and seeking to have conversations about Jesus.
“I was completely shocked about how much it’s about people and not necessarily about music,” senior worship major Melissa Martin, a two-year member said. “We use music as a tool to create relationships and point people to the gospel.”
Cato feels that defining genuine worship is at the core of HeartSong’s mission and is desperately needed in the church. For HeartSong, he said, worship isn’t something just for the band on stage, but a corporate reality that includes the entire church body coming together.
While on tour, HeartSong members are constantly reminded to impress from a distance and impact up close. While music can aid in producing worship, music does not equal worship, Cato said. Acts of worship can be lived out in the everyday, mundane activities, such as a HeartSong member living in a host family’s home washing the dishes.
“That may be more powerful than anything we do on stage,” Cato said. “It’s those up-close moments with people where we live out the gospel and that becomes an act of worship.”
Throughout his time with HeartSong, O’Mara has discovered the usefulness of worship for ministry.
“Worship has two distinct roles,” he said. “The first one is obviously to bring honor and praise to God, but the second one is that it’s very practically a tool for us to connect with students.”
Another large part of touring is recruiting for Cedarville University. While Cato said that recruiting and worship groups used to be kept separate, connecting the campers to the admissions office is a goal.
“I made a shift in that because why wouldn’t we talk about the school a lot?” Cato said. “It’s like two wings of an airplane: there’s recruiting and marketing, and there’s ministry.”
HeartSong makes it a priority to have hard conversations with campers about their future; not to manipulate them, but to pray with them about God’s will for their lives.
Additionally, HeartSong members write personal handwritten postcards to campers they met on retreats or at camps. Whether they recount a personal memory, send scriptural encouragement, or invite them to come experience Cedarville. Their intention is to show the campers they care and solidify that connection.
HeartSong presents many future opportunities for its members; Kelly receives several emails a week from local churches looking for a worship pastor.
Besides preparing them for a future occupation, HeartSong helps students grow closer to each other and to Christ through becoming a better minister and getting outside their comfort zone to have effective, bold, gospel-centered conversations.
Senior biblical studies major Andrew Hile, a three-year drummer and Orange Team leader, said he learned to selflessly serve.
“The biggest thing that I’ve learned is how to serve faithfully where God has placed you, even at times when you’re tired and don’t feel like it,” Hile said.
HeartSong has used a unique combination of music and ministry that is motivated by the gospel to reach many campers and students alike with the message of Christ.
“It’s the double-edged sword, a two-sided coin — it’s not just music, it’s ministry,” Kelly said. “Our impact really is so deep and wide that it’s hard to contain. The gospel for us is not just some random concept or trite saying — it’s a life-changing experience.”
Going forward, Cato hopes to continue building HeartSong’s identity alongside Cedarville’s ideals.
“I really believe in Cedarville. I believe in the big-picture concept that we are biblically conservative but culturally relevant,” Cato said. “I want HeartSong to get better at telling that story.”
On March 17, HeartSong recorded its new live album, “Foundations.” Focusing on the congregational sound and deeply rooted in Scripture, the album will pull together several time-honored hymns as well as uplifting contemporary favorites.
Katie Milligan is a freshman English major. She enjoys taking Polaroid photos, eating pasta and watching Disney movies.