Helping People Engage in Worship
By Ryan McLouth
This month I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Neil Ostercamp from The Gathering UMC. Neil serves as Worship Coordinator at the Clayton site, and had many interesting and useful thoughts about worship leadership and music ministry.
Neil comes from a diverse musical background. He is completing his Doctor of Musical Arts in Saxophone at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He also has a Bachelor of Science in Music Education and a Master of Music in Saxophone Performance, both from the University of Missouri. As a performer, he is a founding member of Missouri Saxophone Quartet, Trio Chymera, Contreras Saxophone Quartet, and Free Collective. Neil has performed throughout the nation, and is the recipient of many prestigious music awards. He also teaches at the University of Missouri—St. Louis.
Saxophone is of course not Neil’s only passion when it comes to music. As Worship Coordinator, he can also be found singing and playing guitar or other instruments with one of the many worship bands that he directs at The Gathering—Clayton. Neil and the team he’s involved with have been breaking ground in some very interesting new ways at The Gathering, and it certainly shows in the rapid growth of the congregation and addition of multiple sites. In regards to worship, Neil’s philosophy rings true with the concept of providing ways to get congregation members as engaged as possible in the corporate worship experience.
By the time you read this article, Neil will have made two visits to Central Methodist University, each time to share his insight about careers in music ministry, performance, and teaching. He has worked with our students to sharpen their skills, make them aware of what’s out there so to speak, and even performed for us. Neil has been an asset to us at CMU, and I’m sure his friends and colleagues in St. Louis agree.
Ryan: Neil, if you could pick three things that a good worship leader should keep in mind at all times, what would you say those would be?
Neil: The first thing would be “teach-ability.” Being receptive to not only your staff that you’re working with, but learning from other worship leaders and as many resources as you can get your hands on. Also learning from your team and the other people around you. People with other experiences. Everyone brings a unique perspective in. Second, musicianship. Retaining a strong musical skill set. You have to practice and be able to drive, lead other people, and set an example musically. You have to have strong vocal skills. You have to have a drive to be a better musician. Third, being a strong spiritual leader for your band. Praying with the band and reminding them of the impact that strong worship leading has on a congregation. For some people, singing is the only way that they can truly engage in worship. The band is a collection of worship leaders and it is our role to engage people in the congregation. We have to encourage others to let that spiritual side find its way into the music.
Ryan: If you had to sum it up in a couple of sentences, what is your number one mission as a worship leader?
Neil: It is our goal to invite and engage new people, take people where they are, and help them to grow in the breadth and depth of their faith. The music should be engaging and draw interest to new visitors. It needs to pique people’s interest and gets them thinking about God.
Ryan: You talked about your mission partially being engaging new people. Would you consider yourself seeker-sensitive in that way with your mission at The Gathering?
Neil: Partly. At a typical worship service at The Gathering, from the time that you park and you walk in, you are greeted by several people. The appearance of the sanctuary reflects the current sermon series. Often times for the pre-service music, we play a secular tune of some sort. We mix hymns with modern worship music with original music. Parts of our service are very formal, but the front end of the service is very non-denominational. Historically rooted and innovatively practiced.
Ryan: When you meet aspiring worship leaders or musicians who don’t know what to do yet, what’s your advice?
Neil: We try to bring them in as soon as possible and have individuals play in bands alongside our staff worship leaders. At The Gathering, we use a rotating band system. We have four sites total that the bands rotate to, based on the sermon series. We look at their past experiences, and that allows everyone to find a place. I arrange and write the parts to fit with individuals’ abilities so they are able to engage immediately and lead worship. We also offer internship opportunities to young people.
Ryan: If you had to choose, what would be your favorite style of worship music?
Neil: All Sons and Daughters or Phil Wickham. One Sonic Society. Anything Jason Ingram is involved with represents the sound and feeling that I get from worship and that personally engages me. I like the writing, “sing-ability”, and raw emotive quality of all three of those groups. I am drawn to singer/songwriters.
Ryan: What is the process for you in collaborating with your pastor or whoever is giving the message at a service you are leading?
Neil: Our four sites use a combination of a live/video sermon by lead pastor Matt Miofsky, and live/video preaching from our site pastor. That dictates how we plan during the week. Our team meets a lot. We have a weekly session. We do our best to operate as four individual sites that are united by the message. We meet with our site pastor, the worship leader, connections coordinator, and communications coordinator. We talk about what went well the previous week, what are we up against this week, and we look forward a week. I have a one-on-one meeting with our worship leaders and site pastors. I also have a one-on-one meeting with our worship director. We get an outline from Matt Miofsky about the sermon, along with the scripture. We use that as worship leaders to form our sets and to collaborate.
Ryan: How do you recruit musicians who are a good fit for your mission?
Neil: With the growth of the church, and the size of each site, we work to identify who the musicians are and how to get them involved. A majority of our participants are in our presence. We find some through our worship leaders’ networks in the St. Louis area. We also invite people in our networks who may not have considered playing in worship bands.
Ryan: Do you think that contemporary style music and worship are here to stay for the long-run?
Neil: People like having as many choices as they can. Our musical tastes are becoming increasingly broadened, and it makes commitment to a particular sound and feel harder and harder. Culturally and socially if that continues to be the case, then I think that we are always going to have what we call “contemporary” or “modern” worship music that will reflect what is popular in our culture.