Interview with David Williams: 17th Annual Andrews University Music & Worship Conference February 13-15, 2020: “God’s Love and the Heart of Adventist Worship & Music”

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Interview with David Williams: 17th Annual Andrews University Music & Worship Conference February 13-15, 2020: “God’s Love and the Heart of Adventist Worship & Music”

God’s Love and the Heart of Adventist Worship & Music” is an interesting title! Tell us more about it and why it was chosen for this year.

Well, a few things. It’s circumstantial – the date that we chose is over Valentine’s Day. And while this is also a beautiful liturgical theme, people might just be thinking about love on February 14. I was also inspired by John Peckham’s work on The Love of God, and also in my own dissertation, I found that God’s love has been a constant theological theme for Adventists. They were singing about it from the earliest years, and in all my interviews, people’s memory of Adventist worship even in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, Gospel hymns of God’s love were important. So, I thought, well, God’s love over Valentine’s.

Also, the heart of Adventist worship and music, for me, is really about the questions, “What is Adventist identity in worship and music?” My dissertation research on how worship contributes to spiritual identity also helped me frame the question. I think that we are wrestling with identity in the Adventist church, and particularly with our liturgical identity. And I am suggesting that we need to figure out what this transcultural identity is.

It is not the Church Manual, and it is not the North American Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal. That is not our identity. It is part, but not the whole. I think our identity is broader and more theological. I am thrilled about the Conference because the speakers are presenting on boarder topics about diversity and asking the question of what is worship and what is Adventist worship. Not Adventist liturgy, but worship. That’s the bigger overarching idea. And if we can start getting to some consensus about what our transcultural theology of worship is, then we can move the conversation past our contextualized personal preferences.

Can you elaborate on the difference between worship and liturgy?

So, for me, worship is the attitude of our heart, or attitudinal homage: thanksgiving, praise, devotion, loyalty, allegiance, and the list can go on. Ultimately, it is our love to God – it is our internal affection, the desire of our heart. But liturgy is our actions. Different generations of scholars have defined liturgy differently, as a book of prayer, formalized Scripture readings, lectionary, etc. I think that is putting the term too much in a box. Because even though Adventism comes out of the free church tradition and we have an unfixed order of service (or liturgy), it has become fixed. And every local church is absolutely fixed, whether it’s a contemporary or traditional style. Even when we reject a mother church and go start a new church plant, and say we’re rejecting the old and we are now fresh and new, in a few years it’s fixed again because we are creatures of habit.

But liturgy doesn’t just mean a fixed order of worship. Liturgy means our actions. So, for me, you can liturgize without worshipping, but you can’t worship without liturgy. Because when you have an internal attitudinal homage to God, you will invariably have some sort of external action, such as kneeling, shouting, crying, singing, proclaiming – any of those things that happen in our worship services should be an outworking of our attitude to God.

This is the 17th annual conference on Music and Worship – already a tradition in the Seminary. What is the purpose of these conferences and could you share something about the historic?


Worship and music were taught at Seminary in various forms for a long time. In the ‘80s ‘90s, they began to start the idea of having an endowment for worship and music. When Lilianne Doukhan came as faculty in the music department, at some point she started teaching the church music class and envisioning having a conference. Also, when Nicholas Zork was an undergraduate here, he did his honors undergraduate project on devising a conference on music and worship, and out of that project came the first conference, in 2003. They’ve done a great job at networking with several organizations.


The North American Division helped to get it going and maintained it for a while, as did the Center for Youth and Evangelism (CYE). Last year we started a more practical training event called the Worship & Music Leadership Certificate – a week-long training event held in June – and we also established the Andrews University International Center for Worship & Music. Since we have a practical project offered in the summer, I found the need to make the conference more academic. This is also something I have wanted to see for a long time. This is the first year that we have had a call for papers, and our plenaries will be tilted toward a more academic style.


I am curious to hear more about the International Center for Worship and Music (ICWM). Who was behind the idea and how did it move from vision to reality?


Having a center was a lot of people’s burden. Lilianne Doukhan wanted to see this happen, and when I interviewed for my teaching position I also proposed the idea. When Adriana Perera started chairing the Department of Music, she was also tasked with the job of starting a center. Of course, it made sense for it to be a center for worship and music – worship is not just music, it is all that we are and do and is theological. It made sense for the Center to be a collaboration between the Department of Music and the Seminary. So, Adriana and I are co-directors of the Center. It is also an international center, not only because Andrews is an international place, but because we are about a global perspective, not only a North American or European. Its purpose is stated on our website in the following terms:


The International Center for Worship and Music promotes excellence, creativity, diversity, and theological integrity in the practices of worship and music through education, resource publication, and the cultivation of a supportive peer community.


So, we want to resource the church, we want to educate the church, and we are doing this primarily from some major events and out of those events come resources. I mentioned the Certificate, also the conference papers will come out in the proceedings. In the future, the conference proceedings will also become part of a bi-annual journal. We want to resource the church at an academic level and also provide practical documents and things on our website.


We’ve made a lot of great strides digitally during the last year, but ultimately, we’d like to have all sorts of things on our website: links, databases where people can go to for new song texts, “how-to” manuals on dealing with worship ministry in their churches, etc.


Five years ago, we also launched a new project, Adventist Worship Music (AWM), publishing new print music by Adventist composers, and out of that, we’d like to see new collections, both digital and print. In fact, in the past 5 years, we have had over 500 downloads of AWM through our distributor, AdventSource. This is incredible because we haven’t marketed it at all! We see real potential here. Additionally, in the next few years, we envision publishing a new hymnal that will be global and multicultural.


What is your role in planning this conference, and what other individuals and organizations are involved in the planning process?


I have been intimately involved in the planning of the conference for seven years since I started teaching the course, Worship: Word and Music. Nick Zork has directed the conference for the last sixteen years and has done an outstanding job. When I became fulltime faculty, as well as with the launch of the ICWM, it made sense to transition the leadership of the conference to my position. However, I am thrilled that Nick and I continue to closely collaborate together, speaking or texting almost every day!


Zork, Perera, and I have great synergy at the ICWM. The Conference has always collaborated with the Music Department. We are also thankful for the NAD for the significant funding they provided to help the Conference gain stability. They continue to be a sponsor of the event. This year the General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics & Research has been a really great partner to help us move in an academic direction. I also want to point out that the success of the conference has always been greatly due to the hard work of graduate assistants, for whom we are very thankful.


Can you give us some info about the presenters and topics addressed?


I sought to have people from different disciplines. David Trim will give our first plenary, looking at the theology of worship from a historical perspective. Zane Yi from Loma Linda will be coming to preach, but will also serve as a respondent. Tihomir Lazić from Newbold will be talking about ecclesiology, which really gets at the question of Adventist identity. James Abbington from Emory University is one of the leading scholars of Black worship and music. He has compiled two anthologies of readings in African-American worship and music. He is a musician, scholar, and worship leader, and will be talking about black worship, music, and diversity. He will be answering questions such as: Who can sing what music? Is there such a thing as black music? Is there such a thing as white music? Or European music? Or is music just something we all incorporate into our own cultural and ethnic experience?


This year, the conference has partnered with the Black History Month (BHM) celebration. In fact, the Andrews University BHM celebrations are coinciding that weekend, February 13-15. So, following Abbington’s plenary, we are going to have a great workshop session; half of it will be a presentation by the leaders who are organizing the Saturday night conference, called Blackventist Praise. That concert will be a survey of what Black Adventist worship and music looks like. They will be sharing the rationale for the program. In that workshop, we will also have a panel discussion, discussing the future of Black Adventist worship and music. So, we are bringing the conference and BHM into dialogue.


Morgan Medlock, who holds both the MD and MDiv degrees, will speak for Friday night Celebration Vespers, as part of BHM. Also, before the vespers Friday night, Abbington will lead us in a “hymn-sing.” Last year, he published a hymnal entitled One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (GIA publisher), which is an African-American ecumenical hymnal. Jason Ferdinand of Oakwood University was part of the committee and helped send in Adventist compositions, some of which Abbington will share with us on Friday evening. GIA is printing supplement pages from the hymnal just for our Conference so that we can sing these Black Adventist songs.


Also, we will have Laura Whidden, our featured artist, presenting a songwriting workshop. I think the songwriting workshop and the session on Black worship and music will provide a valuable intersection of scholarship and practical theology. We will also have Andrews University undergraduates participating in the conference as part of a Worship & Music Leadership Certificate, Student Edition. These workshops will be a great option for them if they prefer something other than the scholarly paper presentations.


Based on your past experience with this annual conference and your familiarity with the presenters and titles this year, what are the take-aways the participants can expect?


How you worship in your local church may not be indicative of the larger Adventist community. We are a big tent, and because we have not fractured into different denominations, in some ways we are an even bigger tent. It’s a big umbrella that we all fall under. So, the spectrum of Adventist worship expression is very broad. They will probably experience things that they are not used to in terms of exuberant worship and very quiet worship. We will have wonderful diversity that way. Thursday night will probably feature the great diversity of worship practices and musical styles. Friday will start with morning prayer, a quiet and reflective service. Friday vespers, as well as the Saturday night concert, Blackventist Praise, will focus on the black experience in music.


But to close the Sabbath, will be a very special worship service. It will be a very kinesthetic experience as we worship through the sanctuary. We will have stations at each of the sanctuary items of furniture. We will worship through the altar of sacrifice, the laver, the candlestick, incense, showbread, etc. We will be moving around, praying, and will have foot washing and communion in a very sensory way.

Those are the worship services. Then the papers will provide relevant research in biblical studies, theology, and history from a scholarly perspective. Finally, on Sabbath afternoon we will have a panel discussion where the presenters will dialogue with each other, and the audience will have an opportunity to ask questions.


Moving into some practical information for our readers – what is the registration cost and location?


There is no deadline for registration. The general registration cost is $130 and it includes refreshments four times and one breakfast. For groups of four or more from the same church or institution, the price is $110/person. For university faculty, it is $95, and for students, it is $45. The conference will be held primarily in the Seminary chapel with some events in the Howard Performing Arts Center. For students who intend to take the Certificate, this conference will count towards one of the four weekends they are required to attend. This information and more can be found at


Let’s talk a little about you. What is your educational background and what factors contributed to your interest in music and ministry?  

I have been a worship leader since I was twelve, at the keyboard. As soon as I could play a hymn, I was playing for church. I am grateful to my home congregation for encouraging me and thanking me for playing, making me feel like I was part of the church. I attribute my love for worship to that church because they cultivated that in me. So, I have been involved in worship planning, selecting songs, and designing services before I even knew what I was doing. I was also responsible for planning services for the academy worship programs when I was in high school.


Then I went to Southern Adventist University for two degrees, a BA in Theology and a BS in Organ Performance. Music was my love, and I knew that I was going to be involved in music. As far as the interest in spirituality, that also developed over time. When I was a little boy, I always said I would be a preacher. Later I was involved in literature evangelism and served as spiritual vice-president in my academy, and so the interest in ministry was also there all along. However, while at Southern, I began to sense that I was not on the same track as my ministerial colleagues, that I was not going to be a pastor. I applied for a Fulbright scholarship hoping to move to the Netherlands to study music, and I indicated on my application that I wanted to be a pastor and a musician. But they were not interested in giving a Fulbright to a pastor. So, my wife and I have joked that I got the half-bright.


However, we decided to sell everything and we moved to the Netherlands for eleven months of private lessons. While in the Netherlands I had an experience where a friend of mine, Devon Howard, who was also studying there and is now the chair of the Music Department at Southwestern, told me that I should go to the Seminary someday to teach pastors about worship and music. That became my mission.


After the Netherlands, I went back to Colorado where I pastored for a couple years in Colorado Springs, in the Rocky Mountain Conference. But I still had a yearning for music. So I called my conference president, requesting to meet so that I could tell him in person I was resigning pastoral ministry to study music. We decided to meet at a Mexican restaurant in Denver. Before the chips and salsa arrived, he said:


I know what this is about. You want to get a Masters of Sacred Music, and I am here to tell you that we are going to help you.


I was ready to resign and go study music, and to my surprise, he affirmed my calling to both ministry and music. So, I did a Masters in Sacred Music at Notre Dame, which has a strong focus on the history of sacred music, as well as applied music and church liturgics. After that, my wife had one year to finish her masters at Andrews, and my conference also wanted me to get re-indoctrinated, so I considered a program at Andrews. My pastor advised me to do a Ph.D. So, I did a Ph.D. with a concentration in Church History and two cognates: one in hymnology/sacred music, and one in theological studies. My dissertation looks at how worship music shapes our spiritual identity.


What are some of the roadblocks you have encountered in your journey and how did you overcome them?


Every major decision has shaped who I am. Every crossroad has been a dark trying time. I felt like I was in the darkness, just groping and wondering what was next. It wasn’t a mystical thing, but I experienced a sort of dark journey of the soul where I had to reach out in faith. While I was on my senior class trip in high school, while my friends were having fun, I’d wake up early in the morning for prayer and poured out my soul to God, searching for direction of where to go to college.


When I was ready to give up pastoral ministry, I remember being laid out in my office, crying out to God. Every major decision has come through deep soul searching and clinging to God, trusting Him. Now it all seems so clear where I needed to go, but I could not see the road ahead. Even in my Ph.D. at Andrews, I experienced technical roadblocks of impossibilities, including getting a cognate in the Music Department while studying at the Seminary, or even studying Liturgy and Worship at the Seminary, because those courses of study are not offered here.


Yet somehow, by determination and God’s grace, it has come together. My position at the Seminary, completing my dissertation, launching the ICWM, and now directing the Conference have all been personal journeys of faith. These liminal moments – rites of passage – were threshold moments for me and I think are valuable in the Christian journey, because the only way to refine the silver is to refine it in the fire. The only way to make the pearl is for it to be ground down. It’s just putting my life in God’s hands, surrendering to Him, and seeking Him.



Below is a complete list of presenters and topics:

  • Eriks Galenicks: “Wholistic Nature of Multi-faceted Worship in Hebrew Scripture: Its Practical Implications”
  • Jerome Skinner: “Motivations for Worship in Book V of the Psalter: Case Study”
  • Michael Campbell & Devon Howard: “Pedagogical Explorations for Teaching Worship and Music as a Cross-Disciplinary Course”
  • Eduardo Sola Chagas Lima: “Music, Meaning, and Corporate Worship: Experiencing Music in Seventh-day Adventism”
  • Richard Hickham: “A Case Study of the Culturally Diverse Worship at the Florida Hospital Seventh-day Adventist Church”
  • Darah Regal & Karin Thompson: “Making a Joyful Noise and Hearing the Still Small Voice in Church”
  • Lindsay Chineegadoo: “A Worship Theology in Four Voices”
  • André Reis: “Toward a Theology of Music for Eschatological Worship”
  • Jetro Meira de Oliveira: “Beyond Apologetics and Monocultures: Fostering Stability and Growth through Enriching Musical Diversity in Worship”

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