The 4,000 seats at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden were full for the noon service as Minister Steven Hurd grabbed a microphone. He already had sung, clapped and prayed, stirring up 8,000 souls during the 8 and 10 a.m. services, but he still had a job to do: moving between the microphone, a band and a 200-voice choir, linking a fresh group of congregants to God.
Some reached into the air as Hurd shouted, “Oh, magnify the Lord with me. Let us exalt his name together!” Others bowed their heads. Bishop T.D. Jakes, the guest preacher, danced his way to the podium before he started to preach.
For Hurd, it was a mission accomplished.
These days, many area churches — big and small, black and white — rely on praise leaders to conduct the spiritual journey affectionately called “church.” It is the praise leader, in many cases a full-time church employee, who is responsible for setting the mood and rallying the faithful.
Part minister, part choir director, part cheerleader, the “praise and worship leader” is the modern iteration of the church deacons who once offered the prayers and sang “Amazing Grace” and other hymns a cappella before the preacher and choir marched down the aisle to officially start a service.
“Praise and worship is essential to the life of the church,” said Earline Lee, the praise and worship leader at Pillar of Life Bible Church in Capitol Heights. “Many churches have moved away from ‘sing a song and testimony.’ . . . There is really no need for any talking to take place; first let us usher in the presence of the Lord.”
Jacqueline Pinkert, choir director and musician at Grace Brethern Church in Lanham, said she uses a “blend” of elements on Sunday mornings, including choirs, congregational singing of hymns and the praise team. But she said the focus is on God and not those up front. “It’s not about ‘look at me,’ it is about leading people in worship.”
Many national televangelists use recording artists who know how to stir up thousands before the message. Minister Joel Osteen, for example, has Israel Houghton, the worship leader at Lakewood Church in Houston.
Hurd, 44, said that while “praise and worship music has become the heartbeat and the pulse of church worship globally,” he has been concerned that men have lagged behind women in the church when it comes to taking part in praise and worship.
“Too often, men see worship as a feminine response to a masculine God, and I believe that it is important for men to be demonstrators of worship in their homes and in their communities,” said Hurd, whose latest album is entitled “Oh That Men Would Worship.”
“There are a lot of brothers who come to our church week after week who have a plethora of problems that are not being addressed,” Hurd said. “I believe that worship is a catalyst to get where the hurt is and to add healing where the hurt is.”
Hurd, who grew up in Brandywine, said his role models are nationally known praise and worship leaders, like Judy McAlliser, Calvin Bearnard Rone and Richard Smallwood, a D.C. native and award-winning gospel artist. Even though Sundays can be grueling, Hurd said he knows that his role is important.
“Every time I take the platform I am not always feeling on the top of the mountain,” he said. “Sometimes I am just barely, by the grace of God, making it. What I have learned is, days when I don’t feel it is when the strength comes.”
For Robert and Gloria Antoinin and their son, Chase, the experience is more than a weekly event.
“One of the beautiful things of being part of the praise and worship service is that it is like a filling station, a gas station,” Robert Antoinin said. “I need to be filled so that it will carry me through the week. ”
Gloria Antoinin said that the service helps alleviate her frustrations, big and small, like navigating the church’s parking lot filled with cars carrying most of the 4,000 worshipers. “Traffic tends to get you out of your character on the way to church, but I hear the choir sing, I can hear a song that will take me through the rest of the week.”