Taking a Leap of Faith
In 2002, Ben and Lori Kennedy were strangers seated side by side on an airplane.
They exchanged pleasantries, and learned that both were worship leaders, but "neither one of us are really plane talkers," he explains. After landing, they went their separate ways.
Their story could have ended there.
Instead, six months later they had another chance encounter. That time, it took only one date to realize they were onto something good. In January 2003 they were married.
Since then, the couple have toured the United States, started a church in Boulder, Colo., and begun an international ministry. They're passionate about multiculturalism and attracted to urban ministry. On paper, Southern Pines might seem an unexpected place for them to have landed.
But once again they recognized a good match when they saw it.
When, in June 2010, the couple learned of Grace Church's opening for a worship leader, they liked what they read in the job description, and, looking at "every bit of information on [Grace's] website, we really liked what we saw as far as the church was concerned," says Lori Kennedy. The town, they were less sure about - it seemed so small.
Nevertheless, after a couple of conversations with Senior Pastor Randy Thornton, they decided to fly to Southern Pines to test the waters.
"I think we were more looking for what wasn't going to work," Ben Kennedy says. They spent time walking around town and talking with people, and they liked what they saw.
"But we thought to ourselves, 'There's no way that Sunday morning is going to feel multicultural. I just can't imagine,'" he says.
At the Sunday services, though, they were surprised.
"Grace had so many different generations and groups represented," Lori Kennedy says, "and that was attractive to us."
The couple - who were auditioning the church as surely as they were being auditioned - decided to incorporate a rap into worship that morning to gauge the congregation's response.
"We were just about as shocked as we could be. The reaction was not what I was expecting," Lori Kennedy recalls. "The congregation in both services was very ready to worship and very trusting, and totally followed the lead of the worship team and entered the [worship] process."
Grace offered Ben Kennedy the position of worship and creative arts pastor before they and their son, Levi, left town that day. (They have since added a son named Fisher to the family.) After that, things happened fast, and Kennedy's first day on staff was Aug. 3.
"I'm not big on easing into things," he says.
The most visible part of his job is leading Sunday-morning worship (he sings and plays guitar; she sings and plays percussion). The rest of the week, his responsibilities range from managing the church's technical teams to teaching in Grace College of Divinity to coordinating a prayer-and-praise blog on the church's website to overseeing the music budget.
"I like planning, thinking about how people can get connected better, and different ways to serve," he says. "We want to bring the curtain down on thinking church is presented on a silver platter and it happens magically."
Musically, Kennedy's style is as diverse as its influences. He was raised on James Taylor and the Doobie Brothers, later veered toward hip-hop and, growing up in Baton Rouge, La., had plenty of exposure to jazz and the blues.
"The guy who poured you the one beer they had on tap was the same guy who got up on stage and was the best guitarist ever," he says. "That's south Louisiana."
The Kennedys' worship album, "We," reflects that eclecticism.
"The album is complex both musically and creatively, yet it truly is multiethnic worship, bridging the gap between hymns and funk, spirituals and rock, gospel and folk, praise and worship," he says.
Their vision for "We" was to create something that "combined multiple musical styles and crossed denominational and demographic lines - a unifying collection of songs that highlights all of our want, need and love of the Father."
Kennedy's vision for his work at Grace falls along similar lines.
He envisions incorporating various art forms into worship - modern choreography, for example, or live painters on stage.
"People discover Christ not only through music; he is the best artist out there," he says. "People want to get closer to Christ in a bunch of different ways. That's the point.
"When people see something beautiful, they very often associate it with Christ. I want them to think, 'Wow, I see God in that.'"
In that sense, Kennedy says, there's an evangelistic element to worship.
"We want doors to be opened wider, for people to feel safe even questioning.
"Two hundred years ago, if you wanted awesome art, you went to church. If you wanted awesome music, you went to church," he adds. "I think we should go back to that."
Jennifer Kirby is a local freelance writer.
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