From a Mall to a Megachurch: One Woman’s Journey Into Worship Ministry
Worship ministers have the high call—and the high privilege—of leading God’s people in magnifying him. Each week, worship leaders around the world offer their churches a chance to respond to who God is and what he has done. They take people of different backgrounds and ages and ethnicities—different experiences and personalities and stories—and bring them all together at the same place: the throne of God.
And that’s not all.
Worship leaders also balance a call to excellence with a call to humility. They must lead on stage but also “disappear” from it at the same time. They must prepare well, but never perform. Worship leaders must give God their very best, but know that only God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”
Worship leading is no small task.
But it’s a crucial one.
And it’s a task that Ozark graduate Susanne Walden carries out each week at Shepherd Church in Porter Ranch, California. Since 1999, Susanne’s husband, Shawn, has served as Shepherd’s evangelism pastor, and in 2013, Susanne joined the church staff, too, as director of worship and productions. The Waldens’ three adult children, Taeler, Katelyn and Caleb, all grew up in Shepherd Church.
But Susanne grew up far from Southern California, in Iowa. As a teenager shopping one Saturday at a mall, Susanne first encountered another Ozark grad: Dudley Rutherford. Dudley asked permission to share the gospel with Susanne and her sister, and the girls agreed. The next morning, Susanne attended church.
“When I heard the gospel,” says Susanne, “I knew it was truth. I knew I wanted Jesus in my life, and I made the decision immediately.”
Susanne stepped forward during the altar call and was baptized that very day.
From there, with Dudley’s continued support and example, Susanne went on to attend Ozark in the late 1980s. As a student, Susanne sang in Impact Brass & Singers, and met and married Shawn. After graduation, the Waldens ministered in Iowa before moving to Los Angeles…where they again crossed paths with Dudley Rutherford, now Shepherd’s lead pastor. Currently, Shepherd Church is home to 10,000 people, and each week, Susanne oversees and schedules the band, worship leaders, praise team, gospel choir and all the elements of weekend services.
Susanne also produces Shepherd’s annual Easter show, The Passion Play, a dramatic stage and musical production depicting the life, death and resurrection of Christ. For 25 years, The Passion Play has reached thousands of residents in the Los Angeles area. Even more, over the years, donations at this and other Shepherd productions have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to missions—to build wells in Africa, to battle sex slavery and help those caught in the sex industry, and to support many missionaries around the world.
“It is truly one of the greatest moments of each year as we give to support worldwide missions,” says Susanne. “I love that Shepherd is so missions-minded.”
Of course, worship isn’t just for Sundays or stages or shows, and worship must not stay within the confines of the church building. Worship transforms. Susanne has witnessed firsthand how worship can change hearts and minds.
“I’ve been incredibly blessed to see God move,” she says. “I’ve watched him transform lives—from those who don’t know him at all and those who are caught in sin, into people who are now experiencing victorious living. I didn’t know how much this would impact and change me personally, but it has been transformative for my own walk with Christ.”
Worship is for everyone—that is, all people are called to worship. At Shepherd, Susanne has been “blessed to be challenged and allowed to build an incredibly diverse worship team—both ethnically and generationally.”
The effect of building such a team? The city’s mayor has called Shepherd Church “the most racially diverse church in Los Angeles.” And more importantly, “God has done something only he could do,” Susanne says. “Shepherd Church truly looks like heaven. It was very hard in the beginning to be so intentional, but now, when you look around the church, you don’t see one nationality. You see all nationalities. You don’t see one age group. You see all age groups. It’s a beautiful picture!”
Susanne’s passion for multiethnic worship echoes the apostle Paul’s heart: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Susanne explains, “Our platforms should look like we truly are reaching all people. No age, no ethnicity, no style is our focus.—All ages, all ethnicities, all styles are the focus and are represented. This is my prayer for the church: ‘Lord, use me to reach all men and women, and not just those that look like me or act like me. May I never seek to honor men but to love all and reach all.’”
The Next Generation
This year, the Waldens’ son, Caleb, is a sophomore preaching major at OCC. “We are thrilled that our son is now studying under men and women of such great character,” Susanne says. “The power of studying the Bible for four years cannot be overstated. The time I spent watching and being mentored by godly men and women was formative to my character and absolutely life-changing. I was also very influenced by the dedication to godly living and passion for the Bible from the professors at Ozark. Though their names change somewhat over the years, the principles remain the same.”
Ministers have the high call—and the high privilege—of leading people to the throne of God. From Dudley Rutherford sharing the gospel in a shopping mall, to Susanne leading 10,000 people in worship each week, to 19-year-old Caleb learning to preach in the very classrooms where both his parents trained for ministry, Susanne says simply, “I love seeing what only God can do through the power he has placed within each of us. To God be the glory!”
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of our college magazine, The Ambassador. Read this and other issues at occ.edu/ambassador.