Stephen Stanley, 17, son of CrossRoads Baptist Church Pastor Brandon Stanley, recently took a position as worship leader at Orchards Hill Church in Newnan. (Special Photo)
It was an inauspicious start for a future worship leader. When he was in fifth grade, Stephen Stanley, along with his best friend Johnny Gibb, played music that was so bad the other kids booed them out of children’s church.
“But we kept coming back every week,” Stanley said with a laugh. “That’s how we started. We then started playing in the youth group. Eventually, I took over the youth worship every week and then moved up to the praise team at my dad’s church.”
Now at only 17 years old, the young Stanley has just been hired by Orchard Hills Church in Newnan as its new worship leader. Not only is it unusual for a church to have such a young worship leader on staff, but it was especially unusual how it all came about.
Stanley’s 90-year-old great-grandmother had died and it was at her funeral at the First Baptist Church of Fayetteville in October that the young man sat down at the piano and played and sang “Live in Us,” a song he had recently written and recorded.
After the service, the Rev. Stacey Thomas, the pastor of Orchard Hills, who had been invited to read the Scripture for the funeral, found Stanley’s father, Brandon Stanley in the foyer of the church.
“He said, ‘I’m going to take him,’ or something like that and I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, you need to use him,’” the Rev. Brandon Stanley said. “’Bring him over and let him lead worship sometime.’ He said, ‘No, you don’t understand. I’m taking him.’ He said they had been looking for a worship leader and had looked over all the top guys in Southern Baptist life, but said, ‘I want Stephen.’
“We said, ‘Y’all need to think about this and pray about it.’ About a month later, Stephen went over and led worship. The church just loves him. They think they’ve found gold in that he loves the Lord and he’s humble and a very gifted worship leader and song writer.”
The Newnan church, which has about 500 people in attendance on Sundays, is also where Douglas and Brenda Stanley, Stephen Stanley’s paternal grandparents, attend. Stephen Stanley said the Orchard Hills pastor pulled his grandfather aside and told him he was serious about having the young man come as worship leader and implored him to talk to his grandson.
The high school senior accepted the call to serve the Newnan church, and his home church in Covington, CrossRoads Baptist, held a commissioning service for him several weeks ago and sent him out as a new worship leader.
“It’s been very exciting for CrossRoads,” said the Rev. Stanley, who has led the Covington church for a number of years. “Our goal is to see young men and women raised up to be in ministry somewhere in a church wherever they go … It just happened to be my son and it’s exciting.”
Stephen has been helping his father in the ministry since he was 14, playing in the church band and working in the music ministry at CrossRoads.
“The lord prepared him,” his father said. “He plays guitar, piano, drum, bass and really knows all the instruments, so he’s really a good band leader and worship leader. He can lead a team of volunteers and can help lead musicians in the church. That’s really valuable in church life.
“The key is we wanted to focus on character with Stephen because that’s the one thing that can really hurt in ministry, so we wanted to focus mainly on that because the music comes. It’s natural and a gift from God, but without love for the lord and character, it’s short-lived. We’re very thankful for Stephen and just love him. It’s only by God’s grace — nothing that we’ve done.”
Home schooled with his 15-year-old brother Caleb by their mother Stephenee, Stephen is finishing up his senior year while beginning his new job in Newnan. He is commuting and staying part-time with his grandparents who live near Orchard Hills. Next fall, he will begin his studies at Luther Rice Seminary.
The young Stanley grew up in CrossRoads Baptist Church and said he received important early influence from a number of people, including his Youth Pastor Edward Wilkerson, but said his father and mother’s influence has been the greatest. He said his father can sing and his mother led worship in college and also sings and plays the guitar. One of his grandmothers and her sisters used to sing on the radio.
Stanley said his parents were instrumental in teaching him right and wrong in such a way that he never felt like he was being forced to read his Bible or pray, but that the way they encouraged him made him want to do the right things.
He said all of his grandparents have been supportive of him, and while his paternal grandparents are members of Orchard Hills, his maternal grandparents Steve and Jeanette Black, who live right next door to him in Covington, drive to Newnan on Sundays so they can also see their grandson serving as Orchard Hills’ worship leader.
In addition, Stanley said his girlfriend Anna Witcher has been excited for him and supportive.
“It’s been an incredible experience,” he said of his new role. “It’s a great church and the people are wonderful.”
As for the “boos” they used to get in children’s church, both Stanley and his best friend Gibb have proved those music critics wrong. Stanley is one of the youngest worship leaders in a Southern Baptist Church and Gibb is attending Belmont University in Tennessee where he is studying to become a music producer.
Stanley has had his own band, the Stephen Stanley Band, for about two years and estimates he has written about 40 songs, but said “they’re not necessarily all good.”
“The ones I really like may not be good, but there are 12 songs I like and I think they’re strong songs,” he said, adding that “God has opened some doors.”
Stanley recently recorded a song and said two music producers came to him about reproducing it. The song will be released on iTunes sometime in January with plans for a music video to follow. It is the song he sang at his great-grandmother’s funeral, “Live in Us.”
His parents are proud of their son and his father said “Live in Us” is the fourth original song his son has recorded.
Stanley said he is especially looking forward to going to Luther Rice Seminary because he wants to make sure he writes songs that are theologically correct.
“(Music producers) say Stephen’s writing is well beyond his years,” Rev. Stanley said. “I hate to brag, but they’re really excited about his writing and really hopeful. He’s got so many songs. It seems every day he’s writing one and finishing another. Whatever the Lord wants him to do, we’re just trusting God will use him however He wants to.”
Beth Slaughter Sexton is a freelance writer based in Gwinnett County. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.