Women in Worship – Women’s History Month

March is women’s history month and in honor of all the women who have faithfully lead us in worship, we are featuring an article on some of the history of women in worship over the past 40 years.

BY SUSAN FONTAINE GODWIN: I first joined a worship team in 1975 shortly after Jesus rescued and saved me. I’d been playing my guitar and singing in taverns in a California ski resort town when the pastor invited me to sit in with the team. I soon realized that my passion for music was surprisingly rooted in a deep, divine longing to worship the Creator. I’ve been involved in worship ministries ever since, including nine years at Integrity’s Hosanna! Music, and four years with Worship Leaders’ Song DISCovery.     

In the early years of modern worship, there were some remarkable female songwriters and artists (Laurie Klein, Lynn DeShazo, Nicole Mullen, Claire Cloninger, Annie Herring and Dale Garratt to name just a few), but there was a noticeable absence of women in worship leadership roles…

Looking at the worship landscape today, some would never guess that women worship leaders were ever an anomaly in Christian music.  As recently as 2014, there were more articles asking “Where are all the female worship leaders? than stories about active women leaders. There is now such a wave of emerging women in leadership roles that one article features author Kevin Davis’ “12 Favorite Female Worship Leaders.” And while I agree with many of his favorites, I’d definitely add Rita Springer and Alicia Williams-Garcia. I would also certainly add  Bethel Music , which has made a significant impact on both team and female worship leading.

However, if we go back several decades when Integrity’s Hosanna! Music was producing live worship recordings semi-monthly, there were no women worship leaders slotted for any of their projects. Now, I had my favorites who never had a major national or international platform. You may not have heard of Lynn DeShazo, but most worshipers have sung many of her songs, like “More Precious Than Silver,” “Ancient Words,” “Be Magnified,” or “Your Grace Is Sufficient.” You probably recognized Michael W. Smith, or Don Moen, or perhaps Marty Nystrom leading the congregation singing those songs, but you might not have known the woman behind the songs.

Sadly, what so many missed was experiencing the way Lynn lead worshipers to the throne of God with her acoustic guitar and rich alto voice. She wasn’t featured on a major record label worship project, but her music, lyrics, and sensitive leading blessed thousands. And there are countless other women who have faithfully lead worshipers without a big recording artist deal.

Two female pioneers blazed a path in worship leading in the 1990’s – one in the US and one from down under the Southern Cross in Australia. Rita Springer from Vineyard’s Stream and Darlene Zschech via Hillsong’s River both navigated uncharted waters in following God’s call to write songs and lead worship in a season that was exploding with new worship music spanning the globe.

Darlene Zschech’s song “Shout to the Lord” was making waves of its own and had already been recorded by Don Moen on the Hosanna! Music album, Rivers of Joy in July 1995.

When the Hosanna! Music team went to Australia to record the project, Darlene was not slated to be featured as worship leader. Geoff Bullock had been worship pastor at Hills Christian Life Center (now Hillsong) for many years and his songs were well known around the world. However, only a few days before the live album recording, Geoff left the church and was no longer a part of the recording project. Darlene, who had served as Vocal Director and was a recognizable leader in the church’s music department, was asked to step in as worship leader on the project.

Back in the States, we were surprised to hear about the change, and I have to admit I was rejoicing!  As a result, Darlene made history as the first female worship leader on a Hosanna! Music album. Some would say she was Integrity’s first “accidental” female worship leader, but God has a marvelous way of rearranging our paths and surprising us with divine plans.

Darlene was the worship pastor of Hillsong Church from 1996 to 2007, during which time she served as producer, vocal producer, or executive producer for more than 20 albums under the Hillsong Music label and wrote more than 80 published worship songs.[13]

“Shout to the Lord” has also been covered by Don Moen, Carman, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, Michael W. Smith, Lincoln Brewster, John Tesh, and Sandi Patty. On April 9, 2008, I was thrilled to watch as “Shout to the Lord” was the closing song on Idol Gives Back, sung by the remaining American Idol contestants and a gospel choir. The lyrics of the song were altered, changing the word “Jesus” to “Shepherd” in the first line,[3] without the approval of Zschech or Hillsong Music Publishing. As a song publisher and administrator, I noticed the lyric change immediately and wondered what would happen. At the request of the song’s publishers, the song was performed again at the opening of the next show the following night, this time using the original lyrics. The studio version of the performance charted at number 43 in the Billboard Hot 100, based on digital download sales alone.

Darlene is acclaimed all over the world as a composer, worship leader, pastor, and speaker, most notably for her involvement in the music from Hillsong Church, Sydney over many years.

Although she may not have sought the limelight or acclaim, the Australian has been a pioneer, encouraging and training many in the ministry of worship.  

Darlene says, “First and foremost I am a woman who simply and wholeheartedly loves Christ, and serves Him through loving my family, serving the church, and speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves.”

“Although she has achieved numerous gold albums and her songs are sung in many nations of the world, Darlene’s success simply stands as a testimony to her life’s passion for serving God and people with all her heart. Alongside her husband Mark, they are the Senior Pastors of Hope Unlimited Church (HopeUC) on the Central Coast of New South Wales, Australia,” according to Darlene’s website.

Managing partner of Nashville Christian Songwriters, John Chisum adds the perspective of more than 35 years in the Christian music industry:

“Darlene Zschech blazed a trail for female worship leaders who are bold, anointed, and who are unafraid to stand in the Spirit’s power. Her example and those who’ve followed her have opened up worship leadership by females that is badly needed in the church today for the gifts and talents that have long laid dormant throughout church history.”

Who are some of your favorite female worship leaders? What unique aspects do you think women bring to worship? What would help equip and support women in worship leadership roles? Answer below in comments. 

In Part 2, we will take a look at Rita Springer’s impact on songwriting and worship over the past 20 years.

Susan Fontaine Godwin is CCS’s Founder/CVO, an educator and long-time member of the Christian arts community with more than 33 years of experience in the Christian media industry, church copyright administration and copyright management. Susan is an author and speaker and frequently writes for several Christian magazines and online publications. She serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Mobile.

About Christian Copyright Solutions: CCS’s quest is to help churches and Christian ministries “do music right.” CCS is an expert on church music copyrights and our primary focus is providing licensing and clear educational resources to churches, as well as representation, administration, and advocacy for copyright owners. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, andYouTube.  The information contained herein is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.

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