NEW ORLEANS—On any given Sunday in the tiny North Texas town of Farmersville, James Cheesman leads worship at First Baptist Church in front of about 350 people—400 on a good Sunday. This past Easter, the church had about 500 people in attendance.
On any given day of the 2023 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting, held June 13-14 at the prodigious Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Cheesman found himself leading worship before roughly 15,000 messengers and guests in attendance.
In other words, he led worship before a crowd nearly four times the size of the entire population of the town where he serves.
“It was incredible,” Cheesman said a few minutes after finishing the final worship session of the meeting. “Playing with the band and leading with that team was incredible, but the most incredible thing of all was the times I was able to listen to the whole group of people singing together—just a room of people on fire for Jesus lifting up their voices together. … It was pretty electric.”
Leading worship at the Annual Meeting wasn’t on Cheesman’s radar until a couple of weeks prior to the 2022 Annual Meeting in Anaheim, where his pastor, Bart Barber, would run for SBC president. Traditionally, the SBC president is given the courtesy of selecting the next year’s worship pastor. When Barber was elected, Cheesman was invited to lead worship in New Orleans.
Leading worship at an SBC Annual Meeting is a monumental task, Cheesman said, so he began preparations shortly after the Anaheim meeting. He started with a phone call to a friend from college, Augustine Hui, who lives in New Orleans. Cheesman asked Hui if he would help him lead worship and build a team of others who could bring a diversity of worship styles to the service—including gospel, jazz, and bluegrass.
In the ensuing months, choir and orchestral performers from First Baptist Church of Covington, La., Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, and First Baptist Church of Mandeville, La., agreed to help—joining singers from First Farmersville, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and from a few other churches and organizations.
“It’s like a full-time job, honestly. It’s a lot of preparation,” Cheesman said. “When J.D. Greear was president, they had several worship pastors at all of their various campuses who could work together to accomplish it. But I’m pretty much a one-man show. So—and this is something I can give God the glory for—I just reached out to people and started making connections, and God just put together an incredible team to surround me and be a part of this.”
As he prayerfully considered songs for the worship sets, Cheesman consulted with many of the key players who would appear on stage during the meeting, including Barber, convention sermon preacher Todd Unzicker, the SBC’s Committee on the Order of Business, and officials with the International Mission Board. When IMB’s Mission Sending Celebration was held on the first day of the meeting, it featured a virtual choir consisting of more than 20 missionaries on the field singing a coordinated, pre-recorded song.
Cheesman said the Sending Celebration was one of the highlights of the meeting for him, as was Southwestern’s acapella group leading messengers in singing “Behold Our God” in nine languages at once. Cheesman also had the opportunity to lead messengers in singing a song he co-wrote with his friend Kris Redus called “Do Not Grow Weary.”
During his press conference on the final day of the convention, amidst questions from the media about the hot-button issues dealt with at the Annual Meeting, Barber briefly mentioned his worship pastor, saying, “[He’s] been doing a great job this week.”
As Barber spoke, Cheesman had already taken the stage downstairs in the convention hall to lead worship for the final time. After that? Rest—at least for a little while.
“I’m contemplating taking a nap right now,” Cheesman joked, “but I’m not going to yet.”