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‘Worship has formational power,’ says Dr. Tony McNeill, Columbia’s New Affiliate Professor of Worship and Seminary Musician

By Mashaun D. Simon, Doctor of Ministry ‘24

When he was six years old, Dr. Tony McNeill, unexpectedly received a keyboard for Christmas. His mom or dad, or whoever Santa Claus was, thought that buying him a toy piano, or organ, for Christmas would be a good thing.

“I still remember what I had on – a onesie,” he said. “I remember what the house smelled like. I remember what the tree looked like, and I remember the placement of the keyboard under the tree. Centered right in front of the tree. And it looked like it had a glow around it.”

He also remembers standing in the archway of the living room, looking at the instrument, and hearing a voice. But it wasn’t the voice of anyone there in the room. This voice was coming from someplace else; somewhere within him and beyond him.

“You’re gonna do this for the rest of your life,” McNeill remembers hearing.

That message became a long, distinguished, musical career which this summer led Dr. McNeill to the Columbia Theological Seminary community where he became Affiliate Professor of Worship & Seminary Musician. He brings to Columbia over a decade of experience in worship and choral music instruction, which includes serving on the staff of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, director of Worship and the Arts at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, and most recently, director of Choral Activities and chairman of the Department of Performing Arts at Clinton College in Rock Hill, SC.

In his role at Columbia, he will be part of the seminary’s worship teaching team, which includes teaching this fall’s Introduction to Worship course. For someone who has a passion for worship, especially in the Black church experience, teaching the introduction course is right up his alley.

“It is an opportunity to share,” he said. “Worship is a tool of spiritual formation, not just entertainment. Worship has formational power. What we say, what we sing, and the choices the minister of music and pastor make has the potential for formative impact on people’s lives, and on people’s perception of who God is.”

Church music is everything to him. Even though his introduction to music was seemingly by happenstance, the years following were a mix of instruction, curiosity, and opportunity. Following that Christmas, he toyed with the keyboard nonstop.

“I had no idea what I was doing, but I touched it for hours. A few times my parents hid it from me. They were like, ‘Go out and play. Go do something else.’ And I would, for like 10 minutes,” he said. “Then I would come back in the house, find the keyboard, and go back to pressing those keys.”

Eventually his mother recognized there was something more to his fascination. She took him to get piano lessons from the area piano instructor, a woman he remembers as Mrs. Rue. She took a chance on him, he said.

“I remember her saying to my mom, ‘I normally don’t take them this young because their fingers are not fully developed. But I’m gonna give this young man a try.’ And she did.”

From Mrs. Rue he learned to read music. Then he learned to play by ear, which led him to Oak Grove African Methodist Episcopal Church where he played for Sunday School. Eventually he graduated to morning worship. In middle school, he began leading choir rehearsals.

“My feet could barely touch the floor, but I’m sitting there running a rehearsal,” he said. “That’s where it began. Church music is the impetus of why I’m even here at Columbia. She, the Black church, has nurtured the gift that God has given to me.”

While at Columbia, McNeill hopes to cultivate a space of formation for music ministers, worship leaders, and creatives.

He thinks often of the minister of music or the church musician who will never step foot in a seminary or attend a Bible class yet has the responsibility and sacred trust of the congregations for which they serve.

“What does it look like to create spaces where these folks can come and learn what it means to think theologically — and what it means to plan worship ethically — that helps people shape themselves in the image of God,” he said. “Worship and the arts are not just tools to make people feel good, but to inspire them and to help people shape their understanding of the God within – the Imago Dei.”

It is not enough to be gifted, McNeill said.

“Yes, you can play. You can direct. You can sing,” he added. “But can you think theologically. And what does it mean to wed that gifting to an ethical understanding of who God is?”