Seldom does a Wednesday night worship band include members who have played backup for Celine Dion, sung vocals for Mary J. Blige or worked with Prince. But at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, contemporary worship director and vocalist Sara Renner has put together such a group with Tonia Hughes, Billy Steele, Cory Wong, Tim Zhorne and Bill Chouinard.
Anywhere from 150 to 800 people attend the weekly gospel service, and since attendance goes down in the summer, the group is putting together special outdoor services on July 1 and August 5, rather than weekly services. “We’ll have food and games,” Renner says. “It will be a party.”
Renner says she picked these band members for many reasons, one being their strong faith and understanding of music in the church. “They are all among the best, if not the best, at what they do,” Renner says.
Aside from the special summer schedule, the group rehearses and performs every Wednesday night. So before you go, take a look below and get to know the members of St. Andrew’s Wednesday Night Worship Band.
Sara Renner, vocals
Renner started singing as a child at church and with her family, including her grandpa Joe and aunt Nancy, who both inspired her to sing. After high school, she started volunteering for the worship team and choir at church, and her career evolved from there. Suddenly, people were offering to pay her to sing. “It surprised me that I could make a living doing something I loved so much,” she says.
A full-time musician for 15 years and contemporary worship director at St. Andrew’s for five of those years, Renner has recorded six albums of original music that have reached people throughout the world.
Her musical inspiration comes from listening to soul greats like Aretha Franklin, Andrae Crouch, Anita Baker and Stevie Wonder. “Music is a means of communicating a message,” Renner says. “At St. Andrew’s, I get the opportunity to pass on God’s heart to the people.”
Cory Wong, guitar
Wong was 13 when he saw Green Day do a live show on MTV, fell in love with punk rock and picked up a guitar. “Since then, my tastes and genres of choice have changed a lot, but that’s where it started for me,” he says.
Once Wong started playing in college, he never needed a job outside of music. “I was very nervous about doing music as a profession, but felt God asking me to take a leap of faith and do it,” he says. “I haven’t looked back once.”
Wong’s college mentor and teacher, Peruvian guitarist Andrés Prado, taught him about playing and writing “for something bigger than yourself,” and while his main influences are guitarists like Pat Metheny and Jeff Beck, he says that working with the Wednesday-night group is inspiring every time. “The other band members are people that I genuinely look up to and love being around.”
Tonia Hughes, vocals
Hughes’ earliest memory of singing is in her church’s children’s choir at age 4, and she’s been singing ever since.
Her professional career started after moving to Minneapolis in 1995 and joining Minneapolis Gospel Sound. “We toured all over the world, as well as recorded about five albums,” she says.
In 2005, she started her solo career and recorded three albums. She’s opened for gospel greats like Dorinda Clark-Cole and recorded background vocals for Mary J. Blige’s hit “No More Drama.” In the Twin Cities, she’s performed with the Minnesota Orchestra, “which was surreal,” she says, and has done musical theater. “My favorite role to date was playing the fairy godmother at the Ordway in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.”
With inspiration from soul singers like Aretha Franklin and pop singers such as Whitney Houston, Hughes has found the perfect fit at St. Andrew’s. “I love that we’ve created this community of family,” she says. “It’s been a blessing being there.”
Bill Chouinard, pipe organ, bass
At age 13, Chouinard played his first wedding gig on the piano, and in eighth grade he picked up the bass. Since then, he’s performed in numerous venues, including regularly at what was Rupert’s Night Club in Minneapolis.
“Back in its day, it was the place to be,” he says. There, he backed up Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, Donny Osmond and Don Henley. Roughly 27 years ago, he was hired by St. Andrew’s to play the organ in the sanctuary services, but when Renner came in, he moved to the Wednesday-night band she put together. The band, he says, allows him to be a jazz musician by collaborating. “The organ is largely not collaborative,” he says. But in the group, and with the bass, “I enjoy the freedom to deviate from that and be creative.”
Tim Zhorne, drums
Zhorne first started drumming, “or more accurately, banging on pots, pans, and books,” at about 4 years old and was given his first drum kit in fourth grade. He’s been performing with groups for about 36 years, locally and nationally, and went full time with music roughly 17 years ago.
Local drummer Gordy Knutson was a mentor for Zhorne early in his career, and he’s inspired by and enjoys the work of Steve Gadd, Brian Blade, Vinnie Colaiuta and Bill Berg. His work with other groups is extensive, and includes Renner, whom he’s worked with for over 20 years. Others include Irv Williams and Brian Bates.
Zhorne says he loves working with the Wednesday night group. “The combination of creative energy, musical excellence, respect and genuine hearts that want to seek God—it’s such a privilege to be a part of such a talented team.”
Billy Steele, piano, vocals
Steele started playing piano and singing with his family at the age of 13 in Gary, Ind., and began performing with them as the Steele Family Singers.
Since then, he’s worked with Prince, Rod Stewart and Aretha Franklin, and is a member of the Grammy award-winning group Sounds of Blackness. Family is essential to Steele, who says his parents were his greatest mentors, and even with Grammy awards, counts his family (he and his wife have three children) as his greatest success. His siblings were also inspirations growing up, as well as Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway and Luther Vandross.
At St. Andrew’s, Steele says gospel music “allows us to minister through a strong music-form of my culture. It allows us to introduce to some of the young people of St. Andrew’s a different form of worship.”