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Building a House of Worship

 

By Dan and Martha Munizzi

Martha Munizzi’s seminal moment in the music industry took place 15 years ago, after she had simultaneously placed two albums (The Best Is Yet to Come and When He Came) in the top five on Billboard’s gospel charts. The Best Is Yet to Come ranked as one of the top-selling gospel albums of 2004.

Sitting across the table from a leading record executive, her eyes widened as the man said, “You’re the next Justin Timberlake . . . but the gospel version.”

In that moment, Martha thought about how—if she were naïve and didn’t have her husband, Dan, sitting next to her to help guide business decisions—she might have fallen for that line.

“So, what I said was, ‘You don’t know who I am; that’s so far from who I am,’” Martha recalls. “My flesh loved it; my flesh was like: ‘I’m the next Justin Timberlake!’ I’m glad I was a little more savvy in that season of my life to say, ‘I don’t want to be the next Justin Timberlake. I know who I want to be.’

“The enemy will try to sell you back your dream. He knows exactly what you want. The world has a way to do it. We can access everything that’s available to us, but we have to be careful and not be naïve about the way those systems work.”

When the Grammy-nominated and Dove and Stellar award-winning artist spoke those words, she didn’t realize that one day she would give up touring to help plant EpicLife Church in suburban Orlando. She and Dan serve as co-pastors of the multiracial, multiethnic congregation, where only about 20% of the attendees are Caucasian.

The non-denominational church will soon celebrate its seventh anniversary, although in the post-COVID era it’s in a rebuilding stage. While average Sunday attendance of 225-250 in the pre-pandemic era is off by about 35%, EpicLife has seen an influx of newcomers this year and generally a more positive attitude.  

“We don’t seem to have the issues we did pre-COVID,” says Martha, who handles the majority of the preaching duties (although Dan is starting to speak more often). “Everyone who’s there is happy to be there, teachable and ready to serve. It’s great.”

PRAISE & TEACHING  

While a release date is pending, the church’s September anniversary will soon be followed by the release of Martha’s first book, 30 Days of Praise. The title originates with 30 worship songs she has written over the years.

It will be a combination devotional/personal reflection/scriptural teaching, with the pastor scrambling lately to finish the material after the mid-May death of her father-in-law, Dominic Munizzi (see sidebar).

In addition to their schedules getting interrupted by Dominic’s stay in hospice care, after reviewing a draft one of her daughters said, “You missed a lot of stories.” That sent Martha back to the rewriting phase, along with the realization that she needed more content and scriptural application.

That’s because the book will also serve as a teaching tool for a 12-module worship music institute that will be available later this year via Zoom. It will cover such topics as leading worship, songwriting and teaching music.

“I’ve been adding to it as I work on it,” Martha says of her post-funeral writing blitz. “I’d rather give (the publisher) more content and them say, ‘We don’t need half of this,’ than them sending it back to me and I have to start over. . . . That’s why it’s been taking longer. For each title, I’m doing research on Scripture on what that looks like, what that means to your life, and how you can apply it to your life.”

Her husband thinks readers will be inspired by the book and through Martha’s experiences possibly see a little bit of themselves in each chapter.

“Our hope is they can relate to them in some way,” Dan says. “That they can understand the outcome of her experiences (which include molestation in her childhood and the divorce of her pastor/gospel singer parents), where God has used them to help mold and shape her into the person she is today.”

Because he oversees many of the church’s financial and administrative details, Dan hasn’t taken a role yet in the worship institute, although he expects to help with some of the curriculum and sorting through class titles.

That’s because the couple, who celebrated their 35th anniversary on June 27, are a team and bounce ideas off each other all the time. Dan says when Martha gets an inspiration, he’ll go search for a book that relates to the concept.

“One time I handed her a (John) Maxwell leadership book when she was talking about leadership,” he says. “That was useful to carrying out what she was doing. We used to say, ‘I’m the doer and she’s the dreamer.’”

CALLED TO PASTOR

One thing they weren’t dreaming of during Martha’s Billboard chart-topping days was pastoring a church, even though they had helped plant three congregations during their music careers (Dan played bass in their first praise and worship band, Testament).

Both having come out of pastoral-rich families, they were hesitant to take on the oft-challenging roles that are part of a pastor’s behind-the-scenes realities. Martha says for six years they ran from the call they felt God placing on their heart. Then other family members started saying they felt the same thing.

If they had told Dan and Martha to “stay in your lane,” she says they would have respected that advice and followed it. But when siblings and relatives talked about another assignment they sensed God calling them to, the couple stepped into it.

Prior to their 2015 launch, Martha pointed out that Dan didn’t preach, to which he replied, “You do.”  

“That’s unconventional,” she said.

“So what?” he answered. “You have a gift of communication. Just communicate.”

Several pastors and other leaders affirmed Dan’s statement, telling Martha to flow in her gift. Seven years later, she says it seems there are female preachers and pastors all over the nation.

“I just stay submitted to Dan’s leadership,” Martha says of their non-traditional pattern. “I think every church needs a Daddy; that’s important. So he is the Daddy who lets me flow and communicate and lead. When it comes to correction or guidance, he runs that part of it.

“It looks a bit different, but as far as the order of things, I believe God is the head and then the husband and we all flow under that. If we all stay in submission it works great.”

Their ministry is also a family affair, with oldest daughter, Danielle, 29, serving as youth pastor and occasionally filling the pulpit. Nicole, 27, is worship and children’s ministry pastor. Son, Nathan, 25, is a sound engineer by trade and runs the church’s sound-and-technology systems as a volunteer.

Although Martha preaches most Sundays, for sermon help she turns occasionally to Danielle. Or, speaker/personal development coach Josh Washington, author of the recent release, The Mentality of Success: Activate Your Dreams, Unlock Your Success. Also a member of the worship team, Washington’s presence on the platform reflects the dream Martha and Dan harbor of raising up younger leaders to one day take their place.

Pursuing that vision includes teaching those who come into their midst to follow God’s Word and such biblical principles as consistency, faithfulness and choosing delayed gratification over the instant variety.  

Martha delights in seeing people like the couple who were on the verge of divorce five years ago but are still together. Then there’s the woman who once faced major financial devastation but now has her life in balance.

Noting that at 54 she’s reached a different season of life, Martha says her leading ministry goal is to see her children and others they are training become successful in their calling while she cheers them on. She envisions doing more writing in years to come and possibly a podcast as she uses her life experiences to help others grow spiritually.

“We’re praying about a new building but I don’t have big goals like 2,000 people in my church,” Martha says. “I’ve learned in the last six years that you don’t build big ministries unless you build big people. That’s my goal—to continue to develop people. I often tell them: ‘God’s got plans for you. Get ready.’ I see clearly the path God has for them.”

Although Dan recently turned 60, he is surprised at discovering gifts lately that God had placed inside him but had lain dormant. Co-leading EpicLife while using the talents and abilities the Lord gave him have led to him doing more speaking lately. In the past, he used to be the guy handing the microphone to someone else. 

“Seeing personal growth in people is the most rewarding thing,” Dan says. “When they first show up and all they have is potential, and then to see them apply the principles taught at our church and apply themselves . . . to see how God has used them and raised them up in leadership roles—that’s pretty rewarding.”

WORSHIP FOUNDATION

Given the Munizzis’ musical background, worship has played a key role in EpicLife’s story. Martha has roots deep in the industry: her father, John Stallings, wrote the Dove Award-winning tune, “Learning to Lean,” in 1977.

Early in her performing career, she was praying for the days of praise and worship rising to international prominence via such churches as Bethel, Elevation and Hillsong, and groups like Maverick City.

She remembers wondering why Christian musicians couldn’t get in the forefront; instead of just Billy Graham, why couldn’t worship leaders have a platform that impacted millions of people?

“Now we’re seeing that with Hillsong,” Martha says. “I know they’re in a different season, but still God did that. He put them in the forefront of worship music. We’re seeing that with Elevation and Maverick City too. To actually see it, it’s more than I prayed for.”

One reason for her love of worship music is her belief that it touches people on a deeper heart level. Martha sees people as more engaged with God in intimate moments of worship, which is why she crafts songs in an attempt to bring people closer to the Lord.

Worship can touch people’s hearts “in a millisecond,” heal them or help them see a situation in a whole new light, Martha says. Naturally, preaching that can empower and encourage them is also important, but it follows the heart touch.

“I’m a big believer in building an environment, an atmosphere, where people can hear the Word of God,” she says. “Worship sets the stage. I always tell my worship team that the natural progression of people is energizing them and getting them to stop thinking about their problems.

“I tell them, ‘Let’s sing a song that celebrates and does that for 10 minutes. If they stop thinking about their problems, maybe they’ll look at you and then maybe they’ll look up. Give them a moment to draw in and celebrate. Then we can take them to a deeper place of intimacy with God.’”

Dan agrees that worship plays a foundational role in who EpicLife is as a church.

“Worship sets the pace, not just for services but our daily lives,” he says. “We try to model that for people who attend every Sunday when they come to our church.”

Naturally, with Martha’s musical prominence, autograph seekers appear occasionally on Sundays. After snapping a photo with them in the lobby, she says such visitors rarely return.

After traveling for years and seeing this kind of adulation at numerous stops, adjusting to the reality of church life proved challenging. Today, Martha feels pressures from many directions, whether it is expectations they will grow the church, the need to develop and equip leaders, mobilize members to serve the community, or balance the budget.

At the same time, pastoring brings the rewards of feeling deeper connections and giving to the next generation through mentoring, coaching, teaching and shepherding.

“I get joy from seeing growth and feeling we’re moving forward, not just standing still,” Martha says. “Forming relationships, watching people get healed and marriages mended.  Watching little babies grow up, and now they’re in middle school and running a camera. You don’t get any of that traveling.”

 

 

Deep Roots

As the great-grandson of a pastor who planted an Italian Pentecostal church that is thriving a century later, Dan Munizzi has deep roots in the world of ministry. His grandfather also pastored. So did his father, Dominic Daniel Munizzi, who emigrated to America at the age of nine.

Since Dad went by his middle name, in the family Dan became known as “Danny Boy” and the unofficial Junior. Dominic led worship in his church as a youth and later became a pastor, changing the course of his life and his son’s.

“That’s all I knew—church worship music and praise bands,” Dan says. “That’s a big reason Martha and I met, serving on a local worship band (at Calvary Assembly of God) in Orlando and pursuing our calling.”

Given their widespread extended family roots and close-knit character, Dominic’s faltering health earlier this year touched the Munizzis on a deep level. Despite the mound of responsibilities on their respective plates, Dan, Martha and their family took as much time as possible to be with his father as the elder Munizzi went into hospice care.

Two days after his father’s death in mid-May, Dan was back in church. When others asked why, he replied that’s what Dominic would have wanted. After all, the elder Munizzi taught all his children to love God and the church. Growing up, Dan learned there was no better place to go.

“That’s how we worship,” Dan says of gathering with God’s people. “It’s better than staying home. The grieving process is different for everyone. Two days after he passed, I said, ‘I need to be around people who care about me and love me.’”

As for other leaders who need to lean on God during a personal crisis, Dan advises not feeling obligated in either direction: “Just make it between you and God. Ask Him, ‘What would you have me do in regard to the people of our church?’”

 

Star Power

Martha Munizzi’s music has long crossed over to Black audiences, signified by her first Stellar Award in 2005, to be followed by two more. Founded in 1984, the gospel music awards have gone to such noted African American performers as Kirk Franklin, Marilyn McCoo, CeCe Winans, Donnie McClurkin and Vickie Winans.

After taking an extended break from recording because of a plethora of vocal problems, in the summer of 2021 she released her first album in a decade, Best Days.

While modern downloading habits have meant only modest CD sales, the album earned her another Stellar nomination. This year’s awards will be handed out July 15-16 in Atlanta, with Munizzi one of four singers in the “Traditional Female Artist” category.

“To me, the nomination is a ‘win,’” Martha says. “It’s another example of God’s sense of humor. I’ve struggled with vocal problems for the last eight or nine years. I’ve had nodules (growths that form on the vocal cords) and went to so many specialists and had to go to therapy for my throat.

“I thought, ‘My singing days are behind me.’ So to get nominated for an award is so funny. It’s all God. We laugh about it because I didn’t even want to do a recording. I didn’t think I was strong enough to do what I did in the past, but my producer . . . pushed and said, ‘You can do it.’ I did and I’m really proud of it.”

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