t cottrell mckinney column

When Travis Cottrell relocated from Jackson, Tennessee in mid-2020 to become worship pastor at the main campus of the multi-site, 13,000-member Brentwood Baptist Church, he said “it felt like home immediately.” 

COVID restrictions and social distancing were still in place, and he was temporarily leaving his family behind so his youngest child could graduate from high school in Jackson. Under those circumstances, it might seem remarkable he would so quickly feel at home.  

But Cottrell, who directs a 100-plus member choir, and each Sunday leads the Brentwood congregation in worship, has never been one to shy away from a challenge or change.  

During a recent morning sitting in Connection Cafe, the large, sunny gathering place located in the rear of the spacious Brentwood campus structure, Cottrell cheerfully waved and spoke greetings to passersby while reflecting over nearly two years at the church where he is now employed. He also talked about the time leading up to his taking the job.  

Looking back over three decades of church worship-leading, studio musician work, writing music, making solo records and leading worship for arena-sized conferences – not to mention marrying and raising a family –he knows flexibility and adaptability have served him well.  

“I know it seems weird, but I like change,” he said with a smile. 

Weird or not, enjoying change would be a good thing, considering the situation as Cottrell arrived onsite at Brentwood Baptist. After having shifted to virtual services at the beginning of the pandemic, the church was beginning to carefully resume in-person gatherings while still observing COVID precautions. 

Because of social distancing, the choir he was supposed to direct would not be meeting in the custom-designed choir room with built-in risers but, rather, in the church’s worship center, with members six feet apart from each other. The annual Christmas program, a popular holiday tradition in the area with multiple performances by the church’s choir and full orchestra, was performed that year with no live audience and aired online. 

To be sure, the obstacles were many those first few months. But they were not insurmountable for Cottrell, who took everything in stride while splitting his time between Brentwood and his home in Jackson. Staying in a church member’s guest quarters when in town, he felt very much welcomed and yes, at home. 

Today he knows the position at Brentwood Baptist is a great fit for him and his “deep sense of calling to ministry” -- although working in a church is not where he might have pictured himself years ago. 

It’s all about worship

Cottrell, who grew up in Boone, North Carolina, transferred from Appalachian State to Nashville’s Belmont University in 1990, graduating with a music degree in 1992.  

He had a strong leaning toward classical music, but was still unsure what he would do long-term with his training and education. It would not be long, however, until that would all begin to unfold.  

With a position as a music editor for a large publishing company, he began to meet folks in the business and began “studio singing” – everything from backup vocals for bands to jingles for television commercials.  

He would come to know big names in music, and his calendar filled quickly. He began making custom records in1996, published his first choral work with Brentwood-Benson in 1999 and signed his first record deal with Integrity Music in 2003. He has written and co-written songs many around these parts would recognize.  

But since graduating from Belmont all those years ago, there seems to have always been an emphasis on leading worship.  

When the worship pastor at Nashville’s Two Rivers Baptist Church, which Cottrell was attending during his Belmont days and beyond, resigned in 1994, Cottrell was asked by the church to lead worship on an interim basis. 

It was during that time, he said, “God turned my heart toward worship ministry.”  

Still, when asked to take the position permanently about a year and a half later, Cottrell graciously declined.  

“I have no good reason why I turned down the job,” he said, “other than the Lord told me not to take it.”

While he and wife Angela, whom he had met at Two Rivers and married in 1993, knew a steady church job would have lent some stability to family life, after seeking counsel and praying about it, they felt comfortable turning it down. 

The studio work around Nashville continued, as did the writing and co-writing. He would eventually make records of his own. He said he learned how musicians “can do a few different things and make a living.” 

Living Proof Conferences

In 1995, he met someone who would take him down yet another path, one that continues to this day. He and renowned Bible study leader Beth Moore were at an event sponsored by Lifeway, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. 

They became friends, and he later accepted her invitation to become worship leader for her “Living Proof” conferences, which started in 1998 as a few per year, but quickly grew to 10-15. He and his worship band would eventually travel to all 50 states and overseas with Moore and her conferences.  

Cottrell said the two of them laugh about “whether she is an older sister or a mother figure,” and he said at different times she has filled each role.  

The conferences, marketed to women, have generally been held in arenas that hold thousands. Cottrell would typically be one of only a handful of men in the building and would joke about how nice it was to have no line for the men’s restroom. 

The conferences were affected by the pandemic but have now resumed. Cottrell said they are now held mostly in churches, however, which he describes as “more adaptable and event-friendly in these post-lockdown times than the arenas and civic centers.” 

Life in Jackson  

In 2010, Cottrell and his family moved to Jackson, where he would lead worship at Englewood Baptist Church. He described this as a good move for him, Angela and their three children. They enjoyed the church and community and were happy to be near Angela’s mother and stepfather who lived there.   

Their children, Jack (now 25, married to Samantha and living in the area), Lily (now 21 and a senior at Nashville’s Lipscomb University) and Levi (now 19 and a sophomore at Union University in Jackson), spent a major part of their growing-up years in Jackson and loved spending time with their grandparents at their home in the country.   

Sadly, Angela’s stepdad passed away in 2015, and Cottrell said they were especially glad to have the time they had with him while living there.  

As it is with any church, or any job for that matter, there were leadership changes during Cottrell’s years at Englewood, with three different senior pastors. But just as it had been with everything else in his life, Cottrell rolled right along with those changes. His calling as a worship leader was further solidified, preparing him for another transition.  

Back to Middle Tennessee 

Cottrell met his longtime friend and mentor, Dennis Worley, when both were involved in the Christian publishing and music world. Worley has been on staff at Brentwood Baptist for 29 years and now has the title of Lead Worship Pastor, providing mentoring, coaching and equipping for worship ministries and leaders for the church’s eight campuses.  

According to Cottrell, a conversation with Worley in early 2020 led to more serious discussions and his eventual acceptance of his current position. 

From that first discussion with Worley in which he knew the worship pastor job was a real possibility, Cottrell was excited. He was already familiar with the church and well acquainted with not only Worley, but also the senior pastor, Mike Glenn.  

Some years ago, when the church was starting its young adult ministry, “Kairos,” Glenn approached Cottrell about leading worship for its group meetings. At that point the time did not seem right, but Cottrell knew when this opportunity came along, he wanted to seriously consider it. 

And Worley wanted him to.  

“Travis was always my top choice,” Worley said, when asked about the process of bringing Cottrell on board. “I knew he would lead our people well and our future would be in great hands with him as our worship leader.”  

Angela moved to the area with Cottrell in April of 2021, and they purchased a home in Arrington. In addition to his duties at the church, the two of them lead a small group in their home, comprised of young married couples. 

Worley could not be more pleased to have Cottrell leading worship at the church he has served for so long.  

“He’s a tremendously gifted musician and is committed to the development of other leaders,” he said. “He has brought new energy and passion to our worship ministry.”  

Worley also acknowledged Cottrell’s keen wit and how he “wants ministry to be fun.” 

Jackie Arnold, a 30-year choir member, agrees. 

“Travis is kind, caring and easygoing with choir members,” she said, while also mentioning his “great sense of humor.” 

“It has been wonderful having him as our worship minister,” she said. “The sincere way he leads our congregation and choir means so much.” 

Cottrell feels similar warmth towards staff and members of the church.  

“I adore the people here,” he said, describing how they think “up” and are motivated to dig deeper in worship.  

His desire is to lead them well and “earn their trust” as he does so. 

With his humility, enthusiasm and passion, it is not difficult to understand how a large church has made him feel at home.  

Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, happy husband and proud father, father-in-law and grandfather. Email him at [email protected] 

Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, happy husband and proud father, father-in-law and grandfather.