Exclusive Interview: Evan Wickham on What Christmas Really Means
Evan Wickham has been a worship leader at the National Worship Leader Conferences multiple times, and through that experience we at Worship Leader have been privileged to get to know a talented person with an authentic passion for ministry and the people he leads. His 2009 release, Above the Sky was one of our favorite worship releases of that year, and now with his new Christmas album, Christmas Music Vol. 1, we have been treated to a similar worship experience that is wonderfully focused on the incarnation and how that act transformed everything. We wanted to take the opportunity to help you get to know him a little better.
You’ve been leading in the church for many years in many different positions, how has your work in different fields formed your view of servanthood and leadership?
As soon as I graduated high school, my pastor asked me to come on as a youth ministry intern. This basically meant hanging out with kids, leading worship, making event calendars, cleaning church bathrooms a lot, and doing whatever else was needed around the church facility from 9 to 5 on weekdays and 7 to 2 on Sundays. It wasn’t always easy, but I loved it. It was where God had me. After a couple years, I was given the roles of youth pastor and worship leader. So for the first seven years of my adult life, this is how my view of servanthood and leadership was shaped. I believe God used those years of more traditionally structured, clock-in-clock-out, office-based ministry work to prepare me for the years to come.
How did you come to writing, recording, producing, and managing yourself as an artist independently? What has your journey been like through this process?
It has been fun ride for sure. To be honest, I never asked for this. Even though I had always been writing songs for use in the local church, I had fully expected to be a youth guy for the long haul. One day I realized I had enough songs to record an album. So I did. In 2006 I produced my first record with my dad in his spare bedroom. That was the Mysterious Things album. Once those songs were recorded, they began to take on lives of their own. Other local churches started singing some of the songs. When calls started coming in, I began to feel torn. I had some decisions to make. Do I try and balance pastoral ministry with a busy traveling/music schedule? If not, then which one was I supposed to fully pursue? After tons of prayer, fasting, and more prayer, my wife and I decided to fully commit ourselves to worship leading, songwriting, and music ministry. In early 2007 we partnered with a church in San Diego that shared our vision for worship both locally and globally. So for these past six years I’ve been helping out with worship at the church while simultaneously being able to create and travel with the broader Church in view. I am so thankful to be part of a church that shares a vision for mission not only to those who fill the seats on Sunday but also to take part in the bigger picture of what God is doing outside the local church walls.
Your Christmas record was birthed in collaboration, can you tell us a little more about how that came about?
Yes! I had this idea to invite some of my music buddies over to my house for a couple days to record some Christmas songs. Admittedly, we were lacking in the department of Christmas spirit as it was the middle of July. But once I broke out the yuletide décor and decked the halls with holly, we were good to go. We recorded songs together. We ate pretzels and drank nog. It was festive. We even managed to capture one of our live-in-studio takes of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” on video. Check it out if you so desire:
What was the best thing about pulling together a Christmas record? What was the biggest challenge?
That’s a tough one. I loved the whole process. And I love Christmas! I think one of the best things about a self-produced project is that the artist has complete creative control. Of course, that could also be a bad thing if said artist can’t handle constructive criticism. Thankfully, my dad is one of the most seasoned and experienced musical minds that I know. Whenever I run something by him, I always get world-class feedback.
Also, Christmas records tend to have a certain built-in awesomness factor: The songs! There are so so many great Christmas songs out there. The challenge for the recording artist is to arrange the songs in such a way that they best represent his or her overall vision for the project. So when it comes to a Christmas record, I think a lot of the normal rules can get bent a bit. It’s not so much the heart of the artist that is central; it’s the heart of the artist as it pertains specifically to the season and meaning of Christmas that becomes the primary feature. So for me, my regular rules changed a bit. In past projects, I’ve typically had this one rule: “I’ll record it if I wrote it.” For this Christmas record, that rule changed to: “I’ll record it if I love it.” I only wrote four of the 11 tracks. Of the remaining seven, two were written by friends and five are my take on some more familiar classics.
I’d say the biggest challenge for me was maintaining some level of objectivity throughout the process. You can only stare so long at 11 different Logic Pro sessions before you start to loose sight of the forest for the trees.
What was the most important theological aspect of Christmas that you wanted to get across in your music?
I’ve been reading and studying a lot about the good news of Jesus, how Jesus was the in-person fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets of ancient Israel. When Jesus hit the 1st century Middle Eastern scene, his society was pregnant with anticipation and ripe for renovation. Like the children of Israel enslaved in Egypt 14 centuries before them, the Jews of Jesus’ day were also enslaved, but this time in their own land under Roman occupation. It was a horrible middle-place, being both citizens in God’s Promised Land and oppressed by godless Roman rule at the same time. This was the worst kind of exile. It was like being surrounded by all the best things in life without being able to touch any of them.
Enter Jesus. Jesus’ message? “The Kingdom of God is finally within reach” (Mk 1:13-15). Here is the end of exile. Jesus is the new Moses. Oppression has lost its power. Resurrection re-enters the universe. Israel’s age-old story reaches its climactic fulfillment in Jesus, and now we live in a post-exilic universe where divine reconciliation and human resurrection is not only possible but universally available to all who believe.
To me, this is what Christmas means. This is why I placed the song “End of Exile” in the track six slot, to function as the thematic centerpiece of this 11 track record.
What is it like being in a family of talented musicians, artists, and worship leaders? Do you collaborate in songwriting with your brother, Phil?
I do. We’ve only officially written a few songs together over the years. But whenever one of us is in record mode, we’re usually bouncing ideas off each other informally. I think the last song we wrote together was “This Is the Day” which was on his last studio record “Response.”
What else is coming up in the future for you?
Well, I’m about halfway done with a new record right now. I’m crazy pumped about this new batch of songs. One of them is a co-write with Matt Maher, and another is a co-write with Michael Gungor, Aaron Keyes, and Bryan Brown. My heart has been heavy for the Church and her mission to be salt and light in the world. This is actually a topic for a whole separate conversation. Suffice it to say, my hope is that this new collection of songs speaks and sings into that theme.
What is the bigger message you hope to convey in all of your music collectively?
My hope is that the music emphasizes the centrality of Christ and emboldens the mission of the Church. It’s an orthodoxy and orthopraxy thing, a dual harmony of correct doctrine and correct practice. I feel like much of Christian music is either heavy on doctrine and light on practice, or big on practice without a whole lot of doctrine. When you’re heavy on doctrinal correctness without a model for living out the truths that you proclaim, you risk creating a cozy culture of ingrown “churchianity”. On the flipside, if you’re big on “living the gospel” without actually digging into what the biblical gospel of Jesus is, then the gospel is quickly reduced to random acts of kindness and the church risks becoming virtually indistinguishable from any other social betterment group. I think it’s a both/and thing. Right doctrine and right living. I want both of these to be equally upheld and furthered through my entire body of art. Whether I am singing “Amazing Grace” or “Chestnuts roasting”, I am singing as a believer in the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ, joining with Him on His mission to share His life with the world.