Practice the Presence
An interview with Israel Houghton
By Jeremy Armstrong
After a striking success with two studio offerings that garnered back-to-back Grammys for Israel as a solo artist (Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album 2009, 2010), he is back with New Breed, and together they return to their roots with their August 2012 release Jesus at the Center. The new offering is a live recording captured with Houghton’s home community at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, where he serves as a worship leader. And the reason all of this is relevant is if there is a single leader who understands the importance of excellence in leading a service of worship while simultaneously making sure the power of the Spirit’s presence is revealed, it’s Israel Houghton. Highly visible and scrutinized by millions, Lakewood is a tough gig. And this is at least part of the reason Houghton is quick to mark the inherent confusion created when worship leaders—who are musicians and artists in every way, who week after week rehearse their skills, who position themselves on raised stages under spotlights, and who play music in front of a group of people—claim that what they do is not a performance.
“We always hear worship leaders say, ‘We’re not here to perform, were just here to worship.’” Begins Houghton. “Well you could do that at home. Look around; there is a whole bunch of people here that have something in common. They are looking for inspiration. They are looking for someone to usher them to the heart of Jesus. You have a role to play. … And I realize we have to get past the place where it’s just about music. Ultimately, It has to really be about bringing those people to a place where they say, ‘Wow. I hear God’s voice right now. I feel a strength that I didn’t feel when I got here.’”
There is a refreshing sense of clarity in Houghton’s approach. Perform means “to present (a form of entertainment) to an audience.” So possibly we have some problem with the word “entertainment.” However, entertainment is part of many ministries. If your pastor didn’t entertain you, you would tune out in the first five minutes of his sermon. Of course these things are nuanced. If all he did for 45 minutes was entertain the congregation, then we would have a problem. Entertainment, performance, these are elements in leading worship, to hide from that fact is naïve. But they are only part. There is a more honest and encompassing understanding of the many nuances of the art of leading worship.
“Some of the best performances I’ve ever been a part of have been where people almost had to lean in to experience it, as opposed to just being hit in the face with a huge production,” says Houghton. “There have been other times when the production has been so amazing and dramatic, that you can see the inspiration in that as well. But sometimes in performing, the most simplistic, pared down, scaled down, approach might be the best one. At my church, one of the things we did as a team was examine the effort we put into Easter. For Easter weekend we poured great effort into how the songs would be structured, how we were going to go about it, we planned this big drum feature thing. Whatever. I asked our team, ‘What if we did that every week?’ Just put it all out there every single week? Some would see that as the wrong kind of performance, but I would see it as caring for the people that are coming to hear from God. Every couple of months at Lakewood, I have to remind our team as I remind myself: we’re not here because we are the best musicians that they could find; we’re here because God orchestrated it. You can’t take that for granted. You can’t phone that in. There are only 52 Sundays in a year. You have 52 opportunities with the people God has entrusted you to lead per year. And with vacations and other things, it’s going to be even less than that. So there are no throwaways.”
Do No Harm
The point here is that avoiding performance could do more harm than good. Houghton explains, “From my angle, a poor performance is when somebody is leading and they might as well have a sign on that says, ‘Look at me. I’m about to impress you.’ That’s what I call back-footed worship. Whereas front-footed worship, which is what I demand of my team both at Lakewood and with New Breed, understands that we are here for something way bigger than ourselves and we are aggressively going after that right now. And we want to help you join us.
“That’s why performance is a tough word even now. Because I want to be a part of inspiring you to worship God, and I know that some of that inspiration comes from excellence. I’m not stupid, I get that part. But instead of relying on Jesus, the wrong kind of leading relies on ability, on talent. It gets to the point where you try to impress people with the gift. I’ve done it. And I even annoy myself; I can only imagine how annoying I am to everyone in the room. It’s better to be looked through than to be looked at—to be a lens. We are there to point the way to Jesus.”
So what goes into a good worship performance? For Houghton, there is plenty of instinct involved and long-term practice that includes the music, but it goes far beyond that. “I’ve been at this thing for 22 years as far as fulltime ministry,” says Houghton. “And if there was a formula, I’m kind of glad I don’t know it. Does that make sense? I tend to read a room, read an atmosphere—certainly rehearse the songs and know what we’re going to sing and what we’re going to do—but I never hang my hat on that. I’m always looking for that moment. Always asking, ‘God, how do you want to do this?’ If something were to happen spontaneously, you can often feel it from your band. Because they kind of lean in. they end up on their tiptoes. And then the congregation, maybe they don’t quite know what’s going on, but they know something special is happening. And I kind of live for that moment. I live to get to that place where suddenly we find that the people are invested in that moment, and in that song differently than if you would have just played your song without being sensitive.
“And musically Pastor Joel really likes when I take it to an unpredictable place. But you know, we have a whole horn section. I can’t do that unless we’ve really practiced the presence of God together. So I’ll spend time jus bro-ing with those guys. I’ll spend time making sure they know the ins-and-outs of the songs. And after leading with them for 11 years, they know that if I lift my right leg, and I don’t even realize I’m lifting my right leg, they know that means, ‘Okay I think he’s gonna do the chorus again.’ But we have learned each other over time. We can’t do that without spending some real time together behind the scenes.”
Ultimately, Houghton believes in practicing. It is the most important aspect of performance in worship. And by practice, we mean practicing the presence of God. Without the Spirit of God as the driving force for our music and our leadership, the music played at a worship service becomes mere performance. We must ensure that our time performing translates into worship leadership.
Houghton explains, “Don’t make this Sunday the first time you opened up your ears to God’s voice all week. Make sure there is a perpetual life of worship happening. You’ve heard the statement, ‘You can’t take people somewhere you haven’t gone.’ So there have to be those moments all week where you are connecting with God—maybe praying over your song list. You know? You are going to go through all the ‘what-ifs’ about your services, but you have to make sure and say, ‘Hey God. What do you think about all of this?’ Sometimes I’ll just prayerfully play through a setlist and be reminded that there is a psalm that matches a phrase in this hymn; what if we tie them together? You get those ‘inhale’ moments. The key is making sure the connection stays clear the whole week. You practice the presence of God.”
In the end this is the greatest lesson a four-time Grammy award winning worship artist can share with us: the presence of God is what makes for a good worship performance. In fact, the presence of God is the only thing that elevates a worship performance to worship leadership. It becomes more that mere performance.