Phil Wickham is a longtime friend of Worship Leader magazine. In the wake of Phil’s newly released single, “Living Hope”, and the pending August 3rd full album release of the same title, Worship Leader magazine’s Alex MacDougall caught up with Phil. The album, Living Hope, is filled with such a fine mix of tempos, musical diversity, and lyrical imagery, and through all of it, worship is at its core. With 15 songs, Phil ranges from intimate solo and small ensemble accompaniment to full band production. For more information, visit
philwickham.com.

Worship Leader (WL): “Living Hope” is your new single. It has a hymn-like quality to it, and for the church, is anthemic in impact. What can you tell us about that song? What inspiration was behind the writing of this tune, along with your collaboration with Brian Johnson?

Phil Wickham: I got a text from Brian Johnson, of a short voice memo of him humming into his phone and strumming his guitar a little bit, saying, “Hey, Phil, I’ve got this idea, and it’s just a melody”. And he started humming it, and there are just a few lines in there that just kind of reminded me of a hymn. I replied, “what if this was the verse and we just made this song really verse heavy like a hymn and just had a refrain”, and he loved that idea. We didn’t know what we were going to call it. At first, it was going to be called, “Heart Deep”, like, your love goes heart deep. As we were writing this song, these lyrics about, this unfathomable, uncrossable chasm between our unholiness and God’s holiness, and how Jesus bridged that gap, burst into our darkness. Then the next verse asked the question, “How did he do it”? He did it with the cross, the empty grave, and now he calls me because of what he did.

In the next verse, we decided that we couldn’t just talk about the cross without talking about the resurrection. And then this really special kind of verse came out about the roaring lion rising from the silence of the grave.
Through it all, we just thought there needed to be a different idea, and this idea about his love going heart deep, I think this song is all about God flooding our lives with hope and life. I came across this idea in the scriptures where Peter talks about living hope, you know. We’ve been born again into a living hope, and it really made me kind of start searching into it. What did Peter mean when he said a living hope? What is that translated from, and what is this all about?

You know, the stars are going to fail, but outside of this universe is a God who never will. Another meaning of that living hope is when it enters our life when this hope with Jesus enters our life. It’s not simply a hope that the future is going to get better one day, but it’s a hope that starts coming alive in our actions and our words and our plans and our dreams. It starts forming everything we are, so it becomes a living thing in us. So Brian and I thought, “What a cool statement to Jesus Christ at the end of these lyrics”. It was really one of those songs where it wasn’t, like, man, we need to write a song about living hope. We started unearthing a song that we both felt was really special, and I think a lot of it, too, was Brian helping direct kind of where the lyric was going.

I think there’s a lot of things speaking into this song, and I’m just so thankful for it and for what it’s already become in my church. It’s only been out for a few months at this point and already has so many hundreds of videos from different churches just leading the song. It just brings tears to my eyes, literally. I’m just so thankful for it.

WL: Well, you hit on a real nerve right there. Everybody wants hope and especially in these days that we live in, it can be pretty hopeless at times. So I’m happy that you wrote that song. I noticed quite a bit of collaboration on this project, from songwriting to production. Jason Ingram, Chris Tomlin, Brian Johnson, Travis Ryan and others, all worked with you on this, as did several producers. What about collaboration do you enjoy?

Phil: Yes. There’s are a lot more names involved on this one than ever before. It’s so interesting to me. There are times when I’ve had a song idea that I’ve shared with others over maybe a two-year period. I’ve kind of thrown it out when one writer or one artist or one producer says, “Hey, I’ve got this idea”, and everybody kind of hears different melodies, or a different word or a different lyric lights up their heart to go a different way with the song, you know? Instead of just getting a team of one or two guys around me, this time I collaborated with many. 80 to 90 percent of all my past records, I’ve written mostly on my own.

As for this project, I didn’t have a plan going into it, saying, Hey, I’m gonna call every writer I know and start throwing out ideas. I also was committed on this one not to say, I’m going to hold these ideas and these songs with a very closed fist and say, these are mine and this is my expression. Instead, I went into it saying, “God, I’m open to whatever you have with each one of these little ideas, these little moments of inspiration that are gonna take a ton of work to kind of fulfill themselves into becoming real songs.”

For one of the songs, I was on tour and I had this idea of Wild River, “Your mercy flows like a wild river, your love is strong like a raging sea”, so with this idea of connecting water to these attributes of God, I was trying to find verses for months and months. While I was out on tour with Chris Tomlin, and right before we got on stage, I showed him this chorus. He said, “There’s something special in that. Can we work on it tomorrow?” So we worked on it, and 20 minutes later, the rest of the song was written.

For “Till I Found You”, I was leading worship in my church, Harvest Christian Fellowship. Greg Laurie, the pastor, gave an altar call invitation for people to receive Jesus. Just the beauty of that moment when 40, 50, or 60 people came forward kinda hit me like it was brand new that these people were finding a hope and a love and a life that’s going to last forever. My buddy, Travis Ryan, had sent me earlier that week this really cool track with no melody over it, and I just remembered it at that moment, and I started singing this idea that I never knew anything lasts forever till I found you. I started singing it over that track with Travis. I called him and said, “Hey, I think I wrote a song with you just now over your track”.

Of the 15 tracks, I don’t think any of the songs were just written sitting down in a room with a writer. I think there was all this nebulous in the right place at the right time kind of thing, and I love working like that. So if the songs were coming out so special in this way I thought maybe the producer of this record shouldn’t be just one guy. I called people that I really love and believe in, and everyone from Pete Kipley, to Ed Cash, to Jonathan Smith, to Ricky and Randy Jackson out in L.A., and others. I kind of hand-picked songs, saying, “Hey, I just see you being able to give such an amazing part to this song, would you be up for working on this song with me?” I think this is the way I love to work, hearing every day from different producers and different writers. The whole thing is so exciting.

WL: As a father now, and thinking back to your years of growing up in a Christian home, what was your worship experience like growing up in a musical family? Did the family sing and pray together regularly?

Phil: All that I learned about what it means to follow Jesus and also what it means to use music to point people to Jesus, I learned from my parents. My dad has been a worship leader my entire life, and I definitely learned from my mom and dad what it means to worship God, and how you can use music as a way to unify people under this banner of worship. I think what I learned most from them as worshippers was what it means to just be faithful to live out your faith and following Jesus on a day-to-day basis. You know, my parents definitely weren’t perfect, but for me to see when things got hard that the first place that my parents would turn would be to Jesus. Even when, we couldn’t find the car keys and we were late for school, I remember my parents saying, “Let’s ask Jesus, ’cause he knows right where they are”.

It’s just those little things for me that allowed me to realize so much. I obviously saw my parents singing on stage, and that’s an act of faith because they were declaring they believe this stuff. As a kid it comes down to how your parents act at home, you know? For them to turn to God many times and show me that they truly believe and they truly trust, and they’re truly grateful for the cross. That’s what I’ve learned most of all from them.

To bring that into my home, and into me as a father and as a husband, and let that carry on into what I do on stage, is what’s important. I’m thankful for them as parents and remember music being a big part of our house. My parents learned new worship songs and wrote new songs, and we would definitely pray together. There were times where my mom would say, “We need to pray”, or “We haven’t prayed in so long”. There was always a hunger for the Lord in my parents and a desire and a consistent push towards being a family that trusts in who God says he is.

WL: Your new project is scheduled to release in August, and I’m assuming will have extensive touring to support it. Is there something that you desire for Living Hope, and the tour supporting it, to accomplish more that anything you have yet to realize?

Phil: It’s always been my goal since I felt like my calling was made clear to my heart when I was a 19-year-old kid at a small Christian festival in the UK (that was rained out). Everybody had to huddle under this giant tent, and the power went out. So I stepped to the end of the stage and I started singing old hymns, and everybody started roaring along with me in this beautiful moment of worship, and at the end of one of the hymns, the lights exploded back on and everybody cheered. It was one of those moments where it was just such a massive sense of the presence of God entering that place, and the next hour was just one of the most beautiful times of corporate worship I’ve ever been involved in.

I had been going through this particular year trying to figure out who I was and what God wanted me to do. There were lots of different options, lots of different people saying I should do this or that. I asked the Lord, “What am I supposed to do? What do you want me to do, God?” And at that moment, He just revealed to me my own heart as I was singing, “This is who I made you to be.” It was almost like he tore the veil from my eyes just to see what he was already doing in my heart. Ever since then, I’ve been chasing that goal. My goal hasn’t changed since then.
The sounds and the songs and the way they happen, can both be different and look different and change, but ultimately, the goal for my song is, I want to create moments where people can encounter God through my music, and can maybe hear – whether it’s hearing the truth about His love for the first time or being able to respond to a God who loves us so much that He bore a cross and bore our shame and give us an opportunity to live in freedom today. I want my music to make people encounter that truth and then to desire to respond to it. That’s always been the goal and the more people that the music reaches, for that to happen to, the more excited and blessed I will be. That’s where my heart’s at.

WL: What advice do you have for aspiring worship leaders and songwriters?

Phil: It’s very simple. Worship comes from a grateful heart. Sometimes I have to go into a bathroom stall backstage because there’s no other place for me to go where I’m just by myself in a venue, and I just start saying thank you to God. And I thank the Lord. “Thank you so much that I’m safe. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you so much that my sins are forgiven. Thank you for my family at home.” Just a minute, two minutes, or five minutes of grateful heart puts me in such a place of being so excited to respond to it. So I would say a grateful heart, and then to walk into every situation as a worship leader with a servant’s heart.

Many times before I go into a co-writing session or before I walk into a venue, and I’m about to meet a bunch of people that I’ve never met before, I will ask, “Lord, give me a humble heart and a heart that says, how can I look at others before myself? I’m here to serve. I’m not here to make my agenda known. I’m not here to be a cool worship leader. I’m not here to write my art. I’m not here to let this church understand how great of a singer I am. I’m here to point people to you. May I love them before myself.”

A grateful heart and a servant’s heart, I think, are two things that we need to be praying for as worship leaders.