We caught up with guitarist and songwriter, Stu G while at our 2018 National Worship Leader Conference.
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
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.
We sat down with Alisa Turner during our 2018 National Worship Leader Conference. Alisa shared about what our theme, “This is my story, this is OUR song,” meant to her. Don’t miss this, make sure you check it out!
by Alex MacDougall
Worship Leader’s Alex MacDougall recently visited with Gareth Gilkeson, an original founder and member of Rend Collective. Now touring extensively worldwide, their new project Good News is just out. Visit them at rendcollective.com.
WORSHIP LEADER (WL): Thank you for sharing with our Worship Leader magazine readers. I must say that the front cover of your upcoming release is one of the best album cover designs that I have seen in a very long time. It’s filled with joy and community.
GARETH GILKESON: Thank you. Yes, somebody said this the other day that it harkens back to the way the covers used to be in the sixties. For everyone who was alive in the sixties it’s just a little bit like, “oh we did that the first time”, but for all the young people, they’re like, “whoa, that’s cool”.
WL: That’s probably why I like it. Let’s commence with our questions. Rend Collective hails from Northern Ireland, as do Keith and Kristyn Getty, and Kathryn Scott. Why do you suppose there is such a rich infusion of worship songwriting from this relatively small geographical area?
GARETH: We are literally 1.5 million people and there’s a real love of folk music in Ireland as a whole. It’s a way we love to express ourselves and whenever it’s cold and chilly outside, the band can always be playing around the fire. And also you’re talking about a country, which has had Christianity for 1500 years and it’s a rich, deep culture. St. Patrick’s writings inspired, “Be Thou My Vision,” 1500 years ago, and we just love him. Things that talk about who God is, that have the depth of theology, that aren’t necessarily always built as much on our emotions as they are on who he actually is. We just love songs like that and so yeah, I think that’s probably why. Keith Getty is obviously a great hymn writer, and Katherine Scott, her voice is haunting. Her spirituality is amazing. She’s been a big influence. As a matter of fact, she sang on our second record with us, which was fun. It’s just that way in Irish culture. If you haven’t got music, what have you got? We’re the kind of people that love to tell a good story. We love a good story, but we also love that to be straight up and honest. If we’re good at something we’ll tell you; if we’re bad at something we’ll tell you.
WL: How did “The Troubles” affect you or your family growing up, and how did it impact the church, both Protestant and Catholic, looking back on it all?
GARETH: Probably one of the most important things to recognize is that this was not a religious war or whatever you want to call it. It wasn’t based on religion. It was based on culture and background so it turned out that the majority of Catholics saw themselves as Irish, not as British and the majority of Protestants saw themselves as British and not Irish, which is going back 300 plus years ago. Here was what was called “the Ulster Plantations,” where the Scottish Presbyterians and the English came to Northern Ireland and planted. So you’ve got people who’ve been there for hundreds and hundreds of years who have also interbred with the people in Ireland.
It all comes down to how you define whether you’re part of something. If your family’s been there for 400 years it’s hard to say that you don’t have a right to be here. But at the same time, you feel like your island has been hijacked by someone else. There’s obviously a lot of issues on both sides and I think that’s the first thing to realize. It wasn’t a religious war, but it deeply affected the church, both Protestant and Catholic. It made us look inward rather than outward and it made us become more about protecting ourselves rather than giving ourselves away.
I was alive during all of the eighties and my dad worked for the British government. He was just an engineer and like a lot of men, would be down at the shipyard working on ships, but because he worked for the British government there was a big threat that you could wake up one morning and there’d be a car bomb on your car. Still, I remember going out with my dad every morning and we would check under the car for a car bomb. It seemed so normal. I was at a sleepover at a friend’s house and was maybe 10, and a bomb went off around the corner, and the whole house shook at 3:00 a.m. For a kid, it was more exciting than it was scary. Obviously, for a parent, it’s totally different scenario. As a kid, you think you’re indestructible. So the sad part about it is that we have found a lot of common ground and we’re trying to move forward and obviously there’s been peace since the Good Friday Agreement. The sad thing for me is we’re just not sure who we are anymore. Everybody’s too afraid to be British or be Irish and we’re trying to define who we are.
That’s why we as a band are called “Rend Collective.” We are passionate about unity, passionate about unity within the church, and we don’t see the Protestant-Catholic divide. We do not see the Presbyterian/Baptist/Pentecostal divide. We see the church. We don’t have time to bicker over small minute theological differences. It’s time that we realized, not simply our common ground, but our literal definition as being followers of Jesus. We don’t need to go too far into the bible to realize we worship the same God and we believe the same scriptures. So that’s why have “collective” in our name. Everything that we have done has been very much non-denominational. Not because we don’t like accountability or authority, goodness, we believe in all of those things, but because we believe that the church is much bigger, and the world is in so much danger and darkness right now that the church doesn’t have time to fight amongst itself, but it’s time to stand up and fight against the darkness.
WL: Rend Collective is known as a band that enjoys the “art of celebration”. As believers, you express great joy in many of your songs, both lyrically and in performance. Can you tell us about this focus?
GARETH: It’s probably come a lot from what we saw was lacking in the church. We were looking at what we did when we led a community. I was a pastor, and Chris our singer, was the worship leader, starting in 2002. We were all ministry and community driven. I didn’t write a song at all until 2008. But we asked ourselves, “What is it that God is calling us to? What’s wrong with the church?” We saw a lot of our friends in church leaving church whenever they reached their early 20s, spending their Friday and Saturday nights down in the pub, and then not there on a Sunday morning. And the question we had to ask was, “well, what’s wrong? When you’d come to church on Sunday morning it didn’t look like anybody was having that great of a time. It looked like everybody was very serious. So we have focused on joy and celebration because that is something that seems to be missing in many worship bands. I could probably name you one other band that I think gets it and that’s “Hillsong Young & Free.”
Scripture says that the joy of the Lord is our strength. Seriousness isn’t a fruit of the Spirit, but joy is. Joy is the hardest emotion to cultivate. Seriousness is easy. Moving towards negative emotions is easy, but joy is something that surpasses all of that and it’s something that is there even through the darkest times. It’s a discipline.
WL: I like what your band has said in the past, “Our God is not safe. We want to push boundaries because God has a wild imagination”. How does that pertain to worship?
GARETH: In the creative aspects of instrumentation, in terms of music. If we’re talking about a God with a wild imagination then we need to try a little bit more imaginative things. And secondly, in terms of lyrics, we have the scriptures. All our songs, to be honest, have adapted most of their lyrics from the scriptures, but we’re trying to say them in new, fresh, and imaginative ways for the next generation. Maybe even for people who don’t understand Christian language. We’ve got a new song out called “Rescuer.” We decided that rescuer is a word that everybody would use. With the idea of rescue, we thought well, that’s the exact same word as Savior, but it’s just something that makes more sense to people who aren’t Christians. We just try to have fun, and add color when you come to one of our shows: one minute there’s bubbles coming out of the walls and the next minute there’s somebody with some weird unusual instrument that you haven’t seen or there’s just a lot of excitement and energy. We just want to shake things up. The more we can model who our God is through our worship then the more other people can model it in ways the church can follow it.
WL: You have served as a pastor within your group, as well as a drummer. How do these two disciplines work together in Rend Collective?
GARETH: Well, you’re always on time or you’re never on time.
WL: There you go. That’s funny.
GARETH: I was the only decent drummer so I played drums and then I would get off the drum kit and walk up to the microphone and welcome everybody there and pray with people. The music seemed to be so irrelevant to us that it just wasn’t important. We were just thinking about doing community and following Jesus.
WL: Tell us about your new project, Good News?
GARETH: The title seems very simple, but the reason we chose something so simple is that it really is a crazy world of news right now, bad news everywhere, and tragic news. And it’s not to diminish any of those things, but it really is to shine a light. If all we do is focus on the negative, if all we do is focus on the bad things that are happening, then how can we remind the world of the Gospel of the truth? The church has to be the one who proclaims the good news. This title for us was the most clear, concise, and meaningful thing that we could call a record.
We wrote all of the songs, with a little help on two songs from friends. We’re very much focused on hymn theology. There’s a song “Kneel to the Cross,” which is a hymn, but maybe slightly more contemporary. Then we just have some fun, upbeat songs. A couple of my favorites are “Weep With Me,” which is a song that’s just asking God to weep with us in our difficulties. The chorus says, “Yet, I will praise You. Yet, I will sing of Your name.” There’s another song “No Outsiders,” which is inspired by the poem that is about “Lady Liberty.” (Give me all your sons and daughters, give me all your rejects and these shores are open.) I guess in this time of difficult decisions to make about the refugee crisis that’s been going on, none of us are politicians and we have no political statements to make, but what we have realized is that on earth it’s complicated. Things are complicated, but our God is not complicated. There are no borders with him. With God there are no outsiders, everybody is welcome, and so that’s a song that we love because of leading it in church.
WL: The song, “Rescuer” is fabulous. What are your hopes for this song, and for the rest of the new project?
GARETH: We want to encourage worship leaders to sing songs that express the good news. I think when people are coming into our services on Sunday mornings, they’re coming in carrying a lot, and the more that we can proclaim the truth, that’s what we want to get to. We very much see “Good News” not only as a resource for worship leaders and for the church but also for people playing it in their cars or people listening to it if they aren’t Christians. We want to see people become Christians. We really do believe in the old-fashioned Gospel. We actually want to reclaim the word “evangelical” away from politics. Billy Graham did not get involved in politics, but he got involved in preaching the good news of Jesus.
WL: Do you have anything that you would like to say to aspiring worship leaders and songwriters?
GARETH: We want to encourage worship leaders to sing songs that express the good news. Our job as worship leaders is to facilitate people worshiping God, but not just in one way, but in all and different aspects of who we are as people.
You think about how throughout the day there are different aspects of who we are, you know, sometimes we have fun and we laugh and we’re silly, sometimes we are serious and deep and meaningful. Sometimes we are just spaced out and we don’t know what’s going on, but our job as worship leaders is to take people coming from every background and remind people that they don’t have shame. To remind people that they’re free to worship, that they don’t have to spend the first four songs doing mental penance, but that they can walk into the presence of God boldly.
There’s a song on our record called “Resurrection Day,” which is, for me, what our job is as worship leaders. It’s to remind people every Sunday this is resurrection day. If Jesus could rise from the dead then you can get up off the floor and you can get up from your failures, you can stand up again, you don’t have to feel overwhelmed, and you have a resurrection part that lives inside of you.
I want to encourage you that we know exactly how you feel and it’s not our job to always be perfect. It’s not our job to point people towards our perfection, it’s our job to point people towards His perfection and get out of the way. So, be encouraged.
The beginning of high school was the time I truly started to take my faith seriously. Somehow I instinctively knew that music can have a profound way of shaping heart, mind, and soul, and I made the personal decision to begin listening solely to Christian music. I wouldn’t prescribe that direction for everyone (including my own children), but my immersion in faith-inspired music during those years was life-changing. It even led me on a path to serving God through Christian media for my entire career. The non-profit ministry I founded, UTR Media, cares deeply about authentic worship and honoring God through beautiful art.
When Worship Leader magazine contacted me to consider interviewing an artist on the theme of “the beauty of worship,” I knew the top artist on my list. Sara Groves has been a household name for lovers of thoughtful music for the better part of two decades. Several critics called her 2005 release Add To The Beauty the best album of that year. Since then, she keeps raising the bar of musical craftsmanship while also raising three children. She and husband Troy run “Art House North” in their hometown of St. Paul, MN – a place described as “creative community for the common good.” Sara’s album Abide With Me released in November 2017. It is her 13th career studio album, and was fittingly recorded inside Art House North, a 105 year old church in St. Paul, MN.
WORSHIP LEADER (WL): So many songs in your catalog share about the value of beauty in the Kingdom. Why do you think the concept of beauty has been so close to your heart?
SARA GROVES: Because I’m a lover, not a fighter! Ha ha! Like most of us, I run through cycles of belief and despair, and sometimes those things are concurrent, running right alongside each other. When I pay attention, I see that what calls me back to faith over and over again is beauty. Of course what I mean by beauty here is not just aesthetic. By beauty, I mean a summation of all of the things listed in Philippians 4 – noble, lovely, good, righteous, true things. A mentor once said to me that it is easy to stand around a hole and talk about the hole – how it got there, who is to blame for it, etc. It takes a different kind of frame of mind to look at the hole and ask, “What would I put there?” And then to set about filling it – this is the Kingdom life. The dream of God is the reconciliation of all things. If we see the Good News as minimum requirements to get into heaven, we will bear pragmatic, utilitarian fruit. But if we see that the Good News is an invitation into a partnership with God in the renewal of all things, that is a different motivation, and I think it bears good fruit.
WL: In what ways does beauty play an important role in your personal times of worship?
SARA: When I think on these things, or pay attention to noble pursuits, a lovely word of encouragement, a good thing God has made, my response is worship. And of course, these things are not just found in encouraging stories, but in stories of suffering as well, and in lament. When I worship in church or anywhere, I remember who God is. I remember that He is not like us and that he has good intentions for us, and for all things. Sometimes the beauty of that Kingdom promise is heartbreaking compared to our reality, and that calls for a lament. I guess in the way that I use it, the word beauty comes to mean all that is good about the first Garden and the final City, and anything we do in this life, by the grace of God, that echoes that.
WL: Much of your music is story based. Yet your latest release Abide With Me is a hymns album. Why was now the right time to go that direction?
SARA: My husband had wanted me to record an album of hymns for 15 years. I had always had other themes and thoughts on my mind, but this season, post-Floodplain, felt like the right time to sing about the friendship that God is extending to us. The record Floodplain was about my journey with depression, and these songs were boats to me in that underwater place. I prayed like crazy to have relief from what I was feeling, and it did not resolve quickly, but in that time I did not feel the judgment of God. I felt his empathy, and I wanted to sing about that.
WL: How important do you feel it is for the Church today to not abandon the classic hymns of the faith?
SARA: I am a very emotional person, but not always very sentimental. I think sentimentality can cause a particular kind of blindness. In every era, there are songs that have lasted, and I think there must be a good reason for that – if a song is shared that many times, for that many years, it must be compelling! To me, there are good songs in every era, and they help us understand the character of God.
WL: What are some practical ways Christian songwriters can be more thoughtful about beauty in their work?
SARA: Well, it makes a difference if you are writing congregational songs to be sung by large groups, or if you are a troubadour writing a story/song. They both have a craft to them. The best songwriting advice I ever got was not to edit myself. Get it all down, and don’t shut things down before they have had time to develop. This advice has helped me come as close as I can to tell the truth.
By Alex MacDougall
Artist and songwriter Michael W. Smith is preparing to release two new projects (both A Million Lights and Surrounded) in February and will be touring extensively during the first half of 2018, performing and leading in worship in the US, Canada, and Israel.
He shares with us here not only the backstory to his new live worship recording, “Surrounded”, but also recalls some key moments in his life, ministry, songwriting, and role as a worship leader. Visit Michael at michaelwsmith.com.
WL: As an artist, you have extensive contributions to the Body of Christ, both as a songwriter and as a curator of many great new worship songs, granting these new songs a greater visibility because of your platform. Which role do you prefer, the curator or the songwriter?
MS: That’s, a big question. I like them both. I mean obviously, there’s nothing more satisfying in a pure way than to be able to write something that the whole world ends up singing. It’s pretty special. But it doesn’t happen very often, especially a good one. But you know, the curator thing is intriguing. No one ever really asked me that question before, because everybody thinks I wrote “Above All”, but I didn’t. And that’s okay, you know.
WL: Was that Paul (Baloche), or was that Lenny(LeBlanc) that wrote “Above All”, or both of them?
MS: It was both Paul and Lenny. I always make it a point to say, “No I didn’t write that song. Paul and Lenny wrote that song”. However, most everybody around the world would probably say that’s MY song. I just recorded the song, because I thought the song was great. And little did I know that the whole world would be singing it. And not just in America, but literally, all around-the-world. It’s just crazy when I start playing it, whether I’m in Zimbabwe or Holland or South Africa. It’s pretty special. Thanks for asking.
WL: At what moment did you begin to understand the depth of true worship?
MS: It was probably during my days at Belmont Church on Music Row (in Nashville). Don Finto was the lead pastor there and is still my mentor to this day. We’ve been walking together for almost 36 years. There was likely just a moment at Belmont that I had a complete meltdown. I just sort of haven’t been the same. I had been on a tour and was supposed to lead at Belmont that day. I literally just had nothing. I was so tired. And I told Don, “I’m just not sure I’ve got it today”. It turned out to be one of best mornings at Belmont in my life. And so God showed up in my extreme weakness, and stuff started happening. And I think I realized then for the first time that I really was a worship leader.
WL: What goes through your mind at the moment you are leading worship and realize that you are helping people connect with the living God?
MS: There is nothing more satisfying in the world than to be a conduit. I think the only way that happens is that you’ve got to stay out of the way. I’m always asking myself, “What’s my motivation? What’s my posture?” It’s making sure everything is lined up correctly. Because if that thing starts to tilt, then you risk it all, you blow it. And you don’t want to blow it because this could be a pivotal moment for somebody that will change their life forever. People will tell me that the one moment that I sang that song, it completely changed their life. And we’ll never know until we get to the other side to fully understand what’s happened to people. But it’s great to hear people talking about that moment in my concert, whether it’s in America or whether it’s on the other side of the world, that their life was changed. It’s amazing that a 3-1/2 minute song could do that. It’s just pretty incredible.
WL: Agnus Dei is one of your earliest worship songs penned, and remains one of the finest compositions to this day. What were the circumstances surrounding the writing of that song?
MS: I actually wrote it on the fly. It just came out of nowhere. I was wrapping up the “Go West Young Man” record. Honestly, I was down in my basement trying to write a pop song. And then my hands hit the keyboard and I started writing “Agnus Dei”. And I remember feeling completely overwhelmed and thinking, “Oh my gosh, what just happened”? My first inclination was I’ll just have to figure out where this song goes, because “it certainly doesn’t belong on the “Go West Young Man” record. And then about 5 minutes later I thought, “wait a minute, why not?” So it was the last one of the last songs we cut, and we ended up going to New York City and using the American Boy Choir. It’s interesting because a lot of people think Agnus Dei is just some worship song I wrote in the last 10 years. But that record came out in 1990! So it was a moment in a time, and it happened. And it’s so fun. I’ll never forget being in Brazil. There were 50,000 kids on the beach. It was a huge deal. And they just broke into Agnus Dei in Portuguese. It literally just takes your breath away.
WL: Your new project, “Surrounded”, again presents you with the role of curator and songwriter. What can you tell us about the recording and vision behind it?
MS: The crazy thing was I working on this pop record,”A Million Lights”. And in the middle of that, at the beginning of this past summer, I had this wild idea of cutting two records during back-to-back weeks. And so I was reassessing, “why am I doing this, and am I doing it right”? As we get older we just want to go back and reexamine ourselves and ask “Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?” And I read a passage from Amos 5 that rocked my world. I’m paraphrasing, but basically, God’s a little ticked off and at our insincerity and says, “Stop it”. He tells us that He’s looking for justice. I love The Message version of it. It’s just powerful. He says that He wants justice to roll like a waterfall. And man, I’m telling you what, it just threw me up against the wall. So I feel like the whole cause for justice and the poor and the orphans just escalated in my heart. And it inspired the “Surrounded” record. I didn’t want it to be about me. I wanted this project to take the focus off me. I want to do it “in the round”. I wanted to just have people all around. I wanted us ALL to be worship leaders and not get in a hurry, and just see what happens. And that’s what happened that night. It was just overwhelming. I mean it was just incredible. And so the Spirit was incredible in the room. It’s just a beautiful journey of reminders of the promises of God.
WL: Tell us about your new songs on this project. Both “Washed Away” and “Your House” were co-written by yourself and writing partners.
MS: “Washed Away” was just this piece of music that I wrote in my studio. And it just continued to move me. I didn’t have any words at all, but I just couldn’t get away from it. And so I called Michael Farren and said, “I’ve got this melody I can’t shake and I think I’m supposed to give it to you.” So he took it, and had it forever. And then all of a sudden one day he called me up and said, “I had an epiphany last night, and I’ve been weeping ever since”. It was “Washed Away”. I love how he incorporated a hymn into it. “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus” really seemed to work.
As to the other song, “Your House”… we used to sing a song at Belmont called, “I Saw the Lord, Sitting Upon His Throne”, and I kept thinking, “Gosh, I wonder what it’s like to walk into God’s house.” And so literally 5 or 6 years ago I wrote this thing about how I came into His house and I saw the Lord and his train filled the temple. And I couldn’t shake that one either. And I played it for Kyle (Lee), and told him “I think there’s something here”. And so it inspired us to sort of rewrite a little bit for “Surrounded”.
WL: Is there a distinct beauty that you find in traditional hymns that you might not find in other compositions?
MS: Lyrically, the stuff that these men and women wrote so very long ago is so powerful, and something we often lack that in our current worship state. A lot of the stuff sounds the same, and people use the same terminology. If you go back in and look at some of these great hymns, you think, WOW! We need some more poets. Thad Cockrell and I co-wrote on the song, “Light To You”, but I really had very little to do with it. We just wrote a bridge for that together. Thad is an indie artist in town who writes these amazing songs. He and I got together and he played me that song. I just could not shake it.
WL: Has worship and singing together with your family, played a role in your home?
MS: It has, many times, especially when Jack (Mooring), my son-in-law, is here. We all kind of get together and start singing around the piano. That’s a lot of fun. And last year I wrote lots of songs with his brother, Leeland. We normally didn’t just sit around the piano as a family growing up. You know, we all were creative and writing, and doing all kinds of stuff. Most of our moments were at church, you know. But someone was always playing the piano at the house. So, either playing the piano or making a film or writing a song. For the creative Smith family, it just was nonstop.
WL: Are you able to incorporate worship and singing within your volunteer work?
MS: Absolutely. Yes, with Compassion International, Rocketown in Nashville, and with regard to the AIDS crisis.
WL: What advice do you have for aspiring songwriters and worshipers?
MS: Keep your heart pure, and ask yourself “what’s my motivation”? There is a way to lead with great courage and strength, AND be filled with humility. But that’s a tough one, you know. I look at Don Finto, my mentor, and he’s got this amazing personality, just vibrant. But he’s humble. He’s got sort of both. It’s just powerful. And so we need more people like that, who can lead with great strength and lead well. Get up and lead worship, but in the ways I’ve mentioned. That’s, that’s the role of the worship leader.
WL: What would you like to see your new project, “Surrounded” accomplish?
MS: I would hope that it would unify the body of Christ…every tribe and every nation, and every color, every race, every social class. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to each other. We’re all in this together. So let’s do this together! Let’s do it as one. And as much as we all say that we’re united, I don’t think we are completely. I think we’re divided. Because everybody has kind of got their thing going on. And we need to get rid of, “I got my thing going on”. Let’s cheer each other on. Let’s root for each other. We’re all on the same team. Let’s root for Bethel. Let’s root for Jesus Culture, and whatever and whoever. We all have one goal: to make Jesus known. Let people know who He really is! We need people to find out who He really is. There’s no denying the fact that God loves me completely. That’s what the world needs. We have to seize the moment. We’ll never accomplish the things that God wants us to accomplish if we remain divided. That’s what I hope to recognize at the end of the day. There’s something about true worship that can cause spectacular things to happen. Who knows?
Worship Leader’s Alex MacDougall caught up with Chris and Darren to discuss the subject of worship, and the release of their newly released book entitled, “Holy Roar”. The book, co-authored by Chris and Darren, examines the “7 words that will change the way you worship”. Darren Whitehead serves as senior pastor of Church of the City, Nashville, TN. The genesis of the book came from a sermon that Darren Whitehead preached several months ago. The “Good Good Father Tour,” featuring Chris Tomlin, Darren Whitehead and Matt Maher, is currently on an 18 city tour. Darren will be sharing from “Holy Roar.” For information, please visit ChrisTomlin.com or HolyRoar.com
WL: I read “Holy Roar” earlier this week, and I just wanted to say congratulations. I think it’s awesome.
Chris: Thank you.
WL: And I think it’s great for the following reasons: One, you and Darren’s book models a great partnership between a pastor and a worship leader. Secondly, it explains to worshippers, why we worship and how we should worship. It also removes denominational labels from certain worship practices or expressions, and it says it’s okay to be vulnerable in public, and I believe this book creates an invaluable resource for worship teams to read and discuss together beyond merely connecting at early morning, Sunday rehearsals.
Chris: Well, I appreciate you saying that. I love that this book could be talked about with Worship Leader Magazine because I feel like there’s just a massive target for this group. Obviously, it’s for everybody. It’s for every church and for everybody in the church. This message is universal. Praise is universal. Worship is universal. It’s all of us, and it’s what we’re created to do. One of the things I felt that would be unique about the book is that it would be an amazing resource for worship leaders. I have led worship the past 20 years in different churches, planted 3 churches, and have had so many different teams, I know what it’s like to try to round the troops and rally everybody to be on the same page…the bass player, the drummer, the keyboard and the guitar player to be on the same page as the singers and everything. It seems like there are not a massive amount of resources out there that help in that, resources that are very practical and easy for a worshipper to go through and for a worship team to go through. I think that with this book, they can grab on to the discussion questions, study one of the seven words, and they can understand praise. Darren and I had this in mind when we wrote the book.
WL: So there are 7 Hebrew worship words explained in the book?
Chris: Yes. You can go through one of the words each week and really dive in and be on the same page with what it is to worship and understand praise itself and what it really means. For me, it’s been a game changer. When Darren gave this message about these seven Hebrew words, I kept thinking, “How have I never heard this? How did I not know this?” I was embarrassed. I was thinking, “I should know this. This is what I spend my life doing.” I wanted to know more about it, and immediately phoned Darren and said, “Everybody needs to hear this. You need to write this book.” And Darren responded, “Well, let’s write it together.” I said, “I don’t know what I would contribute”. But we figured out how to do it together. I have been so excited for people to get this. I think that this is a book that is not just for the moment. It’s not just a book for this year or the latest thought. This is way bigger than that. It’s about helping people understand these timeless truths of God and what praise is. I’m excited for worship leaders, especially, to grab onto this and go through it with their teams.
Darren: I would add that one of the reasons that we’re particularly excited is that this could be a resource and an inspiration for worship leaders. There is a connection between knowledge and worship, so fresh thoughts or fresh information about God provokes fresh worship to God, and the more you learn about the nature and the character of the faithfulness of God, the more your heart grows for worship. Jesus said in John 4 that we worship in Spirit and in Truth. And the Father in heaven is actually seeking a certain kind of person, a certain kind of worshipper. It’s the only time in the Bible where it says the Father is seeking a certain kind of worshipper, and it says it’s those who worship in spirit and in truth.
So as we grow in truth, it provokes a brand new expression of worship in spirit, and sometimes people get a little bit tired or bland or numb in their times of worship, and I think the anecdote to that is to grow in truth, and then you again have this fresh encounter with spirit when it comes time to worship.
WL: So the words of Jesus specify that the criteria for true worship are spirit and truth. It is not simply limited to a genre of music.
Chris: That’s very true. I’ve always said that the Spirit of worship is eternal, the styles come and go. And so it’s spirit over style, right? And everybody prefers their own style. That’s normal. That’s human. That’s just the way we’re wound up, but the spirit of it has to be—-that’s what’s eternal. That’s what is connecting us to God.
Darren: Some people would refer to this as a “theology of Christ”. Sometimes in church, our understanding of praise is as unsophisticated as shouting at a football game. But that’s a little bit reductionist. What we have in this particular book is a deconstruction of the ancient world and how they approached God, praising Him. And there is so much that is lost in translation. You know, we read the English version of the Bible, and English translation of the Bible, and when the Hebrew people would read the ancient texts, they would read these seven different words.
They all understood that each word meant something different. Well, to us in the English-speaking world, we read the same word over and over again, and so there is a lot that is missing. There is nuance, and there is distinction, and there is specificity in the way that we bring out praise before God.
And I see uncovering all of these particular truths has been like discovering treasures, and it provokes a whole new collection of response in praise, but people, particularly people who have been in the church for a long time and they had the response like Chris has had, like, how have I never heard this before? And it provokes this new kind of expression of praise and worship that comes out of new knowledge and new thoughts about God.
WL: “Holy Roar” also chronicles some “stories behind the writing of the songs”. Can you comment on that?Darren: You know, when Chris tells the story about “We Fall Down” or about “How Great Is Our God”, and the origin of these songs, I sing the songs completely differently after I hear these stories. It’s really beautiful.
Chris: What’s amazing is, when I did not even know about these seven words and yet, when I was writing these songs years ago, I did not know that “We Fall Down” was related to the Hebrew word, “Barak”. It’s amazing to see how these songs really amplify a lot of these seven words. Retelling these stories and remembering where they came from has been so powerful for me. I think when people understand where they came from, in so many of them, I wasn’t just trying to write a song. It was a response that was coming out of my heart; it will be fun for people to read, and I think, interesting, too.
WL: What do you hope happens in people’s lives as a result of this book?
Darren: You know, we’re all in different places in our spiritual journey and even in our expression of our praise and worship before God. I tell the story about being very, very uncomfortable because I grew up, Chris and I both grew up on opposites sides of the world, and yet we grew up in similar church environments; very conservative and very reserved, and any sort of outward expression of enthusiasm was culturally shunned.
And so then when I got invited to a church that was far more enthusiastic in their expression when I was in my teenage years, I didn’t know what to do with it. I was warned about these kinds of churches. And so when I walked in, I was partly repelled and partly attracted to all that I saw going on.
And I remember saying to my friend, “I’m really uncomfortable with this. I’ll see you back here next week.”
And there was a contradiction going on in my soul with all that I was seeing.
But I was strangely drawn to the beauty and the spirit and the passion and the energy that was going on, and over the course of the next several months, I changed teams. I came in as a guy with my arms folded, and I ended as a guy with my arms in the air, and there was a transformation that took place in me. In many ways, I went from a singer to a worshipper.
It’s been one of the most significant changes in my spiritual life, ever. One of the most exciting parts of sharing this message, and I shared it in so many forms prior to writing the book, but over and over again, I would have people stop me after a service, and they would say, “Today was the first time that I ever raised my hands. I will never forget, and Chris will never forget, the first time that we had the courage to lift our hands before God in a public place and sort of push through the uncomfortable, self-conscious or whatever.” To think that those kinds of moments are happening as a result of this message is something that Chris and I get so excited about. It’s like a spiritual milestone moment that these people are going to remember forever. And it’s very personal.
WL: Given the tight timeline in publishing this book in just a few months’ time, was it a struggle to bring it to a reality?
Darren: It has come very naturally. This project’s come as a result of just a friendship, you know? It wasn’t a strategic plan. It was far more serendipitous. It was Chris saying, “Hey, that needs to be a book”, and then we ended up turning it into something.
So that’s what this project has felt like. It has felt like a project that we have really sensed the spirit on. We really sensed God’s guidance. We’ve described it a little bit like, “We felt a tailwind behind this book project the whole way”. It just felt like it had God’s favor. And what’s been such a joy is doing it with one of my dear friends.
WL: Do you have any final words of encouragement for our readers?
Darren: Do the work of the Kingdom of God and do it with people that you love, and I would encourage people to be thinking about things that you could do and then who would you love to do it with? Who are your friends? See how God blesses that.
Chris: This book has been the easiest project that I have been a part of. There’s nothing easy about writing a book, but even in the hurdles, it’s was just fun figuring it out together and doing this together, and I think that’s just great. As Darren said, “It’s a great example of working together for one goal, for people to meet God.”
Please share a little about your worship-leading and music-recording journey.
I’ve been doing music and ministry since I was seven years old, writing songs no one should hear until later in my life. My parents never said, “You can be anything when you grow up.” They said, “God has a specific plan on your life, and we are going to help you discover what that is.” I’ve never not been singing, writing recording, leading worship, and doing all things music and ministry my whole life. Growing up in the church as a youth leader and now young adult pastor alongside my husband, means on a weekly basis we get to pour into a local community and watch them thrive as we continue to reveal Jesus. It’s been a long road, but we are just getting started and we are so thankful for every step along the journey.
What’s your favorite new worship song to lead?
I’m really loving “Across the Universe” from Mosaic MSC and also “Let There Be Light” from Bryan and Katie Torwalt. We did both in our worship set last night at The Bridge, which is the young adults ministry where my husband and I are pastors, and the effect was tangible—the Lord changed lives through the truth that was declared over them in those songs. “All across the universe, we can feel your love on earth.” So, so powerful when we focus on the main thing, his love for us.
Which worship leader has had the biggest influence on you?
That’s a combo meal, if you can take the grace and kindness of CeCe Winans, the soulful girl-ahead-of-her-time of Crystal Lewis and the power and authority of Martha Munizzi, eight-year-old little me was in heaven learning from these mentors from afar. Currently, I think Brian and Jenn Johnson are unparalleled for what they’ve done for the worship/worship leader community. It didn’t stop at music, it was the heart behind creating an open heaven for all of us to partake in as worship leaders and poor back out onto our spheres of influence. It’s remarkable.
In this season of Easter, what is the testimony that God has on your heart these days?
1 John 4:17 “as he is, so are we.” The message and testimony on my heart is getting rock solid, rooted, and grounded in his unfailing love for me, so we can dive in headfirst with blind trust, knowing our future is secure, because he is not just a good father, he is perfect. “Right believing, produces right living.”
Your song ”Ashes” is a powerful Easter song focusing on the sacrifice of Christ. Please share a little about what inspired the song.
Ashes is about seeing every dead thing in our lives as possible victory that God invites us to walk in, breathed back to life again. Every dream, God desire, and thing that seems too far gone. Every time we feel like we are too old, we don’t have enough time or we can’t be used, every lie that has tried to hinder, steal, kill, and destroy would be exposed by the life-giving power of Jesus and that we would discover and walk in what he has made available to us his children. Jesus prayed “on earth, as it is in heaven.” Heaven is now.
You are a worship leader but your albums tend to be more personal-devotion music. What is the difference between writing the two types of music?
The difference is my last two records have been CCM projects intentionally, with corporate worship added into them. On my last record wanted, I released my song blameless that I wrote 10 years ago while leading worship. That was my last single and meant to be the bridge for us to cross over and lead into a live worship record that we are excited about and have been working on for the last few years.
Having been a worship leader for over 10 years, how has your vision for worship and about worship changed over the years?
When I started out as a worship leader and being really young, I’ve viewed worship at times as a genre of music. When you fall in love with the presence of God, you discover worship as a lifestyle that changes everything about everything.
What has been your greatest lesson learned as a worship leader?
That as a child of God, I can’t fail. Regardless of missed notes, missed opportunities, in the past, not always feeling qualified to lead people in this way, God continues to overwhelm me with his truth. “As he is, so am I.” Every good thing about me he gets the credit for and all he sees is a victory when he looks at me. Now I can worship in true freedom, knowing his goodness and remain in awe like a kid, as I discover more of it moment by moment. That’s why it’s our life-mission to declare the heart of the Father with clarity over people through music. It changed us and it will change others.
What’s next for you?
We want to take this music and message out on the road and put on a “family night tour” with our friends and family and watch God do crazy awesome life changes that only he can. More to come on that 🙂
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