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.