An Interview with Sarah DeShields of Renovatus Worship Music

Sarah DeShields grew up in near Edinburgh, Scotland in a charismatic church, before studying percussion and moving to the states to serve as music director at Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC.  I got a chance to talk with her in December about her creative process as a musician and some of her most recent projects.  She released a solo album, The Pilgrim Way in 2011 and an Advent EP, Baloo Lammy (November 12, 2012).  Most recently she put out  a congregational record of original and adapted worship music, The Liturgy & the Shout, from and for her local church.

Hopeful Realism: We’ll start by talking about your own album.  What would you count, on this first record, as your major influences?  What are the main ingredients that went into the making of this album?

The Pilgrim Way

Sarah DeShields: At the time when we were making the record, there were several influences.  One of the main ones was that I was listening to this one album literally everyday called Camino by a violinist named Oliver Schroer.  He recorded this album on El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage across Spain. He took equipment with him and recorded in churches or just their feet walking on paths, there are sounds of local people, there are sounds of cows with bells on their necks.  The pace of the whole album…in between, are these incredible, beautiful pieces of his own writing that I’ve never quite heard anything like.  It’s classical music, but it has this really intense spiritual element to it.  It was on everyday, every morning, it was part of my daily journey.  I also had been listening to the music of Hildegard von Bingen, who is a medieval writer and saint that wrote some incredible choral stuff that is calming to listen to…very monastic.  I had those two things rotating all year, so thematically, that’s where I was at and it became part of the album.  I wanted the album to have that feeling of pilgrimage,  contemplation, and meditation.

As far as other influences that came out, my background is in a lot of classical music and I went to school for percussion, so I played a lot of minimalist music.  When I met Jeremy [Rychard Snyder, the producer of the record], he brought a lot of his influences to the table that I loved and connected with.  He’s very influenced by a group called the Bedroom Community.  As a group, they’re very interesting to listen to, because they’re such a strange conglomerate of people and styles.  That electronic/classical/folk thing going on is what Jeremy and I are inspired by.

HR:  I’ve noticed in both your record and the worship album two major themes.  When I listened, I wrote down “space” and “place.”  Both albums, in different ways have a lot of room.  On your record, which you’ve identified as somewhat contemplative, this is not all that surprising, but for a worship record it struck me as unique to have that kind of room to breathe.

As far as place goes, there are some spoken portions to your album, and on the Renovatus record “Burning Coal” actually locates the listener specifically in North Carolina, also remarkable for a worship album.

SD:  I don’t know that we intentionally sought those things out.  It’s really just part of our process.  In the worship context, while we do all of those songs congregationally at our church, they don’t all necessarily sound that way on a Sunday morning.  The purpose of the album is not so that other worship teams can go and learn it and do it on a Sunday, it’s really for our people to experience the story of what those songs are about.

For instance, “Psalm 51,” there is that whole intro…we started with just a Moog and some pedals and it was very eerie and strange and haunting.  For a while we were like, “we’re going to do some other stuff in there right?”  I was so worried about our congregation feeling uncomfortable to such a strong degree that they wouldn’t stick with the song.  The song came together, and that’s still in there.  Jeremy really fought for it.  The song is about brokenness, it is a hefty subject from a broken place and it is intense and it needs to feel intense.  We don’t allow ourselves in worship settings to really feel uncomfortable.  And sometimes that’s just sitting still for a while.  I think that it is easy when it’s something that you put in the background as soaking music, but if you have to engage it, I think it’s a discipline and a gift to have some music that asks to be engaged without having to turn it off.

The Gaelic stuff you hear on my album is my brother-in-law. He was raised on the Isle of Lewis and Gaelic is his first language. Sadly the language is dying out and they don’t teach it on the mainland so I never learned. The stuff you hear is the Apostle’s Creed and a hymn a local pastor wrote for the passing of his elder friends.

HR:  I’d be curious to hear about some of differences between the two versions of “Ye Nations.”

SD:  That’s one of the earliest ever songs for us.  “Psalm 51” was the first one we ever wrote for Renovatus.  “Ye Nations” was the second and it has been a staple for Renovatus since.  It is probably the most ingrained into our worship psyche.  Everyone knows it and I’m sure some people are sick of it by now.  When I did it for my own album, I wasn’t making it for the church per se.  In that way I didn’t feel like I had to care about what people thought of it or their expectations.  That sounds selfish, but it is also a very liberating thing.  It is incredibly important that artists have opportunities to make music despite whether or not it’s “sellable.”  I knew that version might be difficult for some of our people because they’ve heard a different sounding version for so long and didn’t have any other recording of it.  I heard from the grapevine that some folks felt like they were having a hard time accessing it.  And I’m totally fine with that.  When we came to make it for the Renovatus album, we wanted to keep it pretty simple, so I thought, ‘why don’t we just do marimba.’  It still has some of that minimalistic undergirding, but it is really more about the melody.  It just felt right, and I do feel like it was more accessible.  But what was funny on the release night, we tried to keep everything as close to the recording as possible, and everyone was completely engaged in it.  Maybe even more so than normal, because they could all hear themselves sing because there was only one instrument going on.

HR:  How much music on Sundays is original versus covers?  And how do you see this record interacting with the music people are listening to during the week, (contemporary Christian, retuned hymns, etc)?  Where do you guys fit in?

SD:  Usually on a Sunday at least one of our originals is thrown in.  But we do a lot of hymns.  We do a mixture of what’s out there and seems to be connecting with people spiritually, what’s pertinent to the sermon series…  We do some stuff from Bethel out in California.  We’ll do Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, things that everyone knows and can connect with.  We have this part of our worship manifesto as a church that I think is very important is that ‘we will build altars for the people of God.’  We do this to mark what the Lord is doing, the power of testimony and the power of story.  “Psalm 51” came out of a season of brokenness.  There was some death and loss happening in the church and there was also a psalmic series that we were moving through, so it made sense to write something that embodied that.  So these are the altars that we have, and what we raise up, as songs are part of our storytelling- to the world but also to each other.  Altars are to remind each other of what the Lord has done, his faithfulness and his hand over you as a people.

That was our intent when making this album, not reaching a demographic or pushing to a certain market.  I don’t ever really see that happening with the sort of music we’re making, not because it is so unique or crazy.  There are churches doing stuff that is far more creative than what we are doing, but they are probably in obscurity because they don’t resonate with the masses.  I think we’re really okay with that and we’re used to that.  Another part of our church manifesto is that we’re a bunch of misfits.  That’s kind of where we lie.  This music is really for our people, these people.  Going forward that’s always where I want the focus to stay.  Whatever songs we continue to write, they’ll be out of our experience with one another as a community.

Technological Upgrades and Christological Hermeneutics: Is the Bible Sufficient for a Digital Age?

[Dear HR Readers: please forgive the delay in posting. I have been directing most of my writing energy to completing the manuscript for ‘TheoMedia,’ my latest book project. Almost done… just almost. Below is a piece that I was hoping to include in the manuscript, but I am afraid it will have to be cut due to space. So here is a “deleted scene,” if you will.]


I am not very handy with technology stuff, but from what I can gather, for a technological update to enable a device or program to deal with new situations and scenarios, something internal must be adjusted and tweaked (or something new purchased).

In contrast, the working assumption for the church’s hermeneutical endeavors is that the Bible maintains integrity and sufficiency as an authoritative medium regardless of time’s passage, even in a high-tech digital age.

But unlike our screens, the pages of the Bible lack a “refresh” icon. So the Bible’s wisdom and theological vision must be appropriately interpreted for new situations and scenarios that emerge along time’s onward march. Though we have a “static” textual corpus it is given “dynamic” properties though the church’s varied traditions of interpretation.[1] To read Scripture like a script is to take a static document and enact it in a particular, contemporary context.[2]

Before the closing of the canon, the process of Scripture’s expansion and development could be understood to some degree as a process of updating and upgrading. Editorializing was certainly a part of the ongoing tradition of Scripture. And new material was gradually added which affected, to varying degrees, how the previous material was understood. As the corpus of sacred texts was enlarged, the older content was not erased or dragged to the “trash” file. It was just interpreted in light of the additions.

We especially see this hermeneutical process at work when early Jewish Christians tried to make sense of Jesus in light of their sacred texts. The Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension necessitated a Christological re-appropriation of all previously penned Scripture.

In other words, the early Christians—Jewish and soon also Gentile—were faced with a hermeneutical crisis. This was perhaps their most urgent question: are the sacred texts of Israel compatible with the Person and work of Jesus?

Rather than ordering an entirely new media product fresh off the shelves to satisfy their need for a sacred corpus tidily conducive to Christology, they opted for hermeneutics. They opted for a vigorous discipline of re-reading their old media in light of the Word becoming flesh, and then dying, rising, ascending, and eventually returning. The media announcement of the Gospel has become a primary hermeneutical lens for the church’s understanding of Christian Scripture. We read through Jesus:

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. . ..” (Heb 1:1-3)

The finality and sense of authority perceived in the word of Christ (and the need to preserve that finality and authority as heresies grew) led to the official closing of the canon. Ever since, the New Testament’s testimony to Jesus has been deemed sufficient for interpreting not only all the Scriptures, but also all new situations in life.

So the content of Scripture is theologically competent to guide us into futuristic, high-tech horizons without a cutting edge update. But we do need fresh, Christological interpretation of our ancient, sacred texts that tenders wisdom as we live in a society ever searching for the next and the new.

[1] I am borrowing the terms “static” and “dynamic” from Heidi A. Campbell in her description of Jewish understandings about the Hebrew Scriptures in When Religion Meets New Media, (Media, Religion and Culture Series; London: Routledge, 2010), 88.

[2] Again, see Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine, A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 115–85; the chapter “Theology as Dramaturgy,” is also helpful on this point (243–63).