Thousands of music fans, media connoisseurs, and cultural experts flock to Austin, TX this week to participate in South By Southwest (SXSW) a music and film festival featuring more than 2000 bands, hundreds of film premiers, and interactive sessions including a “virtual conversation with Edward Snowden.” Perhaps most notable, a several years ago Twitter was introduced here.
Cultural centers like these always interest me in terms of the church’s engagement –missiologically, artistically, culturally, and doxologically. As a part of a series of conversations I’ve had with musicians making music in and for the church, I spoke to Richard Kentopp of Austin. He plays and leads music at both Servant Church and Mosaic and has been rolling out new Gentle Wolves songs each week since February. Richard is a UT Longhorn and went to Fuller Theological Seminary, before being ordained by Mosaic and serving at Servant Church in East Austin.
Our church has been influenced by Richard’s recording ministry with Gentle Wolves (the house band for Servant Church). His particular skill for excavating and refreshing old (in some cases very old) hymn texts, writing new songs from and for the church, and also appropriating songs from outside that speak the language of and make sense, perhaps most sense for, the church. And he does all of this with a deft ear and keen sensibility for the people in his community. By trade he is a musician, but he is also a pastor with a heart for those on the margins of faith. His creativity and bravery in a place deemed the “live music capital of the world” is truly inspiring.
On the new set of songs (dubbed Vol. IV), perhaps the quintessential display of these sensibilities is “When the World is Sick.” This tune is originally a lamenting tag at the end of an obscure (and certainly non-Christian) song by Montreal indie collective Thee Silver Zion Memorial Orchestra. After a litany of the world’s ills including “our dead marines,” the singer repeats the hopeful realistic mantra, “When the world is sick/can’t no one be well/but I dreamt we was all beautiful and strong.” Kentopp and co take the haunting line and repurpose it as a Taize-styled Confession. Some parables of the Kingdom are just too powerful not to be used liturgically for the Kingdom.
I was able to talk to Richard a bit about some of his thoughts on worship music, what it means to play music that makes sense to an increasingly post-Christian culture in a cultural center like Austin, and his outlook on pastoring and including musicians.
Hopeful Realism: I was checking out the blog you keep and was curious to have you elaborate on your four reasons why you don’t sing praise and worship songs? It seems like your four reasons really boil down to two reasons: “they’re not good” & “they’re unintelligible to someone outside of that culture.”
Richard Kentopp: That post is getting commented on in a lot of ways. That was what I was thinking that day. Not every day am I thinking all of those things in those ways. I think that post came out a bit negative; I’m generally trying to be more constructive. I will say that I do think those songs work well for some people. I know people who deeply connect with God through Matt Redman’s music and through his ministry and through their church singing those songs. But what I think has been lost, and one reason why the church in general is hemorrhaging young people, is our ability to make music that makes sense both musically and lyrically to young people.
I think you’re right, that music makes sense to people who grew up listening to “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” & “Heart of Worship.” But from a very young age, a lot of Christians, myself included, don’t connect with “youth group music.” There are plenty of people that need to be given the vocabulary with which to worship God, and have a hard time singing those songs. The church has done a pretty poor job –giving outsiders a chance to connect. I always try to plan for our worship gatherings from the perspective of someone having their very first worship gathering experience. What I’ve found is that success lies in getting the people who have been coming forever to come around that.
I often say to them, “You’re a giving member, you’re a leader at this church, I don’t really care what you think of our music. But I want you to tell me if you think its not going to connect with your friends or your coworkers, then you can give me critique and I’ll listen to it.” We’re on a mission. I’m not there to provide an emotional experience on Sundays, I’m there to help connect them to God and connect them to each other. Emotions will inevitably happen.
HR: I’m reminded of a line in Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, “If we want to care for the ‘lost souls’ of our society, the best way we can reach out to them is to offer them the richest resources of the Church.” I think that includes the really vibrant language of the church. With regards to language, what makes you look at a text and say, ‘we could really do that well, and it might connect in a new and surprising way’?
RK: The follow-up post to the one you mentioned, listed what sort of songs we do. As far as hymns go, I don’t have any problem changing hymns. I’m not a purist. I think that it makes sense to update theologically or otherwise.
For instance, one of the ones that we’re working on, “We Are Waiting Blessed Savior.” The music is really simple but the lyrics are great. So I took these several hundred year old lyrics and plopped them into new music. One of the lines was, “We are waiting blessed Savior/for a reunion heart to heart/with our dear ones over the river.” Every time we sing things like that or “Sweet By and By,” theologically, I have a hard time finding backup that we’ll see our loved ones in such a state in our resurrection bodies. It became problematic when we were doing a funeral for one of our folks. As a pastoral move, if possible I try to chance some of the lines into more Christ-focused eschatological references.
Linguistically, I try to change thous to yous and thee to you. Basic stuff to make us not feel so alienated over time and space from some of these songs.
HR: Tell me about the difference, for you, between making congregational music and other kinds of recording projects.
RK: I see a real distinction between the music I make “for art’s sake” and what I do with the Gentle Wolves. Honestly, I’m not a big country-rock fan, but because we are where we are, and because that makes sense artistically and linguistically to people in Austin, we choose to do that. When I made my record, my goal was to make something in the language I enjoy, something that expresses me…but that’s not necessarily the goal for the Gentle Wolves and what we do Sunday mornings. My goals are simply different. I want people to easily catch on to melodies and to be able to sing to God. I pray that somehow God’s Spirit will connect them to himself and to everyone around them singing.
HR: I love to ask worship leaders about how they navigate the role of non-Christians in worship. You find folks on every part of the spectrum, in terms of who is able to participate in making music on Sundays.
RK: I’ve actually come about 180 degrees on this. When I was in college at University of Texas, I was a part of a church in Austin that required you to be a part of a small group for over a year in order to be on stage in any capacity for music. They had a very high buy-in, and I thought that that was good, since you’re leading the people, even if you’re just playing bass or drums or guitar. I’ve found since I’ve been doing this as a worship leader that incorporating people who don’t call themselves Christians into your community can happen really effectively through having them play music. Musicians love to play. Honestly, I’ve seen enough fruit; enough people who weren’t Christians become so involved with a Christian community that they start following Jesus before they even realize what they’re doing. And they start to realize that maybe faith is something they’ve been doing, something they’ve been given.
How I counter the previous mindset that I had, is by realizing that I’m up there –not some paragon of moral fiber- I’m a pastor. The musicians that are beside me and with me are a microcosm of the church at large. So I want there to be people investigating faith, but still sharing their gifts with the community.