Way back in August 2016, I had a long chat with Evan Thomas Way, music pastor at Door of Hope in Portland and frontman of the acclaimed indie band The Parson Red Heads. Last summer, I published a profile based on that conversation at Mockingbird. If you’re new to Evan’s work, head there first. But if you want more, here follows the entire interview with Evan. As someone who cares deeply about music in the church, and who leads music regularly, I found Evan’s approach both refreshingly realistic and healthy. Rereading the conversation before posting it encouraged me again, so I hope it benefits you too.
Which album do you send people to, or that you think is the best representative of The Parson Red Heads?
I don't know, because I feel like they are all representative of specific times, whether it be different versions of the band, or where we were at in life, or what we were listening to.
The band includes you and your wife?
Yeah, pretty much. My wife and I are the founding members, and we've gone through lots of different changes. Some of the [members] have been through it for the most part, for almost the whole time. But it's hard to say what represents us most, 'cause I feel like every album is fairly different and representative of a specific... you know little documents, so I don't know. That's a hard question.
I feel like Yearling is a special album, in the same way that I describe Wesley Randolph Eader's latest album. Somehow we ended up with this one collection of songs that were really strong as songs. Song for song, they were probably the best. You could play them just on an acoustic and they would still [hold up]. As songwriter songs, maybe it's the strongest in that way. And we spent a lot of time working on it, really all over the country, recording it at different studios. So it's this really special... probably it will go down in history for us as the most special album to make, maybe like the strongest, most cohesive collection of songs. But then at the same time, I don't know if it really represents where we are now, so it's hard to say.
At any stage of one's art it is hard to really narrow it down and say, "That's me!"
How long have you been making music?
Well, Parson's have been playing... I've been doing music in this form for 12 years, I had some bands before then, but they weren't very good. Laughs. So we'll say 12. 12 years.
Anything you've learned...?
I'm sure I've learned a ton! Laughs.
But that you'd look back at on and say, "Man, I wish I had known that." Or, "I'm glad I learned that over time."
Yeah, all sorts of things. You can't help but learn about songwriting, about being a musician, about playing with other people, and just about how to treat other people by being in a band and touring. Especially because we started the band and had been playing for a little under a year before we moved to L.A. When we moved to L.A. we were like, taking it really seriously, and it was good to do. But I was certainly... like, I would write songs that I was pretty extreme about. I was writing everything and I was telling everybody what to play.
Yeah, you know. Not to justify it, but I had these ideas, like, “This is the guitar part that I thought of for this thing. This is how I hear it in my head, so I'm going to tell people what to do.” And, in retrospect after growing up and learning more, I don't think that's the best way to be in a band. Laughs. Maybe there are some songwriters who are talented enough that it's the best way to do it. But as we've gone on, I've realised that even if people are writing a part that maybe I thought of in my head, [theirs is] almost always better. When somebody can invest and come up with their own contribution to the song, it's going to make the song more dynamic, and it's going to represent the band as a whole better rather than the two dimensional version of what the song would have been if I would have written everything.
It's a band, not an artist, so it should reflect everyone.
So once I learned that – and that was a hard lesson to learn! – I feel like we got better. Laughs. But yeah, it's hard to sum up everything that you've learned, because it covers so many different categories.
It's interesting hearing that, and then watching you play with your team at church. How much more that is important in a church context, where if you're the one controlling everything!
I'm sure that there are people in my position at a church [who] control everything, that's pretty common. But that's not how I like to do things. No, it's certainly...
But even you think of a band making music, and how members are bringing things they've invested into that song... If you are talking about the church, that's a picture of the church itself!
Yeah. It seems illogical now! [But] at the time, I don't know... I just wasn't thinking that way. [Now] it just makes sense. Not only is someone going to care more about what they play, if it's something that they've came up with, they are going to play it better. Laughs. There's going to be more character and... it's going to be better if they've thought it up. Because everyone has their own unique way of doing things. If they replicate something that I've shown them how to play, it's just not going to be as good, or as interesting.
It brings more to the table, and when you listen to a good record, or a song, it unfolds itself more the more you listen to it. If other people are bringing stuff to it, it's just going to add to that richness.
I was reading Bob Dylan's memoir and realised how much of his early career was spent just playing other people's music that he loved. Same thing with The Beatles early music. They just covered people.
Yeah! That was indicative of the 60s though, everybody was doing it. It was kind of weird. There would be like four versions of the same song on the radio, and they'd all just be playing at once. “May the best band win!” You know?
Did you start out as songwriter?
Yeah, I just pretty much jumped right in, wanting to be in a band that did our own songs. [But] I definitely learned the value of covers. Parson's have made it a habit of knowing some covers, because they are fun to do. For the past 6 years, on every New Year's Eve, we do a concert where we perform an album from beginning to end, so we learn a band's album that way.
Wow! What's your favourite?
We did the Weezer's Blue Album. You don't know Weezer? Man, Canada! So that was probably the most fun. But we did The Beatles “Hard Day's Night.” We did Tom Petty's “Wildflowers”. We just recently did Fleetwood Mac's “Rumours”, we did Stardust this last year. So that's been so interesting – how much it informs and teaches you. Like one time in L.A. we were the house band for a Beach Boys tribute show. All sorts of different vocalist from around town were singing and we were just the band and did harmonies. We had to learn like 20 something Beach Boy songs and all the harmonies. We were learning harmonies off sheet music, choir style.
And that was so educational! We grew so much as musicians having to do that. And my appreciation for what the Beach Boys do... Because it's hard to write something that's hard for you to do. Like, I would never write a song that I can't play. Some people do. They hear something, and it's really hard for them to play, and eventually they get it. I'm not wired that way. I don't write something that's hard for me to do. So being forced to learn something that's hard for me to do just makes me grow that much more as a musician.
Did you watch Love & Mercy?
I have not.
That film really helped me appreciate them. It also made me appreciate the amount of personal suffering such brilliance brought Brian Wilson.
Yeah, I've got to see it. All my Beach Boys fanatic friends saw it, and it passed. They all approved of it. I have some friends who are historian level [Beach Boy fans], so if they approve it, it must be good.
Apparently they found the original recordings of the studio sessions and replicated them exactly.
I guess even the scenes in the studio were replicated off photos and footage, so everything was laid out the same, the microphones were all in the right places.
And it's fun to watch! Especially seeming them create these ideas together.
Yeah, I gotta see it.
I find it cool that you and Wesley are both making music that's not explicitly Christian, along with Gospel music, and having that combination. Are there things that you keep in mind when you are wearing those different hats?
Yeah, I guess so. For me, writing gospel music and... worship music?
Yeah, church music. That's a good way to put it. It was something I didn't do until I started working with the church. And started working with the church, and Josh, our lead pastor, writes a lot of the songs that we do. and there were lot of other songwriters writing songs for the church. And he encouraged me, like, "You write good songs. You should try writing some worship songs. Might as well try it." And so that's kinda when I kinda started trying my hand at it. And it takes me... it's a lot harder to write a good worship song.
Because there's a lot more.... You can't do whatever you want. Laughs. It's gotta be theologically sound, it's gotta be clear. In my opinion, this is what it takes. It has to be easy to sing along with. There's just all this other stuff. Whereas when you are writing a song, it doesn't have to make sense, really. And I take it a lot more seriously. I'm a lot more critical. I'm like, “Is this all true? Is this all worth singing, will people get it?” So it just takes a lot longer. I mean, I've only written church songs in the context that this is for our church, for this church specifically. So for everything on that record, I wasn't just writing Christian songs. I was like writing a bunch of songs to be congregational worship songs
For your church.
For my church, yeah.
For people that you know!
Laughs. And I was a little weirded out making a record, because I wrote [all the songs] not thinking to do a record, I was like, “I don't know if I wanted to.” It felt weird. I wrote these songs to be sung in a worship service. Is their function to be recorded, and put on a CD, and be monetised, and [played] in the car? Is that what they are for? Is that right? Or is their purpose to be sung? And I still think about that some times. I realise that there are people who worship to them outside of the confluence of church. And that's fine, if you can put it in your car and drive and you're worshiping, and it helps you, that's good.
Once I decided to do it, working with the guy I work with, Danny (who did Wesley's record too), [he] helped me kind of realise that the record is an opportunity not just to recreate what [I] do on Sunday, but these songs can be done differently on the record than what [I] do at church. Like, they can still be worshipful, but they don't have to be a congregational worship song. So we changed the arrangements and made them a little more experimental.
Yeah, which helped me justify doing the album more.
In the sense that you were making something that people can enjoy as art?
It is worship, but you are not singing it in your congregation.
Right. So yeah, I mean, that is very different from what I do for Parsons, in that it's a different function, if you think about music as functions, I think about the songs I write for church as serving a very specific purpose, whereas the songs I write for Parsons can serve all sorts of different purposes I guess, depending on the song. Over the years I've found my songs for Parsons, whether I try or want to or not, have more clearly expressed my worldview, you know? Laughs. The more I've grown as a Christian and [have] taken following Jesus seriously, the more I can't help it. I'm not thinking about it when I'm writing lyrics, but its coming through somehow. Because more and more, every release I'll have questions asked by interviewers, "Are these sons about... God... like?" When we first started no one would every ask me that about any of my songs. It just [has] kind of sneaked in, like, " I guess it is, yeah." Laughs.
In what ways do they sneak in? I listen and find it very joy filled. You're reckoning with these things and realising there is something greater going on.
I think it really started happing with the last record, with the Orb Weaver record. Just on certain lyrics, [critics] were picking it up much more quickly then I thought they would be. Laughs.
When you're writing music for the church you're very specific. It almost sounds like you're hearing a need in the congregation.
I'm seeing the need In the church in general, for good worship songs. Not to offend anyone, but I feel like there is a lot of bad church music out there being done by churches. So I see a need because I know there are a lot of people like myself who hear these songs and are like, "This is terrible." And they're conflicted because they want to be good worshippers. Certainly you don't want to go to a church and feel like... I mean I've done it so many times, where you hate... you just don't like the songs, but that's not your job. You're not there to please yourself or be entertained, so then you're trying. You want to worship God well, and humbly, but you're like, "Man, I can't help it, this song is terrible." Chuckles. That conflict! So I see a need for good worship songs [that] I think are pleasing artistically. But also I find that a lot of modern worship songs are devoid of all actual content. Like, they are Christian lingo just repeated over and over again that just means nothing. So I see a need for that in the church in general.
So, the immediate use is for our church. And then the nice thing is that through Deeper Well, through any reach that we have, it is able to echo out [into] other churches. Whenever I hear about another church doing some Deeper Well songs I'm, like, so happy. I love that people are finding that music and using it in their congregation and that it's growing from there.
We use some of Wesley's stuff, and it's great. We do a lot of Indelible Grace and Sovereign Grace songs, and there is still so much from them to draw from. But the more I listen to Deeper Well, the more I want to introduce your songs.
When you’re making the art that is specifically Gospel focused, especially that made in context for the church, you know that it explicitly includes truth. So you trust that its going forth and being used. Is there a sense that you wonder how if your other music is having any impact? Obviously you can trust God...
I guess I don't worry about it too much, because there is not much I can do about it. I think that songs that are outside of [the church] context sometimes can be more powerful. They certainly can communicate to people who are... I mean, I would love it if Deeper Well...
One idea was if the records sound great, if the songs are good, [then] even if the content is explicitly Jesus content, maybe people outside of the church would gravitate towards the music anyways, and [it could] sneak in there. [But} I think that outside of maybe Liz Vice's record, that's probably not happened, I mean for various reasons. When a black woman is singing traditionally sounding gospel music a lot of people let that slide sooner then they would a bearded man singing about Jesus. Chuckles.
I was talking to her about it yesterday, and I was surprised at the types of venues that invite her.
Yeah, I think she can get away with it, and it's great. [But] the idea that my record being heard by someone who is not a Christian and being like, "I love it anyway!" like... it's a little ridiculous. But, are they going to listen to the Parson's records where the messages [aren't] explicit but certainly [have a] worldview engrained in them that can, I don't know, soften their hearts? I think that's totally possible.
Especially because music can get under your skin and in your head.
Yeah. So I think it can still be used for good. I think it's [also] a vehicle to express other ideas, and like, you know, more personal introspective about life in general. I don't think that's the place where Gospel music [can]...
So even though the worship music talks about life, the other stuff talks about it in a broader sense, in ways that the other stuff can't?
Yeah. More introspective, I guess.
At my church, when we write gospel music our pastors give it a read through to make sure that what is being taught is accurate. And you mention something similar, in trying to be careful. Do you do something similar when you write something that's not explicitly Christian? Because you are still conveying a message.
Not really. I guess I trust myself enough. And I feel like if I were to do that, would I expect other artist attending the church [do to the same]? Would I expect Wesley to bring his songs [to me]?
Would you expect a coffee roaster to do something similar with their coffee?
Yeah. [You] have to exercise accountability, and you have to be able to have the freedom of expression to express doubt, or pain, and sing from different perspectives. I certainly have written songs that, when I take a step back, I have to admit that, "Man, I wrote that from the perspective of maybe a character who is not where I am at." And I have to be okay with that. You have to take that step of bravery I guess. That [perspective] might get associated with me, but I think it's a valuable story to tell anyway.
How did you get into the worship pastor position at Door of Hope?
Laughs. By accident, I guess. We moved up here, and I was working as a website project manager from home, and we were sort of looking for churches. Like I was telling [you earlier], I was struggling with going to churches and just really not responding to the music. In a way that wasn't healthy, that was very selfish.
In the sense that you wanted to be pleased?
Yeah, like I'd show up ready to judge the music. The music would happen. I would judge the music. [I was] completely shut off from the experience, just not good. It was not good.
It's so easy as an artist to do that.
Oh yeah! And so, after a while of looking for churches [and] that being the thing over and over again, both my wife and I were super convicted about it. [We] started realising that we are not... everyone else is just worshiping and we are just being so self-righteous and treating it like we are supposed to be entertained. And so we really had to take a step back and just choose to put that aside and be like, "We will find a church and music will not be a factor. Because it's such a problem we can't actually let that be a factor in our decision anymore. So whatever the music is, if we find a church that has solid teaching, that were compelled by, that we think is healthy, we just need to go. We need to commit to a church, and we need to lay that down. Music just needs to not be a thing."
And so we did that and a little while later we found Door of Hope and it was just God rewarding some amount of faithfulness and repentance. Because when we walked in, I was like, "Oh, the music is good. But it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter if the music is good!" And then the message was great, and halfway though the sermon I leaned over to Brette and was like, "We should go here." And so we never stopped going.
And through committing to the church a couple weeks later we introduced ourselves to Josh, and Josh, being the way he is – it's hard to describe – he was like, "Oh you guys are musicians, what's the name of your band?" And we told him and the next week he comes up he's like, "I checked out your band, it's really good." He's just really immediate and informal. He's like, "It's really good, do you want to do a special song sometimes? Like special music for a service, like do a song?" We're like, "Sure." He's like, "Okay, cool. Next week."
Alright! So then next week Brette and I did a song, and after the service he was like, "That was awesome. Do you want to do worship with me sometime, like co-lead? Okay, cool, next week we will do it."
Ah, alright! After that, he was like, "That's great!" and we'd get lunch or coffee occasionally. And through co-leading, sometimes I started seeing how... because at this point it was just him and two guys working for the church. He was preaching every week. He was the only pastor, he was doing all the music, coordinating the band to whatever extent he could. He was just doing a lot. And my Dad's a pastor, and so I know what it looks like for a pastor to do more then he should, plus [Josh is] just like, not organised. So I got the inside view of, “Woah, he's sending out an email to people like on Saturday night, telling them that they're going to play worship with him tomorrow. Like, that's not going to work. That not sustainable. I'm surprised it's lasted this long.” And I was working at home at the time, a computer job, so I offered; "Josh, can I just make a monthly schedule? I'll handle scheduling. Give me the musicians. I'm an organised person. It will take no time. I've got time at home. Give me their emails, I'll make a schedule every month, that way you don't' have to be doing this ridiculous scramble every Saturday night."
He's like, "Alright.” So I started doing that, and co-leading more regularly, and after doing that for a few months he finally offered me a job. And I didn't really want the job.
Not really. I didn't think that I'd work for a church, I was comfortable doing what I was doing; we were able to tour whenever we wanted, doing what I was doing. And so when he offered me the job it took me a while to say yes. I was so comfortable. "Yeah, the job I have now is stressful and giving me ulcers, but we can tour. I know what it is." The known vs. the unknown. And I called my dad and I was like, "Dad, should I take this job?" My dad's a pastor and I was half expecting him to say, "Of course, work for a church!" He was like, "Well, I don't know. The band's important, and working in ministry is hard. If you're not called to do it it will destroy you."
Well, alright, I'll take that into consideration! But after praying about it and my wife really calling out my... I was holding on to the comfort of like, "This job pays good, we can tour whenever." [But in the end], if you have an opportunity to do music for church, for a job, just do it. And I did it.
That's an amazing story! And how, over the years of doing that, how have you changed?
I've probably changed completely. Laughs. I doing know, I mean, yeah, it's been almost totally different then I thought it would be. I love it. I don't know if I would... I don't consider it my career. Were I to, for some reason, loose this job tomorrow, would I be like, "Alright, better find another church to do worship for"? I don't think so. I mean, not only do I think that I'm called to be the worship pastor for this church, that's how I feel now. I don't feel like I'm called to got on another church. So if I didn't work for the church, I guess I would just do a different job. But also, but I don't think any other church would have me.
Because I don't like to do the job how most churches like to do it, or do the songs that most churches want you to do. I think either I'd quite or they'd fire me. Laughs. Yeah, I don't view music as a career. I view it as a calling to this specific church. If I were to loose the job, I would just go back to...
But that feels healthy. It feels organic, even just watching you do your thing. This is you doing this because this is how you serve the church. It's in this capacity, but ultimately you are still going to serve the church through music wherever you are.
Right. Yeah. So, I mean I've changed a lot in that I've embraced the role in ways that... I never thought that I would have a job that I would do. I actually realise that I care a lot about how worship is done. Not only artistically, but like, even more so on a pastoral level.
What is that?
Well, I feel like my job is first and foremost carrying for the musicians and volunteers that are put under my care. That's number one, fostering that community, pastoring this community of these people at the church. I don't think that my job is to be the guy who makes music. I feel like worship pastors nowadays they are the guys who are hired to make music that sounds good, and looks good, and people can... "Can you sing good? And play guitar good? Then you're the worship pastor!" How does that qualify you to be a pastor? You're just a musician. And there [are]a lot of guys who can sing good, and play good, and look good on a stage, and be compelling. But I don't feel that's the appropriate thing. I feel like first and foremost, when you pastor people, do you care about the people who are put under your care? Do you have a healthy vision of what constitutes healthy, humble worship rather than a concert? And then, maybe, like 5th down the line, can you sing.... Actually, I don't think it even is on the list. [It}doesn't matter. If a church is like a family of Christ, do you care if you're around the dinner table and your brother tells a joke and it's not good? It's your bother, just let him tell a joke. I don't even think it matters.
But your musicians are very good.
They are very good. Yeah. I don't know. I'm blessed to serve at a church where the musicians are so good. So I can't take it for granted.
So let’s say you have someone that comes in and says, "I want to serve the church this way" but he or she is not the best musician – yet. What would that look like? Especially since you've got such good talent.
Right, yeah, there's the brass tacks of everyday, where I have a rotation of 40 something musicians who are all pretty stinking good. Do I have a need for even a really good musician right now? Not really. I will try to use them somewhere because I want everyone to be able to serve with their gifts if they can. But what I've done in the past is when somebody wants to serve in the worship team but they're just not good.... which happens. I mean, [if] they can't play their instrument well enough it would be a distraction, it would take away from it. Or they don't have experience playing with other people, all sorts of things. Usually I have to gently tell them that they can serve yet, and that they should maybe try to serve the church in some other way, with other skills or interests that they have. But I always offer to continue playing with them, to help [them]. I have a group that I meet with every other week. They might not be ready to play on a regular rotation, but I want to pastor them and I want to help them get better. Maybe sometime they can play. I don't just say, "Sorry, not good enough." I don't like the whole idea of it being an audition process. Like an American Idol thing.
Offering that takes more work out of you, but then that's pastoring.
Yeah. I'm the pastor. So we get together and we play. There's not a promise that they ever will be on the rotation, but maybe they aren't supposed to be. Laughs.
But you're still going to learn how to enjoy...
Yeah. If nothing else, I can help you learn how to play with other musicians better and listen.
When it comes to disciplining artists in the community, because Portland's got a lot of artists, which is really cool...
But as a church you are called to disciple people and artists have specific shortcomings and idolatries...
...that are specific to them. How do you, as a church, disciple artists?
Hmm. I mean, we're not a church that's very programmatic. We try very hard not to be. So, we try to be as organic as we can. But how do I disciple artists outside of trying to go through life with people who go to the church who are artist, and be their friend and their pastor? Laughs.
Outside of that, I guess we try to be very real with.... Artist have the tendency in communities to think that they are a gift to the church, like the church needs artists. That's something that's talked about all the time. But artists very rarely think that they need the church. So I try to tell artists that we don't really need them, and that they actually just need the church and [need] to be in community. And you know what? It's cool that you paint good. [But] you need to be here every week and just, like, serve coffee. Laughs. Right?
I feel like one of the best ways to disciple artists is to try and strip away the idolatry of their art, like, "I live for my art." No. You live for Jesus. And you're lucky to be able to do art. "The church needs me." No. That's ridiculous. Like, we'd be fine without the painter. We'd be fine without 48 musicians. We could have one guy up there with a guitar lead[ing] a hymn and it would be awesome. So we don't need you. You need the church. Laughs. That's how I disciple artists. Laughs.
That's good! And you mentioned that idolatry piece. I find I'm understanding more about how much my identity is placed in what I'm doing. Even when I'm getting frustrated by my creativity – I can't write, or it doesn't succeed, or whatever – that's where I place all my identity.
Oh, of course.
Are there things you've found as an artist that you have to kill?
Yeah. I mean, I'm killing sin all the time, right? Laughs. It never dies. It won't be dead. And in any artist the tension is always there, because it's the tension of being imperfect, selfish, broken humans that...
Speaking for myself, I love making music. I love finishing a song and playing it and being pleased by it. Is that healthy? Only to a certain extent. Like, what are the reasons why I like to put out music that people like? I'm sure most of those reasons aren't glorifying to God. And every artist is like that. No artist makes art without the idea that they want people to like it. Well, why do they want people to like it? Why does it matter?
When you notice that in yourself, do you continue to make art? Or do you pause sometimes and not put it out?
No, because I don't think that's any healthier. Laughs. You've got to deal with the problem, and certainly I think that as beings created in the image of God, part of that is being creators, and everybody is.
I feel like that's a whole other thing. Artist's get put on this pedestal as being like, "You guys have that part of the image of God!” But everybody's a creative. Literally everything humans do is creative. The guys who laid the pavement out there are artists.
Yeah. So, I mean, that's something that has to be stripped away anyways. Like, artists get treated like, "Wow, you guys have that blessing and burden of being creators!" Nah, that's every human, ever. And that's a whole other problem.
No, you don't stop doing art because God gave you that gift. It's not a bad gift.
If he gave you that gift, then with it comes temptations, as every gift does. Perhaps that's how he is disciplining you and how he's sanctifying you.
I mean, I think there are certainly times... I know guys who have really confronted the fact that playing music in some capacity, or making music... "I can not avoid it causing me to sin. In whatever way, this is a threat to me. It causes me... for whatever reason. It causes me to drink too much, because I always drink too much when I play shows." Or, name the reason. Countless reasons why doing art could cause your walk with Jesus to be compromised. And I certainly know guys who have taken that step, that at least for now, I need to not do that.
Or for family reasons.
Right. And I think that's totally respectable. I know guys who have done that and then, years later, have been able to come back to it in a much healthier way. But I don't think anyone should expect that they can do art without constantly battling self.
It's really cool to have a church that cultivates a community of creativity. And Door of Hope definitely does that. You just walk in. How do you encourage a church to do that who doesn't? And how do you avoid being seduced by the beauty?
I mean, I think the idea of a church cultivating creativity is a little..... Like I get asked a lot from those who pastor churches that aren't [like ours], "Your church is so creative! How do you cultivate creativity?" Well, if you are serving a church that is not made up of people who are artistic in that particular way, you can't. Laughs. And you shouldn't want to. Because you are serving a church made up of these people. What do they want? And your church is going to look like that.
I think a church should be responsible for the people who make up the church, and not try to be something they aren't. Because they think that's what a good church looks like. Our church looks like this because, for whatever reason, we are a church that from the very beginning [had] a lot of musicians. Musically creative [and] gifted people started coming. And that feeds upon itself. But if we didn't have that, I wouldn't got out to try, like "How do we get these people here? How do we make our music sound like that church’s music? Because I don't think that's healthy.
No, it's not.
So do we cultivate creativity? No, we just have a lot of creative people and we have a healthy view of how they could be used in the church and it's probably not even... I feel Imago Dei does a lot more with their visual artists then we do, and they have a lot more, but they also have found ways to use them that we don't. I don't try to pursue copying them.
You just aren't connected to the needs of that community.
Yeah. I think cultivating creativity is just an idol that churches have that they want to make. They need to do music that works. That worked for that church. What do your people want? Can they even do it?
Because that serves them.
So I wouldn't say we cultivate creativity, we just happen to have people here who want to serve. [We are] trying to guide them in a healthy way to serve, but I'm not trying to get people to be more creative. You can't make... if you have artists, like musicians, you can't make, you don't have to do anything to make them be creative and make music. If anything, you have to stop them from doing a lot of stupid stuff.
And how does that play in? I see of a lot of art organisations that do great work, but you see them start to loose the doctrine side.
Yeah! You know, I could totally think of times when someday said, "I wrote this and I want to do it for the church on Sunday." And maybe I didn't look at it close enough, and I let them do it, and then I think, "Yeah, I shouldn't have let them do it like that. That did not serve the purpose. It shouldn't have been done at church." Either the point hadn't been clear, or, you know, for whatever reason. You can get away with a lot under the guise of being artistic in the church.
It's a pass.
Yeah. And I just think you have to be really strict about it. Chuckles. You have a lot of freedom to [personally] be creative as a Christian. As a member of a church you have a lot of freedom to be creative. Not all of that freedom is allowable in a church service. Where I work at a church, a big part of my job is overseeing a church worship service.
Freedom under the context of the proper framework.
I wouldn't play a Parson’s song in church. Even though it's something I do that I think brings glory to God, I wouldn't do it, because it's selfish. I mean, as far as guiding artists away from doing stupid stuff, you can't. They're always going to do stupid stuff. Laughs. But being willing to have those hard conversations. How many times [I hear about them outside] the church just being, doing all sorts of dumb stuff outside of the church, how that reflects on the church and how that reflects on them. Are you going to have those conversations that are hard? And be like, "What are you doing and why are you... Why do people see you smoke pot after church, that's crazy? Why are you talking like this?" That's pastoring. That's holding people accountable.
And it's not just for artists.
How did Deeper Well come about?
Pretty much just through me and Josh talking. When I started working, he had just finished his last record for Tooth and Nail. He had finished his contract for Telecast, a big worship band. He finally finished his contract, he was so happy to be done doing that. But you know, he is a creative guy, he writes music all the time. [He's] still constantly writing music. So what does that look like now, [with] both of us being musicians wired to write songs? We have a real heart for musicians making music. So he's got songs, he's done with Tooth and Nail, [he] certainly doesn't want to go down that road again. And then starting to look at his songs and other musicians in the church who were writing songs for the church. This is something that God has blessed this church with. What are we supposed to do with this? Are we just supposed to sing these songs on Sunday? Or can we do something, like we talked earlier, to address the need in Christian culture, in worship culture? Is there a way that we can do it differently? Can we learn about Josh's bad experience with contemporary Christian music and can we do something else?
What has the impact been on the church and its community?
I think it's helped our worship. I think there's something really powerful about having the bulk of the songs that you sing as a community being written by people who've been in the community. Because they speak to our growth as a church, and they've come from our experience as a church. I think it's undeniable that when we sing 'Victory in the Lamb' it's powerful. Because it's a powerful song, but also because Wesley wrote it, and he's part of our church, and he wrote it while he was at our church. [There's] just something inherently strong about that.
I've heard that it's brought other people to the church. I'm blown away by the reach that it's had. Like Miranda [a missionary from our congregation] on Sunday [telling us that] people in Nepal have heard of it. That blows my mind, and it's humbling to hear.
But how it's affected our church? It's strengthen our worship. I love that we've been able to serve the musicians that we have by allowing them the ability to make a record that they're proud of, that serves the church but is also something that helps them grow,
It's affirming as artists!
It strikes me how Wesley's songs are very much hymns, with a traditional hymn structure. But Deeper Well has also released stuff that's very much not. Those songs are played different style. They even have a different way of writing words. It's neat that those can exist in the same context. I'm curious why that happens and how you avoid having it so simple and one dimensional.
I think it's just by not telling people what to do. Laughs. Being willing to have Holly write her songs and be like, "These are good!" Pastoring her, but not being like, "No, it should be more like this." People are unique, and by writing these great songs... I'm not looking at Wesley's songs and [saying], "These have the potential to be great if he does x y and z." But seeing them as they are. Seeing Cory's songs that he's written as a song writer, not because of what I've told him to do. Because he has the gift of writing songs. All these people are better at writing songs then me, in my opinion, so what should I tell them what to do?
I've enjoyed having the Sunday worship sets up on SoundCloud.
Yeah, isnt' that cool? Not my idea. But it ended up being a good idea. I'm like, so cautious about putting the music up on any sort of pedestal. I'm just all about why. Why would we do that? Wouldn't that just make people idolise the music and the musicians?
And covet the quality of your church's music?
Sure. So I'm always more about saying no then yes. But our executive pastor was like, "We've got such great music that could bless churches all over the place. It could bless people at our church that want to hear this music throughout their week." He was like, "Even more so..." – and he probably said this to convince me –"there are other churches who could really use the inspiration of hearing these worship songs done in a way that, clearly, you think is good, because that's how you do it."
So I was convinced. I drew the line at audio. He's like, "We could film it?" No. Yeah, so it’s been great and I've been blown away by how many people are listening to it.
I've really enjoyed it. It's been a great way to get ideas for new ways of doing songs. Like, hearing a different person sing Of Old it was Recorded and thinking, "Okay you could do it this way too. " Even Liz's version of Amazing Grace that you did yesterday. I want to do it like that, and now I can look it up later.
I was thinking of [that song as an example of] why not to tell people what to do. Liz was like, "I heard the Blind Boys of Alabama do Amazing Grace this way and I loved it.” So we did it through once. [But] for my taste I didn't want to, it seemed a little silly. I just didn't gravitate towards that idea. [But I thought,] "Is there any real reason outside of my personal taste why I wouldn't want to do that? Does it change the content of the song? Does it make it less singable? No, people will pick up on it just fine."
So you've never done it like that in the church at all?
No, no. Liz just suggested we do it that way.
I just didn't have any reason, other than my taste, to say no. And that's not a good enough reason. So I was like, "All right, let's do it. It works with your voice good. I guess we'll do it." And, it turns out, my taste was wrong, because everybody loved it. Laughs.
It was fun to sing to! I sang along louder on that then probably anything else that morning.
I got a ton of comments about it. So I was wrong! So all the better for me to not go with my tastes most of the time.
Well, this has been a terrific conversation. Thank you for for your time!
You're welcome! I'm glad that you are able to meet with Wesley, and talk to Paul [Ramey at Imago Die]. You're going to get all kinds of different perspectives [from him.} Laughs.
What's it like having two different churches with similar focuses, especially both in the same neighbourhood?
Yeah. Well, similar but different, We just have different ways of doing church. Neither wrong nor right.
Um, I love it. I think more churches need to be more unified and less divided about things that don't matter. And I think Imago does a ton of great stuff, and they do a ton of stuff that we don't do. And so to know that there's a church right there that's doing all of this stuff, and somebody might come to our church and not like it, but they can just go right over there and know that they can got to a church that is preaching truth, and doing great things, and loves people. It's not a competition.
It's cool that that events like Canvas Conference that can bring that talent and the people of the community together that way.
Yeah, I think Portland's unique in that [way]. At the first Wednesday of every month there's a lunch at Imago. Any worship pastor or worship leader from the Portland area is welcome to come, and we all just come together. Usually like 10-15 different churches are represented. And we just we talk about stuff, sometimes there are different themes, sometimes not. We sing and worship together, we pray together. And it's us! I think it's a healthy way to get there.
Yeah, I mean Paul's a good friend. He and I get together pretty regularly. I love the guy. We probably don't agree on somethings, [like] philosophies of how to do church, but I don't know if Jesus cares about it or not. Laughs.
Portland gets that reputation of being one of the least churched cities [in America] but I'm not sure where that comes from.
I wonder if it's a Pacific Northwest thing?
That statistic applies to Victoria for sure. Maybe Vancouver, but not as much. I don't know about Seattle...
I don't know. I just look at all the churches that I think are great around here and I think, "How can [Portland] possibly be unchurched?” I look at our church and Imago, and [at] how many younger people are involved. To me, I can't relate to that statistic.
Last year I talked to Tim Mackie more about the unique church situation in Portland. There's a certain strange flavour to this city, but when I'm amongst the Christians I remember why I keep coming back.
Yeah, and I mean certainly with any major city, there's plenty of opposition to the Gospel and the people who are not into it are really not into it. And that's fine, but that's everywhere.
That's a good thing. It means you are not watering down the gospel.
Yeah. I mean, I would love for that not to be the case. Me and Josh have had this [conversation] sometime. It seems like sometimes people come to plant a church, or do ministry here, and they are almost proud. "Yeah, we're going to Portland, the most unchurched city. It's cool." It's not cool! I'd much rather it be he most churched [state]. We're praying ourselves out of a job. I'd rather it be more churched then less churched, but I don't expect that to happen in my lifetime. And I love this city, and a ton of my good friend are entirely opposed to the gospel. I'll work on [that]. Laughs.
It's neat that you're involved in the music scene as a pastor. I've been to churches where the staff seem to be in the church office all day. At my current church the staff include farmers, firemen, teachers, and a former Chelsea football star.
Yeah, it brings this real-world grit to their ministry.
Making music outside of church, and being in that context grounds you.
That's important. It's evangelism in its own way, maybe.
I think it's totally valuable, I encourage all my musicians, "Don't just make music here. This is the safe place to do it."
Do they all do it in bands?
A lot of them do, not all of them. Its' such a wide spectrum. And some just do it at church, they've got three kids [and a] full time job, but they love playing guitar. But in anyway that you can, I do encourage people to.
Well, thanks again for your time! This has been excellent.