A Conversation With Gene Wilkes

A Conversation With Gene Wilkes

RS conversation graphic 2

When I met first met Gene Wilkes (more years ago than either of us care to think about), he was the youth pastor of a suburban-Dallas church. Back then we would regularly ponder great spiritual mysteries over hamburgers at Chili’s. That, and tell jokes.

Not long after, Gene became senior pastor at a church in nearby Plano, TX. Three decades later, Legacy Drive Baptist had grown to be a mega church under his thoughtful guidance. And because Gene is a born Bible teacher, an experienced pastor, and holds a PhD in New Testament Greek, he was the perfect choice to become only the second president of the B. H. Carroll Theological Institute earlier this year. (I had the honor of leading the choral music at his recent inauguration service.) Gene is also the author Jesus On Leadership (Tyndale).

More importantly, Gene is my theology rabbi. (Every Christian songwriter should have one, by the way.) When I have a question about theology, Gene is my go-to guy. Impressive, right?

So, I thought I ought to share him with you, my determined readers. First, as proof that I haven’t been making Gene up all these years. And second, so you might benefit from his over-all smartness.

RS: You know, I really do drop your name in seminars. It’s not every Christian songwriter that has a seminary president to talk theology with. But I tell all my students they should have a Bible guru they can go to with questions.

Gene: Thank you for the invitation to join you in this conversation.

RS: Are you kidding? You look good on my resume`.

Gene Wilkes - theologian and mountain climber

Gene Wilkes – theologian and mountain climber

Gene: I have long admired your work and sustainability in the sea change of worship music the last thirty years. I appreciate your desire for your music to be “biblically sound” because not every writer takes the extra time to make sure that happens.

RS: Christian songwriting is the only music genre where theology is a concern for the lyricist. In that regard, the Christian songwriter must be an artist and a theologian.

Gene: A dialogue between theology and the arts is essential to lead people in their worship and growth as a follower of Jesus, and I’m happy to represent the theology side of things. The sad part of the last three decades in American church history is that battles mostly have raged around preferences of style rather than content; although, jokes around 7-11 lyrics and marching tempo hymns have abounded. Too many wounded lay on the side of the road called Relevant.

RS: We Christians do have a tendency to shoot one another with friendly fire.  Or not-so-friendly fire sometimes.  During your tenure as senior pastor of Legacy Drive Baptist Church, you saw a huge shift from traditional choir-led worship to contemporary praise-team worship.  So, you’ve experienced the change up close and personal.

Gene: I must admit that while I have leaned in the direction of “contemporary,” I have been disappointed at times at the personal, existential use of lyrics. Many times I sang under my breath “we” where “I” was the published lyric to at least take the attention solely off me and give a sense of belonging to the church.

RS: As a teacher I have more than once suggested to a writer to shift a song’s Point of View from the first-person singular (I, me, mine) to the first-person plural (we, us, ours) – in order to make others feels included in the song’s message.

Gene: Most of the personal pronouns in NT letters, for example, are plural. Our calling by God in Christ is bigger than what I feel or know personally. Putting God or Jesus in the lyrics does not mean the song is still not about the singer.

R: That is a huge point.  Just huge.  We can be self-centered even when we tell ourselves we are singing about God.  I am going to steal that for my seminar teaching.  Hope you don’t mind.

So, how did you as a pastor speak to the question of lyrics in you worship?

Gene: As a pastor, my dialogue around lyrics was mainly with worship leaders. They always knew what I was preaching about or on, and they were part of the planning process for each series and weekly services. We did not Google key words that match song lyrics, but we did seek to find themes that connected. Since I teach from biblical passages, it was easy to do that. I know there has been a trend where there is a “worship set” and “teaching,” but I think this is a bit misguided in that the two parts miss this point of the whole.

RS: I have a bit of a problem with the term “worship set” – because to me it connotes a performance.  Like it’s another gig or something.  When I had a band in college, we played four sets a night.  I know that’s not how the term is meant – but it kind of hints that a lot of worship bands would just as soon be playing in a club as in a church.

Have you ever as a pastor found a song to be theologically off base and asked your music team to avoid using it?  And I’m not asking you to name names.  But has it happened?

Gene: I don’t recall a time when I pulled a song because of its bad theology. Our team stuck with the mainstream tunes that were standard fare for our worship style. The leader would sometimes ask me about a particular song, and how it fit into the direction I was going in my message. I would say “yeah” or “nay” on those.

What about you?

RS: What about me?

Gene: You have held to choral music through the fray. How has that been as what was a standard of style and content spun out into a galaxy of options?

RS: It was certainly not because of any Grand Plan on my part. Somewhere I read that a writer should write what he or she knows.  My best-crafted songs have always come from place in me that is authentic.  And it so happens a lot of my songs can be sung by choirs.  Mind you, I never set out to be a choral composer.  It just sort of happened.  Probably because I was raised in church.  My career timed out to coincide with the peak of evangelical choral music and the tectonic shift toward P&W music.  But choirs still exist in lots of churches.  They may even be making a comeback.

Gene: I do believe choral music is making a comeback. There is something about exercising one’s musical/choral talents as an act of worship that has always been part of corporate worship. Pieces like John Rutter’s “The Lord is My Shepherd” still move me deeply. I loved watching you lead the combined choir at my inauguration, feeling and hearing the soul-felt worship of those who followed you. I believe the art form will survive the church band era and find its place again on Sunday mornings. We can talk about the new forms choral groups may take in the future. I’m not sure matching robes is part of the revival.

RS: Maybe choir robes will become a fashion trend. I mean, who doesn’t look good in a choir robe? But to your point, something wonderful happens when people sing together. So, I don’t think choirs will ever disappear.

Let’s take a slightly different tack: The role of the local church in the arts.

More and more these days, individual churches are hiring guys like me to write music specifically for them. Maybe it’s all part of living in an “on demand” world.  But historically, in generations past the church was a major patron of the arts.

What do you think the local church’s role in the arts should be today?

Gene: As you mentioned “in generations past,” I believe the church should have a major influence on the arts. I know some churches have art galleries that attract local artists outside their fellowship and others that have festivals around the arts. We embraced dance and drama at different times as worship art forms, and I found those to be effective in communicating in ways the talking head preacher cannot.

RS: One of the churches I write frequently for is very big into drama. Musical theater, more specifically. And another is a very media-driven church. Visual media, mostly.

Gene: Many churches use video to communicate to a video-image saturated culture. There is some “art” to those, and some churches lead the pack in writing and producing very effective communication pieces. As a preacher, I have to remember we are not a listening culture, and our attention span is 3 minutes max. Teaching the Word of God is always part of worship, but getting people to listen is the tough part now.

Music is the language of the heart. Speech is mostly the language of the head. Dance and art captures the soul. Maybe we need all of those—not necessarily in one service—in order to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. (Don’t hold me to those designations. All forms can reach any part of us.)

RS: And what would you say to us to help to raise the bar on the music we use in worship?

Gene: I do believe the worship event should be a coordinated (not scripted) experience between the worship and teaching/preaching leaders. A central biblical theme should be the foundation of the service, and without feeling or looking fabricated, it should guide that day’s worship.

RS: I think there is an art to avoiding that “fabricated” feel. There is such a temptation to use music to manipulate the emotions of those in the worship service. We walk a very fine line. It’s easy to miss the mark – and suddenly, you are putting on a show, rather than leading a worship service.

Gene: What advice would you give a preacher on constructing a worship service from a musician’s perspective?

RS: Well, first – let’s be clear: I am not now, nor have I ever been a worship leader. I have never been involved in the creation or organization of a worship service. But I’ve been a part of at least 10,000. So, my guiding thoughts to preachers regarding music in worship might be:

  1. Bigger and louder is not necessarily better.
  2. Less is often more.
  3. Your own musical tastes should rarely be a factor in the music chosen for a service.
  4. Don’t use the same order of worship every week. And don’t use the same style of music every week. That is predictable, and predictable is boring. Every now and again, surprise me.
  5. Encourage your music leaders. And demand excellence from them.

So, how long would I last at the typical Texas Baptist church with those opinions?

Gene: Not long, depending on the history of the church and the preferences of the official and unofficial leadership. Sadly, churches are too often set in their ruts of habit or traditions to seek fresh ways to worship God. If we claim a living and growing relationship with God in Christ Jesus, then the expression of our worship of him should reflect life and growth. Since I have begun to travel and speak in different churches in my new role as President of Carroll Institute, I have been reminded of the stale and molding bread we offer our communities of faith. Not that where I served was perfect, but I can sure see why the general public has sought truth in other venues.

RS: So, about my list: What do you think about it? Agree? Disagree?

Gene: I agree with #1 without qualification; however, the general public tends to stand to their feet for a standing O when the crescendo is fff rather than pp. Human nature, I guess.

RS: No doubt about it. And I have shamelessly put big endings on choral pieces simply because I knew it would make the piece more popular. But everything can’t end big and loud. Or at least – it shouldn’t be that way.

Gene: #2 (Less is more.) is true and is dependent on the ego of those leading the worship time—including the preacher.

RS: I’ve long made the joke that too many Baptist music leaders seem to think “that which is worth doing well is worth overdoing.” We over-program. We over-play. We over-sing. We over-do.   Sometimes the preacher is part of the problem. And in all our over-doing, we lose the power of subtlety and nuance.

Gene: #3 (musical tastes) is important too. That also needs to be said to the pastor/teacher who has a preference for either the Old Testament or New Testament for his preaching passages or a sugar-stick topic like tithing or purity he wants to cover each time he gets up.

RS: It didn’t occur to me the same principle of aesthetic taste would apply to preaching. Interesting.

Gene:   #4 (Weekly change in worship) is risky. If you change up the order of worship when would the deacons know to come in from smoking on the front porch to take the offering? (Old joke. Sorry. Just jumped off my fingers.)

RS: Made me laugh, though.

Gene: I love the concept (of changing the worship order), but I also know even those churches that claim no set liturgy find it hard to alter the arrangement of elements each week.

RS: Okay. I get that. And I understand the importance of some familiar forms in worship. But I guess I was getting at the idea that the sermon doesn’t always have to be preceded by a choir anthem. Or that the same hymn be used week in and week out for the invitation. (for all the Southern Baptists)

Besides, if your church is a contemporary worshipping style congregation, why not do a traditional piece of music every now and again? Or vice versa?

Gene: #5 (encouraging your music leaders) is a maxim for any leader who serves those on mission with him or her.

RS: Knowing you as I do, your answer comes as no surprise. The idea of servant leadership is near and dear to your heart.

Gene: So, here’s one for you. I have a Chinese-American friend who openly wonders why American Christians must be entertained when they gather as the church. What part does music play in answering that question? How do we address the emergent concert-like packaging of worship music? Is there an answer?

RS: That is a question worthy of a book…  My knee-jerk response is to blame Praise & Worship music. I find it ironic that a worship trend intended to be oppositional to the 1970s church performance culture (robed choirs) has become more performance oriented than any worship music in church history. But let’s face it – When you put musicians up on a stage with microphones, they perform. That’s what musicians do. And if they have amps, they turn them up. They can’t help themselves.

So, if you want to stop the concert atmosphere, take the band off stage and get rid of the hand-held microphones. (Okay – that might be a tad simplistic.)

More deeply, I can think of several reasons we Americans are like that – as a culture. I’ll list a few, and you tell me what you think. After all, you’re a very culture-savvy sort of guy.

  • Americans perfected entertainment. And we expect it just about everywhere.
  • The Church has a tendency to borrow from the mainstream culture those things it believes might help communicate the Gospel. Concerts get people fired up – so let’s turn church into a concert.
  • We have lost much of our ability to be still and meditative. In fact, true quiet stillness is probably more than a lot of Americans can handle. I think a lot of us have even lost the ability to listen with genuine concentration.

It seems to me that even our modern church architecture lends itself to a concert-mentality. The people all face the front where there is a single focal point: the stage. It’s as if the building itself is saying, “Hey, something big is gonna happen up here. Better look this way.”

So, what do you think about all this? You’re the one with the Ph.D., after all.

Gene: First, my Ph.D. is not in church music so lower your expectations. Second, you have hit on the issue of how function follows form. Church architecture has always reflected its priorities and values. I am enamored with the landscape through which the Tour de France rolls. Every town is built out from the cathedral at the center of the town and its culture. Those towering buildings pointed to God who ruled then. Now, as you know, they are more like museums than centers of worship. I wonder what our theater-like buildings will look like in 500 years?

RS: Perhaps we will be back in home churches by then. But more realistically, churches will look like whatever the culture calls for at the time, don’t you think? Churches tend to reflect the culture they are in.

Gene: I applaud churches for building bridges from culture into their places of worship in order to reach people in their mission fields. The problem is that an innovation created to reach a locale with the Good News soon becomes fossilized into a stagnant liturgy.

RS: You have just described the cycle of almost every innovative thing ever created, whether it is a business, a product, or a work of art. Someone comes up with an innovation. Others copy it. The innovation becomes popular and widespread and ceases to be innovative. At some point it becomes set in stone. Worship music is no different.

Gene: I’ve always thought that music of the church should reflect the music of the native communities in which they live. The opposite of this strategy is African or Asian churches dressed in Western suits, sitting in rows of pews, and singing English hymns in 4/4 time. I have seen and heard young people in Cuba and Albania compose worship music with their native sounds, rhythm, and language because they were tired of singing translated Hillsong music. I loved that, and if that is a motive for some of the worship music and venues for American Christian music, that’s cool.

RS: I definitely believe modern worship music began with those kinds of motives. Its creators wanted to reach the natives, as you put it. So they chose to create music that sounded like what played on the radio. Only much of what they created is not such great music. But for good or for ill, Praise & Worship music has become the new liturgy. And now it reigns supreme over all other forms.

You know, it’s really quite sad to consider how many churches have divided over music styles in worship.

Gene: Worship wars begin when someone claims there is only one form effective worship music can take and then imposes it on others.

RS: We can all be guilty of that. On both sides of the issue. Thus, the worship wars.

Gene: Yes, and I can be accused of that where I pastored, but the driver was to reach the natives, not perpetuate traditions. Music style should mesh with the church’s mission and mission field. It’s not a matter of preference but purpose. The question for me should be, “What part does the music ministry have in making disciples of those in its mission field?”

The basis for the message in song still needs to be biblically consistent. I can’t listen to “Christian radio” genre too long because so little of the biblical message makes it way into that form. But that’s not our topic here.

RS: I think perhaps it is our topic. We have come full circle: back to theology. And I would agree that very little modern worship music has enough theology in it to build disciples at all. I think folks are coming around to that realization, and that is why so many of the classic hymns are finding their way back into worship services – albeit in new musical settings. The old hymns are loaded with solid theology – the sort of lyrics that can build disciples.

Gene: So, how do you want to wrap this up? Or, you ready to go on? Is anyone reading this, or, are we two old guys just typing to ourselves?

RS: Well, we somehow managed to get back where we started. There’s a nice symmetry in that, I think. So, I take that as our cue to say, “Goodnight, Gracie.” As for whether anyone is reading this, your guess is as good as mine.

Huge “thanks” to Gene Wilkes for carrying on this conversation with a guy who only has a Bachelor’s degree. (At least it’s from Baylor, so that should count for something.) Gene blogs under the name “Faithrunner.” Check out his blog here (http://drgdub2.blogspot.com), and you’ll soon see where the name came from. (Hint: He runs marathons.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Interesting thoughts from two friends that we respect so very much. Thank you for this conversation. You have blessed us with your teaching, your wisdom, and your inspiration. Suzi and Larry

    • rsterling says:

      Yes, Gene and I are nothing if not “interesting.” 🙂 I just hope by “interesting” you didn’t mean “weird and peculiar.” Hey to the Big Swede.

  2. Jane townsend says:

    i agree with Suzi and Larry. I praise God that my life crossed with yours. I read your entire conversation and can see your lives in your words. Rob I still like the traditional choir and I like to sing your compositions. I am so proud of your work and it’s biblical truths. Your quieter moments in your music inspire I feel Gods presence. And Gene I love your thought provoking comments of meeting the needs of those within your congregation. I personally saw how you reached out to those you ministered to. Thanks to both if you who have been an important part of my Christian life.

    • rsterling says:

      Thanks for the kind comment, Jane. I believe there is room in God’s church for a lot of different music – style-wise, at least. What gene and I always agree on is that the music should be theologically sound, regardless the genre.

  3. Karen Fetner says:

    Since I had the privilege of sitting in both of your kitchens growing up, I can so hear this conversation and see the faces as it was spoken… Great thoughts by great guys. ( are you guys getting old yet? If someone here has a big birthday this year, you must at least be 36 now!!!) Thanks for decades of examples and teaching… karen

    • rsterling says:

      I am over 36, i admit. But just barely. And by “just barely” I mean by 24 years. Hard to believe that all you gawky teens in that little ensemble at FBCR are now older (way older, btw) than I was when I was leading that group!

  4. Daniel Forbed says:

    I really appreciated the conversation as I am reading it in the hallway at work. Our church is way on the side of contemporary worship and, perhaps because of it, I find myself yearning for more traditional structure of worship. I’d like an occasional hymn played. I’d be jubilant if there was a responsive reading like we used to do from the back of the Baptist Hymnal. Frankly, I think the biggest losers in this shift towards contemporary worship bands are my kids. They’re choral experience ended in 5th grade when “children’s choir” ended. Their ears are not tuned to complex harmonies nor deep theology in the lyrics. If we stay at the church they will not experience a choir tour nor the emotional beauty of homecoming concert.

    • rsterling says:

      Thanks for the comment. And your observation about kids being the real losers in the worship wars is correct.

  5. Lee Ann Sims Johnson says:

    Thank you Rob & Gene for a very real conversation – thought provoking for sure. I agree in the previous post of my former choir mission trip roommate Karen Pace Fetner.

    Unfortunately, for many of the children & youth today, traditional hymns & sweet meditational songs are a lost art in the contemporary churches of today. It makes me sad, our girls did not get to experience the “choir concerts” & mission trips that each of you were such a big part of in my life. However, we have been very blessed to have a music minister Quincy Roan (you ought to look up his music as he is a writer, composer & singer) that intertwined hymns & praise & worship music every Sunday & led our small country church choir in amazing music – he even used one of your Christmas/Easter musicals (can’t remember which one but just remember saying “Hey, I know that guy & have had the privalege of being led by him”.). Always in awe & inspired to continually cross paths with some of the “Greats” in my time!

    • rsterling says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Lee Ann. I know that life moves on and things change. But in the doing, unfortunately sometimes we lose things (like youth choir concerts) that were a meaningful part of a generation’s growing up. In the long run, I hope that choirs will make a come back, if for no other reason that human beings really ought to sing together. And if we’re gonna sing together, why not sing something beautiful and worthwhile?

  6. Sondi Pace says:

    Rob and Gene: Thanks so much for your discussion! Agree 100 percent! It has been difficult for us to see the reverance in the P&W, drums, guitars, strobe lights etc. As you both might remember, I was part of the FBCR Orchestra that provided the Richardson Community with The Easter Story (in many versions) for many years, and even toured Europe in 1988……..not to mention the choir trips, mission trips,etc. while Karen and Keli were growing up. Expressing love for our Lord in music was a great boost to my spiritual life. I miss this greatly, as our church no longer has an orchestra, Thank you for the years of leadership and growth that you both have provided to our family!

    • Sondi – Thanks for the comment.

      Change in worship is a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Modern P&W music ushered in some new sounds and brought with it new, eager listeners. (That’s a good thing.) But it also pushed aside some viable music and its participants. (Not such a good thing.) I hope that in time, when the dust settles (IF the dust ever settles), the church will become a less trend-driven and more quality driven when it comes to choosing music.

      It is undeniable that much of the modern P&W music is fluffy – both as music and as theology. However, there is some wheat hiding amongst the chaff if only we take the time to look for it. Similarly, those of us from an earlier musical era aren’t being honest until we admit that not every piece of music we performed “back in the day” wasn’t exactly Beethoven.

      I dream of a church that no longer looks to Christian radio as the arbiter of what is quality worship music, but rather depends on solid well-trained Christian musicians with a heart for God to choose the very best music that works for their congregations in any given service. That covers classical music as well as pop-oriented music. Our concerns should not be so much about style as about substance.

      I also long for the day the church refuses to settle for mediocre musicianship, whether in a robed choir, a hipster praise team, a classically trained organist or a rock rhythm section. We needn’t be musical snobs, but I believe we honor God when we strive for higher quality musicianship in our musical worship. The Lord deserves our best efforts – not our trendiest efforts.

      • Elsa Williams says:

        Amen & amen! Mediocre musicianship has been a burden to my soul for years now. I have a really hard time offering less than my best – but that’s all many want to put into it: just barely good enough! I used to be a fan of all styles, but the absence of deep & meditative anthems, or quality choral music at all has moved me toward complete anathema of P&W “performances”. I think there is a VERY fine line between wooing those “of the world” toward Jesus by looking/sounding like them and definitely looking/sounding like a “church” so that they know they have indeed found something different from their everyday experiences! I prefer a “blend” that offers a wide variety of styles throughout the ages, not a “blend” where everything has been put through a blender and it all comes out sounding the same!
        I enjoyed this discourse that was thoughtfully & courteously approached!

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