The power of the worship leader unleashed…

I was skeptical about this worship leader.

He had this bizarre shirt, was it Hawaiian? I had no idea, but I didn’t like it. He looked like a deranged serial killer surfer dude who probably lived on a cul-de-sac somewhere in Malibu or something. But he was the worship leader for tonight. This was Willow Creek– the BIG TIME! What was a churchy Korean boy to do? I had to fall in line of course!

He played in a weird style. I was a junior in high school then. Everything that wasn’t Hillsong was just simply “weird”…. I might have been able to identify some “Black” elements in his playing (Gospel was not yet in my worship lexicon). But the band was all white, except for the boistrous black woman prominently singing back up… and its not like I haven’t seen that before. But either way, this worship leader was not black. He was not even Asian. He was REALLY white. At least to my eyes. And most of his background singing posse was really white too… especially those soccer moms and that exuberant George-Costanza-esque man, can you find him?

But I was patient. The week before I had seen Delirious and a few weeks prior I had enjoyed Jeff Deyo (one of first gigs as a solo artist). I had come to expect a lot from Willow’s mid-week service. Good solid teaching, excellent worship… but now this California Beach Boy?

Anyways, after I got over my initial negative first impressions, I somehow decided to engage as he emerged from the stage and began a different, but strangely catchy song…

This was the actual video. I was there. Sitting in the way upper deck stage right. Maybe you can hear me if you listen really closely. I think I was a little flat. But I never heard this song before, and it was very different from every other worship song I had previously listened to. It wasn’t clear-cut enough for me to put it into my “foreign genre” camp… it had something familiar, but something different. But at least it was catchy.

Then he stops, swings his guitar behind him, flails his arms in the air and twirls around a few times like a crazy hippy and speaks. And his voice actually feels like the beach volleyball.

“Well Hi everybody.”

Who starts off a worship service with “Well…?” Its like he was just interjecting into a conversation that was already taking place. I thought to myself: Isn’t a worship leader supposed to make things really quiet and emotional so taht when he speaks, there’s overflowing gravitas and he’s proclaiming the divine truth of God almighty in heaven. But he just says a few words about God being an extravagant God and us giving him extravagant praise. It was short. It wasn’t preachy. It was simple. “Huh…. Interesting. It makes sense,” I thought.

And I remember saying something in my head along the lines of, “I think I’m with you, beachboy.”

And before I knew it, I was joining the 10,000 other Willowcreekers singing:

Thank you for a brand new day a brand new chance to stand and say I love you

Help me find the words to say to tell you in a brand new way I love you

And I meant every word of it. That’s when I realized that the Holy Spirit was present, helping me worship. And somehow, someway, this california pizza kitchen was helping me to do that with all my heart. And I loved it.

That was probably the first time I saw the power of the worship leader unleashed.

And in my church growing up, I was taught a few things (implicitly and explicitly):

  1. A Worship leader should never stick out. The less visible and noticable we are the better. So that’s why when every other non-Church influence taught me NOT to bury my head in the stand, to look up, to make eye contact to engage people, as a worhsip leader I did exactly the opposite.
  2. A Worship leader should be good, but not TOO good. Some people even told me to pursue MEDIOCRITY because if we were too good and too polished we would take away from God’s glory.
  3. A Worship leader is involved in serious business so leading should be formal and not casual. So if a worship leader talks, it should only be to pray, read scripture, or say some hyper spiritual exhortation (But then again, that should probably left for the pastor who has just comandeered the guitar).

I think Tommy Walker here broke all three of those rules. And as a young buck I think I was intrigued:

  1. Tommy walker STUCK out. He was clearly the leader. But the benefit? I actually followed him, both vocally and even in his enthusiasm and feeling. I was able to worship to a totally new song and really mean it and make it my own. And he did stick out, but I was more focused on praising God precisely BC he stuck out.
  2. The band was very good. It was tight, it was polished, the groove was nice. It was a catchy, welll-written song with a singable melody and fresh lyrics. That didn’t hinder my praise, that actually helped me embrace the song. Especially the special, the words and lyrics and groove melded together in harmony so that I sang, I clapped and moved… every part of me was giving it to God. “Thank you for a brand new day a brand new chance to stand and say I love you.”
  3. He was not stuffy and hyper-spiritual, but God was real. When he talked inbetween or within a song, it was not like everything stopped and here was Pastor Tommy speaking a word, but it was an ongoing conversation between God, Tommy, Me, and 10,000 others. And the craziest thing was that the entire congregation adopted his weird california style, we were like a gaudy Hawaiian shirt, celebrating God and just enjoying him, dude.

And after that we sang song after song, that even though I didn’t know anything about this guy before I walked in, I was still worshiping like I hadn’t in a long time. I don’t think I was super reflective at the time, but looking back on that moment, I think that was the first time I wanted to be a worship leader. Not just a band leader, or a solo vocalist or writer or a pastor who happens to hack his way on guitar, but I sensed that somehow Tommy here was working with Holy Spirit and literally accompnaying us to throneroom of grace. Now obviously, he’s not Jesus, he’s not the secret magical priest who brings us to God in ways we can’t. But I saw how he was able to set the stage for me to meet wiht God in a way I had not experienced before. I was was the one who communed with God, but it was like Tommy and his team set the table for me. And I thought to myself, that’s a really cool ministry to be a part of.

And everything culminated into a song that is little known, but has occupied space in my heart and mind ever since. Throughout college, I would be sitting in my dorm and these words would well up inside of me. And I’m thankful that Tommy wrote this song and led it hte way he did.

“There is a Rock”

There is a rock, a solid rock,
A rock we’ve built our lives upon
There is a hope, a blessed hope,
So we now shout it to the world

Light of the world, light of all truth,
Salvation comes from only You
Our shelter and strength, through all ages past
Your awesome power has been seen

The nations are searching
For something that’s absolutely true
So we now declare it,
Jesus, all truth is found in You

Rejected by men but chosen by God,
You are the precious cornerstone
You’re building Your church
Throughout all the earth,
Forever its power will be shown

The nations are searching
For something that’s absolutely true
So we now declare it,
Jesus, all truth is found in You

It is a beautiful song that speaks to my relationship with Christ, what he has meant to me and our mission as THE CHURCH. It was one of those divine music moments. The words and music combine together in this wondrous synergistic celebration. At that moment, you are not fake or real, authentic or showy… you are just present. You are singing, you are dancing, you are enjoying the music. CS Lewis would call that the glorious present… where time stands still. Its both eternity and a moment. This sounds way to cheesey I know… I need to write another entry on this.

I never heard “There is a Rock” again for about 4 years… but every so often, the memory of that moment would permeate my sould and I’d be singing or humming it. Finally one day I told my roommate sam, I need to find this song… and I found it… and it was like coming home to a big pot of kimchee chigae…

I have yet to do either of these two tommy walker songs in a worship service, but I would really love to… and when I finally, do I’ll be excited because it will not just be me leading people in a wonderful song of worship to our God, but I like to think I’m sharing a little bit of myself, my history, my memories with them too… and that as a worship leader, I bring that, along with the totality of my personality and past experiences, to the table.


6 thoughts on “The power of the worship leader unleashed…

  1. thanks for sharing man.

    i appreciate tommy walker’s pretty open integration of funk/fusion into his worship style — distinctly american and borrowing liberally from latin, gospel, and big band genres

    lookin forward to you leading two of his adaptations this friday… get some rest during CUP!

    and WORD on having been told to pursue mediocrity or getting the guitar commandeered by the pastor, ha.

  2. man, i totally remember you being obsessed about finding this song. i hope you’re leading at new comm when i visit chicago. you should do this song and wear a Hawaiian shirt.

    • hahaha. You know I have yet to find the right venue to do this song… I’m hoping one day to bust it out in all its glory…

  3. he actually leads worship at a church in cali i used to attend . it was the one i was trying to get you guys to visit when you came for spring break ! he also wrote my redeemer lives . (i know my redeemer lives – nicole mullen ?) and some of the other songs on of long lost album that i have at home (there is a rock) are pretty amazing too . starting out worship with “well” is a cali thing btw .

      • i wonder whether cali people use “well” more than other people do . like how cali people use “like” more than others . maybe it’s a . comfortable being informal kind of thing . cali beach hair . cali tank tops . cali flip flops . maybe cali speech is similar …

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