They are sitting in the ocean. Like actually, chilling in armchairs and sofas right in the California surf! In case you haven’t seen it, the cover art for Bethel Music’s newest album, Tides, demands a second look. The picture shows the worship team of Bethel Church, as if in a living room, except they’re sitting right in the tide.There’s a message behind this attention-grabbing image. “Life is like the tides,” they explain in the album trailer. “Highs and lows, struggle and triumph, constant change. But no matter the chaos, no matter the storm, He is the same.”
At the recent release of Bethel’s latest album, we spent some time talking with Jenn Johnson. In the interview, she talked about the inspiration for the new album, the struggles of songwriting, and about the challenges and joys that come with the role of worship leader.
It Happened on a Mountain
Although the album reminds us of the ocean, it had its genesis on a mountaintop. Jenn explained, “I had an encounter with the Lord on a mountaintop. I had been in a kind of a fog, just struggling to gain a breakthrough with some things. It was a difficult time. Ministry is fun, but it can also be a challenge. I went up on this mountain and spoke to the Lord: ‘God I know you’re with me, but please come closer. Let me feel you; let me know what to do.”
We’ve all faced the challenge that Jenn has faced, and we all recognize that smothering panic of indecision, the complete bewilderment of a mental fog, and the desire to know what to do from our God. Jenn’s experience on the mountaintop was a breakthrough moment. “He sorted me out. He gave me clarity. I went from just knowing he was with me, to being able to feel him with everything I am.”
From her experience birthed the song I Can Feel You on the album. “That’s really where that song came from — just that experience, identifying with the fact that we’re human. We have these times where we know the truth, but sometimes we just need to encounter the truth.”
If you’ve listened to Bethel’s music or attended one of their worship events, you may have had this same experience — that encounter with truth. It can be painful. But it is always life changing. We may face the constant swirl of the tides, but we know that we are grounded in the unchanging nature of our God.
What is worship anyway?
When we spoke with Jenn, we wanted to understand the heart of a worship leader. After all, much of what we do at Sharefaith is serve people like you — worship leaders and church volunteers. Worship is central to our ministry and yours.
Although our primary task as worship leaders is worship, it’s easy to lose perspective of what worship really is. Jenn explained how her challenge in this area led to a breakthrough in her view of worship.
“It was during a time when I was so busy. There were so many things going on in my life. I was in a hurry, and about to head to a conference to lead worship. But I felt like the Lord wanted me to sit down at the piano and worship. I was thinking, ‘Seriously, Lord? You want me to go and sit down and worship?’ I just shoved it off and rushed to get ready, but when I walked by the piano again, I knew: This is what God wanted me to do.
“I sat down at the piano and played some minor chords, and just sang out to God — ‘What can I do ? What can I give you?’ God’s answer came clearly: ‘I didn’t want anything. I just wanted to be with you.’ My response was just to sob and sob. I repented for viewing worship incorrectly.”
Worship isn’t just what we do on Sunday mornings. Worship is a way of life. Worship is being with God — living with God, loving Him, whatever that means and wherever we are.
The Worship Leader’s Nemesis: Pride
In a recent Sharefaith article, we discussed the challenge of pride in the life of the worship leader. Nearly every worship leader can testify to pride’s insidious assault. Bethel’s amazing music has given them a lot of recognition. The greater the recognition, the larger the potential for pride. Jenn explained, however, that it’s not all glamor and glory.
“We’re home church worship leaders. This is what we do every single week. People aren’t buying tickets to come to church and listen to us. They’re probably tired, and maybe they’re not really into music. So what do we do? It’s about connecting to the heart of people. This is what keeps you mindful, and helps you to keep the main thing the main thing. We’re worshipping God and serving people. We get to do what God has asked us to do, and show him to the best of our ability.”
That’s the crux of the issue — displaying God and loving people. Maintaining this mindset helps us to fight the foe of pride. “We just get to show who he is, and the message we feel that God has called us to bring. I’m honored to do that” Jenn explained.
Shoes on? Or shoes off?
If you’ve been to a Bethel concert, or seen them on Youtube, you may have noticed that Jenn prefers the shoeless approach to worship. Before she heads onto the stage, she removes her shoes. We had to ask her about it. Why do you take your shoes off?
Jenn’s response was laughter. “That question always make me laugh. I love it. Okay, so super honestly, I love high heels. But if I’m not wearing high heels, I wear flip flops, and not much in between. But on stage, I tend to slip if I’m wearing flip flops. And when I wear high heels, I’m focused on not falling. So, I just go barefoot. That way, it’s not a distraction to me.”
The question of shoes on or shoes off, however, leads to a bigger question about worship. Jenn isn’t concerned about what people think about her during worship. She learned this lesson early in life — as a seven year old girl.
“I remember being seven years old, sitting in a little chapel in a Christian school. I had decided that I didn’t care what anyone thought. I wanted to raise my arms. I wanted to worship. But no one else was doing it! So I made the decision to care more about worshipping him in freedom than in caring what people think. And something broke in my life at a really early age.”
Years later, Jenn’s heart is still the same. “God taught me to worship with abandon, not worried about what I’m wearing or what I’m doing, or but just to worship him, magnify him, expres him, and listen to what he’s saying to his church.”
Where do the songs come from?
If you’re a songwriting worship leader, you’re probably familiar with the experience of coming up with songs, or trying to. If you’re not a songwriter, you’ve probably wondered where these songs come from. How does a songwriter create new worship lyrics?
We asked Jenn, “Are you just living life, playing with the kids, then a melody comes into your head and you drop everything and run to the piano. Or does the Bethel Team come together and have creative sessions? How does songwriting work for you?”
Jenn’s response was really helpful. “It’s different for every songwriter and every song. I can speak from my experience and my process. For most songs, they’re birthed in a spontaneous time in worship. That’s probably the biggest song starter.”
But songs don’t simply flow in a stream of pure creativity and direct revelation. “Writing songs is probably 60% easy. The other 40% is really difficult. I think God designed us that way — to dig and find Him.”
Mountaintops and Valleys — Daily Life as a Worship Leader
We’re human. Everyone has bad days. Whether it’s the kids misbehaving, trouble at work, or trouble in relationships — struggle is part of life. We asked Jenn, “How do you set issues aside on these days, and still walk on stage to lead others into worship?”
Jenn responded with a story.
“My life was changed in Nashville in about 2004. We were there leading worship at a conference. Brian’s dad, Bill, was the speaker. It had been a rough day. The kids were sick. We had been traveling, struggling with delayed flights…There were so many problems!
“It was extremely frustrating, and I was grouchy. It had been a bad day. But there we were, on our way to a worship event. I’m trying to stir my heart for worship. Sitting next to Bill in the car, I mumbled ‘Mommy hat off. Worship hat on.’
“I made the comment half joking, half bad attitude. (I’m just being super honest.) Bill just kind of leaned in to where I was sitting and told me in a beautiful way, “The problem is, the worship hat should have never come off.’
“His comment changed my life. It really changed my perspective of what I call worship. Whether I’m home changing dirty diapers, or I’m on a stage leading worship for thousands of people, it’s all worship. We’re called to live a lifestyle of worship. Coming together to sing a song isn’t the goal of worship. Everything we do — every detail of our lives — is an act of worship unto him. It’s not how well you played on the stage; it’s how did you treat the person in the grocery store?”
Bethel Music unleashes a fresh approach to Christian music The songs on the new album cover the gamut of a disciple’s journey — struggles, and triumphs both. Yet each song is saturated with genuine hope and optimism of a godward vision.
Listening to Tides is an experience of intense and passionate worship. Each recording is fresh and contemporary, but contains the warmth and energy of corporate worship that Bethel is known for.
The name Bethel means “house of God,” and recalls the Old Testament story account of Jacob’s vision of God. Jacob came away from this experience with a big promise and a changed heart.
Bethel Music seeks to lead worshippers into a close encounter with God, where the worshipper can do nothing but submit to his glory and be changed by his power. You’ll find, as we did, that their new album is more than just an awesome collection of music; it’s an awesome vision of a glorious God that will turn your heart to him.