Stephen Miller serves as the worship pastor at The Journey in St. Louis, Missouri. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with him and know that he has a great heart for the local church. When his new book and CD recently released, I asked him a few questions about faith, creativity, and worship in the church. I know you will be encouraged by his answers. Make sure you check out his new book Worship Leaders, We are Not Rock Stars and his new CD All Hail the King.
PN: You have been an artist for many years. When did it start? What triggered the desire to make beautiful lyrics and music?
SM: I don’t remember a time that I didn’t love music and connect with it in a meaningful way. I was the kid who was constantly singing along with the radio, and I started writing songs in third grade in hopes of starring on The Mickey Mouse Club.
But then in high school I really got serious about it because I wanted to lead worship for my youth group in a way that was unique to us. There weren’t really a lot of worship bands back then, so it was a bit of an experiment and there was freedom in trying to create something new for our generation.
Creativity is often a solitary journey, how do you know when something beautiful has been accomplished?
I tend to be an extrovert, but solitude is so key to my creative process. When I’m in the early stages of a song, it feels so fragile, and I want to shield it from criticism before it’s strong enough to stand on its own. That can take a while and I need freedom to write down a whole lot of bad ideas before I get the right one. Most of the time I’m working on songs that no one will ever hear but me because it’s just honestly not very good.
But then there are times I’m sitting down with a song and I can just tell that it’s something special. That doesn’t mean it’s done right then. There’s usually work still to be done – either musically, lyrically, melodically, or theologically – but I know that it’s a strong starting point. Then it comes time to really flesh it out and make it beautiful. So for every 70 or so songs I write, 12 might make it through the whole process, into the studio, and onto an album. Hopefully by then I can stamp the word beautiful on it and people will agree with me.
What is the role of discipline (or work ethic) when it comes to beauty and creativity?
If you want to be good at something, you have to work at it. Michael Phelps may have been born with gills, but he didn’t win 18 Olympic gold medals on raw talent. He worked hard every day.
As artists, inspiration may come easy to us from time to time, but if you want to be serious about it, you need to be chasing down inspiration with a club every single day.
As you write music, how intentional are you in creating music that others can sing?
As a worship leader, congregational participation is paramount for me. People are shaped by what they sing and our songs help to teach who God is, what he’s done and who we are in light of that. Because of that I strive to write melodies that people will be singing all week long, so they have to be simple and accessible for your average person.
I can usually tell when I’m in the writing process if a song’s hook is particularly memorable and singable because as I’m writing it, that song will get stuck in my own head. Then when we finally introduce it to the church, we do it a few weeks in a row. If our people don’t really have it by the end of that third week, we know we still have some work to do.
Are there such things as “creatives”? I guess I’m just wondering if there is any hope for people like me.
I think that word is often more used to refer to personality types than function. Sometimes that can be helpful. Like if we are seeking to understand or help creative people to operate to their fullest potential.
But sometimes the term is used more condescendingly, as though it means disorganized, flaky, or difficult to work with. Or as an excuse, like “Oh, he’s just a creative.” As though that should excuse him from being responsible or accountable for doing his job well.
Creatives are out there. They are different. They think differently and act differently and operate differently. That can be frustrating. But they are an integral part of the Kingdom of God and play an important role in the church because they can tell the mystery of the Gospel in ways that intellectuals can’t. And we can help them to do that well by understanding their strengths and weaknesses and helping them to operate in their strengths, while patiently supporting them in their weakness and challenging them to improve.
Tell us a little bit about your favorite song from your new CD All Hail the King.
“Nothing Can Slow You Down” is a song I wrote with my friend, Ross King (Clear The Stage, God Undefeatable). We see over and over again in scripture that God is sovereign over all time and space. There is no force outside of him that is strong enough to stop him. Nothing tells him what to do. Nothing surprises him. He is never late or delayed. And this phrase pops up a lot – “At just the right time…”
Even still, we don’t get to see all the different things at play when we are going through a difficult time, so it can be hard sometimes to trust him. We wanted this simple plea to remind us that he is a faithful God who keeps his promises and we can trust him with everything – even when we can’t understand.
A few days after we finished writing it, Ross called me to say, “Hey man. My dad died and this song is really ministering to me more than I can remember any other song I’ve helped to write.” I can honestly say that has been my own experience with it on many occasions since we wrote it.
I can honestly say that I have never seen a song I have written connect with people the way this song does. I think it sparks something in people and they just want to sing it at the top of their lungs, which is a huge blessing to me when I’m leading.
In our modern culture, much of what we call art is expressed as music. What are some of the unnoticed ways that creativity can be expressed through the church and with our faith?
The first thing I think of – and maybe the most practical – is the culinary arts, and how they relate to hospitality and living out the great commission. I think if I weren’t a worship pastor, I would likely be a chef. I love serving people with food and seeing the delight on their face when I make a dish they enjoy. That’s just as satisfying to me as writing a song that people connect with. So I can invite over my neighbors who may not follow Jesus and serve them with a meal, and as I artistically express myself in that way, I’m able to share the good news of Jesus with people who may never come to church to hear a worship song.
Or if someone is sick, or just had a baby or whatever the need may be, you can really help them out by taking them a meal.
Another example is that there are women in our church who serve our worship team by bringing food to us on the weekends because they know that we are up at the church for hours and don’t have a lot of time to go get breakfast. That is a HUGE ministry for us and we are so thankful for people who are willing to serve behind the scenes in a way that most people would never even know about.
You have also written a new book entitled Worship Leaders, We Are Not Rock Stars. Why does the church need this book right now?
Corporate worship has changed pretty drastically over the last 15-20 years. The emphasis on church planting, the rise of the celebrity pastor, and the transition toward band-led worship music have been big shifts. Our churches can sometimes look more like rock concerts than worship services. But the rock star worship leader has less to do with music style, age, fashion sense or church size. Those can be contextual expressions of the people we live with and around. I’m more concerned with the heart and our identities being rooted in Christ.
Most worship leaders are pretty new in their positions, working bi-vocationally, or as volunteers and they haven’t had a lot of training. They’re looking for answers to what they’re supposed to be doing and the culture is shouting loudly at them to fit a certain mold. People tend to exalt those who are talented and that kind of applause and affirmation can be addicting. Eventually we start working for that, instead of serving God and leading his people as faithful shepherds.
So I wrote the book not to point fingers or launch grenades, but to hopefully offer some encouragement to worship leaders to aspire to more than the spotlight. I really emphasize foundational identity and then from there try to move into functional roles, so I hope it’s balanced in that way.
It’s super short and easy to read – and intentionally so. I didn’t want to alienate people or write to the theologically trained, intellectual worship leaders, but rather to start conversations between pastors and their worship leaders, as well as worship leaders and their volunteer teams.
What can those of us who are not worship leaders learn from the book?
I believe it is a helpful resource for pastors seeking to lead, equip, and shape their worship leaders toward Gospel-centered leadership. And I hope that anyone who reads can gain a better understanding of what is happening in the gathered corporate worship time, as well as the struggles his or her worship leader may face and how to encourage them better. I really believe that as pastors, worship leaders and the people in our churches seek to understand a biblical perspective on worship, that the church will grow stronger and Jesus will be honored as we are shaped by his Gospel to declare how great he is. That’s what I’m praying for.