In Singapore for their Worship Nights Asia tour earlier this month, worship leaders and songwriters Jeremy Riddle and Amanda Cook from Bethel Church stopped by to talk to City News about how they write songs in a community setting, and what worship means to them.
Birthed out of the worship ministry of Bethel Church in Redding, California, Bethel Music has, in the last few years, expanded into a full-fledged record label and publishing company.
Known for its deeply stirring melodies and simple yet uplifting lyrics, Bethel Music, which tours internationally, includes worship leaders and songwriters Brian Johnson and Jeremy Riddle, who were nominated for Song of the Year at the 44th Annual GMA Dove Awards in 2013 for “One Thing Remain,” a song from its 2011 album Be Lifted High. Amanda Cook, nee Falk, is a multiple award-winning Christian artist.
City News went deep with Cook and Riddle during their recent visit to Singapore.
What does worship mean to you?
Jeremy Riddle: To me, worship is any act or thought that brings pleasure to the heart of God. He doesn’t delight in sacrifices or rituals or things done, but He wants our hearts. The Bible says, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” He’s after the core of who we are, so it’s any act or thought done unto the Lord that brings pleasure to His heart. Like if I want to make my wife happy, I actually have to get to know her and what she likes. We can’t be worshippers of God without being knowers of who God is.
Amanda Cook: I feel worship is the most natural state of a human being. I think we’re designed to be moved by beauty, to respond to beauty and to ascribe worth to a beautiful thing. When I stand in the presence of God, when I have a revelation of who He is, and He shows me another facet of His nature, His kindness and His goodness, my automatic response is to say, “Thank You!” And so for me, worship is the continual state of breathing in the grace that we live in because of Jesus and responding in gratitude to Him.
Bethel Music is described as “a community of worshippers and artists pursuing the presence of God and sharing life together”. Give us a glimpse into how this community does art and life together.
AC: I think inspiration feeds inspiration … one person inspired inspires a generation, and my staying inspired will inspire somebody else. When we create a culture where we’re chasing down the things that inspire us about the presence and nature of God, we give courage to each other’s hearts to chase down that thing that they know to be true about God that we need to know. Like Kalley (Heiligenthal) carries a revelation about God that I need to know, because she understands a particular facet about God, and when it comes through in song or writing—she’s a brilliant writer—it begets inspiration. Art recreates itself, and we all grow from it.
JR: I think it takes a lot of courage to put together every project, every record … it’s a very challenging process. There’re tough decisions that need to be made. It takes a lot of courage to show people your songs. We major in co-writing, and we believe in the communal process, that it makes for better songs. So, for us as artists, it’s a strength, but it can also be a weakness—we are very sensitive, very emotional people (laughs) so when you bring something that’s so close to your heart, you have to be courageous because it’s going to be critiqued. That process is kind of an agonizing one, but we endure it because it creates something more beautiful than what we could have done on our own.
So we help and encourage each other. Amanda does an incredible job as well: she’s great at helping to draw out the melodies and the articulation. It’s a family affair, so we create a place of safety but it’s not a place without pain or hardship.
I think every worship leader is formed and shaped by the community that empowers them to lead, and it’s true to this day. We can only go as far as people allow and release and give us permission to lead them into worship.
Bethel is, of course, famous throughout the world for its leadership, such as Pastor Bill Johnson, Pastor Eric Johnson and Pastor Kris Vallotton. How would you describe the relationship between Bethel Music and Bethel Church, and what would you say is the underlying thread that binds everyone together?
AC: I think all of us have been very inspired by our leaders and moved by their lives—Bill will come in and share (with the whole Bethel music crew) his vision and his heart, calling us back to the simplicity of every moment, every minute being immersed in the presence of God, and living from that place.
I think the heart of every artist, every individual is that we’re all moved by people who want the presence of God more than anything, and are willing to do anything to get do it. We’re all camped around that drive, that intention and focus, I think everyone—at the end of the day when we lay in bed at night—all of us are signed on to that.
There are many people who come to your worship sessions hungry and expectant for a move of God in their lives. But how do you respond when nothing happens?
JR: I think all of us have to learn to deal with disappointments, and we have to hold on to mystery. What Bethel does well is to hold on to mystery without creating a theology around lack. We know what’s in the heart of God, we know what He wants to see happen on earth, so even if it doesn’t happen, we know what’s His heart. So while we don’t understand why it doesn’t happen, never once do we question the fact that He wants to see it happen. We grieve with those who grieve, but we don’t go, “Oh, God must not want this to happen,” because that’s not Scripturally true. We can see what’s in His heart—no pain, no sorrow, no sickness—so we contend for the ideals, the beauty of what He intends for humanity. We run after that and we wrestle with this tension.
AC: We live in a fallen state, and we live in this “microwave culture” where we want it and we want it now. We believe in the miraculous and getting what you’re asking for and it’s beautiful. [Yet] I’ve watched people who have lived in the tension of not receiving their miracle but still trust for a redemptive end for their lives, and they’ve actually seen the miracle they contend for come to the people around them. There’s an authority they carry and it’s a complete mystery.
I don’t believe God plays tricks on us, but I do believe we live in a fallen state due to human choices. Right now we’re carriers of history and prophecy—we carry the history of generations before us, we’re the result of a lot of choices, there’s an ownership of taking certain things back in the Spirit. And the Bible says that whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and I feel there’s an authority that’s been restored when Jesus went to Hades to get back the keys, and I feel we’re living in the progression and ascension of that, where we will be seeing more miracles, but we’ll also be seeing the miracle of the human heart transformed through the process of walking through to the redemptive end.
Many youths struggle to find the courage to express their adoration for God freely, especially in a public space. Sometimes they feel awkward, or they don’t want people to find them weird. Have you guys struggled with that, and how do you break out of it?
AC: I think when people grow up in a religious culture that’s very stoic and doesn’t really celebrate flamboyant expressions, when they find freedom they will swing to the other side and dance to prove that they’re free. I feel like true freedom comes in being present in the moment with the Lord and being completely true to that moment. So if the moment calls for dancing, I’ll dance and if it calls for contemplation, I’ll sit there.
I remember being young and testing everything out. When we’re young and immature—which isn’t a bad word when you’re young—we imitate others’ faith. I imitated Kim Walker Smith because she sang something in a certain way and she had a certain freedom about her that I knew I needed and wanted, and I basically put it on until I found my own feet, and then I started walking in my own shoes.
I think everyone is ultimately looking for that place of belonging and self-expression and being able to own themselves in front of the Lord and give out of that place of heart-connect. It’s about keeping track, moment to moment, with the Lord; being able to give of ourselves—because that’s really what He wants.
JC: I think learning to worship physically, responding to the Lord physically is important, because we were made to respond with all of us—body, soul, spirit, mind—and it’s an action that’s pleasing to Him. It may be uncomfortable or awkward, but you’ve got to break past that … because when you do it, you begin to experience the pleasure of God, and that changes everything.
Amanda, congratulations on your new album Brave New World. It’s your second album that features the theme of bravery. Why is it so close to your heart?
It’s a concept I’ve camped out on a long time because … I needed it. I’m not a naturally brave person, and when I wrote “You Made Me Brave” it made sense because I didn’t think that I could live without fear, and to some degree, there’s some truth to it, because we live in a fallen world.
The more I sing the song, the more “what if” questions I felt the Lord ask me: What if it’s possible to live without fear? What if it’s possible to exist in a state of courage where your natural and normal response to things is courage, formed from an identity of being seated and rooted in heavenly places in Christ? What if perfect love produces more than the fear of punishment? What if God’s not this tyrant king He’s been made out to be? What if it’s possible to feel centered and rooted and loved and have love be the response rather than fear and insecurity?
So “Brave New World” isn’t a catchphrase from the song “You Make Me Brave” although it might seem that way—and I do believe in themes and seasons—but the song had to lead to something. To me, art always has to lead to the next piece, and so this album is a natural progression from the “what if” questions the Lord posed to me. Writing the song exposed my life of fear and made me realize how much fear dictated all my decision-making.
Bravery always leads unto something; brave people weren’t called brave just because it was in their nature, they were called brave because they had to overcome something, and in doing so, they represent a part of what it means to be human.
Additional interview material from City Radio