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Ten Things I Learned from a Conversation with Eddie Espinosa

At the 2019 Calvin Symposium on Worship, I had the privilege of hosting a conversation with Eddie Espinosa, the Vineyard Anaheim worship leader who was an influential figure in the development of contemporary praise and worship music in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. We titled our conversation “Worship Leading Then and Now,” and although I learned a lot from hearing Eddie’s more general observations about changes in worship leading, the greatest value of our time together was the opportunity to hear Eddie tell his personal story, from which I learned these ten lessons:

1. The Importance of Mentorship

All of us in ministry or worship leadership have had important mentors and models to whom we have looked for guidance, and after whom we have patterned our own lives and ministries. Yet many of us in telling our own stories will carelessly (or even deliberately) minimize the role these mentors and models have played in our own development. It’s a terrible modern habit to cast ourselves as self-made leaders. Eddie doesn’t do that. The wisdom and guidance of John Wimber—Eddie’s mentor, pastor, friend, and partner in ministry—factored into many important turning points in Eddie’s life. Over and over again, Eddie recounted important conversations he had with John, important words of wisdom John gave him, and important decisions he made that John was a part of. Moreover, this wasn’t a relationship in which Eddie got what he needed and then moved on. Eddie stayed close to his mentor and ministry partner his whole life.

Reflection: Whom has God given you as mentors in your life? How have you honored them?

2. The Necessity of Discernment

When Eddie was a teenager, he came to faith through a pastor affiliated with the Revival Fellowship movement. As a result, Eddie developed a broadly charismatic understanding of worship, with a high value on facilitating communion with the Holy Spirit through worship music. (Worship leaders within a variety of charismatic streams cite the King James translation of Psalm 22:3, in which God is said to “inhabit the praises of Israel,” as central to their understanding of the purpose of congregational song.) But as Eddie so wonderfully emphasized, the movement of the Holy Spirit is not something that can be systematized or packaged. Even though the Vineyard Anaheim leadership team did in fact develop a five-step process for moving people into God’s presence through worship music, the process itself was understood to be useless apart from a community of people who were actively seeking to discern the Spirit’s leading in both the communal and individual dimensions. Eddie’s life and ministry stand as a strong witness to the necessity of church leaders and their congregations cultivating practices of spiritual discernment and operating out of a deep sense of God’s call upon their lives and ministries.

Reflection: How are you and your team/church intentionally seeking to discern the Spirit’s leading both communally and individually?

3. The Value of Simplicity

As Eddie reflected on his approach to songwriting, he stressed the value of simplicity. Some people, he said, aim to write songs you can’t get out of your head, but Eddie aims to write songs that you “can’t get out of your heart.” Simplicity aids participation, he explained, and is one of the values he brought from his Latino heritage, in which singing coritos—short, memorable songs with simple tunes and repetitive words—is a popular practice. Indeed, the main feature of coritos is their simplicity, making them easier to learn “by heart.” One can hear the influence of this approach to songwriting in one of Eddie’s early songs, “Con Mis Labios,” a relatively brief song with a simple structure (one verse and one chorus, which are then repeated) and an easily learned melody. One of Eddie’s concerns about the ever-evolving forms of so many contemporary worship songs is their increased complexity (e.g., verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus 2, bridge, chorus 2, chorus 3, ending). “How can people sing from their heart if our songs are so difficult to learn?” he wondered.

Reflection: How many of your church’s worship songs have become “heart songs” that can be sung from memory? How might you increase that number?

4. The Lure of Celebrity

Eddie once had to decide whether to pursue a career as a full-time touring musician. As his music was becoming more popular, he could have “taken the show on the road,” as many modern worship leaders have done. But Eddie worried the cost to his family would be too great. Having come from a family in which abuse, addiction, and suicide occured, Eddie decided to do everything he could to prevent that kind of instability. As he put it, “I didn’t want my kids wondering who this stranger was who came home every once in a while to sleep in their mom’s bed.” So instead of following the lure of celebrity, Eddie went back to working in the school system as a teacher, counselor, and administrator, serving bivocationally for the rest of his career.

Reflection: How does the lure of celebrity influence the culture around worship leaders and our spoken and unspoken expectations of them? Has it affected your congregation’s worship? How do you go about discerning when you need to act counterculturally?

5. The Dignity of Bivocational Ministry

Eddie’s decision to go back into education and pursue worship ministry part time represents an atypical motive for bivocational ministry. It’s more common for ministry leaders to take second jobs because their church positions don’t pay enough to support their families or because they are still looking for full-time jobs. But in Eddie’s case, bivocational ministry was a way to avoid becoming too popular and perhaps losing the focus of why he went into ministry to begin with. This is an important insight for pastors and worship leaders. It restores the dignity of bivocational ministry and guards against the mindset of scarcity that can be so easy to fall into. Rather than seeing bivocational ministry arrangements as merely temporary or less desirable options for those on their way to more respectable, stable, and “successful” ministry positions, what if we looked instead for God’s provision and call to more bivocational ministry arrangements? In Eddie’s story, bivocational ministry has a dignified place: he was led to the Lord by a bivocational minister/auto mechanic. No doubt this influenced his own discernment of a call to minister bivocationally.

Reflection: How might the church be more supportive of those who by necessity or choice are bivocational?

6. The Danger of “Franchising” Worship

Eddie was careful not to get too sentimental about the “good old days,” but there is a specific trend in modern worship leadership that worries him. He calls it the “franchising” of worship, which reminds him of 1 Corinthians 1:12–13 (“I follow Hillsong, I follow Bethel, I follow Elevation”). He spoke of his resistance in the early days of Vineyard to becoming a “brand” of worship music—in his mind, their songs were God’s songs, not Vineyard’s. There was a point, he said, when Vineyard leaders realized they had to repent of their self-focus. One practical outcome of this repentance was that they began to draw more of their worship music from a larger variety of “song streams,” including hymnody, which in turn allowed more worshipers (especially visitors) to sing their “heart songs” in the corporate worship gathering. Another practical outcome was changing the name “Songs of the Vineyard” to “Touching the Father’s Heart.”

Reflection: How does your congregation balance being contextual—singing songs specific to your congregation and community—with being transcultural—expressing the oneness of the body of Christ across time and space by singing older songs and songs from other cultures?

“Performance, perfection, and production” . . . threaten to drain worship music of its spiritual power.

7. The Centrality of the Bible

What skills do worship leaders need? Long before Eddie talks about musicianship or songwriting methods or public presence, he first counsels all developing worship leaders to immerse themselves in the biblical story to develop the heart of a lead worshiper. One key verse for Eddie’s understanding of worship leadership is Psalm 34:3: “Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together” (NIV). What so captivates Eddie’s imagination in this verse is the posture of both personally worshiping the Lord and inviting others to join in. Eddie advises immersion in all of the psalms as well as the larger story of Israel’s worship found in 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, and 1 & 2 Chronicles. The whole biblical narrative is important to know in order to understand what it means to put Jesus at the center of worship and live by Jesus’promise in John 12:32: “When I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself.”

Reflection: The centrality of Scripture is one element of worship that transcends all cultures. What are some other biblical truths that are true regardless of denomination (or nondenomination), culture, or even time?

8. The Gift of Theological Vision

This desire to simply lift Jesus up and trust the Spirit to draw people to Jesus is central to the theological vision of Eddie’s worship leadership. Now that contemporary worship music has progressed somewhat as a genre, he said, there is a danger of losing this theological vision and getting caught up in the “big business” of the worship music industry. Eddie cautioned against the “three Ps” of “performance, perfection, and production,” which threaten to drain worship music of its spiritual power. In contrast, Eddie’s story is marked by faithfulness to the shared vision among church leadership of lifting Jesus up and seeking to facilitate an encounter with God. Without that, Eddie said, it’s all too easy to allow record sales and other incidental concerns to determine worship trends.

Reflection: Not many of us are worried about record sales, but how do we strike the right balance around issues of perfectionism and keeping relevant?

9. The Instinct of Gratitude

Eddie shared that even though “Change My Heart, O God” GtG 695, PfAS 51A is perhaps his best-known song, it was never his favorite because it was born out of a time of great personal struggle and a deep sense of repentance. The only reason it became public was that some friends with whom he had initially shared the song encouraged him to share it more widely. Within a year or so it was being sung around the world. For Eddie this was an opportunity to be grateful for how God used Eddie’s gifts to serve the wider church in a way he never would have imagined. Is there any discipline more important for pastors and worship leaders to cultivate than gratitude?

Reflection: How might you cultivate a greater spirit of gratitude? What effect might that have on your ministry?

10. The Posture of Humility

Closely related to Eddie’s instinct for gratitude was his posture of humility. Eddie shared that he once acquired the nickname “The Weeping Worship Leader” because often he was so overcome with emotion that he would be unable to sing. The other members of the worship team knew him well enough to plan who would take over singing when Eddie started to cry. This picture demonstrates the inherent strength of a posture of humility in Christian leadership and ministry. Far too often Christian leaders position themselves as experts, not learners—always in control and never vulnerable. But Eddie models a different way. He once was asked if he got nervous before playing and singing in front of a stadium full of people. His honest answer was no, because he had long ago realized that the ability to lead a group of 85,000 people in worship depends on one’s willingness to lead a group of five people. For all who may feel as if they are laboring in relative obscurity day to day, that’s encouraging. When we labor “as unto the Lord,” we can trust that whether it’s in a stadium or in a small group, our labor is never in vain.

Reflection: Being humble doesn’t necessarily mean becoming known as a “weeping worship leader,” but it does mean being vulnerable. What other examples of humility have you seen in others, and what can you learn from them?