Growing Up in Worship

An Interview with Ken Medema

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Ken Medema. Ken is a Christian composer, singer, and musician who has a passion for learning and discovery through storytelling and music. He has been performing for over 40 years in many different venues: churches, conventions, colleges, corporations, and more. Though blind from birth, Ken sees and hears with heart and mind. He lives in Alameda, California, with his wife, Jane. It was a joy to talk with Ken over a cup of coffee and pick his creative brain on the topics of music, worship, youth, and the church. As you read his responses, imagine him replying with great exuberance and moments of spontaneous laughter! You can learn more about Ken at his website: KenMedema.com
—Diane Dykgraaf for Reformed Worship

REFORMED WORSHIP: As a Christian musician, composer, and artist, what has been your greatest joy?

KEN MEDEMA: To watch people grow up! For example, it brings me joy when someone tells me that one of my songs, “Kingdom in the Streets,” made them aware of justice issues like never before, or the song of the adulterous woman made someone realize that they could be forgiven, or the song about the son that has left home touched someone and now they can grieve and move on. Having a positive role in people’s process of growing up in the faith gives me great joy!

RW: What are the biggest changes you’ve observed in the area of worship, specifically music in the church?

KM: I see the use of more contemporary music today, and in my opinion this is a mixed blessing. I think there are two disturbing things:

  1. So much of the contemporary music is theologically shallow, describing a very limited love-fest with Jesus. It’s all about Jesus and me. It seems that a lot of it has no sense of community, the awesomeness of God, elements of confession and repentance, or a longing for justice. On a positive note, I am seeing contemporary strands that are seeking to deal with these issues.
  2. Separating worship into traditional and contemporary, or sometimes “adult” and “youth” worship. I feel very strongly that we need to worship together as family. My favorite example is Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, where they all worship together. This church has made a commitment to all work together, plan together, explore the theology of music together, and the organist jams with the band, the band with the choir, etc.

With regard to worship music today, there are so many strands going in so many directions; it’s a bit chaotic. The thing I long for is for churches to focus on discipleship, growing people up. We need wide-awake Christians who are aware of what it means to follow Jesus, to give their life away. Sometimes it seems that worship is all about the celebration, the emotion, and once it’s over, we don’t know what it means. If I ask a pastor, “What’s the take-away?” often the pastor will say she/he hasn’t even thought about that. I want worship to be about growing us up in Christ. For me, in light of all the changes, from traditional to contemporary to blended to multicultural, what I’m not seeing enough of is a change to an intense experience of growing up as Christians.

RW: What do you see in the future for the church?

KM: I will guess—it’s only a guess—but I see the institution growing smaller and smaller, more and more informal, house churches springing up, and more and more the expansion of what we consider appropriate teaching. I think the church of the future will incorporate more teaching from other religious traditions. I think that more and more the church will take on unusual forms—not like the institution of today but communities or fellowships meeting on street corners, people’s homes, offices, and in ways that we don’t even realize yet. We will move back and forth between conservative and liberal times. I see alternatives springing up all over to what we have now, maybe more like the movement in the first century.

This, of course, means that people like me will be much more creative than in the past. There will be a movement away from the large crowd. Musicians, worship leaders, and even pastors will not have full-time church jobs. There will be many bi-vocational teachers, preachers, and leaders.

The ministries in the “streets” seem to be more sensitized to justice issues like hunger, etc. Big suburban churches can work on projects together with urban ministries, but often that is still one step removed from directly empowering poor people. We are good at giving handouts. In the future, we need to be better at helping people find what they really need: jobs, etc. There are good examples of urban ministries today, and they exist in close proximity to those who face issues of justice. Those urban churches commit to do life together and live with them, rather than handling it from a distance.

For now, I still think many of the institutions that we have are good. We don’t want to tear that down. But this is for “a time.” There may be a time to let the institution go. While it is here, though, we must keep infusing the church with new life—let it live!

RW: What should the church be watching out for with regard to worship?

KM: We place too much emphasis on music! We have too much invested in the kind of music and the amount of music in our worship services. We have all this music going on. We fight over the music and we expect music to do what music was not intended to do. It’s not a new problem. It goes way back to the medieval church when the organ was the point of contention. When a cathedral put in a new organ, people would flock there, and there were battles about who had the biggest pipe organ and who played it the best.

The best thing we could do is go for a few months without music in the service at all. That would help us figure out who we are. Then we can build a program that sings our [congregation’s] song, that tells our story—not just importing music from somewhere else. I think we could do that best if we let it go for a little while so we become re-sensitized to what music can and can’t do.

The other thing we need to be wary of is vapid preaching. I’ve heard so much of it: brief meditations, sermonettes that don’t dig into issues in the world, don’t challenge us, don’t expect us to make changes.

Along with sermons that don’t challenge us to make positive changes, churches don’t challenge us to follow through with making changes. One meditation from a pastor isn’t enough to address real issues. We often have “scattered preaching;” we get a drop of water, we never get a whole drink. If I could reinvent Sunday, I’d have a well-prepared sermon that demands that we make changes and have three weeks of follow-up where we let the church talk about it.

RW: What are the greatest needs of the church?

KM: The answer to this question has to do with figuring out how to help ourselves grow up. We need to learn how to be better disciples, to do the work of Christ, to be in the culture being Christ to the culture. It won’t be the same for every congregation. There’s no “one size fits all.”

RW: As an artist and Christian musician, how do you inspire creativity in the younger generation?

KM: First of all, let me say that at the age of 71 I’m doing as much youth stuff as I ever did. I keep asking why this is. People tell me that kids have a sense of the authentic and they sense that I’m just being who I am. Young people tell me their stories, some pretty deep stories, and then I sing them back to them. When young people hear their story sung, they get excited about what they can do with their story. I sense a longing to have this happen more often in a diversity of ways. Kids are attracted to music, and I think I help them break out of the box their institution has put them in and let them do creative thinking. I love to help young people improvise. Once they start improvising with music, a mindset gets hold of them and they end up being able to play by another set of rules. [Editor’s note: Leonard Sweet speaks of Medema’s storytelling through song in his book Giving Blood, A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching, Zondervan 2014, p. 32.]

RW: What are the challenges facing church musicians and artists, and how can the church best support these people and utilize their gifts?

KM: OK, there is the obvious challenge of making a living. Also, there is the challenge of being both culturally and spiritually relevant. Musicians and artists need to follow the culture and then ask what is our relationship to the culture. Are we going to imitate the culture? (use music that is Taylor Swift-ish?) Or are we going to be an alternative to the culture, and say we can be identified by our sound. Our sound is different, we’re creating something unique. Our dance is different, it has different kinds of moves. Our art is different, it has a different kind of look, etc.

I sense that the church is not leading the pack anymore. We are behind the eight ball, and I don’t know why. I think we need a combination of listening to the culture and then speaking as much of that language as we can but with our own sound, our own feel, our own unique texture that distinguishes us.

We can look at our history and bring elements of our past (chant, a sense of mystery) into the contemporary. It’s also about the language of worship—we need to find a language that is transcendent, not just love-songs-with-Jesus-words, but something that calls people, that blows the shofar, so that when secular people hear it they say, “Whoa, what is that?”

RW: Your education and background is in music therapy. What skills and knowledge from your experience working in that field can inform the church as it applies to worship?

KM: In music therapy, we always ask, “What is the goal and the objective of this musical moment?” It’s important to have definite goals. That goal orientation needs to translate to church music. We should think seriously about the musical environment that is created by the worship we plan. So this leads me to five thoughts:

  1. Growing disciples is a goal. What we do in worship is always teaching, and we must ask, “What’s the best environment to reach the goal of growing disciples? Is our worship allowing us to grow closer to God and each other? Is it allowing us to see, hear, and feel each other?”
  2. Is the musical environment we create leading us to greater understanding? The music needs to empower the worshiper to become and to change.
  3. Musical style—in music therapy we used whatever touches a person’s need. If we did a study on our congregations and found the culture that characterizes our people, it might surprise us.
  4. There are times we need to sing to each other if one of our goals is to become more aware of each other’s needs.
  5. We all learn and engage differently. What about offering new (or alternate) opportunities to engage in worship? For example, there may be some who need to move when they sing, some who need images, some who need to sit still in quiet.

RW: If there was one piece of advice you could give, what would you want to tell the next generation of worshipers?

KM: In everything you do, teach the commands of Jesus.

RW: Final question. What is the most important song that you haven’t written yet?

KM: That’s a good question! The song I haven’t written yet is based on the Amos 5:21-24 text, where God says, “I hate your religious festivals . . . away with the noise of your songs . . . but let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (NIV). I want to build a song that shows the juxtaposition of the Amos 5 text with a description of the income disparity in our cities. I want to figure out a way to keep coming back to the disparity between the rich and the poor. But I want to do it well, and I haven’t written that song yet.