Saturday, 30 September 2017

An Interview With Don Moen

Interview by Bruce Adolph. 

Why don’t you tell us about the beginning of your involvement in worship. How did you get started in leading worship? 

Don Moen: I was actually travelling with this singing group out of Oral Roberts University called Living Sound. Larry Dalton hired me as a violinist, trombonist and guitarist. It was after my junior year in college (music education/violin major), and I remember telling my dad I was going to travel for three months with this group. Fifteen years later, I got off the road. I had lived in Africa for three years and travelled all over the world.

Eventually I hooked up with Mike Coleman and Ed Lindquist, who were the co-founders of Integrity Music. I was travelling with an evangelist named Terry Law. It was just me playing the piano and Terry preaching. We went through Mobile, Alabama, in October ’83. I hooked up with Mike Coleman and went back again in ‘85. At that point Mike told me they were thinking of starting this product called Hosanna Music and shipping these cassettes through the mail. I was already doing this with Terry Law’s ministry. Every quarter I was doing a cassette of live worship called “Expressions of Praise.” So Mike and I struck up this relationship, and sure enough, in May ‘86 I went down and recorded “Give Thanks” at this church in Mobile. I started getting invitations to sing and do all these different things. It was the last thing in the world I thought I would be doing. I was petrified of being in front of a group of people. I was okay if I was in an orchestra or band, but to sing in front of people? There was no way I wanted to do that. I tried it once and almost burst into tears because I was so embarrassed by my singing. And I decided I was never going to do that again.

Then my wife Laura got a letter from her sister about 15 years ago. She was praying for Laura and me and wrote, “Don, as I was praying the Lord gave me a vision of you standing in front of thousands of people and leading them into God’s presence and writing songs that soothed the hearts of kings.” I remember reading that letter and saying to my wife, “Honey, your sister Susan is a great girl, but she’s not a prophet. There’s no way I’m going to stand in front of thousands of people and sing. It ain’t gonna happen.” A couple of years ago Laura found that letter in her Bible, and almost everything has come to pass.

I had written some songs travelling with the Living Sound group, but around ’80 to ’81, I just wasn’t interested in writing songs anymore. I wrote in my prayer journal, “I don’t ever want to write another song unless it comes in power, praise, healing and deliverance.” I wanted to touch people in the area of their spirit, not in their intellect or emotions. So I didn’t write a song for a couple of years, and then one night I woke up at 3:00 in the morning, wide awake--just as if somebody had shaken me. And I had the strong impression (I didn’t hear an audible voice) that God was saying to me, “Open your Bible and turn to Psalm 40:3.” I hadn’t been reading Psalms and didn’t know what this verse said, but I opened my Bible and read, “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.” I remember sitting in my office just kind of stunned, and I said to my wife the next morning, “Something happened to me last night. I don’t know what it was. I think I was ordained into something.” It was just like the Lord Himself had put His hand on me and said, “I have put a new song in your mouth...” He heard my prayer that I wanted something new to happen in my life musically, and He said, “I have put a new song in your mouth, a song of praise to your God.” And I didn’t know what it meant.

It wasn’t until two to three years later that I led worship for the first time, in front of a huge crowd of about 25 people in Woodward, Oklahoma. Terry Law had lost his wife in a car accident, and he was really healed emotionally and spiritually by offering a sacrifice of praise, praising God in the middle of tragedy. So he told me, “Don, I want all our music to be praise and worship music. I want music that is vertically directed toward God.” So I had to really study this and figure out what I should be doing. I thought the first thing I needed to do was put a great vocal group together and a great band. And believe it or not, the guy playing guitar for me in that band was Peter York. So Peter came down and played, and at the end of that night, I still felt that something more needed to happen. I had taken a step of faith and put a boom mic at the piano. I took a huge, bold step and said, “Let’s all sing that chorus one more time,” in my nervous, quivering voice. That’s the first time I ever did that, and I think people realised quickly: This poor guy can’t sing and can’t play very well, but he’s got a great heart; let’s follow him. So people followed me. 

We couldn’t afford to travel with this big band anymore, so the next thing I knew it was just Terry Law and me. I owe a lot to Terry Law for what I’m doing today, because he forced me way out of my comfort zone. Every weekend he was preaching to two to five thousand people, and before he preached--even though the church had great praise and worship--he’d say, “I want Don to come lead us in a couple of worship choruses.” And I did. And I wasn’t very good at it. That’s how I got started. And many times I said to Terry, “I don’t want to do this anymore, I‘m being humiliated every weekend.” And it was humiliating, because I couldn’t play that well and was scared to sing. I don’t understand it, but Terry kept kicking me out there. God has to get us out of our comfort zones somehow, and that’s kind of what happened to me. That led to recording “Give Thanks,” and the next thing I knew, I was leading worship in front of thousands of people. It’s like that prophecy came to pass. It’s certainly not something I went after. I think the only class I failed in college was my speech class, because I was terrified to stand in front of people. (Laughs) It’s pretty funny, isn’t it, who God uses? God picks the strangest people sometimes to do these things. I had a desire in my heart and that strong impression to turn to Psalm 40:3, so I knew that there was something God had put in my heart to do this. But in the natural I was running as fast as I could in the other direction.

 How about your transition to Integrity Music?

Don Moen: I started producing and doing some arranging and production for Integrity Music in ‘86 and ’87, and finally in ‘88 I moved down to Mobile, Alabama, as creative director of the company.

Creative director is really an ad agency term. I had worked in an ad agency in Ft. Lauderdale, and even when I was with Living Sound, I freelanced jingles. (I wrote a lot of nationally syndicated radio jingles that I still hear on the radio today in some areas of the country). My problem with joining Integrity Music was moving to Mobile, Alabama, because Integrity is based there. That scared me because it was the Deep South, and I’m a Minnesota boy. So I resisted it for a long time. But I thought, if I really wanted to go to Mobile, what would my job description look like? I wrote down the name “Creative Director,” which you don’t see on any record labels; it’s all ad agency stuff. The creative director is the guy who oversees the production, the art, who guides the team through the whole campaign and works with the client. So it’s a combination of A&R, marketing and sales, and music production. That always did intrigue me. I wrote all these things down, including wanting to do some international work. Mike Coleman met with me and said, “As I was praying about the possibility of your coming to work for Integrity, here’s kind of what I thought.” And you’ll never believe it. He opened his book and at the top of his page he had written “Creative Director.” And almost line for line, our pages matched. It was really amazing. Shortly after that I moved to Mobile; the Lord took away the fear. Mobile is a great city and we’re really happy there.

You have a unique perspective. You’ve been around since the early days of worship, and now you’ve seen the popularity and swing toward praise and worship music today. There are two sides to this: the personal side of what’s going on in people’s lives, and also the commercial side, with the explosion of music product in the worship category. What’s your viewpoint? You’ve kind of been there from the start.

Don Moen: Well, our niche of course is in praise and worship. I don’t think Integrity Music was ever really taken that seriously by the major labels as a player. When we first got started and tried to get distribution, a few of the majors told us that praise and worship had already been done; it was a thing of the past. It had been popular with Maranatha Music. Why would we want to do it again? We thought, that’s funny, we just sold a million dollars worth of product to people calling in from bookstores and giving us their credit card numbers. We said to the major distributors, “Why would you not want to distribute this stuff?” Eventually we struck a deal with Alexandria House and Sparrow started to distribute our product. In the heyday of Hosanna Music, almost 200,000 cassettes were going out every eight weeks. “Give Thanks” sold almost a million units. We’ve been involved in that from the beginning, and I am thrilled to see the focus that the industry has given to praise and worship.

Smitty’s (Michael W. Smith) worship record was the biggest record he’s ever done. It was a thrill travelling with him on the Songs 4 Worship tour. I think the Songs 4 Worship tour was one of the most powerful tours that I’ve ever been involved with. We did eleven dates in eleven cities, a year ago. It was Darlene Zschech, me, Smitty, Nicole C. Mullen, Watermark, Caedmon’s Call, Lenny LeBlanc, Paul Baloche. It ended up being this glorious night of worship, where no artists were introduced. It just kind of flowed from one to the other. It was about the songs. It was a neat thing.

There is an emphasis being put on worship by different labels today. I think Twila (Paris) has a new worship record out, and Third Day’s biggest record was a worship record. I think it’s awesome what’s going on, and tons of great songs are being written. It’s a thrilling day to be involved in the Christian music industry. I love seeing what God’s doing. He’s shaking it all up, turning it upside down. God has His purposes and His plans. Isaiah 61:11 says He’s causing righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. He’s promised He’s going to do it, and He’s doing it. Not everyone is buying in, but I think the consumers are buying in. It’s what people love to buy.

But it’s not the only scenario. Just because it’s not a praise and worship chorus doesn’t disqualify it as praise and worship; what is important is really the attitude of the heart. I think God is working through all different styles of worship. My thinking is much broader than it used to be. I used to define praise and worship as this: a simple song that’s very user friendly and promotes a response from the people and participation from the audience. But even on the Songs 4 Worship tour, there has to be a balance. There’s a time to stand up and worship and a time to sit down and listen to a song that’s more of a communication song, but nonetheless directs people to a closer relationship with God. I’ve changed my viewpoint a lot. I guess I’ve just been around too many artists who have such a heart to worship God, that I know their hearts. Their music may communicate a little more horizontally, but I think God is working in a lot more ways than we think He is. So being the creative director of a praise and worship company, I have quite a broad view of what praise and worship is. The minute you try to put God in a box, He’ll blow it all away. You cannot put God in a box and say, “This, God, is how you can move.” I love the scripture in Psalm 115:3. It’s fine to learn about praise and worship, but Psalm 115:3 says, “Our God is in the heavens, He does whatever He pleases.” That kind of puts it all in perspective.

Last question: What’s your heart’s desire for worship leaders and worship musicians to understand about worship?

Don Moen: If you forget everything else I’ve told you, remember this: Be yourself. It’s so easy for someone to come to a seminar or see a TV program or pick up a praise and worship CD and say, this is exactly what we‘re going to do in our church. They see Darlene Zschech, and suddenly all the girls want to be Darlene Zschech. They see Smitty or Martin Smith or Ron Kenoly or Don Moen, and they want to try and be that person. I just tell these people, “Be yourself.” I love excellence in what we do, but people have to feel your heart. It can’t feel fake and phony. If you’re leading worship, trying to be somebody other than who God has made you to be, it’s not going to ring true to people coming into your church. Twenty years ago it might have worked, but consumers are a lot more selective these days, and I think seekers are looking for the real thing in our churches: real, heartfelt worship. If you stand up in front of an audience to speak or sing or do whatever you do, do it with the personality God’s given you. It will resonate a lot more truly than if you try to be somebody that you’re not.

I’m always bothered by preachers who get up and suddenly and suddenly become a different person. They speak in a different way. I’m on a personal crusade to stamp out weirdness in the kingdom of God. If you look at the life of Jesus, He says in John 4 to the woman at the well, “The hour is coming and is now here when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” I think He was saying to her, “Look at me, I’m a true worshipper.” And if you look at the life of Jesus, He didn’t say a lot about praise and worship choruses. He was the Son of God but also the Son of Man. He was approachable, normal. Sinners loved to be around Him; they were attracted to Him. He invested his life in twelve people. He was a servant leader. These are all things I think that we as worship leaders and musicians have to look at. We need to fashion our lives after Jesus. I think if we begin being ourselves, being servant leaders and investing in relationships, those are the kinds of things that are going to translate into people saying, “It may not be the most musically excellent thing I’ve ever heard, but that guy or that girl is real. That’s what I relate to.” That’s what kids are looking for today.

As I get older and am on the platform with younger bands, don’t think that I don’t wonder what I have to offer-- Don Moen singing these middle-of-the-road ballads. The thought goes through my head from time to time that I need to be someone else; I need to be someone cooler and hipper. But if I were to go in that direction I’d fall flat on my face, because people would say I was being a fake, a phony. But if I do what Don Moen does, it will ring true to young people and old alike, because it's real. Everyone has a part to play in the kingdom of God. I can’t be Martin Smith or Ron Kenoly or Alvin Slaughter or Matt Redman or Chris Tomlin. I can’t be any of those guys, but I can be Don Moen and they can’t be me. All the girls who are singing can’t be Darlene Zschech, but they can be who God has made them to be. So the one thing I always say is, “Be yourself.” And I think if you step into that you will actually feel God putting a mantle of authority around you and saying, “Goo, you’ve got it now. That’s who I’ve made you. Now watch what I’ll do with your ministry.” You’ve accepted it: Okay, God, that’s who you’ve made me; I’m going to operate there. Of course we can always strive to be better. I strive to be the best at what I do, but it has to start with being yourself.

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