Those brethren of more radical or jaded music palates may dismiss the smooth easy listening praise of Integrity Music's DON MOEN as too safe. But for a generation, his smooth as silk praise and worship concoctions are a mighty blessing. Mike Rimmer spoke to the American MOR veteran.
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I asked Don to describe the recording of the album. "The door opened for me to go into a ministry here called Focus On The Family," began Don. "I went and did the recording there. What I'd determined to do was to play through the whole album then have the arranger and producer sketch it out. I sat down at my piano and sang through the whole album and did the things I would normally do. I gave it to the producer, thinking that he would do intros at least to songs. But when I arrived for the recording he took exactly my guide track! There's something about 'Rivers Of Joy' that people sense is very real and very spontaneous; it has a freshness and spontaneity because it comes across as being under-produced, which is what people are looking for."
The big hit song of the set, at least in my church, is the song he co-wrote with Paul Overstreet. A rollicking country tune guaranteed to get you slapping your thigh and engaging in a do-si-do. Moen chuckled when I suggested that the song is crying out for a bit of line dancing. He confessed, "The surprise to me has been 'God Is Good'. That song has been so incredibly successful - everywhere I go people have picked it up. I'm the only Integrity Music artist who has ever recorded country songs. I love those happy little songs.!"
I asked Don about his other favourites on the album. He was quick to respond, '"Jesus We Enthrone You'. That's an anthem. Everywhere I sing it people stand up. It's an old song but it's a huge song. I was over in Australia in 1994 and I heard Darlene Zschech sing 'Shout To The Lord' and I was so impacted by that song that I didn't care what other songs were on my album, as long as that song was on it."
The whole feel of the album is very middle of the road. So much so that Admiral Cummings christened Mr Moen as King Of The Middle Of The Road. I asked Don how he would respond to such a title. After laughing he confessed, "I'm comfortable with that role. I'm not even an official artist with our company. The joke around our office is that Don Moen's albums are never released, they escape! We hardly ever have a marketing plan behind my albums. I realise that in what I do, the temptation is to become somebody I'm really not. I tour with Ron Kenoly a lot and find myself on the platform with people who can really sing. The temptation is to try to become like that person, but I've realised that my strength is in being who I am. I have to accept the fact that I'm just a middle-of-the-road, sing-in-a-normal-key kind of guy! In that is my anointing. If I try to be somebody else then I'm stepping out of the anointing. My role is not really being an artist. I see myself more as a facilitator to help something happen where people can experience something way beyond Don Moen."
How would he describe his aim as a worship leader? "I go to a lot of conservative churches where people are just beginning to sing songs that we've sung for years but it's a new thing to them. In every concert, if there are a thousand people there, there are a thousand different levels at which people are comfortable and responding to God in worship. Some people are just comfortable with just dangling their toes in the water. Some want to get in and swim. My job as a worship leader is to facilitate a move of God that allows people to be at ease enough to step deeper into the river and be refreshed, with everybody at their own level."
At this point in the conversation, I decide to take the bull by the horns and to continue a bovine metaphor chew the cud with Don about some wider aspects of praise and worship music. Doesn't he think that worship music is a bit too safe? "I think it can be," Don responded. "In some cases it's become predictable and safe, and that's something that I'm really striving to get beyond. What I'm trying to put into worship songs is this - rather than trying to rhyme the lyrics and make the typical cliches. I want to get something that gives people a chance to be honest with God: I think that's something that Martin Smith and the other guys do; what I hear in their music is honesty. That's what I want in my music. We're going through a lot of desperate times. People are hurting and are beyond another big production. Instead they need to touch God and we have a responsibility as worship leaders to give people songs that allow people to be gut-level honest with God. I'm praying that God will help me capture songs that allow people not to cry the blues to God but to get it all out on the table, just like King David. David was a man after God's own heart; he was honest with God. Where worship music has become safe and predictable, I don't think that's God's intention. I want to find a new way of saying new things."
I point out to him that over the years Integrity have been guilty of churning out its share of identikit praise albums with little imagination, possibly contributing to the stagnation of worship music. He isn't phased by the criticism evidently because it is an area he's been thinking through very carefully. He responded passionately, "I would say that there was a time where we had got so busy with an incredible schedule. Every eight weeks we'd do a Hosanna tape somewhere in the world. During those couple of years we became predictable. As a company, our goal was to harvest the worship that's happening in the churches around the world - to harvest it and not create it. We've changed that in the last 18 months. We've been capturing the revival at Brownsville Assembly. We didn't go in with a song list; we went in and caught what they were doing. It was powerful stuff. People were knocked out on the floor during this recording. We didn't go in trying to control it. This is fresh bread. I want us to be right in the middle of the move of God."
And this is where the juxtaposition of ministry and business really does make things interesting in the modern marketing of worship music. Whether the need to make money causes Christian record companies and worship leaders to simply repeat a successful formula until they reach blandness and stagnation or whether they are willing to risk and innovate as those at the creative end are inspired in new directions by the one they seek to worship. As expected Moen had strong ideas: "God is doing something in the earth today that is way bigger than Integrity Music. We got so busy trying to keep up with the schedule that we came close to missing some significant moves of God. I really feel that we have adjusted enough on the Hosanna tapes. We're not safe any more. In fact, we're so far from safe that it's not even funny. We're on the edge of a lot of things and capturing what God is doing. I don't want to be where it's safe."
Don continued, "You know the movie Field Of Dreams with Kevin Costner? He said, 'If I build it they will come,' and I've had this picture which I've shared. My dream is if we build it, he will come. That's my goal in every service. God won't allow any one company to control what is going on. He's doing a big thing on the earth and if we want to be a part of it then we must become vulnerable and let him lead us into deeper waters. And that's where we are as a company."
What about accusations that companies like Integrity are all about making money out of marketing worship to God? Again Don had strong thoughts on the issue. "Anybody who's been watching closely," he suggested, "knows that we haven't made very much money in the last year. The Christian music industry is going through a really tough time. I think it's all by God's design to raise the standard up: to have everybody re-evaluate what we're in this for. This cannot be about making money. Obviously I want to be a good steward of what God has given us and to run a business that is profitable, but at the same time we have a non-profit corporation that we tithe pre-tax profits to which is our same mission. We have a non-profit organisation called Worship International that we fund tours and teaching events for all around the world so that people can learn more about music. Along with any profits that are to be made, we've got a tremendous responsibility to continue to further the cause to sow into countries and situations that couldn't readily do this. If we're profitable here it allows us to do what I really want to do which is to take worship into places that really can't afford to buy this. We'll donate thousands of tapes to missionaries to keep this going. This is our call."
As our lengthy conversation comes to a close, I reflect that it must
be hard for Don to balance life as an executive with his ministry as a
worship leader. Whilst I couldn't imagine him sitting behind a leather
desk with a cigar in his
mouth waiting for the latest up and coming worshipper to impress him, the corporate needs and the associated busy schedule must be a pressure. He responded, "I used to go to hundreds of meetings and that's when we came very close to becoming a machine. I was so caught up in the operation. Two years ago we did 200 album projects in a year. That's unbelievable! What I've tried to do is to put the heart of worship in every one of our projects. I can do that better if I'm in the middle of a worship situation."
With ministry trips at home and abroad, the never decreasing pile of unsolicited tapes of worship songs from would be writers neatly stored in boxes under his desk and the demands of family life, it is unlikely that Don Moen will lose touch with the down to earth realities of life or become sidetracked by the need to take care of business. In the balance between corporate concerns and the ministry of worship, The King Of The Middle Of The Road is walking the straight path. Integrity by name and integrity by natureThe opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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