Jonny Shepherd: A worshipper seeking to make poetry, not noise

Friday 7th December 2012

Tony Cummings quizzed singer, songwriter and worship leader JONNY SHEPHERD

Jonny Shepherd
Jonny Shepherd

Jonny Shepherd is a Rugby-based worship leader with several albums under his belt, his latest being a much-praised children's project 'Raise Your Voices'. Recently I had the opportunity of quizzing the singer/songwriter and began by asking him whether the fact that he was now a father of three children had influenced his decision to make a children's album. He responded, "Very much so. Having children makes you begin to see the world through their eyes. It's made me see again that church is family, and family is inclusive not exclusive. It's also made me see that there are some songs we sing in church that are not helpful at all if we value our children and young people, and want to worship together as a family with them. I think it's really important to look at the songs you sing in your church, and honestly ask yourself if an eight or 10 year old is able to engage with it stylistically and lyrically as well as someone who is much older. I'm not saying that we just now sing 'kids songs', but have a wider awareness of inclusiveness in our services. I'd rather find a way to worship with my children, than for them to endure the service until the kids work starts.

"Proverbs 22 verse 6 talks about directing our children onto the right path, and when they are older they will not leave it. So in worship, as a church, we're beginning to explore how to do 'whole family' worship times, where the children can see worship times being modelled and learn how to join in and worship too. I guess I feel a responsibility as a worship leader to do my part in 'setting them on the right path'."

Jonny was born and bred in Rugby. He said, "I grew up in a Christian home and my parents went to a C of E church as well as one of those cool independent churches that had drums and guitars. So I guess there was never a period of time when I didn't believe in God - I sort of assumed my Christian beliefs by default. However, there were significant times, I guess between the ages of 15-17 that God really solidified my relationship with him. The last two years of school are all a bit of a blur now. This was a period when my parents divorced, I dropped out of A levels after one term, met my wife Cheryl and also felt God's call into music and worship. While my parents were separating, I was so thankful to have a church family that became really close and passionate for God, and I guess I clung to this secondary family even more firmly during these key years."

Music had long been a part of Jonny's life. He remembered, "My dad had an old Yamaha acoustic guitar he used to use for house groups, and he let me use it to learn some Pearl Jam and Metallica songs on. Although he was a little gutted I wasn't getting into Neil Young, he encouraged my playing, even trading in his guitar for a new one for me."

Jonny Shepherd: A worshipper seeking to make poetry, not noise

It was Jonny's attendance at Soul Survivor which inspired him to begin writing worship songs. He said, "The early years of Matt Redman and Delirious? in their Cutting Edge days were a massive influence on me. There were a couple of things that happened one summer that really impacted me. The first was, on travelling to Shepton Mallet my dad had put on one of those 'worship sampler' CDs he'd bought for 99p. When 'Did You Feel The Mountains Tremble?' by Delirious? came on, I literally burst into tears in the car - and I had no idea why. And every time this song came on, I would start to cry again. It was a Holy Spirit moment, although I had no idea as a 15/16 year old what was really going on. It was like God had opened the lid of a jar that had been screwed on too tight, for too long. It was the first time I had been moved by music like this - his Spirit speaking to my spirit in some sort of unknown mysterious language. I really think it was the start of God beginning to awaken something in me in the area of worship and music."

He continued, "The second thing that happened was after a time of worship at Soul Survivor, I began walking back to our tent in the evening. Several guys had gone into an unused cow shed with guitars and spontaneously started singing some worship, and as people walked passed they began to join in. The room swelled to maybe 100+ people for an unscheduled church service before security cleared us out. Again, something deep inside was moved by what was happening here. It was this moment that God literally ambushed me and dazzled my heart to the core with a new understanding of worship. Whereas before, the 'singing bit' of any church service was no more important to me than the youth group, the preach or the prayer, I suddenly sensed an urgency in my spirit for worship. At the time I had only been playing guitar for a couple of months, but the following weeks and months, this sense of urgency stayed with me and I continued to learn to play and become involved in leading with our youth group. Worship was no longer programme filler for me, but a priority. The call into worship leading always seemed to be joined with one of songwriting. As my playing and leading developed, it was inseparable from a desire to write and improve in writing worship music."

In 1996 Jonny and his wife were leading worship at the Rugby Christian Life Centre. "I'm just so thankful for the leaders that gave me a chance as a young teenager. And not just one chance - for every time I could have done things better, there were leaders round me who believed in me and cheered me on. And this is a real challenge for me to try and see the gold inside the people that are around me, and my role as a leader is to try and pull that gold out of them. The fishermen weren't ready for ministry, but Jesus saw the gold in them and called them out. Our church went through a change in leadership and amazingly my wife and I were asked to lead the worship team and did so for around 12 years. Looking back, maybe we weren't quite ready for the challenge, but our leaders saw that gold in us and we're so thankful they stuck with us! That moment I talked about, when God spoke to me at Soul Survivor about worship almost felt like a large wave that carried me out of the summer festival buzz and into practical serving in worship for years to come."

In 2005 Jonny made his first independent album, 'Honestly'. He spoke about the project, "A desire for songwriting has always stayed with me, but often I felt like I didn't necessarily have the peers or father figures to help and guide me in leading worship, writing music and ultimately recording. Maybe I felt I was out on my own, with no training, just trying to make something happen. 'Honestly' has some songs I'm still really proud of, but the album is about as rough and raw as you can get! This was the sound of the kid coming out of youth group, with a passion for worship but very much still wearing the learner 'L' plate - hence the album cover!"

Jonny Shepherd: A worshipper seeking to make poetry, not noise

In 2007 Jonny released another album, 'New Day'. He explained how that recording came about. "In 2006 we were privileged to host Jesus Culture in Rugby. We had been friends with Banning Liebscher (who heads up Jesus Culture) for years, and his team's heart for revival and the work of the Holy Spirit is infectious. So some of the songs on 'New Day' like 'Praying For The Rain' and 'We Have Heard' were written out of this time. In fact the song 'The Call' features excerpts from one of the preaches Banning did while he was here during the Jesus Culture conference. I guess the album in many ways echoes the heart beat of what those guys brought to us in desiring more of God and longing for him to move in deeper ways in our city."

'New Day' was enthusiastically received. Wrote the Cross Rhythms reviewer, "In days where contemporary worship albums seem to have been churned out from the same factory, this really is a breath of fresh air." But there was to be a five year gap before Jonny released another album. He commented, "As leaders you have to guard yourself carefully. By this I mean: to look after your heart relationship with Jesus more highly than trying to please the people around you. I guess we had a case of saying 'yes' to way too many things in our church involvements and more or less burnt ourselves out. My wife and I took a three month sabbatical from church involvement which turned into almost a year. So for a long period we rested from Sunday morning services, attended different churches and stopped leading worship. There was a time of almost a year where I didn't even pick my guitar up - the first time this had happened since I had started to play. After this sabbatical break we moved to a new church called New Life and spent more time building relationships and just resting in where God wanted us rather than saying 'yes' to everything. But the pilot-light of songwriting never went out and I soon itched to get back into the creative process of recording, which led to 'The Sun & The Satellites'."

2012's 'The Sun & The Satellites' was the first time Jonny had worked with a record producer. Explained the worship leader, "A close friend, Matt Cotterill, moved his studio into our house for two weeks and we worked intensely during this time to bring the songs together. It was a brilliant experience working with someone who both believed in the songs as much as I did and had the skills and musicianship to help me realise them. So many songs are written out of real stories and experience as well as biblical truth and where 'New Day' reflected the heart and passions of revival, 'The Sun & The Satellites' reflected, in part, the resting period we had been through as a family and a desire to come back to the centre of it all - Jesus. In particular songs like 'Holding On' and 'Even When' felt very autobiographical.

"That's not to say the songs are all reflective in nature. In particular, 'Sing Sing Sing', which is one of my favourite songs to use in church, is an epic declaration of praise that really moves me. The lyrics speak of nations and tongues coming together to praise, and we had lots of fun literally recording the prayers of people from different countries in their own language and using them within the song. Our church, New Life, is part of a larger network called Global Horizons which works with churches across the globe and very much has a heart for unity across nations and this song reflects that well."

Jonny Shepherd: A worshipper seeking to make poetry, not noise

Now Jonny has released the 'Raise Your Voices' children's album. He said candidly, "If I'm honest, I did not expect to write some kids worship songs at all! It was a bit of curve ball from God, served with a sense of humour, which took me by surprise a little. There was a significant moment when God spoke to me in the shower (he seems to do that a lot) about the songs I had started writing - and that was to not patronise the children. Having never previously considered children's worship music, my mindset had been for writing silly, funny action songs. However, God really spoke into this and I felt that I had to consciously shift my focus into writing simple vertical worship songs that could actually connect children with Jesus. So while there are the fun songs on the album - which work in the aspect of drawing the kids in and capturing their attention, where I really feel the album comes into its own is where there is a lyrical shift into vertical worship."

Continued Jonny, "'Noah Was A Man With A Big Long Beard' is the song that started it all off! I can't even remember how this song came into being. Maybe we just needed a song for a family service or something and I had a go at writing a kids' song, something I'd never done before. Again, this is God's sense of humour, but I think I had more positive reaction to this song that any other adult worship song I had done! So from this, the idea for a full children's worship album was sparked. The song 'Raise Your Voices' is my favourite on the album - it was a very last minute addition that really confirmed the change in direction of the project. It felt so significant after writing it that it became the title of the album."

In conclusion Jonny was asked was there any particular spiritual lesson he had learned over the years. He responded, "Something that resonates with me and keeps coming back to me is probably the simplest message of all. Jesus wants my heart. At the end of the day, he is not too concerned with my status, position, title, achievements, my singing or guitar playing, how many albums I've sold, how good my reviews are, even my servant heartedness, humility. . . He just wants my heart. . .me. The whole of history led up to the single moment he died on the cross, because he was in pursuit of my heart. We become 'clanging cymbals' if we do not remember that we were designed for a love affair with our Saviour and every time something else becomes more important than walking in the garden with him, then maybe our lives start becoming noise instead of poetry. I guess this also brings us back to the very heart of what worship is - in its simplest, purest, most beautiful form - love for God. Don't let anything come in its way." CR

The 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.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


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