Jonathan Bellamy spoke to Aaron Baxter and Sem Schaap of Bradford's LIFE WORSHIP
For over 20 years now Life Church in Bradford has been one of the key centres in Britain's modern worship movement. During this time albums bearing the names Abundant Life Ministries, Abundant Life Church, ALM:UK and now Life Worship have circulated original songs around the worshipping Church. Recently Integrity Music released the Life Worship album 'Your Church'. Aaron Baxter and Sem Schaap of the worship team spoke to me about the album and the changes for the team since the pandemic started. I began by asking Aaron to describe what worship was like at the church prior to the blight of Covid-19.
Aaron: Worship was a lot of fun, it was freeing. There was a lot of freedom in the room. We loved it. There'd be about 800 people at a time gathered together on a Sunday morning and a Sunday night. It was alive - I think a lot of people say the church is not alive at the moment but I can tell you now it's alive in Bradford. We would have a great time in the presence of God. Within our context people would come away from a time of worship and our conferences and say it is very real. That's often a strange thing to hear. Is there another way for this? But for us I guess we're just normal guys who love Jesus; we're a local church in Bradford, a combination of different people and we love Jesus a lot and that's evident for people who come to our conferences. We'd have a good time in the presence of God; God is real, it's active, it's moving and changing lives. And I guess that's why we do what we do.
Jon: Sem, what's worship like under lock down? Normally, you'd have hundreds of people in the auditorium, a part of this extraordinary worship experience that you're sharing together, and then you're not meeting together. How has worship continue during lock down?
Sem: That's a good question and it's one we ask ourselves every week. How are we going to do it this week? How are we going to do it the following week with all the changing regulations? I would say very much the spirit of what Aaron has described, our worship carrying a lot of freedom and faith has continued but it looks different. Thankfully we had pre-recorded a couple of things that we could send out the first couple of weeks of lock down and as time went on we were able to draw focus to a slightly different expression of our worship in smaller contexts recorded in living rooms and collaborating between the different campuses of Life Church. It's probably brought a different flavour and a different sound in some ways out of us. But the heart behind what we do and the sense of we're all in this together has very much remained. Every week we're probably feeling more desperate to go back to seeing people in the room with us when we worship and being able to have that joint experience. But we're trying to make the most of what we can do.
Jon: Obviously, Covid-19 has heightened things for a lot of people. People have had to work through how it's impacted them. For some it's been physical and a really big challenge from a health point of view. How important do you think worship is for people in times like these?
Aaron: For us, worship is super-important. Worship is not just 20 minutes on a Sunday morning. This has been evident to us and a lot of our congregation. Worship has been that for many people. Now when you take that away it's like oh, what do I do now? I think it's caused people to activate their faith in this period of time, where they're not having to rely on a worship leader at the front or rely on anyone else but they've had to rely solely on their faith in Jesus and their love for him, actually finding worship for themselves. Worship activates our faith and it also brings clarity; it helps us to fix our focus on the right things. Sometimes, even in this period of time that we're in, it's important that we don't just focus on the negative, we don't focus on the things around us that are trying to distract us but we fix our eyes on Jesus and worship helps us do that. It helps us fix our eyes on the truth; it helps us fix our eyes on faith and not fear. And I think when we can grab hold of that it actually begins to change us. I think it's about cost as well. We as a church think worship is a massive part of who we are and we believe like in Romans 12 offer your body as a living sacrifice, it costs us something, it's a sacrifice. This time has been a sacrificial time for people. You know what? I'm going to have to really try and worship God in this time, even though I don't feel like it, it's a sacrifice and that's when you begin to see a change in your life. We've seen a lot of our congregation say I've really enjoyed the difference and how it's forced us into a different realm of worship over this period of time. It's helped me do this, it's helped me to fix my focus, it's helped me change the way I think and feel. That's how important it is in this period of time.
Jon: Looking at the album in that context, when I was listening to it, it's a rich album musically and lyrically. There are a lot of great tracks there. It feels like it's got depth. Does this album reflect something of a journey that the church has been going on or you as individuals have been going on?
Aaron: We set out at the start of this project with it in mind of being a very vertical style within our worship writing. Previous albums have had quite a lot of this horizontal worship and I really wanted to glorify God in this time and put him at the top and not make the thing around us try and bring us down or distract us. We just make Jesus the focus and everything else will find perspective in our life. Yes, there have been things personally that we have all had to deal with, me and Sem and Eby Corydon who's another one of our worship leaders. We've all gone through different things. We've had various people in our team and congregation hit with cancer, with deaths and different things where we've had to cling to Jesus but we've had to make Jesus the focus and not the thing. We really believe him, that's why we call it 'Your Name', Alpha and Omega, this is not the end, your name [there's] nothing greater, nothing stronger. We wanted to make him the focus, and not the situation.
Sem: Just to add to that, every time we do an album it probably does reflect what's been happening in our lives and in our church. But at the same time I think there is always this unique thing that happens where the true value of some songs, when they've been recorded and are about to be released, like with the album 'Your Name', I feel we had no idea that that was going to come out in a pandemic. That places songs like "Hell Or High Waters" in a completely different perspective. They can almost serve as anchors; they become anchors that people can hold on to that help them to declare things over their lives from the word of God at a point in time that doesn't feel natural without music. It might feel a bit dry and a song can help to elevate that quicker, if that makes sense.
Jon: Absolutely. A lot of the songs you've written yourselves and you can hear that journey that you're on. It's interesting that you put in a couple of covers as well, "Alpha And Omega" being one from 2005 by Israel & New Breed. Also "Agnus Dei", the Michael W Smith song which goes way back into the '90s. It's a 15-track album anyway but you felt those two were important. How do you feel they related to what you were trying to say?
Aaron: My senior pastor Steve Gambill and I went on a missions trip in November last year, visiting some projects and on the projects there was a young lady we were speaking to and she said, hey, can we worship together? She started singing this song "Alpha And Omega", not knowing that we were still finishing off this record. We started singing it and I brought it back to our church and explained the why behind the song and it lifted faith in the room, it literally soared. With the context of what the album was about it felt right to put that song on the album. End of the day, we do songs that birth from our local church context and we believe it is working in our church; maybe it's going to work in other churches and be a blessing to other people. It's pretty much in the same vein with "Agnus Dei". We just love that song; it works every time in our church; how can it not work? Everybody who listens to it says they love this song. Sometimes I think we don't need to think too much about it; it's a worship experience, we want people to connect with Jesus and that was one of the reasons as well.
Jon: That to me is the key. You're trying to give people a worship experience rather than present new songs, which is fantastic. Let's talk about the title, 'Your Name', and the focus of much of the album on God's name.
Sem: There is such a rich history and heritage attached to the different names of God and we can so easily skim over it. We'll relate to God the Father, to Jesus and to the Holy Spirit. But [we need] to remind ourselves of the different names of God and how they all reflect attributes of how he works and who he is for us. As we started working on recording the album we started seeing a thread come together with all the various songs and the themes and we felt wow, there is such a richness. The song "Jahweh" kick started this. Jahweh by itself is a name of God that is not really part of our common language in songs. A lady in our church, Christine, who you hear on that spoken word, is part of our worship team. She's a powerhouse. She developed that spoken word and it was a live, spontaneous moment. She had prepared something and there was so much faith in what she brought that it's been a reminder for us in our team to dive into the history of the names of God. Like Jehovah Jireh, our provider and all of these various things for each of our seasons, for the moment we find ourselves in there is a name of God that we can relate to. There are so many aspects to God and the names of God can help us to remind ourselves of them.
Jon: Which song on the album resonates with you personally or means the most for your spiritual walk?
Aaron: "This Is Not The End" is the song that hit home the most for me. It's the one I enjoy leading the most and the reason is the chorus: "This is not the end/My God will finish what he started." Sometimes when you go through challenge and different situations, which I'm facing right now, you've got to keep holding on to the word of God, that he will finish what he started. In every detail he's faithful, he's good, so good to me. In every season he'll keep his promise. That lyric helps me now in my worship time; I was singing it today. We went to record worship for Sunday and I put that refrain in there at the end because it holds so much truth and it provides real focus for whatever you may be facing.
Sem: The song "To Know Your Heart" is very close to me and that's partially because it's been about two years in the making. I came back with the original idea after a writer's retreat and for about two years I've been trying to carve away at it. I knew there was something special about it. It wasn't called "To Know Your Heart" at that point, although the lyrics were very similar. It was Aaron who helped finish it and bring it together. What that song reflected from the start for me was an intimacy with God that I hope our worship would encourage in people. We can get so caught up in the news, in social media, in opinions, in hypes. To come back to that simple place of knowing God's heart and being aware of our position - if it wasn't for the fact that God is in our lives. The bridge of that song is "More than anything I need you." That's a simple declaration but I think it's one that I find for myself is so easy to forget in daily life. Because of the journey of that song, and how long it's been ploughed over and invested in and changed, trying to work out the best way to say this and get the message across and seeing it being delivered on this album, I think that's really special so that's why it has a special place in my heart.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.