Mike Rimmer witnessed some amazing gospel worship from Chicago's SHEKINAH GLORY MINISTRY
In this world of live worship albums, there's very little that surprises once it's playing out of the speakers in my room! Whether it's the guitar-driven generic rock sounds of Hillsong United / Audacious / Planetshakers et al, the polite sounds of easy listening hymnody or the latest live gospel album with its display of frontman exhortation, there are far too many formulaic albums where the live recordings are sanitised and broken down into polite bite-sized chunks for public consumption.
But sometimes worship can be a bit messy, particularly if God breaks in. And worship isn't just about the singing of songs though you might think that if you were to judge from the general output of live worship albums. And what about spontaneous outbursts? Prophetic utterings? Singing in tongues? Even if such things happen at the church or event you can be pretty sure they'll be left on the editing room's digital floor when it comes to the final product. But now there's an honourable exception, as anyone who's heard the unique live recordings made by Shekinah Glory Ministry will tell you. Shekinah Glory Ministry is not a group as such, they are simply a church choir and their releases are unleashed on the general public as independent recordings rather than through a record label. Hence they can simply record an evening of worship and release it as it is without any watering down of the events of the night. The results are powerful and spiritually uplifting and raw in the best sense of the word. When it comes to gospel worship, this is the real deal!
It's the Star Awards 2007 and the newly refurbished Birmingham Town Hall play host to a selection of brand new gospel talent battling it out in front of a panel of judges. Headlining the evening are Shekinah Glory Ministry. I am sitting in the soundcheck listening to their voices blend beautifully as they play around with harmonies and joke with each other while the sound engineer does his thing. Afterwards we disappear down to the basement and I talk with Valencia Lacy and Phillip Tarver.
The Ministry flourishes most successfully when recorded in a live context. Do they think that they will only ever record live albums? "Well, it's interesting you should say that," responds Tarver, "because I think Shekinah Glory really moves powerfully when we minister live. And again, being a praise team that's usually the element that we operate in. In churches we tell people, 'The thing that you experienced on the first album, second album 'Live' and now 'Shekinah Glory Jesus' is the experience that we experience at home every single Sunday morning. So basically we're capturing what's happening at our church worship service on those CDs and if you're ever in Chicago, c'mon by!'"
People have been known to travel great distances to visit Shekinah Glory Ministry in Chicago and I wonder whether they had any idea as to people would travel hundreds of miles to attend a local church service? "People want to experience God," Lacy explains. "In gospel music at a certain point it was like we were offering so much flesh and after a while you get tired of flesh. I mean, how many moves can you do? How many songs can you sing that are not really bringing people TO God? If you're hungry for God you're gonna love Shekinah Glory Ministry because that's what we give you; not our gifts, not our talents, but a God experience."
One of the most exciting things about the album and the group's live work is that there are strong prophetic elements in there. It first caught my ear when I heard vocalists singing in tongues. Perhaps I shouldn't be so shocked but it is something that is largely edited out of worship albums because it can cause offence to certain segments of the Church. Tarver explains, "We're led by the Lord. Each time we sing prophetically we're led by the Lord. It's not about man. It's not about who hears us. It's about ministering to him and how he leads us. Every place we've gone we haven't had any problems singing prophetically. I mean, they've embraced it and they sing along with us; their song."
Let me try and explain how it works on the group's albums. There are segments given over to prophetic and spontaneous songs. Sometimes these include singing or speaking in tongues and sometimes the vocalist will interpret their own tongue there and then. Tarver explains, "Tongues can be used in various areas. One can be just to stir up your spirit-man. Sometimes it is that you deliver a word in tongues and then what is said behind it can actually be the interpretation. It just depends on what God is doing at that particular moment. A lot of people get, I would say confused or wonder about the whole interpretation thing. Sometimes tongues is just, you're just speaking to God, period. That's just your praise for that moment. So it just depends on the mood."
One thing is obvious for the group, they enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom in their worship. "That's it exactly," Tarver says. "When we were talking about the issue of tongues and that being on the CD and whether it would offend or not, the CD has actually captured the essence of what goes on in our 'house' - at our church. And we have a free house. It's a house of liberty. The Bible says where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty, and so because the Holy Spirit moves the way he does we're free to worship, free to dance, sing, sing in the Spirit and the such and go forth in prophetic utterances and that kind of thing. So basically the three CDs capture the experiences that go on in our house."
Over the last century we have seen the phenomenal growth of Pentecostalism and 50 years' growth of the worldwide charismatic movement both have done a great deal to re-introduce the doctrine and experience of the baptism of the Spirit into the Church. The gifts of the Spirit may still be frowned upon in some circles but they have gained a much wider acceptance than at any time in Church history. However, where once it was possible to distinguish between a charismatic and non-charismatic congregation simply by watching the style of worship, this is today often no longer the case. The songs sung, even the raising of hands which once identified Pentecostal/charismatic worship, have now been assimilated into large parts of the Church which may have no truck whatsoever with "controversial" gifts like tongues, interpretation and prophecy. These days it is only in the public exercise of spiritual gifts that you can truly see whether a church encourages baptism in the Spirit. Certainly spiritual gifts are boldly evident in the Shekinah Glory Ministry.
One of the things that I found really inspiring when listening to their music was a provocation that our worship SHOULD be expressing and using spiritual gifts. So I'm guessing that this is something that is taught passionately in the church. "Very much so," admits Valencia. "Our church has moved through phases. As a matter of fact we just celebrated our 35th anniversary and we depicted in a play our phases or stages that we've grown in. 12 years ago we were embracing the spiritual gifts to the point where we moved into a class called Ministering Spiritual Gifts or MSG, which was started by Bill Hammond from Christian International. So people are encouraged to take the class; not necessarily to say that everyone who prophesies is a prophet but how to find out what your gift is, how to hear from the Lord for yourself and if God gives you that anointing to be able to deliver a word to someone else, or how to be able to minister healing by the laying on of hands and such. So it's embraced. As our pastor has grown we have grown into that and so he allows us liberty to do. . .in decency and order of course. . .allows us to exhibit those gifts."
The whole thing is very rooted in their church experience. When most people think about worship we think of bringing people into a place where they sing and worship and talk to God and experience God and people don't realise that God wants to say things to them as well in that moment. They have those songs captured on CD now but I would imagine every time they play out somewhere that there will be different prophetic songs that come out from different members of the group. So how does that work? Is it something that happens spontaneously or as singers do they come along and walk onto the stage already knowing they're carrying something? Phillip Tarver shares, "I'd say most of the time it's spontaneous. You're in the moment and the Holy Spirit is speaking to you. The Bible talks about the musicians and the minstrels being able to stir up the atmosphere and those who have a prophetic heart can begin to hear the mind of God and begin to sing and speak the mind of God as he gives the utterance. So a lot of those experiences are spontaneous. Of course we rehearse and that kind of thing but what God does in the midst. . .we'll have a set list but God can take us in any direction he wants to go as long as what he wants accomplishing is accomplished. That's the end goal; that the person can get into the presence of God."
He continues, "We often say: you have many, many recording artists, so many great gospel recording artists, but we don't consider ourselves among that number. We're more just servants and worshippers and we come and we release the presence of God. We tell people, 'If you want to be entertained then get somebody else!' And it's like that because we really just want to release God's presence."
Talking with them, I am reminded of the Scripture in Zephaniah describing how God rejoices over us with singing. I often wonder what God's song sounds like! When Shekinah are leading worship and bringing prophetic songs, do they consider for some people in the congregation, that IS the song that God wants to sing over them? Have they had responses where people have come up afterwards and responded to the prophetic? "Yes definitely," explains Tarver. "We've had people come and say, 'I came looking and searching for something and God answered me through your ministry; through your song!' And the songs do change. They're not the same. It's whatever God has for that time and that season and he points out certain people who get the song, many times."
Are there members of the group who are more recognised as being prophetic, that is their gifting and that is their ministry? Tarver responds, "I think we could say, okay, we have some that are comfortable in that flow. There are some that are comfortable in other areas and we all just kind of flow together. But we flow as one. With this we're just one unit; a unit of worshippers; a unit of priests. You were talking about the song of the Lord in Zephaniah and singing over God's people; one of the songs from our second CD is a song called 'Yes', which was written by Valencia Lacy. That song the Lord gave to her in a time of trial in her life. It has ministered to people around the world; people come to us and tell us how literally it has changed their lives."
Valencia shares the story of how she wrote "Yes". She remembers, "We were in prayer. We normally pray before our services start and we walk around and, you know, I just asked for the presence of God to come near me and while I was walking around praying one Sunday morning God began to sing the words of "Yes" in my ear. I just believe Jesus really does sing to us and it's time for writers to give God the credit. Even people that write worldly things give credit to whom credit is due; it comes from him or him! But God began to sing to me. He sung a few verses of it but the only one I remembered is the one that's recorded on there and that's the one he wanted! I didn't realise that it was for me. It was a preparation for what I was about to go through."
She continues, "My father passed from cancer. Anybody that's experienced watching somebody die; it's something that you can never erase nor forget. We were extremely, extremely close. And then a year after that I went through a bad divorce - abandonment basically. It was God preparing me, strengthening me for what was to come. Honestly, I thank God for what he took me through. I could send my ex-husband a 'thank you' card also because had he not done what he did I would not be at the level where God has me right now, from the inside out. I thank him for it. It's all preparation. And his will was the best."
So God gave Lacy a song and the song ministered straight back to her? "Oh, two years later!" she laughs. "It didn't get me that day. That day I thought. . . I was actually working at a church where people were new converts and they were just getting to know God and so I figured that it was for them because I didn't feel it, you know, in here, like 'Woo!' But I knew it was something God wanted me to release and I went and released it over the house. Two years later, as I was about to record it actually, I had to pull my car over because it finally clicked that, 'That was your preparation. I was getting you prepared because of what was to come.' I wasn't going through as much. I didn't need a big 'YES' in my spirit at the time but when it hit me, it hit me!"
And now like the other songs recorded by Shekinah Glory Ministry, it continues to hit those who have ears to hear their prophetic songs.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.