Tim Hughes: An indepth interview with Britain's much loved worship leader

Saturday 30th June 2007

Mike Rimmer spoke at length to worship leader TIM HUGHES whose 'Holding Nothing Back' continues to be UK Christian music's best seller.

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So why doesn't Tim do more co-composing? It might be good, especially for a man who confesses to being very slow at writing songs. He laughs, "Well actually I have. On this album I think about five or six of them are co-writes. For me it's got to be with the right people. It's got to be out of relationship. Again I don't want to get on this train of, well you've got to write with so and so. . ." Basically Hughes doesn't want to get locked in a room with a piano with a relative stranger. "Yeah," he agrees. "I've loved doing co-writing but it's been with people I trust. I've learned lots and it's been a great process but yeah, I don't want to get caught up on the treadmill of churning stuff out."

Tim Hughes: An indepth interview with Britain's much loved worship leader

There have been other changes in the life of Tim Hughes since the release of his last album, not least him moving to London's renowned Anglican church and the birthplace of the Alpha Course, Holy Trinity Brompton. Says Tim, "For my wife and I, we loved being at (Watford's) Soul Survivor and in one sense I still feel like Soul Survivor was so much of my heritage and history and relationships. So it's a massive wrench. But we really felt God prepare us and say, 'I'm moving you on.' Then we had six months or so where it was up in the air; we felt like God was saying it's time to move on, but where? It was really unsettling. It was a really tough time actually in our life. After a while we kind of knew HTB were interested and was a possibility. HTB and Soul Survivor are very, very close. (Church leaders) Mike Pilavachi and Nicky Gumbel had a few chats and so we went to explore the possibility. We were both unsure; would it be right? I remember both of us, Rach and I, one afternoon we just so clearly felt God say, 'yes'. And we've not looked back. Of course it's been hard moving on from Soul Survivor but we've loved it. We've loved the team. It's amazing what the church is doing with social outreach and evangelism and worship and creativity. It's such an exciting place to be and it feels like we're learning lots and it feels like we're able to encourage others. It's been a fantastic move for us."

So what is Tim's role in the church? He grins, "My flashy title is 'worship director'! Effectively I head up the worship team. I pastor the musicians. I head up the direction of the worship for the church. And then a key thing, and this has taken up a lot of my time of late, is a school of worship we're developing called Worship Central. There'll be training days and websites. And my heart is really to try and pass on and encourage others. I think the Church desperately needs to capture creativity and passion and an authenticity in our worship. It's only going to happen by training leaders. We've got to think big. We've got to change and develop and encourage the way we worship in this country and beyond. And if we do that I think that it will be key to the Church making a difference in society. So it's a big vision and we're trying to do that in any way we can."

Life is clearly busy for him which brings all of its own challenges. If you try booking Tim for an event, don't be too disappointed if he doesn't accept the invitation! "It's hard," he admits. "Like someone said to me, 'Tim, your difficulty now is not choosing things that are right or wrong, it's between choosing between what's good and what's best.' So it can be very stressful. Why do you say 'yes' to one festival or conference and 'no' to another? I think you've just got to hold it all before God. Use a bit of common sense practically; do the dates work out? I think I've found it very helpful to prioritise and get in touch with, what do I feel I'm called to do? And I don't feel called to be a rock star. Actually I don't feel called to sell lots of albums. I feel called to lead worship and encourage others to do that. So that's my priority. I take on events that will help me impart something in worship and perhaps lead others and train others, and if the other things come behind then great. But if not, well I've got to let it go."

Does he feel that he has specific things that he's wanting to impart? "Yeah I do actually. Without sounding arrogant, there are passions that I have and things that I feel I've had the privilege of learning and seeing. And as much as anything I think some of it is just being willing to invest and say, 'Look I want to give you everything I've learnt. Might not be that much but take what you can and try and use it.' And for some people, for so many worship leaders I know, they're really gifted but they lack being supported, encouraged, prayed for, cheered for. So this Worship Central School of Worship - that's what we're trying to do. Just saying, 'Look you can do it. Go for it!' When they come to our days we want to pray for them; 'Keep persevering.' It's to enable them to do that."

Mentoring a younger generation of musicians is now very important to Tim. "I think the thing I've realised is that I want to perhaps throw a big vision for lots of people to see, hey, this is what worship could be! This is what I want to work towards and spend my life doing. But then you also need to invest in the key people where you see God's on them. They're talented. I mean character is a key thing in all of this. And to again, get alongside and train them and encourage them. Challenge them. When you have to, disciple them. I hope these are the people that will, in years to come and even at the moment, be challenging and transforming worship in a way that I couldn't. So the work goes beyond just an individual. It's a team game you know? We're all playing on the same team. I think the more we give away the better."

Several critics have commented that 'Holding Nothing Back' sounds a bit edgier than earlier albums. And Tim is singing better than ever. "I've tried to push myself. Going into this album, and again I've never done this before, but I went in with very strong ideas. I called them the 'Three Es' and they stand for edgy, epic and emotive. I wanted every song to capture something of that. Every guitar sound and every vocal. So I pushed myself. I remember times after doing a song and I'd just be absolutely exhausted. But I think people want to hear something that's real. I want people to hear passion."

He continues, "My wife and I are just doing this Alpha Course with a few guys. One of them has just become a Christian and the others haven't and I gave them all a copy of the CD. One of them said, 'You know I love listening to it on the Tube and hearing someone scream the name JESUS' at the top of their voice and it not being a swear word!' So for me that was a real encouragement. That actually people can sense when someone's being real. I think we all need to strive for that."

Does Tim get nervous when he's unveiling a new album to the general public? Does he wonder whether people will like it? He reflects for a second and then shares, "I heard this classic thing. I think this was before Coldplay's "X & Y" album came out and Chris Martin was being interviewed about the album and he said, 'I feel like I've just called this girl up and asked her out for a date and I've had to leave a message on her answerphone. I feel like I've left a really great message. I thought it was really fun and cool. But now I'm waiting to see if she thinks so too and if she's going to call me back.' I guess I feel in that place. I do actually feel quite vulnerable and maybe insecure. That moment where you find out what people think is always difficult."

Two of the outstanding tracks on Tim's album are "Take The World", which is a "take the world but give me Jesus" kind of song. And then there's "God Of Justice". Listening to them, the two songs are quite a juxtaposition. I'm not convinced that they fit together. I share my hypothesis with Tim because there's a line of thought in black church in America to do with civil rights that said that the comfort that the black people found in God was expressed in exactly the same way. They sang and they prayed, "Give me Jesus. Everybody else can have the world." And that's exactly what has happened. The world prospered without them and they got sidelined because of that. Is there a danger in having that kind of worship song, where you subconsciously encourage people not to engage with the world?

"That's a very good question," concedes Tim. "I had a long debate with my brother about this one. Actually the sentiment of the song wasn't written as escapism - 'Well, my life's tough but I can escape in God.' Purposefully it was quite a bold statement. That 'you COULD take the world, but I'd still have you.' My sentiment would be more that; nothing in this earth could ever compare to knowing God. And even if tragedy happened upon this earth, or harm came to my family and all my possessions were taken away, that actually, God is still there. He'd still be the rock to hold on to and ultimately that would be enough. Now I'm not being flippant or trying to say, 'God, please do that. I'd be fine.' My world would fall apart. But it's that God is so incredible and so faithful that actually, despite what comes he IS enough. It is a bold line and I did seriously think about it but actually I think that sometimes, maybe even that poetic license, it gets people thinking and it challenges our thought life. I think sometimes our worship songs can be a bit predictable and safe. So I don't know. There's a bit of me that doesn't mind if it does ruffle a few feathers, and I understand that. But my sentiment was very much God is enough no matter what."

Like Matt Redman before him, Tim took inspiration from the Fanny Crosby hymn of the same name. "It came out as a moment of worship in my room. Again the first line is, 'The world is not enough for me' - the James Bond film!" he laughs. "But again I thought it just fitted in. Sometimes when I'm worshipping, you just sing out phrases and sing out lines. It's personal worship. And then suddenly you stumble across something that you think, hey, this is really stirring my heart and might connect with others! It's kind of like, do you know what? Living in the West, I'm 29, I'm married, great job, great house. . . But you know there's times where it's like, it's still not enough. It still doesn't fill the gap. You're still left wanting more, and learning that ultimately you only find complete satisfaction and contentment in God. So it's coming from that angle."

But for people looking at him, he does seem to have this charmed life. How could he possibly be dissatisfied? "But that's the point, you know?" he counters. "That actually, only God truly satisfies this. . . we talk about a 'God-shaped hole'. I remember reading about Freddie Mercury who said, 'I've millions of pounds and world-idolisation, but I'm desperately lonely and the thing I miss most is relationship.' And only God fully provides that. So for me that excites me. It's testimony to how incredible God is, you know?"

On the flip side of that "Take The World", Hughes has got "God Of Justice" which seems to go from one extreme to the other because it's saying, "engage with the world." Hughes agrees, "Yeah and I think actually that's what our worship should be. I heard Graham Cray once say, 'Worship without mission is self-indulgent. Mission without worship is self-defeating.' So actually if all we do is sing songs and feel good about God, it becomes selfish. And when it becomes inward looking then we're missing the point. But if we try and go and engage with society without first looking to Christ and getting fuelled and filled up with him, then actually we're not going to make any difference. We just become glorified social workers."

He continues, "But actually what we're called to do as part of our worship is go out to the last, the least and the lost. At Soul Survivor, which I'm still very much involved in, that's been a huge journey for us. Seeing that link between worship and evangelism and justice, which often we've separated. And then verses in the Bible - Amos 5, which for any worship is such a strong challenge: 'Away with the noise of your songs! Spare me these terrible sounds. I despise; I hate your religious festivals. But let justice flow like a river. Righteousness like a never-failing stream.' So for me, if I want to be genuine and to really follow God and to serve him and be obedient to him, then my worship must involve justice and be outward looking. So this song, 'God Of Justice' very much came from some of those thoughts and lessons."

Finally, as our time together draws to a close, he observes, "It's been interesting using those songs because it sometimes feels like an awkward song to throw in a set list: 'God of justice, keep us from just singing/Move us into action, we must go.' You sometimes don't quite know where to put it in after 'Here I Am to Worship' or whatever. But actually that sense of jarring; I'm starting to think that maybe that's exactly what it should do. Maybe it should feel awkward and uncomfortable? And in the midst of getting caught up in who God is, suddenly to remember, hey this is great BUT, if we're really genuine about loving God then we have to love our neighbour. And we have to invest of our money and invest of our time to engage with the marginalised and those people that perhaps it's easier to turn a blind eye from and forget." 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 Mike Rimmer
Mike RimmerMike Rimmer is a broadcaster and journalist based in Birmingham.

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