Tim Hughes: The British worship leader ponders the contradiction of the worship star

Wednesday 25th August 2004

TIM HUGHES may have been unexpectedly catapulted into the surreal realm of "worship star". Mike Rimmer reports.

Tim Hughes: The British worship leader ponders the contradiction of the worship star

It's 2003 and Tim Hughes is sitting in the third floor Bridge Caf... in the Renaissance Hotel in Nashville. He has the look of a man slightly bewildered by Gospel Music Week, the event which brings together the world's Christian music industry. Famously shy and definitely uncomfortable with anything that smacks of celebrity, he doesn't easily fit in with the hype and bling of the event as all around him the great and good have meetings, press the flesh and do deals. Les Moir, the label manager at Survivor Records, leans over to me and grins conspiratorially. "I'm here to mind Tim!" he says.

And suddenly Tim needs minding. From Tim Who to Tim Hughes! The Americans have finally woken up to the Watford-based musician's songs. A couple of days later he saunters up to the podium to receive a Dove Award for Inspirational Recorded Song Of The Year for "Here I Am To Worship". A year later he's back again as the song wins Worship Song Of the Year. American CCM has embraced Mr Hughes!

Let's change the scene! It's a worship conference in America. Mike Pilavachi has been sharing. Tim has been leading worship all week and they have sung THAT song more than a few times. Now it's the final session and another preacher is at the pulpit finishing his sermon. He looks out at the attendees and says, "We need to finish with one song." Hughes is readying himself to lead one last time when a whispered conference takes place and Pilavachi saunters over and speaks quietly to Hughes. "I think you should end with 'Here I Am To Worship'," he whispers. Hughes is determined and insists, "Mike, please! I can't! I've sung the song so many times this week. I can't stand it!" Pilavachi is insistent and turns up the pressure. He says, "No, I really feel God saying you should!" Hughes isn't convinced. "Oh please!" he responds. "They'll think I'm just singing it all the time!" By this time, the whole room is waiting and watching the conversation, no doubt wondering what is being discussed. Finally Pilavachi whispers in his ear the words that will persuade Hughes to sing it one last time. He says, "Tim, I'm your boss and if you don't do it, I'll break your legs!" He sings it, God moves but Tim is honest to admit that he's a little tired of the song. "I've stopped using it for a while! I'm not someone who invites people to listen to my most popular song! I always pray, 'God, what are the songs that are relevant for tonight? What are you wanting to do? What's the theme that you're wanting to speak to us about?' I'm not going to do it for the sake of doing it."

It's a couple of weeks before 2004's Dove Awards ceremony and we're sitting chatting at Spring Harvest and Tim reflects on the success of his most famous song. "It's been hugely encouraging to see how the song's been received and see people using it around the place. I think it's opened more doors. People are perhaps more interested to hear other songs or other ideas because of that song. So it's given me a platform to be able to share other things and other ideas that I feel are hugely important to me. For me, it's been an incredibly exciting adventure to be doing some things that I never would have dreamt of a few years back. To be meeting some wonderful people and be learning from great people. So I just feel like I've been learning to take risks and to try things."

Still there are people who haven't yet made the connection between Hughes and the song. Tim explains, "They just know the song so they probably think Michael W Smith or someone wrote it because it was on his thing. But no one really knows who I am. So that's funny when people are coming up when you're doing it and saying, 'I love that song but I had no idea you actually wrote it!' So that's good, it keeps you humble!"

Tim Hughes: The British worship leader ponders the contradiction of the worship star

With Tim, you quickly get the idea that he prefers it that way. He admits, "I do find it uncomfortable and awkward if there's too much attention." Sometimes there are advantages to people not knowing that Hughes has written the song. A lady in his church chatted to him after a worship time recently asking for the name of the fourth song that he had led. Hughes pauses racking his brains and suggests a couple of titles to no avail. Was it "Here I Am To Worship"? he asks innocently and starts singing the tune. The lady's reaction is immediate. "Oh no, not that song, I HATE that song!" Hughes stands there nonplussed as she embarks on a lengthy rant concluding by saying, "When I hear it I want to vomit. And people sing it so much! Aaaarrrrggggghhhh! I can't stand it!" Perhaps that was another of God's ways of keeping him humble! He laughs, "That was probably one of the times I was glad she didn't know it was me who wrote it!"

For the new album 'When Silence Falls' Hughes travelled to Nashville to record with Watermark's Nathan Nockels as producer. This time around the album finely balances beautiful melodies and upbeat material with what can only be described as some sadder, more downbeat songs. Hughes explains, "When I read through the Psalms, it amazed me how much the Psalms are full of 'Where are you? I'm crying my eyes out. Help!' I've sometimes found that when you go to church, all you sing about is 'Everybody's singing now because we're so happy!' And there's place for that and we need that, but sometimes we miss out on the reality of the broken world we live in."

He continues, "I've been trying to write songs that reflect some personal experiences and going through some hard times. Times where everything doesn't quite add up and there's confusion, there're questions, there're doubts, there's hurt. But finding in the midst of that, in the midst of the pain, finding a place to say, 'But God, I love you' and 'Jesus you are worthy. When silence falls, you'll be the song in my heart.' I've been interested and amazed to see how people have connected with some of these songs and themes. It's like they've been saying, 'That's where I'm at! I almost don't know what to say!' I love reading about Job when it says his friends came and sat with him. They just sat in silence for seven days because no one knew what to say. Sometimes in a church, we just try to fill everything with words and say things. And actually sometimes it's better just to have the space to say, 'This hurts, but I praise you.' So I think we need more of those songs that will also make more of a connection to a world who doesn't know Jesus; who think of Christians as 'happyclappy'. It gives them the chance to come and see that Christians understand pain. They go through pain like anyone else BUT, in the midst of that there's a hope and there's a promise of better things to come. It can be very profound."

The question of lament is an interesting one because from a distance it might be possible to look at Tim Hughes and not really think about him struggling. After all, he's in a good church and he's doing exciting things and God is using him. It's possible to wonder how he could be struggling. But then, one of the challenges of a public ministry is that if he has struggles, he has to keep them private. Tim shares, "It's funny because by nature, I am a very private person. There are a few people that I'm an open book before, like my pastor, my brothers, my family and obviously my fiancee... I'm getting married in September. But I find it awkward to stand up in front of people to say, 'This is what I'm struggling with.'"

He explains, "I do think sometimes you pick out people on a platform and think everything's sorted with them. So I guess some of these songs are speaking for me and just saying, 'It's okay to have doubts. I have doubts.' One thing I love about Mike Pilavachi is that he is so open. He'll tell everyone about the things he's struggling with! I think people feel relieved that Mike has struggles, he has doubts, he has issues that he deals with! Because then it's like we're not struggling with things on our own and it's not because we're bad Christians. It's because we're a human and everyone has struggles. So I think one thing I'd love to develop is being more honest and real."

Tim Hughes: The British worship leader ponders the contradiction of the worship star

Since the release of the 'Here I Am To Worship' album, Hughes' life and ministry has accelerated which brings with it a fresh set of challenges. "To be honest it's been exhausting," he observes, "but I've loved it, it's so exciting. But sometimes you feel like you're on a motorway, flying along in this car and it's getting faster and faster and you feel like you're going more and more out of control. I've been learning, especially recently, that it's so important to find balance in life. Balancing work, balancing friendships, balancing personal timeout, balancing time to spend with God. There's so many good things, opportunities that come and you can't do them all. So I'm learning to have to say no to things. I also think you can get so involved with doing things outside the church, different kinds of events around the world or different meetings, if you're not rooted in a local church then that becomes really unhealthy. Again, I've really been keen to just keep rooted there at Soul Survivor. I want to feel involved. I oversee the worship for the evening congregation and I never want to jeopardise that because if I start going to places and talk about leading worship and writing songs, then I'm going to become more and more detached from the church."

Hughes recognises there's a danger of becoming a "professional Christian". He shares, "I have another name for it. I'd call it a 'rent-a-worship-leader'. Or, what we're seeing more and more is the 'worship artist'. That for me just doesn't add up. I guess it's a tricky balance I've had to try and walk through. I see myself as a local worship leader who writes songs for the church, for God and who sometimes gets invited to be at different conferences. But I'm aware that some people look at me as an artist. For me, that just doesn't feel who I am. I'm not trying to give off the impression that 'Hey, I'm just a worship leader at a church.' I know sometimes the albums with pictures on them don't help but if you've got songs that you're trying to resource the Church with, how else do you do it? So I sometimes find it awkward. But I feel it's what God's called me to and opened up."

There are other pressures associated with the success of Tim's songs and albums and that is fame. Hughes is undoubtedly uncomfortable with this. He explains, "Some people come up assuming they 'know' you. But on the other hand it's a wonderful way to meet lots of people, if you look on the positive side. They'll come up and they'll start chatting which they wouldn't do if they didn't know who I was. I think it's important to keep with your close friends so that you don't lose touch with reality. It's making sure you keep remembering what's important and understanding why people might come up. Because again sometimes, especially if you're tired you just might get a bit frustrated. It's like, 'Oh please, let me go home!' But no, it's a way and an opportunity for me to encourage them and to try and help them. Often people come up and ask questions like, 'I lead worship at my church. I'm struggling with this, what do you suggest?' and I LOVE being able to input and say, 'Well, I went through a similar thing.' or 'What about this.?' That's an honour and that's a privilege. So I keep reminding myself of what is important."

'When Silence Falls' may break new ground for Hughes' songwriting but musically it falls safely into the Soul Survivor "style" of worship. In the '90s when the modern worship phenomenon really kicked off, this style of Britpop music was very much in the charts but now a decade later, isn't there a danger that it sounds too samey and too many people imitate the music style? Hughes has a few thoughts. "What I think Soul Survivor has done is modelled a way of leading worship. Of course different people are going to take that on board and grow in that. And actually I think it's a wonderful thing that we can try and encourage others and help them in their journey. I think one of the bigger issues is more the fact that some churches can be very fearful of breaking open the box. So I think sometimes it's been not that people think that Soul Survivor is the only way of doing it, but people feel, 'Have I got permission to try and lead worship in a different style?' or 'These songs I'm writing, are they too "out of the box"?' They don't feel they have the permission perhaps of the leadership, or the blessing of the congregation to step out into that. So I think we want to see more and more churches being willing to take risks and say, 'Look, you listen to jazz music all the time, so don't try and do soft rock! Feel free to get in a horn section.' And it needs a few more people to model something different. I feel that's coming. There are the guys in Onehundredhours who have a bit more of a rocky style. This summer we're getting to our festival the guys from United, which is the Hillsong youth band in Australia. They've got a different sound. And different female worship leaders, Vicky Beeching and other people coming through, who hopefully just show people, 'Oh! It doesn't have to be white-bloke-behind-the-guitar!'"

He continues, "The hard thing about this especially when you are working with young people is what young people listen to! Some love pop; Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake or whatever. Others like Eminem or Evanescence and Blink182. And what do we do? Do we do a worship set where we have our heavy rock song, we then have our pop tune, then our soulful, then R&B, then rap? When I lead, I've got to be authentic to myself. Now I want to be relevant, but for me, what do I listen to? I love Coldplay, Travis, all that kind of stuff. So that's probably where I'm going to be more influenced and where the style will come from."

Back out amongst the throng of Spring Harvest we are saying our goodbyes when true to form, a couple of people want to chat to Tim before he rushes off. It's going to be a busy year with an upcoming marriage, Soulinthecity and the best album he's ever recorded in the shops. 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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