The Journey’s Stephen Miller on Worship, Writing, New Album & more

by Bobby Gilles

in Interviews,Songwriting/Hymn Workshop,Worship Leading

God & Sinner Reconcile by Stephen Miller album coverThe Journey church in St. Louis is one of my favorite churches, so I’m honored to talk with Journey worship leader Stephen Miller in this latest installment of our My Song In The Night interview series. Besides leading the people of St. Louis in worship each week, Stephen is a songwriter, Compassion International artist, adoption advocate, husband, father. And now he has released a full-length album of new songs for the Church, God & Sinner Reconcile.

Get it on here.

Or get it on iTunes here.

Learn about God & Sinner Reconcile, watch two videos below and walk with me through this interview, where Stephen and I discuss songwriting, worship leading, “retuning” old hymns, the importance of social justice and more:

Bobby Gilles: “More Than Songs” is a great worship song that is also a social justice song. It seems like the first three lines of the first verse correspond well with the first three lines of the bridge. Was that on purpose, or does that just reflect the fact that the whole song has a tight theme?

Stephen Miller: One of the aspects I love most about songwriting is the word play.  I really enjoy finding ways to mirror ideas in different lights to strengthen the overarching theme I am aiming to communicate.  As I read Micah 6:8, the scripture “More Than Songs” is based on, I couldn’t help but see the lyrical and thematic parallels.  We get to be God’s agents of change in the world as we walk humbly with him, because he puts his heart of compassion for people in us and our lives begin to echo what he is already doing.

Bobby Gilles: Justice, mercy and benevolence are themes you know a lot about, having adopted children from Ethiopia and being a Compassion International artist. How important is it for worship leaders and songwriters to “walk the walk” in their daily lives?

Stephen Miller: My band and I have a maxim we try to live by: “Songs are our smallest expression of worship.”  God has given us a world full of opportunities to seize every breath for his glory.  Going back to Micah 6:8, when he tells us what he requires, he doesn’t say, “Sing to me.”  In fact, in Amos 5, God’s people have left the poor uncared for and when they begin singing to Him, he tells them to shut up because he doesn’t want to hear the “noise” of their songs.  That’s a gripping statement that forces you to inspect your life.

I don’t necessarily advocate for a social gospel, but I believe God is passionate about the people he created in his image.  He wants mercy, justice and compassion to be hallmarks of the people he died to redeem.  We’re fairly proficient at singing to God (some of us), but not quite so good at obeying him, and that’s something I really don’t want people to be able to escape when they sing my songs.  If we love him, we’ll obey him.

Bobby Gilles: “My God, My Father” is an early 19th century hymn text that’s often been paired with a tune from the late 17th century. Are you familiar with that tune or any other older tunes for this song? Do you prefer to start with a “clean slate” when composing new music for old hymns, or do you like to listen to older versions and either work off of them or purposefully do something far different?

Stephen Miller: I often keep the popular melody of well-known hymns, because changing it generally proves distracting for people who are already acquainted with the song.  If it’s a lesser-known public domain work, I may change it, but am more likely to use some of the key phrases or lyrics and write a whole new song.

I first heard “My God, My Father” recorded by my friend Joel Brown’s band, Red Letter.  The text was so rich that I couldn’t help but feel it was a song the church should be singing, so I kept the melody and general rhythm, but gave it a more mainstream form and feel and it really connected with the people of The Journey, so I decided to record it.

Bobby Gilles: You wrote the title cut “God & Sinner Reconcile” with two other writers. What did that collaboration look like (in terms of who focused on lyrics, who worked on music, who comes up with initial ideas … that sort of thing)? And is that pretty typical of your co-written songs, with other co-writers? Or is it different each time?

Stephen Miller: In the past, I’ve primarily written solo.  However, with this album, I really wanted to explore some new territory.  I co-wrote 6 of the 11 songs, which was a huge step for me.

With the song “God & Sinner Reconcile,” I had already written both verses when I sat down with a brilliant lyricist named David Moffitt, and we came up with the chorus and bridge together.  We walked out of that writing session and had the lyrics pretty much finished, but it sounded almost pop-country, so I went back to the drawing board on the melody and progression.

Every song is different, but the beauty of working with other writers is that you learn from their strengths and improve where you’re weak, and I think that has happened a lot for me over the last two years.

Bobby Gilles: This couplet in the chorus stands out: “We are wounded by your love/ We are mended by your blood.” How did you come up with that? What did you mean by “We are wounded by your love”?

Stephen Miller: God matures us through loving discipline, which is often painful.  He isn’t a bad Father who just wounds us and then leaves us there; he graciously mends us with his own blood. And through the pain, he forms himself in us.

If I were to spank my children to teach them not to run out into a busy street, it might hurt for a minute or two, but not nearly as badly as the pain of getting hit by oncoming traffic.  Because God loves us and is forming his righteousness in us, we will necessarily experience both the wounding and the mending, so that we might know him more fully and worship him more fittingly.

Bobby Gilles: I love this little thing you do on the three verses in “Close To You”: in each verse you have three long, even lines, and then a final fourth line that’s just very short and punchy. It drives home that last line and thrusts the singers into the chorus. When you’re writing and revising, do you think much about techniques like the varying of line lengths?

Stephen Miller: I really work hard to try to give my songs a unique sound.  With “Close to You” I labored over the lyrics and melody, revising and re-revising, until I finally got it where I wanted it, which took a few months.  I honestly had no idea what God would do with the song, but it has become one of our church’s favorites on the record, and I personally love how it turned out.

Bobby Gilles: “Forever You Reign” presents several apparent dichotomies that end up belonging together, and some of the mysteries of the faith that surprise us, when we really think about them.  For instance: “The Lamb of God who hung the stars/ Hung on a cross …” and in your bridge you write let all the earth “rejoice,” but also “tremble.” What is the benefit in writing and singing these kinds of paradoxes and mysteries?

Headshot of Journey Church Worship Leader Stephen Miller

Worship leader/recording artist Stephen Miller

Stephen Miller: You can’t read five pages of the Bible without encountering a paradox.  Psalm 97 starts out saying “The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice,” and then quickly states that, at his voice, the Earth trembles and mountains melt like wax.

Our God is a good God, but he is also like a hurricane of devastatingly powerful force.  He is to be rejoiced in, but not trifled with.  I really want the church to be thinking of God in these terms.  People tend to gravitate toward one-sided views of God, but that’s highly problematic because then God can’t be loving and wrathful, gracious and just.

The beauty of God is that he is all of these things wrapped up into one infinitely complex mystery and we get to bow before the mystery and say, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).

Bobby Gilles: This line from the pre-chorus also jumped out at me: “You lead us singing to the cross.” It’s a very singable song, in terms of melody, but it’s like the song itself doesn’t allow us to go into a safe mode where we’re just mouthing words – it presents these surprising statements that make us think. Do you labor over word choices, for instance “Maybe I should say ‘groaning’ instead of ‘singing.’ No, that’s not what I’m going for … Maybe I should write ‘dancing’ or ‘shouting.’ No, ‘singing’ is best here”?

Stephen Miller: Song writing is my primary vehicle for training people in right doctrine, and one wrong word can change the entire meaning, shifting something from helpful into heresy.  I take that very seriously, so I really wrangle with word choice.  Another example from “Forever You Reign” is in the first verse we sing, “Hung on a cross, given for us.”  Originally I had written, “broken for us,” but as I reflected more deeply on the phrase, I felt compelled by the passages “This is my body, which is given for you,” (Luke 22:19) and, “not one of his bones will be broken,” (John 19:36) that “given” stayed truer to the Scriptures and communicated what I wanted to say.

I understand that it is quite odd to say, “You lead us singing to the instrument of torture where our Lord was murdered.”  But when you think about the price he paid and the result of his finished work on the cross, namely being that our sins are washed away, how can we not sing?  “Singing” seemed to fit best with the paradoxical theme of the song, which aims to paint a mosaic of the mysterious nature of our King.

Acoustic Tracking of Stephen Miller's God & Sinner Reconcile

See more great photos from the studio at

Bobby Gilles: Your work has a bluntness that sets it apart from a lot of praise & worship music. For instance on “O My Soul,” you’ve got this conversation between the singer and his soul, which the psalms and many old hymn writers often did. In the first verse the singer asks his soul “Why should you whore after idols that fade.”  I can picture people who have maybe grown up in church or been a part of contemporary Christian culture, hearing a line like that and being uncomfortable or embarrassed … maybe even angry. What would you say to someone who felt those things?

Stephen Miller: “O My Soul” is my favorite song on the record, because it is so raw and real.  I certainly felt vulnerable putting that song out there and debated back and forth about whether to change the word “whore” to “run,” “go,” or “chase,” but I really wanted people to feel the gravity of their sin when they sang it; to feel how fleeting and meaningless it is.

This is exactly how God repeatedly called his people who had “played the whore” back to him.  He even had the prophet Hosea marry a prostitute to signify his faithfulness to his adulterous people.  I’d rather make listeners uncomfortable than be dismissive of sin.

Bobby Gilles: Does your role as a worship leader influence the themes in your songwriting? Do you think “As a worship team, we don’t have many songs to choose from that talk about ______, so I’m going to write some songs like that?”

Stephen Miller: In my song writing, I aim to magnify the sovereignty of God and the glory of his grace in every arena of life.  If I perceive an area of neglect, I want to address it in a congregational, doxological way.  “Come & Heal This World” was written because many have a notion that when we die, we become disembodied souls that “fly away” to live in Heaven forever.

But the Bible shows us that Jesus is reconciling all things to himself and making all things new!  He will return and create a new heavens and Earth, where the glory of all nations from all time is brought before his feet and we will worship him for eternity.  This is our great hope in this broken world.

I wrote the song for moments when we feel that aching and longing inside; when we see a tsunami wreck an entire country or an earthquake tear a city to shreds; that the church would have a song to cry out with one voice, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”

Bobby Gilles: Do you primarily write with the hope or expectation that congregations will sing your songs, or do you think “I don’t know if God will mostly use it as a congregational song or as something people will listen to in private, but this is what’s on my heart”?

Stephen Miller: I want the gospel of Jesus Christ to expand as far into the nations as it possibly can through my music, so I definitely write with the global church in mind. Conversely, these songs are inspired by what God is doing in our hearts, through our experiences at The Journey.

It’s always a challenge to write in a congregational-friendly manner while striving to be artistically innovative, and I sometimes have to give up my artistic preference to serve the church, but I think it’s worth it in the end.  The art is subservient to the greater pastoral purpose of connecting people with God, but I am often tempted to make it the master.

There may be a few songs on this album that do not connect corporately, but on the whole, I strive to write in such a way that your average worship leader can take these songs to his local church and they would connect with his people in the same way that I pray they connect with The Journey.

Bobby Gilles: How do you navigate songwriting with all that is going on in your life as a husband, father and staff worship leader at The Journey? How do you find the time?

Stephen Miller: Everyone has the same 24 hours, and makes time for what’s important to them.  I want to honor God with the unique ministry that He is working in and through me.  Songwriting is a huge part of that, and it, like anything you want to do well, takes a lot of practice.  I try to set aside time each day to practice disciplined writing.

It may take a little bit of the romanticism out of it, but I schedule it in, the way I would my workouts or my time in the Scriptures and prayer.  The Journey has also been very gracious in granting each of its worship leaders time to write, for which I’m incredibly grateful, because it allows me to work in my gifting without robbing my family of precious time that they very much need with me – and I with them.

Bobby Gilles: What’s next for you, and what would you like to see happen with God & Sinner Reconcile?

Stephen Miller: It may seem audacious, but I would love to see God bless this work and churches all over the world begin singing the gospel truths in God & Sinner Reconcile.

God willing, my band and I would like to release a hymns EP this Spring and possibly a full length Christmas album late this year.  I’ve also been working with Kinsey, my 8-year-old daughter, on a kid’s worship project, which has been a ton of fun.  She is brilliant and I’m really excited to see what we come up with.

Finally, my wife and I are also plotting to release some music together this year, which is very cool because, in addition to being an amazing mom and wife, she is an incredibly gifted, classically trained pianist and vocalist who sang a good bit on God & Sinner Reconcile.  I honestly can’t wait to see what God has in store for 2012 at The Journey and beyond.

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