The Austin Stone’s Aaron Ivey Discusses Worship, Hymns, Songwriting

by Bobby Gilles

in Interviews,Songwriting/Hymn Workshop,Worship Leading

Austin Stone Live worship album coverThe world knows Austin, Texas for its eclectic culture, support of the arts and its compelling, grass roots music. And God’s mission is advancing in Austin through a church community called The Austin Stone. Music is a part of that mission in Austin as it is everywhere, and The Austin Stone’s Worship Pastor Aaron Ivey leads a community of artists that are giving the Church theologically rich, passionate new songs. They’re also bringing new awareness to old hymn texts.

Austin Stone Worship released a new live record recently (preview and buy Austin Stone Live on iTunes here). And not only contains chord charts for each song, but also helpful videos and documents that tell you the story and theology behind each song, and instructions for playing on guitar, keys and drums.

Join me for my interview with Aaron Ivey. You’ll learn about his innovative, world-wide songwriting challenge 7in7, as well as his thoughts on the songwriting process, collaboration, hymns, leading congregations in song, and more:

Bobby Gilles: “God Undefeatable” (the first song on Austin Stone Live) contains such symmetrical, metrically precise lines (like hymns). Is this something you work at consciously as a songwriter? Do you edit and prune your lines?

Aaron Ivey: I have always had a love and deep appreciation for hymn-writers. The good hymns have such a profound way of combining strong theology with simple, yet precise phrasing in the lines. As a songwriter, I have definitely been influenced by that sense of lyrical rhythm. Some songs require a lot of editing, but this particular song seemed to flow fairly naturally in the writing process.

Bobby Gilles: I love how you handled the juxtaposition of God’s power and mercy in this song. Did you set out to show us these two attributes or did you ever think, “Wait, maybe we should just make this song be about one of those things, and write another song about the other”?

AUSTIN STONE ALBUM RELEASE from Phillip Glickman on Vimeo.

Aaron Ivey: We wrote the song with the idea of singing of both the mercy and the justice of God. These are two attributes of God’s character that have always intrigued, challenged, and inspired me. He is a fierce lover. He is a merciful judge. It’s the combination of what seems like opposing attributes that illuminate the grandness of God. As a pastor to my people here in Austin, I want to make sure we are balanced in our response to God, praising Him for both His mercy and power.

Bobby Gilles: “Love Shines” is also so singable, in part because of the tight Common hymn meter, like “Amazing Grace” or “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed.” And I particularly like the way you portrayed Jesus’ identification with us and how he took our punishment upon himself in v. 2:

“The Savior wept my every tear/ He groaned that I might sing
My thorny crown upon His head/ My cross, His suffering

Again, you’re setting things at juxtaposition and showing us their relation (“groaning” and “singing”), and sharing the wonder of a sinless king who willingly suffers as a sinner. It’s all very intricate, but then you go to a very simple chorus:

“Love shines, love shines at Calvary, Calvary “

What’s the purpose of doing this?

Aaron Ivey on guitar, from Austin Stone Live recording. Photo by Phillip Glickman

Aaron Ivey, from Austin Stone Live CD Release.

Aaron Ivey: The idea for this song came from a Valley of Vision prayer entitled, “Love Lustres At Calvary.” Every since I stumbled across the Valley of Vision (a collection of Puritan prayers from the 18th and 19th century), I have been mesmerized by the way in which they describe the gospel. Other than scripture, there’s probably not another book that has stirred my affections for Jesus more. I have been inspired by the content of their prayers as well as the way in which they articulate them.

So, with this song, my co-writing friend Philip Edsel and I wanted to uphold the integrity of the Puritan prayer in the verses with intricate, hymn-like, and weighty lyrics. But, we also wanted the congregation to be able to belt out an anthemic and simple chorus celebrating the truths of the gospel. Since the verses were a little more complex in content, we felt like the chorus called for simplicity.

Bobby Gilles: “Love Shines” is also a folk ballad in the traditional sense – you tell a story in linear fashion, from the cross to the resurrection. When you write and when you choose songs as a worship leader, do you often think in terms of “Story”?

Aaron Ivey: Honestly, if I weren’t a songwriter I would want to be an author. (Or a chef, but that’s a different story!) I absolutely love the concept of storytelling. Recently, the gospel has taken on such a richer meaning to me, as I’ve been able to view the history of redemption through the lense of “story.” I am moved by songs that are written with a sense of story, so naturally that shapes the way I view songwriting. When leading worship, we do try to craft the order and flow in a linear fashion as well. Songs should, in a sense, be married to the sermon and general direction of that worship service.

Viewing it this way has helped me craft worship sets with a sense of storytelling and movement.

Bobby Gilles: Whose idea was it to use the “wind/fire/rain” elements in “Praise To The Lord”? It’s a great use of metaphors that are scriptural but also very sensory.

Worship band of The Austin Stone, leading songs during Austin Stone Live recordingAaron Ivey: “Praise To The Lord” was written during a co-writing session with my friend, Logan Garza. He has a great ability of conveying imagery with very simple words, and he did a great job helping to craft these verses.

As we were reading the Psalms, we reflected on the goodness and sureness of God, and the amazing truth that the hold of Jesus is unwavering. Regardless of what comes our way, the mercy and grace of Jesus sustains and holds us. The chorus took on this triumphant and boisterous sort of feel with lyrics such as “you are the hope of my soul….praise to the Lord,” so we wanted the verses to carry very intimate and close metaphors, such as “wind, fire, rain, broken, story, sewn, etc.”

Bobby Gilles: “Hallelujah, What A Savior” is another song with a good chronological story progression. And this one is an adaptation of an older hymn. Can you talk a bit about the different challenges arising from working with old hymn texts, as compared to writing original lyrics?

Aaron Ivey: I grew up singing hymns, and I’ve always had mixed feelings. On one hand,the best hymns are those that are vibrant and rich in theology, yet there are many of those that have words and phrases that are difficult for congregations to wrap their hands around. The biggest challenge I’ve found in re-working hymns has been balancing the desire to stay true to the ancient integrity of the original hymn, while also valuing accessibility and singability for my congregation.

Sometimes, those seem like two opposing values, so I try to keep some of the more important things constantly in check:

  1. Can our people connect with the lyrics, using them in their response to the Holy Spirit’s moving?
  2. Are the lyrics theologically accurate?
  3. Does the melody and arrangement act as a vehicle to allow the heart’s response to soar?

Bobby Gilles: “Let Your Kingdom Come” is a great song of social justice, as well as praise. Why do you think we don’t have more praise and worship songs in the church that speak of God’s commands to care for the orphan, the imprisoned, the sick?

Worshipers at the Austin Stone Live CD release

Worshipers at the Austin Stone Live CD release

Aaron Ivey: There are a few reasons, I think. Number one, these songs are very difficult to write. They must come from a place of experience and obedience, not just a place of theory or imagination.

Number two, these songs are very difficult to sing, especially in attractional churches. It’s a bit easier for people (myself included) to sing songs celebrating God’s love or His faithfulness. But it’s much more difficult to sing songs centered on our absolute surrender and obedience to care for the broken, impoverished, and neglected.

As a songwriters and worship leaders, our goal should be to constantly be more in love with Jesus and challenged by the Word, to practice obedience, and as an overflow of that to write and lead songs that are a result of that experience. My prayer is that the Church would have many more songs that speak of this difficult theme.

Bobby Gilles: Speaking as a worship pastor, when would typically be a good time to sing a song like this in a worship service.

Aaron Ivey: Songs like this fit well as a response to sermons that deal specifically with these themes of justice, action, and mission.

Bobby Gilles: Tell me about the 7in7 songwriting challenge. Will you continue to do this in the future? Do you have any plans in place to make more songwriters outside of Austin aware of it?

Aaron Ivey: 7in7 (#7in7 hashtag on Twitter) started a few years ago as a simple challenge with me and a few songwriting friends here in Austin. I had read an incredible book, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. It’s one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read concerning the discipline of being an artist.

One idea this book really pressed was that to be a legitimate artist, it required the discipline of waking up every day and practicing that art. So, I asked a few friends to join me in a challenge to write one song every day for seven days. Then, on the eighth day, we all met and shared one song with the group. There were around 12 of us, and it was such a fruitful and encouraging time.

Over the past three years, I’ve organized two per year, and the numbers of participants keep growing. This last Fall’s 7in7, we had about 350 songwriters from all over the country, taking the challenge to face a blank page every morning and write seven songs in seven days.

I would love to make more aware of it. The challenge is a benefit for any songwriter, whether amateur of professional.

Bobby Gilles: How have you encouraged and grown your songwriting community at The Austin Stone? There seems to be such a sense of collaboration. How did that come about?

Part of The Austin Stone's worship arts community

Part of The Austin Stone's worship arts community

Aaron Ivey: I’ve been sharpened immensely by simply being surrounded by a team of people that are great at what they do. As a pastoral staff, we spend a vast amount of time planning sermon themes, Sunday worship services, song selections, and songwriting. I’ve found that as I’ve been more engaging with my theologian friends on staff at The Stone, the quality of my songwriting has increased. Writing songs with my pastor, Matt Carter, has been such a rich experience for both of us, and has allowed for so many more songs to surface that connect with the people we’ve been entrusted to lead.

We’ve also worked very intently to build a culture of family between worship leaders and bands here at The Austin Stone. I’ve never been in a place where there’s more of a sense of shared vision for being a church for the city of Austin. We haven’t really aimed for collaboration. We’ve really just aimed for being lovers of Jesus, and a community of leaders and writers that serve our church and city well. And the result of that aim has been collaboration.

I’m thrilled for our community here at The Austin Stone, and I’m grateful that God would grant us the opportunity to write songs that our people can sing.

Photography from Austin Stone Live worship recording, taken by Phillip Glickman. Photos in Austin Stone Live video by Phillip Glickman and Daniel Davis.

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