Mars Hill Pastor/Kenosis Leader Joel Brown On Worship, Writing & Hymns

by Bobby Gilles

in Interviews,Songwriting/Hymn Workshop,Worship Leading

Publicity photo for Kenosis, the Mars Hill Church worship band led by Pastor Joel Brown

Kenosis band photo (Joel Brown, center)

I love adding to our lineup of Interview features at My Song In The Night, and I have a great one for you today. I’m talking with Pastor Joel Brown of Mars Hill Church. Besides being a pastor, Joel is a worship leader, songwriter, musician, and the leader of Kenosis, the worship band that leads at Mars Hill’s Ballard campus. Joel formerly led the band Red Letter.

Here, we talk about the music on Kenosis’ new EP Depth of Mercy, as well as hymn re-writing, song arranging, the concept of worship “bands” rather than worship “teams,” and more. You can also hear songs from Depths of Mercy by Kenosis, which is available for just $3.

Bobby Gilles: When you’re essentially rewriting a classic like Charles Wesley’s “Depths Of Mercy” or Isaac Watts’s “I Sing The Mighty Power Of God,” how do you go about it? Do you spend some time with the original or standard melody? Or is it better if you either didn’t even know the standard melody or you can strip it from your mind?

Joel Brown: I’ve only re-written a few hymns in my day (“My God, My Father,” “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” and “Depth of Mercy”). My usual focus tends to be on writing original tunes and lyrics, so “Depth of Mercy” was a stretch for me. I did listen to the original melody, because for me it was more about making those amazing words come alive than creating something new. I believe two things are really important with a hymn re-write:

  1. Is the song’s melody already widely established, having stood the test of time? If so, it should remain.
  2. Is it a strong melody that translates well to modern music? If so, improving upon it will be next to impossible.

Out of Charles Wesley’s 6,000 hymns, “Depth of Mercy” isn’t very widely known today (like, say, “And Can It Be”), and when I listened to a variety of melodies for the song, there weren’t any that I connected with on an emotional level.

The words are HEAVY. We see the reality of how grotesque our sin is, but also the contrasting beauty of the crucifixion – it’s where we are met with mercy sufficient to restore us to the God we’ve sinned against:

I my Master have denied,
I afresh have crucified,
And profaned His hallowed Name,
Put Him to an open shame.
There for me the Savior stands,
Shows His wounds and spreads His hands.
God is love! I know, I feel:
Jesus weeps and loves me still.

All that to say, I was looking for a melody that plunges the depths (no pun intended) of where these words take us emotionally, and I wasn’t able to find it.

So I ended up toying with about 5-10 different melody ideas of my own (recorded via voice memo on my phone during my commute) until I landed on this pseudo-blues vibe that finally connected the dots for me.

Bobby Gilles: In some church circles it is becoming fashionable to find old hymns and either write a new melody or revise them. But “old” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” What do you look for in a hymn? How do you decide between “This is a forgotten gem” and “This didn’t stand the test of time because it wasn’t as good as other songs by this hymn writer?”

Joel Brown: That’s so true. I think in a many cases hymns are forgotten because they’re so forgettable. Even today there’s such a small ratio of great songs versus number of songs written, which makes it easy to imagine that history acts as a refinery for allowing the best hymns to rise to the surface and be handed down through generations. The Church will probably still be singing “Amazing Grace” in 100 years, but they’ll also be singing “How Great Thou Art” and “In Christ Alone.” Only a slim few will make it.

As far as finding old texts goes, this is a pretty subjective process for me. I usually read through old hymnals or wander around online (!) until something pops out as beautiful or powerful. But in the case of the texts I’ve actually used to complete a re-write, I heard of them through friends who have brought them to my attention. For me it’s a lot like discovering a new artist or band, it’s all about word of mouth.

Bobby Gilles: How do you decide to reshape the lyrics, in terms of leaving a verse or more out, revising some of the words or altering the meter?

Joel Brown: Truth be told, I’m a songwriting hack. I don’t have a ton contributing to my know-how, other than practice. Lyrics never come easy for me when writing an original tune, so when re-writing a hymn I’m excited to have a far better starting ground than I’m used to having when joining my own text and music.

In thinking about modernizing, the main thing with hymn song structure that is very different from songwriting today is the verse-chorus-bridge kind of composure. Hymns tend to be repeated verses without a refrain – and rarely do you see a bridge. So one thing that I try to do is add a refrain or bridge section to the verses as a sort of summation of what’s being said in the rest of the text. This is the only part of the original text I messed with on “Depth of Mercy.”

Bobby Gilles: The lyric adaptation of “Depth Of Mercy” is very interesting. You’ve got Wesley’s 18th century lyrics, then a very simple, plaintive cry on the chorus – words even a child understands like “forgive me/I’m sorry.”

What was your thought process for the abrupt shift in lyrical tone? And why did you decide to arrange Wesley’s “Now incline me to repent” verse as a second chorus?

Kenosis' drummer Jordan Butcher designed the Depths of Mercy album cover, pictured here

Kenosis' drummer Jordan Butcher designed the Depths of Mercy album cover

Joel Brown: Ha! It’s interesting that you noticed that. As I said before, I’m a hack.

I spent a ton of time trying to make the ‘There for me the savior stands…’ verse the chorus, when I stumbled upon this other melody which came out as a totally different meter than the verse. At that point I realized the ‘Now incline me to repent…’ verse would adapt to my new meter more easily.

But it wasn’t just a musical decision. What I wanted to accomplish was to further personalize and simplify a very formally written lyric and bring it home as a prayer for God to change us. So often we’re prone to sit in the grief over our sin (2 Corinthians 7:10), but repentance doesn’t remain there. God meets us there with kindness (Romans 2:4), which leads us to action.

Bobby Gilles: Kenosis is one of several Mars Hill worship bands. For people unfamiliar with the difference between these bands and the typical worship team format of many contemporary churches, can you explain? Why do you have a name like “Kenosis” rather than “Mars Hill Ballard worship team” for instance?

Joel Brown: Essentially since the beginning of Mars Hill, we have run our worship teams on a more band-focused model. Initially this wasn’t an intentional decision. When you take a bunch of recently converted local musicians and ask them to lead the music, they just do what they know, and what they knew was how to play in a band and write songs about what they were experiencing.

While it’s not the only way we structure things today at Mars Hill, we do see a lot of benefits to leading this way. If your musicians are experienced, arrangements have the potential to be more dialed in and uniquely tailored to a specific church or location. Though the word is overly used today, this can sometimes help music to have a more missional intentionality. The band then is ministering to a specific people at a specific time and place rather than strictly playing covers of music that someone else created somewhere else for someone else.

We use band names to bring distinction to who we’re talking about. In some ways it can look like it’s meant to draw attention to the ‘artist’ and off of Jesus or the songs to Him, but it’s honestly more of a practical thing than anything else.

Bobby Gilles: Do you all arrange songs together? How do you ensure everyone’s opinion is heard? Or are some members of the band naturally more inclined to arrange, and the rest content to play whatever arrangement you work out?

Joel Brown: As is the case with the band model outside of the church, this totally depends on the band. We designate band leaders (essentially the worship leader in most cases) and they are deacons or elders in our church leadership. Sometimes the band leader will appoint a ‘producer’ or musical director in their band, and sometimes they will do the arranging themselves.

In the case of Kenosis, I like to approach music from a producer’s perspective, so I function like a musical director of sorts. That said, one of my favorite aspects of music is creating with other people. I love the way different people’s influences and interpretations can shape a vision I might have for a song, and everyone has a chance to add their ‘ingredients’ to the proverbial recipe. I just end up being the guy who decides what makes it in the cake at the end.

Bobby Gilles: You’ve got the most rocking version of “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us” I’ve ever heard. Do you know if Stuart Townend has heard your arrangement?

Joel Brown: Ha! Thanks man. It’d be cool to hear what he thinks of it. I love his songs and it’s great to see what God is doing in his church.

Bobby Gilles: Do you feel a different kind of pressure when you’re working with a song by a living writer like Townend or Julie Miller than with an old text?

Joel Brown: You know, I probably should, but I don’t. I guess I just figure no one will ever hear my version of their song!

A few years ago we wrote to Julie Miller’s management to see if we could post free downloads of our versions of her song on our website. I heard they responded with an ‘Uh, yeah, whatever’. It seemed as if we were a bunch of kids asking their distracted parents’ permission to use the toilet.

Bobby Gilles: Mars Hill seems to produce so much cool graphic art. What can you tell us about the cover art for the Depth Of Mercy EP? Did someone in the band do the graphics? If not did you provide direction or just tell the artist, “Give us something great?”

Joel Brown: Amen to that. God has blessed us to have an incredibly gifted arts department. Kenosis’ drummer, Jordan Butcher, is a Grammy nominated designer with years of experience designing covers for bands on Tooth and Nail Records (among many others). When we were working on this EP, it was a no brainer to ask him to do it.

I had worked with him on the Red Letter LP’s art, where I had a very specific idea for what I wanted. In this case my approach was completely hands-off. He killed it!

Bobby Gilles: What goals do you have for Kenosis? Besides leading worship weekly at the Ballard campus, do you intend to do more recording or go on tour?

Joel Brown: I’m currently transitioning to a similar staff role at our Downtown Seattle location, and I plan on continuing to lead worship there. There will no doubt be some lineup changes, but I plan on still calling the band Kenosis. As far as plans, I hope to continue to write and record Jesus songs to bless the local church and, lord willing the capital ‘C’ church.

There’s been some fruit in doing benefit concerts at bars around town and I want to continue to do those – to raise money and awareness for local issues such as sex trafficking, AIDS, or homelessness. We’ve also apparently been asked to play a big Christian music festival in Washington state this summer.

I’ve done the touring thing before and gotten it out of my system, so as of right now that doesn’t have any appeal to me. It’s incredibly complicated for my band members as well since none of us have aspirations of our church band ‘taking off’. I’ve also got a wonderful wife and three kids, and I love being at home with them!

My biggest goal as a worship pastor and band leader is to be faithful to the God who has been so faithful to me. That’s often going to be in the small things that he affords me now, though I’m always amazed that he uses me in the way he does and constantly shows his power in my weakness, multiplying my efforts and reaching more people than I could ever hope to. I’m very thankful…

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