A Conversation with Dustin Kensrue of Thrice about Worship

You probably know Dustin Kensrue as the frontman and songwriter for the band Thrice, a post-hardcore/rock band from Orange County, CA, who has sold over a million records over their fifteen-year career.  Kensrue is known for being a great songwriter who is outspoken about his Christian faith in his lyrics while existing primarily as an artist in the general market.  Recently, Dustin found himself making a decision to do something he never imagined he would: back-burner rock n’ roll in favor of becoming a full-time worship leader.  The following is a discussion with Dustin on the subject of worship, specifically as it relates to guys… 

Schwab: Hey man, good to catch up with you.  I’d like to look into a topic that I know is near to both of our hearts, yet is one that seems to be an area of frustration, confusion, and even awkwardness for many guys today.  It seems like many of us have a difficult time “connecting” to the concept of worship in song, especially in church services.  Go to most churches and you see guys with their arms crossed, staring blankly, waiting for the music to end and the pastor to begin.  This is a problem.  What I want to discuss is the why and the how…why is this part of church so difficult for us, and how can we do something about it, both as individuals and on a “corporate” scale.  Before we discuss, tell everyone a little bit about your background as a Christian, and how you moved from full-time touring band to full-time worship leader.

Kensrue: I grew up in the church as a kid who thought he had all the answers.  I studied Christianity over the years, and could defend my faith, but really it was a faith in my own reason and knowledge, in many ways.  Then, I woke up one day and realized I just wasn’t capable of having all the answers.  And it really freaked me out.  It made me realize I didn’t really understand faith at all.  When the Bible talks about the word “faith” it is really referring to trust, not in your own knowledge, but in the person of God.  The world divides faith and reason, but the Bible really describes faith in Christ as a trust for good reason.  God has given us a myriad of reasons that we can trust that He is who is says He is and will do what He promises to do.  After a couple of dark years of confusion in my early 20’s, I made that connection, which was when I really came to trust God.

As far as my role as a worship leader…I actually said at one point that I would never be one because I was so turned off by a lot of what I saw in that world which seemed to be focus on the self more than on God, and on what we do rather than what He has done.  I saw a total disengagement with culture at large; either the church was 20 years behind or completely trying to rip things out of the present culture in an attempt to “make it Christian.”  But God started working on my heart and basically started telling me I’ve trained you to approach this differently.  I played music in the secular world for years.  I have a brain that works more analytically, and I am very interested in theology.  He gave me a heart and gifts to try to attack this thing, hopefully, in a unique way.  That, combined with having my third kid, it really felt like I was being led away from being in a full-time touring band.

Schwab: I actually came to faith not in a church but at a house with some peers late in high school.  It was through singing songs in worship that I met Jesus for the first time, and it was the most powerful spiritual experience of my life.  To me, as a young Christian, worship music was my primary connection to God.  Participating with a group of my peers who were willing to give up their Friday nights to willingly get together to be the church was inspiring.  For some reason, however I have always had a more difficult time finding that same connection in a church service. Today I know several guys who have a similar problem.  We want to connect, to have a spiritual experience and connection but we feel self-conscious.  We also feel like worship in church is kind of…lame and awkward.  And as a result, many of us seem to have the musical part of “presenting our bodies as living sacrifices” cut off.  Have you experienced this as a worship leader?  And do you think there are reasons for this?

Kensrue: Yes.  I think it was Harold Best who said, “We were made worshipping.”  Meaning, God pours himself into his creation, and we are made in His image, so we are also constant “outpourers.”  We can’t help it.  We constantly outpour ourselves in all things…which is why we so easily worship other things than God.  You see this in people creating idols…sex, sports, etc. whatever our given areas of emphasis.  We have to start by asking ourselves…what do I actually worship?  We are distracted by all these petty things around us who garner our “outpouring.”  That’s why we have to be conscious of orienting ourselves to who God actually is and why He is worthy of all of our worship. There is no reason for the church to exist or function without a proper view of who God is, or who/ what it is that we worship.  We have to start there, or we will feel awkward about trying to sing to Him.

I also think men in particular have a problem engaging with corporate worship because our culture is not a singing culture.  This has a lot to do with the age of our nation.  You see other cultures “sing” regularly.  In Europe, for example, people sing passionately together at soccer games, at pubs, etc.  America has really lost that as a part of our culture.  The only places where it even shows up are at a concerts or at churches. Now, At a concert its natural because you are excited to see a band you love.  There is value in the experience, so you are more than willing to “pour yourself out” there.  But many times at church we come in with the wrong mindset…which ties into what I said before about having the proper perspective about who God is.

The second reason is that there is generally an effeminate nature to a lot of the worship music in western culture.

Schwab:  Hahaha!  I agree!

Kensrue: Ha, It’s probably not a very popular thing to talk about…

Schwab: No, but it needs to be said.

Kensrue: Just do be clear:  It’s not in any way that I think women shouldn’t lead worship.  I think the problem is mostly with men in that role.

Schwab: The cliché’ about the metro worship pastor at the megachurch exists for a reason.

Kensrue: There’s just not a robustness, a strength, portrayed.  It’s not just in the way worship is executed, but in the way we approach church building in general…the whole church culture.  So when most men walk into a church worship service, they feel alienated and that’s not their fault.  It the church’s fault not leading well in those ways.  Especially when you consider that research shows if the dad/husband in a particular family comes to faith, the chances of the whole family getting saved is many times greater than if the wife/mother does.  When you are thinking about worship that is missional, that is going to affect change in seeing men coming to church to lead their families as well…the thought of that should have big implications on our approach to worship.

So you can see the picture here: We don’t know who God is or at least we aren’t approaching church with a proper perspective of who He is.  There is an embarrassment because our culture isn’t one that sings.  The music is not current.  And the approach to worship (and church in general) is effeminate in the lyrics as well as the music. 

Schwab:  I think of David as a great example of not just a man after God’s own heart, but as someone from whom we can glean many answers regarding worship.  He wrote many of the Psalms.  We was a vulnerable, passionate lyricist, songwriter, and musician.  But he also drank the blood of giants and led armies.  Do you think it’s possible he holds the key for many of us to get in touch with the vulnerable parts of us that absolutely need to connect with God in an intimate way, while still being masculine?

Kensrue:  I think our best template for worship was when the ark was being carried back to Jerusalem.  David was dancing in front of it, and he was not caring about what people were thinking about him.  He was not caring that he was wearing shabby clothing, which was not befitting a king.  His basic sentiment is I am happy to be humbled and humiliated for the glory of God.  He is saying I am not what is actually important here.  We have to strive toward freedom and self-forgetfulness in our response to God. You know, the voice that says, “What are other people going to think of me?”  We just have to get out of that head space.  And there is joy to found in that self-forgetfulness.

When you read David’s story you see this picture of him where, in everything, he is worshipping.  Both his role as poet and warrior were connected to his relationship with his Father.  He was turned Godward with everything in his actions and thoughts.  When he was down he looked to God to try to see Him in his circumstance.  When he was up he was looking at God to thank Him.  When he was going into battle he is looking for God to go before him, realizing it is not his fight, but God’s fight.  He worshipped even when he questioned God…as in, when he didn’t understand what God was doing.  David understood his place before Him very well.

By the way, I think reading the Psalms is great for guys who are having problems getting in touch with Him through worship in song.

Schwab: Music itself is an incredible gift and a mysterious medium.  For example, have you ever seen any of the YouTube videos of the use of music therapy for people who have experienced strokes, brain trauma, dementia, autism, etc?  I just pulled up a couple today (you can check them out here and here)  One involves a college professor who had a stroke and completely lost his ability to speak.  Through music therapy he recovered almost completely even though doctors told him he would never talk again. To me this shows how powerful the affect music has on mind, body and soul.  As a worship leader and musician do you ever just reflect on the power of this medium, which God created, and you operate in?

Kensrue:  Music is very powerful, especially when we sing songs together.  We are essentially praying in unison using this gift of melody through a means that affects us in a strange way.  More than that, singing is a way to move head knowledge into your heart, and a way to make concepts become realities in your life.  Because singing is an act of submission, it’s a way to move concepts about God into a place in our lives where it impacts the way we live.

Schwab: I know I can speak for a lot of guys out there who have difficulty finding worship music that they can relate to.  Of course, there are some good rock bands out there made up of Christians, but when it come to actual worship music, it’s very hard to find many options with substance or quality that I connect with.  It’s actually pretty frustrating.  Or maybe I am just looking in the wrong places?  Do you have some songs and/or songwriters that you might share for anyone looking for some decent worship music?

Kensrue: I am in the exact same boat.  It is so frustrating.  I wish I had an answer, but it evades me as well.  I know that sucks.  I am trying to play more original music and/or rearrangements for that reason.  A lot of the stuff I encounter is just cheesy or bad theology and I am always hoping someone will give me a list as well.  Citizens new record is very good.  Ghost ship is another record that is coming soon.  I am coming out with a worship record in a few months under my own name.

I think the point is we, as a church, have to take responsibility to make a shift with how we approach our music.  It can be great artistically as well as experientially if we approach it with the right motives-which is to respond honestly to a God who is so much more amazing than we are.

Schwab: I appreciate you sharing these thoughts.  In my opinion, it’s fear that keeps us from encountering God in a way that changes our lives.  When you are willing to let go of whatever you are afraid of…looking stupid, or encountering the unknown, or even a less-than-perfect singing voice, God will meet you and you will find His presence in a brand new way.  God gave us music as more than just a medium to appreciate songs and art…it is actually our heart’s language.  The act of singing music involves mind, emotion, heart and spirit.  You can have a good prayer life, know scripture, partake in sacraments, and attend church, but without worship we are missing perhaps the most important part of the equation.  It is prayer in song. 

You can read more from Dustin from following him on Twitter here.

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About Andrew Schwab

Andrew Schwab is the author of five books and has written for publications which include Relevant Magazine, Time/Life, HM, CCM, and Alternative Press. He has spoken at over two hundred festivals, conferences, churches, schools, and fellowships all over the world. His band, Project 86, has sold nearly 500,000 albums worldwide.

  • David

    I just want to say that I grew up listening to both of you (now 27) and I am in the same boat as far as finding music I can relate to and understand. I’ve always loved old hymns because they have an almost majestic feeling to them, as well as more powerful lyrics (to me anyway).

    It becomes a sort of reason I find myself wanting to miss church or just go in after worship. I don’t want to think that way but it happens none the less.

    I feel so passionately about music in general I write my own, and I can very much tell you that I have never met someone who enjoyed or even heard of “Christian Drone Metal”. And I am continuing to write anything that comes to mind so that I can share it with those who aren’t Christian or to anyone I may not have met that enjoys or would worship with it.

    Finally, I just want to say thank you for your encouraging words and music over the years. Even now as I write this in a downtrodden state feel uplifted to continue my walk with Christ.

  • Matias

    Really interesting
    what do I actually worship? is the question that i never do, What are other people going to think of me? i always think about it. Maybe i have to change a couple of things in my life … :D
    regards from Chile

  • http://www.comunidadextrema.tk Maribel

    i have read the interview. I’m from bolivia where churchs judge joung people that wear black clothes, they say that u are satanist. here only are 2 churchs that try to rescue people like me. but i have seen that the member of our churchs does not change the way of living they have, they are still with their addictions with drugs, sex etc. Most of them want to be part of a christian hard core, metal band. but they dont even try to read the bible…and It seems that we were playing with god. i dont know what to do.
    I met a boy there who has really a awful past. but when he prays the presence of god is there. but he always look back…

  • Jay Potter

    Interesting that he brought up Citizens (a band from the same church organization he is doing music/worship) the lead singer is about as effeminate as one could get and still be “in” the church. Not to mention that the Bowie/Devo ripoff is going to be listened to by a mostly gay male audience that Kensrue’s pastor would lambast on Twitter (and has).

    I’m also really sad that coming from two of my favorite musicians (at least in posterity) that you both would miss pointing out Gungor and John Mark McMillan as strong male leads within church (worship) music. They may be different musically from you two, but they are the ones leading the charge in effective missional music that has a very deep and wide audience. When it comes to leading my church service in music, I’ll pick from Gungor and JMM before anything from mars hill or citizens.

    • Jay Potter

      Did a deeper search for Citizens Mars Hill and the band Citizens that I knew of is different than the one he was talking about (maybe something they should look into…)

      Sorry for my confusion. Still quite disappointed by the music out of MH nonetheless, DK included.

  • Rick

    Well, I am one of those guys who stands there with his arms crossed, waiting for the sermon to begin. Perhaps Dustin should get to understand us rather than hoping we would wave our arms around like teen girls at a Katy Perry show. I’m certainly not someone who dislikes music; I’ve been to plenty of secular rock shows (Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tom Petty) and I spend money on more contemporary bands like Wilco and the White Stripes. But the praise service on Sunday mornings just leaves me cold; I don’t know if its the bland nature of Christian music or what, but man, it’s an endurance test. About 20 years ago, praise leaders decided that having the congregation stand, and remain standing, for 30 straight minutes was a great idea. And from Dustin’s comments, it is apparent that the worship leader is scanning the crowd to see who’s awesome and who’s a dullard (I’ve always suspected they were judging us, and now I know). Somehow, the Tom Petty’s of the world aren’t demanding that we stand and clap for every song; it’s enough that they are performing well, and we are sitting there taking it in. Everyone goes home happy.

    I think the shift to contemporary music has left people confused. In the hymn book days, we could sing along to songs we were familiar with, and we could sing songs that were written with a crowd in mind. Now we face a rock band, and we sing songs that are often written as pop tracks, for one voice. The idea of a rock band is that 5 people who are technically excellent will perform songs for a crowd of thousands, who listen attentively and then applaud. If you’ve ever been to a rock show and the band has a sing-along part (the lead singer points the mic to the crowd and asks them to provide the chorus to the band’s most popular song), you know how sloppy and goofy that part of the show is. Yet that’s what praise bands kind of ask us to do, every Sunday. If the praise band is going to look like a pop band (guitars, drums, lead singer, bass, bad goatee, frosted tips), then just go with that and stop asking the crowd to join in and gyrate in order to prove our enthusiasm.

  • http://adamandjeremy.blogspot.com jeremy melberg

    Glorious Unseen are good too, plus JMM and Gungor….some needtobreathe stuff.
    my favorite music genre…ska/punk rock. if our church band switched to that, I would be stoked! That’s missing the point, though. i dont think you’ll ever find a music genre that makes everyone completely happy.
    Me and maybe three other people in my church of 1,000 would be happy about a ska/punk rock song style. it would create a stumbling block for all the other people who would be totally distracted by the style change. Why should i expect everyone to connect to a music genre that I like the most?
    I think if you realize what is really happening in a direct worship exchange with God like “prayer through song”, you’ll find it doesn’t matter the song style. This goes back to what Kensrue was saying about what are we actually worshiping.
    If you’re willing to share a moment with God in a corporate setting, then you’de come to realize it’s not about you or your music preference, or the band, or even what the people around you are doing. If you’re not willing to engage in corporate worship, then you’re missing something fundamental that God has given us in our relationship with Him, but that’s your freedom to do so.
    Get over yourself, and just show Yahweh that you love Him. However you do that is between you and Holy Spirit.

  • morris

    how about Josh Garrels, he has a pretty masculine voice and his lyrics are solid. The band Young Oceans is a new find that I find pretty good and has a non linear sound. Them guys at the Come&Live label have some decent worship stuff too. For lovers of Hip-Hop, Beautiful Eulogy from Humble Beast is the closest I can think of, their music just makes me see more of God’s greatness. Truthfully, I think it at the end of the day, the genre or the setting or music preference plays little importance. It really just depends on the worshippers with the song on who it’s directed to. I guess worship is just about giving God the praise and glory that He deserves and taking your time to uplift your Spirit to an intimate moment with Him. If I didn’t come to know Christ, I’d probably be really put off by the church services in general, well that’s what happened when I didn’t know Him. I guess there is really a difference when you mean every word of the song (worship in this case) that you sing and you actually know personnaly the One that you’re singing too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/christopherdaleschriver Christopher Dale Schriver

    Wow! I’m really sorry that neither of you could name a good MANLY worship artist. Obviously both of you qualify. Recently I started searching for deep, meaningful, God-directed, worshipful, songs by bands I like in the style of music that I like. Top band on that list has to be Sleeping Giant! Tithemi and Oh Praise Him are my two top favorites. This came about because I too play for a worship band and tire of the same thing every week. I love the lyrics and the God we praise…but Hillsong is not my cup of tea. So I made a list of songs (that is still growing to this day) that, word wise, would make it to the set list for my college chapel worship or even Sunday morning church. Word wise, it has to be glorifying to God. Not “Oh woe is me, I am a sinner and I screw up.” But “God, You alone are Holy, Holy, Holy.”
    Becoming the Archetype did something right when they arranged a classic hymn, How Great Thou Art. Can’t go wrong with hymns! We have at least one in every chapel and one for church.
    The Gospel is a good place to go for lyrics as well, Demon Hunter’s “The Gauntlet” is a beautiful picture of Jesus in the garden (much like Third Day’s “Carry My Cross”). “I Play Dead” also points to Jesus’ gift of redemption in the second verse “Two broken hands lift seven wounds and fight to stand to keep the lungs from caving.” And I can’t mention Demon Hunter without saying “Undying!” Classic song about Christian brotherhood. “Fire to My Soul” and “Infected” get honorable mention.
    Pillar, Disciple, Red and Decyfer Down all write fantastic music pointing towards God. Disciple’s “Chapel-worthy” song has got to be “Savior” plain and simple. Decyfer Down has my favorite song, “Desperate” expressing our need for God. Pillar is so desperate that they sing “Whatever it Takes.”
    My new favorite hardcore worship band is Hands. Their album “Creator” is amazing (that’s the only one I have right now) fantastic words! “Robed in Majesty” all about God!
    And the reason that baffled me the most that you couldn’t even drop it out there that there is good, God-centered worship in our neck of the woods is for these two very familiar songs….”To the Sand We Return” and “Take the Hill” (honorable mention also to “Solace,” love that song! Maybe “Shadow on Me” cuz that made one of my playlists).

    Who Do I Belong To?

  • http://www.donaldborschjrblog.wordpress.com/ Donald Borsch Jr

    Nice interview.

    I find that today’s version of worship is rooted in a feminine spirit, based on “feelings” and lacking any real substance. Most of it is based on how we feel about ourselves and our problems, without acknowledging who He really is. Saying, “Oh Lord, I love You and You are so cool and You make me feel good and I love You so much oh Lord and You are my best buddy”, is hardly worship.

    Gone are the days of powerful worship, where the very Presence of God fills our sanctuaries and forces us onto our faces in reverence, fear, repentance, and adoration. I believe this is what turns men off to worship, since men are not able to relate to God our Father as daughters. We need a Father. We need to discern His Presence and walk in it. We cannot find that by behaving like weepy and touchy-feely children.

    I have found that the best worship is done when we allow Him to speak about Himself, and when we purpose it in our hearts to approach Him with the fear of The Lord and not treating Him as though He is our homeboy, friend, buddy, pal, or equal.