A Conversation with Dustin Kensrue of Thrice about Worship

A Conversation with Dustin Kensrue of Thrice about Worship April 23, 2013

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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