We caught up to Stephen McWhirter of Iron Bell Music just a week after an incredible experience with them at the Christian Musician Summit in Tacoma, WA. Stephen was driving with his wife across Wyoming on his way to their next show in Sheridan, WY. Stephen set up a conference call to include Joel Gerdis, one of the other main voices you hear on the record, for the interview.
[WM] To start, would you give us some background on Iron Bell Music?
[Stephen] Iron Bell Ministries is based in Louisville, KY and takes place in a renovated horse barn there. It was founded by Gregg and Shelley Dedrick in 2009. Gregg was in the corporate world for a long time. He was at PepsiCo and Yum! Brand for years, and eventually was the President of Kentucky Fried Chicken for about five years. After he retired, he felt the Lord telling him to have a prayer and worship night at his house. What started with 20 people, eventually started growing and became 100… and so they got this renovated horse barn and turned it into this prayer facility.
The name, “Iron Bell Music” kind of came to us because we were looking for property and we felt like the Lord was telling us it would have one of those old iron dinner bells on it. When you look up the meaning of these old iron dinner bells from the 1800’s, when they were really useful, they would ring them to call workers in from the field to sit at the dinner table. For us, it’s like calling the sons and daughters in to the table with the Lord.
[Joel] Yeah, God just really put it on their hearts to buy a tall barn that needed a lot of renovations to be ready. They turned it into a facility that could hold about 240 people. It’s nothing huge, but it’s certainly effective, and is really dear to a lot of people’s hearts because it represents a place where people can come spend time with the Lord. It’s really set apart for that. It’s not a church, it’s just a bunch of people who want to gather and have a space dedicated as a place for spending time with Him.
[WM] How did each of you get the invite that brought you to Iron Bell Ministries?
[Joel] I actually have known Gregg and Shelley, the founders, for about 19 years. I used to lead worship with one of their daughters. So, when they launched the very first worship night in their home in about 2008, I actually lead worship for that with one of my friends. A few years after that, they asked me to serve on their board for the Ministry. Stephen and I have known each other almost that long as well, just from crossing paths and from knowing similar people.
[Stephen] With me, it was almost five years ago now. I was literally the guy who would just come in there simply to pray. Someone had told me about this place called “The Iron Bell” where you could just sit with your Bible and someone would be playing quietly in the corner. It was definitely a place where you could just BE in the presence of God. It wasn’t a church service; it was just a place to be with the Lord. I really just wanted to get more intimate than I had been in my life, and I wanted to dig in deeper with Him. So, I started coming there, not because I thought it would lead to any of this! I simply came there for about a year just to pray and would just be in the back.
[WM] How did that transfer into Iron Bell Music?
[Stephen] Eventually, I ended up connecting more relationally with Gregg and Shelley, and they ended up asking me if I wanted to spearhead an original music ministry with Iron Bell Music. Even then, it was not about getting a record deal or anything like that. A big part of the ministry was this thing called “Adoration Prayer,” which is really focusing on the character and the nature of God. It’s really this form of prayer where you’d just have a conversation with Him. They would spend a lot of time just adoring Him through prayer and music, and they wanted to really focus in and create some music that was centered on adoration. So, simply out of us just spending time in the presence of God and loving on Him, we started creating all this personal, intimate music that was all focused on this adoration concept.
It was some time later, through the Lord’s leading, that someone came along and said, “Hey, we feel like you guys need to be taking this thing to Nashville.” The long and the short of it is, we never pitched a record deal to anybody, the Lord just sent people to us and we ended up where we are today.
[WM] Joel, tell us more about the focus on adoration.
[Joel] Foundationally, the scriptures behind it are, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” So, how do we love God through our prayer and how we talk to Him and spend time with Him? Also, Romans 12, where it talks about not being conformed to the patterns of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you can know His good and perfect will. So, part of what I learned about adoration prayer is that when I start praying to God and telling Him who He tells me He is…He is transforming my mind and helping me believe He is who He says He is. That all moves from my head to my heart…making that 18-inch journey! It goes from information to revelation…from “I’ve heard of You” but now “I’ve seen You.”
It’s where ideas become belief. I’m like, “Wow, I really believe You are who You say You are!” So, taking these scriptures in prayer and saying, “God, You’re Father, You’re good, You’re generous, You’re our support, You’re a provider, You’re healer, You’re strong and mighty, and You’re available.” We’re all living life together, and we get to see everyone encounter God for His nature as we need Him to show up for us. So, like the testimony in “God That Saves,” God is showing up for us, and we will sit down and write songs about the way that we encounter Him. The song, “Sons and Daughters” was like that for me. It started out where I had this massive shift in my relationship with the Lord, knowing Him intimately as a Father as opposed to just conceptually. It became very real to me that He is my Father. So, our desire is to write songs out of that place.
[Stephen] Yeah, it’s really a big part of what we do. It’s not about, “How do we become famous?” or “How do we get bigger, or grow a brand?” God wants to take people from this intellectual, knowing about Him, to this intimate knowing Him. We hope that this is kind of what the music does and people kind of begin to engage the Lord in this fresh, intimate way that kind of draws them into this way of actually encountering Him, not just hearing cool songs.
[WM] Steven, would you tell us the back story of the song “God That Saves?”
[Stephen] I grew up as the son of a traveling evangelist, and the man that I saw in public and the man I saw in private did not align. I didn’t want anything to do with the Christianity I saw in my father. In my early teens I started to rebel, and what started with smoking, drinking, and smoking pot became, by the time I was 15, cocaine and LSD. Then, from the time I was 17 until my early twenties, I was a crystal meth addict. I was doing crystal meth every day during that time! And, during that time I was strongly against Christianity. I was the guy who, if you mentioned Jesus to me, I would cuss you out! I remember people were burdened for me and were praying for me at this time. They gave me this book, The Case For Christ, by Lee Strobel. Miraculously, I took it!
Fast forward, it was like 3:00 in the morning, I was staying in a house of musicians; I’m in bed with this book about Jesus, there were drugs next to me on a side-table and basically, I encountered the presence of God in that room that night…the tangible presence of God. We began to have this internal dialog and He would say to me, “Stephen, I’m real, and I’m good. Now what are you going to do about it?”
I remember being like, “God I want to give You my life. I want to quit all of this stuff…this addiction, depression, and darkness that I’ve known for so long, but obviously, I don’t know how to do it.”
In a thought more powerful than words, I felt God say to me, “Stephen, you won’t do it alone, I’ll do it.” And, Christianity 101, I just took the Lord at His word and I fell to my knees that night in my room and I gave my life to Jesus. I went from addiction to redemption…from meth addict to being a worship leader about a year later. The Lord also healed my relationship with my father. It was awesome! He actually baptized my wife and me, and even performed our wedding! I always say that “God That Saves” is more than a song…it’s my story. For me, the person and the nature of God is a God that saves, because I literally encountered Him as a Savior that night in that room.
[WM] Is there a line in “God That Saves” that speaks the strongest to you?
[Stephen] I think it would be, “I hear the sound of victory ringing over me.” Like in Zeph 3:17, “Your God is mighty to save…He will rejoice over you with singing.” It’s a really powerful image. Somebody said to me once, “When God speaks, He creates things. So what happens when He sings over us?” It’s a really powerful image.
[WM] Another standout song on the record is “Fall Away.” Who wrote that?
[Stephen] I did, with Mia Fields and Jonathan Smith. That comes direct from the Iron Bell Ministry. We’ve always done this prayer where we’re like, “God, anything that’s not from You, let it fall away. As we speak tonight, as we sing and pray, if it’s not from You, let it fall away. If it is from You, let it take root and let it have its way in this place.” That’s really at the core of what we’re about.
[WM] Tell us about your gear. What guitars are you playing?
[Joel] I am on acoustic guitar, and sometimes electric. I’m playing a Taylor 710 with Rosewood…it’s about 20 years old with the original Fishman Blender in it. Usually, when I’m playing electric, I’m playing through an AC30 amp and playing an American Standard Tele that’s probably about 25 years old and sounds great.
[Stephen] I’ve played certain guitars for years and then I played a couple of Martin D18’s at Matt Maher’s studio when we were writing. I just loved the way they felt, so I bought a Martin D18 with a Matrix pickup in it, and I don’t think I’m going back. This is my first Martin to own, and I just feel the way it plays and sounds…it just lays so nicely in the mix, I feel like it’s the perfect worship guitar.
[WM] Stephen, you also play keys, right?
[Stephen] Yeah, I play piano a lot, too. As far as that is concerned…if I had my druthers and had what I wanted, I’d be playing a Nord Stage 2 probably. But, what I ended up doing is getting this M-Audio 88-key hammer-action controller. It weighs like 35 pounds! I just run a MacBook Pro and run the M-Audio M-Track 2×2 USB C-Series for output. I run MainStage and a lot of different plugins. I primarily use Alicia’s Keys from Native Instruments for my piano sounds, and I tweak that quite a bit. For my pad sounds, I use a hodge-podge of MainStage instruments.
Also, on the road, our bass player and our sound guy developed this amazing portable in-ear unit that we take with us. It’s reduced our setup time drastically. We bought a Core X32 and put it in with splitters and Sennheiser wireless in-ears. Basically, everywhere we go, we have the same mix no matter what. So, the house can take signal from our splitters, or if they are running an X32, just a CAT5 cable is all they need to get all of our signals. It’s really revolutionized the way we travel and play. We’ve been able to set up and play in under an hour!
[WM] What mics are you using?
[Stephen] Um, we’re pretty much using Shure Beta 58’s on the road. When we recorded, we used the Shure SM7b. The vocals on that record are the vocals from that live recording. If you watch the video of the recording, you’ll see that the drums were right behind me and there was no shield! So, it’s kind of amazing that he was able to use all of my vocals, and it was that SM7b that saved the day. Nathan Nockles is the guy who produced our record.
[WM] How do you set up or schedule your writing time?
[Stephen] I’ll tell you really quick on this one… mostly what it is, is we have worship nights and events where we spend a lot of time together in the secret place with the Lord. We come up with ideas in those environments and those times. Like, the chorus for “Belong to You” was created spontaneously in one of those worship nights. So then, I took that chorus into a co-write in Nashville with some friends of mine. That happens with a lot of songs. We create stuff out of that intimate, spontaneous time in the presence of God and then we bring it into a co-write to kind of polish the edges and turn it into a full song. Then you have folks like Joel, who write songs like “Sons and Daughters” all by themselves!!
[Joel] Yeah, except for the end when Steven will say… “It could really use a bridge!” (laughs). That’s when I pray, “God what do You want said here?” It’s really partnering with Him with what He wants the church to sing.
[WM] Iron Bell Music is a collective. You all come from different churches and areas. How did your music make its way out of that ministry, out of that barn?
[Joel] Stephen travels quite a bit and gets to lead at a bunch of different churches. I was kind of embedded in a church where they weren’t really looking for new, original content. So, I didn’t really have that opportunity like Stephen did to kind of explore how these songs might land on different congregations. The way the songs got to Nashville is because a few friends of the ministry heard the songs and were like, “Why are you all keeping these songs to yourselves? You need to share this with the world.” They made it their endeavor to make sure that we did!
[WM] Stephen, thinking about your transition when God got ahold of you after reading Lee Strobel’s book, what was your encouragement to use music as your ministry?
[Stephen] I had been in bands my entire teenage life. I actually played bass in metal bands, and then toward the end of my teens and early 20’s I started doing some pop and country stuff. It was weird. I guess, in a way, I was transitioning to try and find myself. I had really just always been doing music. My last name, McWhirter, actually means “Son of the Harpist,” so it’s really like this entrenched thing in my DNA.
In 2 Kings 3 it says that when Jehoshaphat needed a word from the Lord to go into battle, they went and found Elisha and told him they needed a word from the Lord before they could go into battle. Elisha said, “OK, but before I prophesy, I need a harpist to come and play.” And it says that when the harpist played, the hand of the Lord fell. The first time I read that, my wife had just framed our family crest and I saw it in our house and it had a harp at the top of it. For the first time in my life, I looked up my last name and had one of those “Aha!” moments. I’ve always played music, so when I gave my life to Christ, it just made since to let Him use it and redeem it.
[WM] You walked a difficult road, and our churches are full of folks walking a difficult road, or being on the brink of doing so. How can the church spot kids heading down that road and re-direct them?
[Stephen] Wow! I think, for me, my dad was not a great example of what Jesus looked like. I think it really starts with the church being real, you know? It’s just that thing that God is good, and He is real, and that He desires good things for us. I think a lot of people don’t believe that God is for them. We have this depiction of God that he is distant and toe-tapping with His arms crossed and a look of disappointment at the things we do. For me, growing up, I had a distorted view of God. At the end of the day, it comes down to having a healed view of God. A lot of kids and people have a distorted view of God and Who He is. Specifically, the goodness of God… is God really good? If He is real, is He actually good, and is His goodness for me? Does He really have a plan for me?
I think we just need to be more intentional about reminding people about Who God really is and what He’s really like. Also, who God says we are…that we are treasured by Him. It comes back down to the adoration piece we were talking about. When you learn to fall in love with the Lord by learning Who He is, You begin to heal those distorted views of Him. Everyone has to go through that journey of a healed view of God that takes them into greater intimacy with Him. It eventually reveals a purpose, which eventually gets them to partner with God to walk out the purpose that He has for their life.