We were able to catch up with Chris Brown after he was finishing a recording session to discuss what is going on with Elevation Worship… their new release, their upcoming part of the Outcry Tour, and life and ministry in general.
[WM] You mentioned you were leaving a session, what are you working on?
[Chris Brown] Yeah! We are finishing up all of the arrangements for the recording of our next album. So, we’re reviewing everything now in the studio and are just trying to figure out if we need to work on melody or instrument production… that’s kind of what today was.
[WM] When selecting for this record, what is the litmus test that causes a song to make the cut?
[Chris] Well… I feel like we have just the best-case scenario. We have our church and we’ve been doing original music in church for six or seven years now. We’ve been putting out albums for 11 years now, but the first few albums, we did not play the songs in church (laughs)!
But really, I feel like we are so fortunate because we do have almost a built-in audience, so to speak, to help figure out if a song is resonating or to understand if a chorus lifts the way it needs to. I will say that we’ve never carelessly thrown a song in front of our church; like we’re literally using them as a test-group. We’ve never thrown a “half-baked” song in front of them, but if we do feel like a song is complete and we just have no idea how it would “take” in church, we’re able to try it and see. That’s one of the best things about being rooted in our local church. So, I would say the litmus test is happening over the course of 12-months or so. It would be, “Does this song minister to the people that we are with week-in and week-out?”
We will record this album in a few weeks and there will be songs that we’re recording that we’ve been singing in church for 10-12 months. But, it just takes us that long to move on from the previous album in church and then to finish writing for the next album. Our poor people here, they hear songs and they forget, “Oh yeah! I don’t even have that on an album anywhere and I’m tired of it now!”
We try to never write like we’re trying to write a classic song or anything like that… like a song that will be around for a long time. We want to write songs – and we remind ourselves of this all the time – only about what God is doing in our church. We’re going to write for the people in our church, and we’re going to get to know the people in our church. We write from places of hurting, you know… people are experiencing loss and loneliness. For us, it’s so important to be connected to a local body of people, spending time with people.
[WM] I was recently interviewing Mosaic MSC and they had set a goal of having 100% Mosaic songs in their worship. Have you also set a similar goal?
[Chris] Um, you know, primarily what we do is our music. Some of that is a little more seasonal, like for the past three or four months, we’ve really only done our stuff as we are getting close to recording. We’ve needed to get these newer songs in front of our church before the live recording. We need our people to be familiar with the songs.
Now, after we have recorded the album, we may do another song maybe like once a month or so. So much for us is driven by what we need to keep familiar and in front of our church that we’re either getting ready to release or record or whatever. I would say a couple of times a month we are doing hymns in church. So, we incorporate hymns a good bit in some way. Sometimes it’s “on the fly” in a spontaneous moment, but sometimes it’s planned out and we’ve actually arranged it. We made that shift to doing pretty much all Elevation songs… maybe three or four years ago. But, we worked our way up to that point over time.
[Chris] New originals? I would say, once a month. We’ve been a little more aggressive recently and it’s been more like two songs a month. That’s a lot for people to grab ahold of honestly. You know, the same people are not showing up at our church every single week. So, they may miss the first week we do a song and they have to catch up a bit.
[WM] You’re in a unique place… most worship leaders reading this article would probably love to be able to experience worship in your church! Many of the readers of Worship Musician have to deal with having people standing in their congregations with arms folded, totally expressionless and unengaged in worship. Is it possible for you to relate to that?
[Chris] Oh, of course!
[WM] Really? How do you handle that? Do you have any advice?
[Chris] Well, you know, I kind of take it a little differently from time to time. It’s hard for me when I see it; I get shook a little bit. We talk about this a lot in our culture. How to never let the room or the people or the atmosphere dictate how we lead. Because we feel called to serve as priests, who are up here helping serve people, making a connection with them and God.
We have one hand reached out to the audience and we’ve got one hand upward toward heaven. That’s sort of a symbol of what we feel like we’re doing and if we’re letting someone distract us, you know, maybe it was just a bad morning for them. Maybe they don’t want to be like that. But if someone’s look on their face were to dictate if we feel like our day’s going good, then we’re in a bad spot.
Truthfully, I do still have those moments where I’m like, “What’s going on if he looks like that?” Other times, I kind of count it as a bit of a challenge and I’m like, “It’s going to be my goal to look this guy in the eye, not from the place of having a stare-down, but from the place that he would truly see that I’m trying to make a connection with him – because of how much I believe in what we’re doing in encountering the presence of God”. You know, I think we always want to keep in mind too, that we’re on the front lines heading into battle. Worship leaders would be put at the front of the lines in the Old Testament with horns in their hands – which is the craziest thing – what commander would place the musicians at the front of the army heading out to battle? Like, it didn’t make sense to me for the longest time until I realized, “Oh… it’s because whoever made that decision must have been absolutely certain that God was going to give the victory putting worship leaders out in front of the people with the swords.”
If that’s our role, to be heading into a battle, then I truly feel it’s a reminder. People have been battling all week long. If they are coming in and their arms are crossed or their heart is a bit hardened, or they are jaded or I don’t know what people have been through… I kind of count it as a privilege (I try to) to go to battle for them. To want to go to battle on their behalf. I want to communicate that, “Whatever is going on in your heart, I want you to see how much I love encountering the presence of God and how much there is to gain in the presence of God. If I can, I’ll go ahead of you and do this.”
[WM] That’s powerful! Changing gears a bit, I’ve been listening to the Evidence album from the Elevation Collective. Can you give me an overview of the goals or thought process going into this album?
[Chris] Sure. For starters, our church is very multi-ethnic. We have become increasingly so over the years we’ve been around. I would say, in the last three to four years, we’ve been more rapidly growing in diversity as a church. So, like anything, we’re always analyzing, “How can we better serve this?” Last summer, I had an idea about getting some of our friends and gospel-style artists to record some of our songs. Israel Houghton is kind of like a cousin to our church. We’ve had him in several times. We had the idea for Israel to just re-imagine some of our songs and have other artists sing on them. To me, it was the most fun idea ever!
We immediately hollered at Israel. Again, he’s in maybe once every couple of months with our church and he’s very familiar with what is normal for our weekend experience. He hopped all over the idea. He loved it because it didn’t come across like something unauthentic for us. It felt authentic and a reflection of how our church has grown in diversity. Honestly, that was one of the biggest things for us is to make sure it did not feel disingenuous. We’ve grown and we’ve adapted over the last few years. So, my conversation with Israel when we were talking initially about what it could look like was, “I want it to be something that’s not like so far into the vain of gospel music, but we want hints of it of course if we’re going to have you at the helm producing it and these other artists that we’ve become friends with over the last several years. But to still have it feel like Elevation meets gospel – somewhere in the middle.” I’m so thrilled with the outcome of it. It’s really been amazing. All of the artists are unbelievable. It’s been really fun to work on.
[WM] Elevation Worship has evolved from being a church worship team to being recording artists and now to touring artists. What is the balance like with your touring schedule and your ministry and family responsibilities?
[Chris] Well, ask me this time next year! (laughs) Personally, we’re just kind of figuring it out. As far as family goes, we just talk about it all the time, my wife and I do. We have two kids ages seven and five. As much as we can as a family, we do things together. My boy will get up early on Sunday mornings and will go to church with me. He’ll sit up on the stage while we’re rehearsing early on Sundays. If there’s ever an opportunity for them to travel with me, we do that.
But, it’s always been a part of our vision to write songs for our church. It was never part of any vision for us to become a worship ministry that began touring. All it was that we wanted to serve our church and we want to serve them through songs that are coming from this church. God has given us influence and it’s turned into recording albums and seeing some success with the albums and now touring. It’s something we’ve had to constantly evaluate as a worship ministry. You know, we have 17 other church campuses and each campus has a staff worship leader. So there are 17 worship leaders on staff, but that does not mean that everyone that’s on staff as a worship leader is a part of Elevation Worship. We’ve had to draw some distinction defining the worship ministry of Elevation Church vs. the brand of Elevation Worship that is focused a bit more on recording the albums and touring.
Regardless of what role someone is playing in the church, we are all so tied in to what is happening at church… everyone is serving at church unless we are literally out on a tour on a weekend. But, even then, we have our laptops open at 11:30am on the bus watching church back home… just because that is a value for us that we feel. We feel like God is going to always honor what we do if we are pouring back into our local church. We never want to get to a place where we feel like touring is our main goal. Our main thing will always be reaching people at our church.
[Chris] Yeah! Outcry is such an amazing tour to be a part of. One, because of what it’s promoting. It’s promoting unity within the church and it’s promoting the local church. So, every single stop has a big piece in the night where we are championing the church in whatever city we are in. We really can’t wait to go back for the next leg of the tour.
[WM] You mentioned having 17 campuses. How are you developing and filling teams for the entire Elevation Worship across all campuses?
[Chris] So we have a pipeline to identify and raise up leaders. There are a couple of different chutes up the pipeline. One is our internship. So, there may be three staff worship leaders now that started as interns. Another program we have is called “2K2”, which is from 2 Kings chapter 2. It’s an apprenticeship that is a six-month deal and it’s for people with a little bit more experience. For the internship, you can come in at the age of 16 or 17 to intern for the summer. The apprentice program is a little more hyper-focused on identifying people for staff specifically. The goal would be for at the end of their 6th month, the church and the individual would be able to figure out if it was the right fit to be on staff.
As far as musicians, we have auditions a couple of times a year that happen in most of our cities. Actually, our musicians who have been here a long time are running our auditions. They used to be run by us who are staff, but we have tried to empower and cultivate our musicians to do that. Some of them have been in the ministry for eight or nine years. Once someone goes through the audition and is brought onto the team, there is a six-week period after being invited on where they will shadow a specific position before they are placed out on the platform. We have the buffers to make sure the right spirit and heart are there. So we ask them to serve behind the scenes for six weeks and be willing to learn from the other musicians.
[Chris] I would say primarily keys. I have an upright at the house and I do a lot of writing on that or if we are away, I’m usually bringing a midi controller. I’ll always have an acoustic guitar with me.
[WM] What midi controller are you using?
[Chris] I have the M-Audio Oxygen 88. Because I love our upright, I always want something with weighted keys. I’m really not much of a keys player. I block chords enough to write songs.
[Chris] I’ve had a Gibson J185 that I’ve written for years on. I’ve got a Collings CJ that I love also, so those two.
[WM] What are you playing live?
[Chris] More recently, I would say the Collings for sure. I’ve been playing it a lot. The Gibson has had years of travel and stage time as well. It’s a jumbo model after the J200.
[WM] What’s on your pedal board?
[Chris] I don’t have one! I just run straight, usually with a wireless pack.
[WM] What is your favorite sound on stage that you’re not playing?
[Chris] I would say anything coming from the keys. We usually have two keyboard players, one playing piano and one playing a bass patch. Aaron is one of our keys players who has been in the ministry for ten years and he’s producing the next album. He is usually creating all of the pads and all of the strings… he’s a great composer. So, anything he’s going to have going on, I’m going to have turned up in my ears a lot because he creates a lot of good moments with his patches.
[WM] What other instruments are live for Elevation Worship on stage?
[Chris] We usually run two electrics, two keys plus bass and drums. For our albums, we run two drum kits. That’s pretty much it, with me on acoustic guitar and four or five vocals.
[WM] Are you running tracks and click and, if so, how are you running them?
[Chris] Yep, we’re almost always running tracks even if it’s just minimal additions to the songs. Some songs we rely heavily on them. But we’re always running with a click and tracks. We run them all through Ableton Live. Our drummer fires all the tracks from his laptop without using any type foot controller or anything like that. But when we’re on the road, we’re bringing a guy who is off-stage running everything.
[WM] Is everyone using the same in-ears?
[Chris] Everybody is kind of different. I have JH Audio. Some of the team have Westone and some have 64 Audio’s.
[WM] A question from the FaceBook group “WorshipLeaders+”. Do you have some advice for young worship leaders?
[Chris] I am more convinced than ever that we are going to find not only the greatest joy when we are operating in our gifts, but also the greatest fulfillment and the greatest anointing will flow from a person who is truly becoming themselves.
What I know was present when I was in my young 20’s and what I try to discuss with other leaders that are coming through here is never become so set or attached with “the” way to do something or decide “this is the best way” to the point where you end up losing your uniqueness; because there is only one of each of us. That’s about as fundamental as it gets, but it is so true when I can speak from personal experience that I felt like I wasted a lot of my young years trying so hard to be like someone else. And it was not until about six or seven years ago where I literally stopped caring. That may sound callous, but I stopped caring in the sense of that people don’t need another version of “fill in the blank” worship leader, because there is already that person. When I decided to stop caring about that and just become myself, there was so much freedom in my personal worship. So, if I can give any advice to young leaders, it would be just that. Don’t try to copy so much, but use the uniqueness that God has given you. The danger is when comparison begins creeping in. That’s what clouds our minds and throws us off. Comparison is one of the ugliest tools of the enemy, you know?
[Chris] Oh, all the time! He really, really is extremely gifted in songwriting. I know that is quite unique from my experience at least, to have the pastor as a songwriter. But, he was a worship leader and songwriter before he started the church and kind of hung it up for years to get the church off the ground. For the last five years or so he has come back into it. Honestly, I would say he’s one of the best if not the best wordsmith’s that I’ve known. He has really helped shape our songs in the last several years. His lyric writing is unbelievable. We write together a lot. His participation is critical for the songs coming out of Elevation Church right now.