Jesus Culture is known and loved by millions people the world over. What many of their fans might not know is that they got their humble beginnings serving, worshipping with, and pouring into Banning Liebscher’s youth group at Bethel Church in Redding, CA. The fact that nearly twenty years later, Kim Walker-Smith and Chris Quilala are still serving under Banning’s leadership is a powerful testimony to his leadership and for God’s heart to bless those who are faithful in the small things.
While the Jesus Culture worship ministry is an international one, like many of us, they ‘do church’ at the local high school. In fact, Kim, Chris, and the Jesus Culture team have even more in common with you and I than we probably realize, which is why we’re so excited to share their insights and wisdom with you once again!
[WM] Kim, Jesus Culture is about to celebrate twenty years together as well as four years since you were sent out to plant your church in Sacramento – congratulations!
[Kim Walker-Smith] Thank you!
[WM] Before we get to Living with a Fire, let’s start by dialing back the clock a bit. Lots’ of people love Jesus Culture, but many of them might not know that it all grew out of Banning Liebscher’s youth group at Bethel Church. Can you share some of your fondest memories of the early days when Kim Walker-Smith was just Kim Walker the youth leader?
[Kim] Well, I joined when I was eighteen and I was a freshman in college. I was a volunteer in the youth group helping to attempt to wrangle teenagers. My role when we all first started was actually the Social Event Instructor, so I came up with all of our fun parties and random outings to Six Flags Theme Park and things like that.
Some of my fondest and funniest memories are coordinating games at winter camp, and playing ‘chubby bunny’ with a million teenagers. Or ‘lock-in’, where you stay overnight and up all night with a bunch of teenagers trapped in church – that was always a lot of fun!
There was a time I arranged our hotels for a trip to Six Flags, and this is back before everyone had the convenience of having iPhones with apps like Trip Advisor or Yelp! I got us in this hotel that was just the sketchiest, dirtiest, most terrifying hotel. We got there and everyone is thinking, “We can’t stay in this hotel!” Banning is just laughing hysterically. I was like, “I got us a good deal!” and he was like, “Yeah, I bet you did!” (laughs). I had no idea until we got there and saw it, and it was terrifying!
Taking a bunch of teenagers to New York City for “The Call”, that was pretty crazy. I got lost with one of those teenagers in the city, and again that was before everyone had cell phones. Man, we had lots and lots of adventures. I could talk all day about it!
But, I do have a really sweet, special memory. Every Friday night we’d have a prayer gathering that we started at like eight or nine o’clock and we’d go until midnight in this little room in the upstairs of our church. We were just praying for our youth group, praying for Jesus Culture, praying for revival. We would get in there every Friday night with however many teenagers would join us. Sometimes it would be three and sometimes it would be ten. I would try desperately to get a band to come and play. But it was a Friday night and nobody wanted to spend their Friday night doing that except me most of the time. Every now and then I got someone with a djembe, and I would lead worship just a cappella with a djembe (laughs). It was so special though. These teenagers would show up and we would spend hours praying and worshiping together. Very special times crowded in a little room with the smell of sweat! But it was great – it was really special.
[WM] Everything, the first Jesus Culture album was recorded at the Jesus Culture conference in 2005 and features the song “Dance”. Although you’re well known for ‘going up the octave’, on that track you do this slide where you fly from the root to the third above the octave and back down. That’s freakish, but in a great way! At what point did you realize that your voice was more than just ordinary, and what are some of the specific things you did to develop that gift?
[Kim] I just had a conversation with a friend who was trying to convince me that my voice was, as you said, “anything but ordinary”. I guess I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about that, and in my head, I’ve always just thought, “Oh, lots of people can sing.” You know, maybe I’m still learning about my voice and the unique qualities of it.
I started something when I was a really little girl. My mom was a singer and I grew up in the ‘80s when MTV had come out and that was when MTV was still music. My mom was obsessed and that was all that was on in our house. So, I got exposed to a lot of different kinds of music and singers.
Something that I did just for fun as a kid, I would get against a wall, or in the car I’d get against the window, and I’d sing to myself. I loved that if I sang against the wall or a window, my voice would bounce back at me so I could hear it really well, and I would try to imitate other singers. Every kind of singer that there is, I would try to do all the crazy things that they did with their voices, and I would practice and practice until I could do some of the different runs and licks and things like that which other singers would do on their albums and songs. That is a habit that kind of stuck with me. Over the years I’ve grown my range simply by practicing. Practicing scales and each time trying to go a little further. Practicing with breath control, singing while lying on the floor. It’s much harder to have breath control while lying on the floor and its really good exercise in getting a good breath. I kind of figured out that if I can learn to have really large lung capacity and take in a lot of breath, that I can do a lot more with my voice. I’ve even practiced holding my breath as long as I can, just getting as much air into my lungs as I can and then slowly releasing that air while making different sounds and shapes. I’ve never had a voice lesson in my life, that’s something I always wanted but my mom could never afford it. So, I always practiced in all of the different ways that I could think of to practice.
[WM] That’s awesome! Kim, what you do musically is part of a larger ministry. Like many of the people who come to see you in a live setting, you are a worship leader at church. What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned as a worship leader you’d like to share?
[Kim] I’ve learned that its really important not to judge people by how it looks from the stage. What I mean by that is, as a worship leader, sometimes it’s very easy to look out and just see people staring back at you blankly. Or maybe nobody is raising their hands. It doesn’t look like people are engaging. I’ve had moments throughout my Christian walk, and we’ve probably all had this, you pray for someone and they look at you and it just doesn’t look like it has any impact. Then they come back a week later, “Hey! Last week when you prayed for me, that meant so much to me, that changed my life!” and I’m thinking really? I could not tell at all. I think sometimes we just don’t know what’s going on inside of people.
There could be someone whose greatest expression of worship in where they’re at with Christ is to lift their hands in worship. But, for somebody else that’s going to be spazzing out in the corner dancing like a maniac. I just think all of it is beautiful and important, and sometimes people might just be taking baby steps. Someone may want to more boldly worship but they are just taking baby steps out there. I don’t think that God looks at all of our different forms and expressions of worship and thinks that one is better than another. I think He just loves it when we give him our worship, our attention, and our affection. So, something that’s been really important to me that I’ve learned, when I’m up there and I’m looking out at people and connecting with them, I don’t want to judge where they’re at. I don’t want to make assumptions about where they are based on how it looks.
The other thing I’ve learned as a worship leader, it is incredibly important to have a good relationship and a good connection with the team that you’re playing with and leading. I think those are relationships that are worth fighting for. I’ve been playing with the same guys for all these years. With Chris it’s been twenty years, and the other guys trickled in a little bit later. Ian, my keyboard player, was a kid in our youth group! He was just learning keyboard when we started working with him and I was one of his mentors!
All of these guys, we’ve been through lots together – ups and downs. Being at each other’s wedding, raising kids and families together. Those relationships are important and worth fighting for. They’re worth working on, making sure that they are strong and healthy connections. Your team is incredibly important if you’re a worship leader, and your team is important for those you are leading in worship. It’s important that they’re healthy and that you have a good relationship up there.
[WM] Which songs on Living with a Fire are speaking to you most and why?
[Kim] “Not Afraid” is one that speaks to me a lot. It’s a huge declaration, or anthem of telling fear where to go, really. I just think that’s a powerful message for so many people, especially in this day and age that we live in. You turn on the news and there are a lot of things that you can be fearful about. I think this is a strong message about something a lot of people wrestle with. It can look different, whether it’s fear of man, or fear of the unknown. There are so many different levels and capacities.
I think it speaks so much to me because fear is definitely something I’ve wrestled with at different levels in different seasons of my life. It’s something I feel very passionate about dispelling and getting rid of from my life. I love this song and I love when we have songs that provide powerful words to sing when you’re battling those things.
I also really love “Defender”. Rita Springer wrote that song with a couple other guys and Katie Torwalt covered it. It’s another one of those songs, I just love the words and what it says about who God is. That He’s the defender of our heart, He’s protection, He picks up all the pieces of us and He puts us back together. That’s truth right there and that’s important to a lot of people. “When I thought I lost me He knew where I left me…” that’s a really powerful truth. The kinds of songs that have these authentic messages that so many of us can identify with are just really powerful, and important to sing.
[WM] With the exception of opening things up towards the end of a song like “Center of Your Love”, do the forms change from night to night, and if so how?
[Kim] For the recording on that song, I sing through the verses and chorus a few times, then it transitions into the bridge. But before I start singing the bridge I start singing spontaneously live each night. That just felt like the right spot to do that, on the bridge. There’s a couple time’s I went to some spontaneous worship on the chorus, but it just always felt really good right there. But what came out of me changed each time.
There’s so much in that song that I connect with and it kind of pulls this other message out of me. On the recording that moment was just right there, right before we went into the bridge, and it felt like it was leaving some room for us all to express our own heart and worship right there. It felt really good before all jumping into unison and doing the bridge together. It’s one of those songs that makes a declaration about who God is for us and to us. But also, to me it feels like a challenge of what I want to push into more – I want to live in the center of your love, walking in your love and carrying that love with me every day. I love that, I love those songs that take on multiple dimensions as you sing them. They just mean different things and bring about different feelings and messages in the song.
[WM] As I was watching the video for “Living with a Fire” on Worship Together’s New Song Café (linked in our Song Spotlight with Chris Quilala), I was struck by how awesome the background vocals were, including yours. What tips do you have for worship leaders in terms of singing great BGVs when they aren’t leading a song?
[Kim] I think it’s really important to remember that your voice is an instrument as well. The other instrument players in the band are considering the dynamics within the song. So, it’s not everyone playing the exact same rhythm in the exact same moment. It’s everyone listening to each other, and feeling it out. Knowing when to play a lot or when to play a little. When to play quarter notes, half notes, or whatever it is. Considering the dynamics and adding to that. It’s the same thing with the background vocals. I love a really strong and confident background vocal. I think the best BGV’s are the ones where you consider everything – the sound, the dynamic, and the message.
If there’s a spot on a song, say in the second verse, and the last two lines are just really strong with a powerful message and you want people to hear that, I may not sing any background vocals on the entire second verse until I get to those two lines. Then I’d bring in a really strong background vocal to just bring emphasis to that message and those lines.
Same thing with a chorus. If the band is playing the first chorus kind of soft, make sure your vocals are soft and blend, and maybe do a lower harmony. But when that chorus gets to be big, that’s when you want to jump up on the higher harmony and really belt it out along with the leader. I just think it’s important to think of the dynamics and how you’re adding, and it’s not just musically. I think it’s also the message and the lyrics and where you want to add emphasis. Just as if you were reading through your Bible and something stands out and you want to highlight it – you grab your highlighter! In that same way, in a song there are points or words that you want to highlight. You want to bring emphasis to that because it’s so good and so strong!