Jim and Kim Thomas on the Christian Music Industry
Jim and Kim Thomas are husband and wife, and are the pastor and curate, respectively, of The Village Chapel, in Nashville, TN. Over the last fifteen years the church has grown from a small Bible study of professional musicians to a church of about 1500. In addition to leading a congregation that includes many musicians, Jim and Kim were themselves touring musicians and recording artists for nearly thirty years. Jim has also authored two popular books on Christian theology. Kim, in addition to authoring several devotional books, is a highly-regarded visual artist.
Jim and Kim Thomas are husband and wife, and are the pastor and curate, respectively, of The Village Chapel, in Nashville, TN. Over the last fifteen years the church has grown from a small Bible study of professional musicians to a church of about 1500. In addition to leading a congregation that includes many musicians, Jim and Kim were themselves touring musicians and recording artists for nearly thirty years (as the band, “Say-So”). Jim has also authored two popular books on Christian theology. Kim, in addition to authoring several devotional books, is a highly-regarded visual artist. As you read this interview, you may want to reflect on the following questions.
- The Thomases point out that musicians’ opinions and theological perspectives sometimes carry more weight than they should, simply because those musicians are well-known, or musically gifted. On the other hand, they also observe that there are special insights musicians bring to the church – with respect to the use of space, for instance, or recognizing the “experienced” dimension of a church service. Within your own church community, do you see instances when musicians’ opinions carry too much weight? And are there instances when the distinctive insights of musicians are not acknowledged or are under-appreciated?
- Kim talks about how The Village Chapel “leaned into” the opportunities and limitations presented by the actual church building space, and by the local community they serve. What are the ways your church’s worship might more fully reflect the distinctive character of its own meeting space and its own local community?
- The Thomases talk about the role of contemporary music in allowing people to sing “in their own voices.” They also however, acknowledge some of the unhelpful ways that contemporary music can reflect culture. Can you think of instances of worship music that do a particularly good job of engaging culture, wisely and with discernment?
Interviewer: There are various ways your lives and careers intersect the world of music and ministry. You’ve been recording artists and you’ve been people who have toured and performed, and now you’re pastors. You oversee the life of a church. Are there ways that your experience as musicians has shaped the way that you think about worship in the church? Or conversely, are there ways that the experience of being pastors has changed the way that you look at or think about the world of contemporary Christian music or contemporary worship music?
Kim Thomas: My first thought is that, I can’t believe people gave us a platform! When I think back to the platforms we had . . .
Jim Thomas: I still think that.
KT: And as unprepared as we were!
KT: I mean, musicians have, they have instant access to people because of the culture and the sense of celebrity that goes with it. It gives you a gravitas that is not always earned.
JT: There’s something about a song, too, that, you know, it has content but it’s also experiential, and worship is very much that way as well. There’s an object to our faith, there’s content to our faith, and then there are these feelings and these experiential aspects of life that we bring to worship….our pain that we hope to be comforted or our illness or our brokenness that we hope to be healed. I think all of that, there’s a parallel there to songwriting and to musicianship, if you will. As you know, I’m teaching through the Psalms right now, that’s one of the things that struck me, is that there’s literally every human emotion exhibited in this book that we call Psalms and it’s all over. Not just the happy: “Jesus! Give-me-a-J!” cheer, kind of feelings; but also, “Hey, would you mind burning down the house of my enemy?” You know, those kind of feelings too. And it’s interesting to me that God has opened the door and invited us to come in even though we’re rebels and have nots; we have incomplete ideas about Him and about ourselves. So it’s interesting to me; that’s part of our experience, don’t you think?
KT: You know what, space has something to do with it – being an artist – space has a part to play in that. In a [very acoustically live] hall like [the one our church meets in], certain instruments are not going to work. And so we have leaned into the instruments that do work. And it just so happens that all of those things come together for an authentic expression, because our building really is part of our DNA. That style of music, it really is a natural expression of our DNA. And then I was thinking, that having been on the road and having set up concerts night-after-night-after-night and because it was my job to know the ebb and flow of an hour-and-a-half, I think some of the things I learned there we incorporate in setting up a service.
Yeah, that’s good. That kind of, for me, connects back to what Jim just said – about being a musician attuning you to the experiential element. We bring so much to the service – our experiences, our sorrows; the physical space where we’re gathered . . . . So the service isn’t just kind of the sum total of ideas there, but it involves all these other elements.
JT: Yeah, totally.
I know both of you grew up in the church and Jim, at least, you’ve talked about your church being pretty traditional. What are some of the ways that contemporary worship music has changed the church in America – for good or for ill?
JT: I think, on the good side, I’m going to be personal and say, it felt like we – those of us that liked that kind of music – we were given a voice. It’s the same thing people say about the Psalms: that they don’t just speak to us; they speak for us. And that’s a really good thing. Growing up, as a young guy, the only experience I had of the church musically was piano and organ, very traditional. Nothing wrong with it; I’m just saying that’s what it was. But the music of my life, that I listened to, was acoustic guitars and electric guitars and keyboards and whatever. So it’s just nice to have a voice that you identify with and with the instrumentation and the style, even the style of lyric and poetry, if you want to call it that, that speaks a language that resonates with your heart. So if we’re supposed to love the Lord our God with our heart, soul, strength and mind, which I think we are, that means every aspect of who I am as a person is supposed to be engaged in this thing called worship, and I was feeling quite left out in some of those categories as a young guy. So it’s been good – on the good side – it’s been good to have modern hymn writers or even choruses that have been able to serve as a . . . give us a voice – and a way of expressing ourselves. That’s the good side. The bad side is…
Let me, actually, before you go on, follow up on that just a little bit. You’ve given us a good example of ways in which contemporary forms of worship kind of contextualize the Gospel and allow the Gospel to be re-stated in the language of a particular culture. But there’s also a sense in which Christians are also called to be counter-cultural. So - are there ways in which, I don’t know – our worship should be pushing back against the culture? Ways we should have a voice that doesn’t sound just like what a kid like you was used to?
JT: I think there is, yes – there is a counter-cultural element that we’re called to. I don’t know if it has anything to do with what we wear or the kind of music we play. I think it has more to do with our character and our view of God and our view of our relationship with God. I’m pretty certain that, you know, King David’s gittith, whatever that was. That instrument that’s listed in Psalm 8. . .
It also was an instrument of his culture.
JT: It really was, yeah.
KT: One thing I think that played into so much of this was a sacred-secular divide. It built up into an “us and them” thing; Christian music/non-Christian music. So people thought: “It’s got to be different from the world because the world is no good.” And that’s where we started losing track of the fact that God came to redeem ALL of creation. That sacred-secular divide happens so quickly when the church doesn’t look like anything in the rest of my world. Because that’s “the sacred” we keep that separate. I mean, I can remember when I was a kid, being told, “you can wear that dress Monday but you can’t wear it Sunday.” And so that to me, that’s a good thing that Christian music has brought – resisting that kind of dualism between the “sacred” and the “secular” parts of my life. The second effect that I think it’s had on the church has been again back to space. When you had to rely on an organ and you had to rely on a piano, space was pretty much focused entirely up front. With contemporary instruments, it can all becomes a little more portable, a little more movable, a little more elastic because the instruments are more portable and interchangeable. And so I think that effect on our spaces has been good.
I interrupted you earlier, Jim. We’ve been talking about some of the ways that contemporary music has re-shaped the church for good, but you were about to mention that there’s been a down side as well.
JT: Yeah, the down side is when we cheapen or thin out the artistic element on the content side. There’s a real need for some theological depth, I think, as well. You know, the penchant for the “I-ME-MY” oriented songs . . . sort of a worshipful narcissism. And worship songs just start to just become competing autobiographies.
KT: I think one aspect that’s been brought into the church that has not been good is celebrity. Suddenly there’s a great deal of: “Are you the worship leader?” Growing up, for me, it was: “Are you the soloist in the choir?” Or “Did you get to be the angel at the top of the Christmas tree?” That was always as far as we could climb back then.
JT: It was awesome. Kim did get to be the angel at the top of the Christmas tree one year.
JT: And my mother was there. I wasn’t there that night, but my mother distinctly heard God say: “She’s the one for your son.”
KT: I was walking down the aisle at church in a white dress, singing, so…
JT: There was something there. [Laughter]
KT: But I think, on the whole, a lot of good has come in. Anytime you open the door and you don’t have a screen on it, you got to take everything that comes through. And I do think we kind of need a screen door. We don’t need to shut the door, but I think we need a screen door – something that would begin to filter some of the things, so that we say: “Okay, let’s go back and remember what is it we’re doing here, why are we doing this.”
I’ve heard the two of you say several times throughout the conversation, things that indicate a kind of pastoral wisdom and awareness of place. Everything from recognizing “here is the kind of room that we worship in and here’s the kind of music that does and doesn’t work in that space,” to “here is the kind of congregation we have and here is the kind of town that we live in.” I remember in seminary Bill Hybels came and visited, and talked about how profoundly called by God he felt to have the kind of church he had in Willow Creek – but how profoundly disturbed he was that people took that same model and tried to do it in rural Idaho or something. There has to be an awareness of: “here’s the community I live in, here are the people I’m ministering to.”
KT: If I lived in Idaho, I would probably approach Sunday service differently. Because we wouldn’t have the same Crayons in the box to work with. I love that for The Village Chapel, we have the option of different leaders every week. For some [churches] that might be a negative. But that is another part of our DNA, is that there is a long table. And there are a lot of different expressions at that table. It’s a blessing that we have living in Nashville, that there are many, many, vocational musicians. I never have to sit in the congregation and go, “I wish they’d tune that guitar”! I mean, what a treat! I love that we have excellent musicians that don’t look like they’re being excellent musicians. It’s not a self-conscious offering to the Lord. It’s, “Well, this is what we do. This is how we do it.”
I sometimes think that The Village Chapel reflects almost – I don’t know – a sanctified version of the wisdom of a session musician. Do you know what I mean? This recognition that: “It’s not about me. Nobody’s here to hear me play a guitar solo. I’m not the featured artist, but the background player.”
KT: That’s an interesting approach because I hope that’s what happens. I hope that everybody feels respected. The fact is that it is the sum of parts. That building is wonderful. However, that building, being led with trombones, would not be beautiful anymore.
JT: I might enjoy it once.
Just for the sheer novelty of the thing.
KT: Well, we have had horns in the room and we’ve all…
JT: They were loud.
People came away changed. . . .
KT: And we’ve all been damaged. [Laughter]
Let me ask you another question, kind of a different direction. You’ve already indicated, both from your biographies but also just some of the hymns you’ve quoted – those hymns are a heritage you’ve brought with you from your childhood in the church. That’s one of the cool things about hymnody, right? It enables us to inhabit words and melodies that many generations before us have.
KT: A legacy.
That seems like one of the challenges raised by contemporary music. It’s always “here’s the latest song,” and there is even a kind of market pressure to bring out another song and another song. Are there ways that the church can continue to nurture a musical legacy, so that kids who are coming up in contemporary churches now have songs that they can still be singing 30 years from now?
KT: I think, partially, keep bringing in the old hymns. I mean, that is kind of part of the DNA for us on Sundays that there is an old hymn incorporated.
JT: If we’re doing four songs, we want one to be a hymn, you know? We really do.
And it’s often a much higher percentage than that.
KT: And I love that.
Interestingly, it seems like the hymns are often brought in by the “hipster crowd” at the Village Chapel. You know? The young, cool musicians at the church seem to really like those old revivalist hymns particularly.
JT: I guess another question is what makes a song timeless? And are the songs that are being written today, are the songwriters even asking the question of how to write a song that’s going to have a long shelf life and a long life at all, you know?
KT: I do think that there will be a little bit of a hole in probably a lot of the generation that’s coming up, where you are, where there was this pause of, oh look, we can just do this really contemporary thing, and then suddenly it was sort of, we’re missing some of the weight, we’re missing the gravitas of our faith, the well-written lyrics.
KT: I hope that there are more Gettys out there. I hope that there’s more awareness of new hymns. What would a new hymn look like that hopefully, your children’s children, it will continue to equip them in their faith?
JT: Certainly one of the Psalms that could be categorized – you know if you go with Gunkel and Mowinckel – as a hymn is Psalm 8. It asks the question in the middle, "What is man that thou art mindful of him?" But the inclusio around it, the beginning and the end of the Psalm, are the same exact verse. Verse one and verse nine of Psalm 8. It’s, “Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” It opens and closes with that, so before we can really deal with the question of, “Who am I?” it starts with, “Who is He?”
And I think having that good theology, that kind of theology, that’s God-first, and then understanding and getting to know Him, that’s really the key to unlocking any kind of understanding about the self or who I am or who I’m supposed to be or what is my mission or calling in life. And I think those are the timeless questions that people keep asking. And so let’s keep pointing them to God. Let’s keep it about Him.