Although Tony Perez was born in a Christian home in his Guatemalan homeland, it wasn’t until he was 22 that he had a personal encounter with the Lord, in a small church in the city of Huntington Park, California.
This conversation was conducted by Jaime Lázaro in Spanish and translated to English. Read it in Spanish.
Although Tony Perez was born in a Christian home in his Guatemalan homeland, it wasn’t until he was 22 that he had a personal encounter with the Lord, in a small church in the city of Huntington Park, California.
That personal experience changed his life. It reminded him of God’s clear calling which he experienced when he was only twelve years old. It also reminded him of the promise he made to serve Him. But beyond that, worship had such an impact on him that it led him toward a constant search for God’s presence.
In that first stage, fasting and spiritual retreats were his primary activities. Later he became the writer and performer of worship songs that have blessed millions of people.
Tony Perez has written about 100 songs, notable among them being “He Will Raise Me Up, Make Me Shine,” “Anna’s Song,” “The Walls of Jericho Will Fall,” “David Danced,” “Your River Will Flow,” “I Have Seen His Glory,” “Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen,” “Come Lord Jesus,” and many others.
Tony is the pastor of The International Intercession and Worship Center in Long Beach California. He is a husband and a father. He also combines his activities with frequent presentations in the United States and in Spanish-speaking countries.
The conversation with Tony left some concerns which we share below:
Let’s talk about worship, the term commonly used for what we Latinos know as praise and worship. What is the difference between both terms?
There is a great difference because praise is based on doing it through His deeds, through what He has done. Miriam praised the Lord when she had a great victory against her enemies and they lay prostrate by the Red Sea. David praised the Lord because of the victories He gave him. Praise is focused more on giving thanks to God for what He does, for His deeds, for His victories. Exalting his name, proclaiming, lauding God in that sense. But it is brought about by what we see Him doing in our favor. Worship focuses on Him, because of what He is, his characteristics, His sovereignty, His power, His greatness. Worship can come from people who know God, not by those who don’t know Him. Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “You speak of what you do not know, we speak of what we know.” Therefore, there must be a knowledge in order to worship someone in a more intimate way. Many can praise God, and many can join in praise, because it does not require knowledge. They know God exists, that God is great and many praise Him because there’s been a healing, a financial miracle, etc. Worship has to do with greater depth and surrender. The plants praise Him, the trees, the animals who were created to praise the Lord, but worship, Jesus said clearly, “The father is looking for you.” And if He is looking, it’s because this is refers to a “select” group, which requires an intimacy and more profound knowledge of God and that is where the great difference is. Although there are thousands and thousands who praise, there is a minority group that knows what deep worship is. It is a great task, which we all have, to fill the earth with knowledge of God. Jesus said to worship the Lord “with all your mind, soul and body.” That is complete surrender. Praise is a more external expression of raising our hands, of singing to the rhythm of the music. Worship doesn’t need music to do that.
But I understand that praise is an initial step to knowing the Lord better.
Yes, in one way or another, that’s where we all start. That’s why God shows himself to us as a Savior God, but eventually God wants to turn into a God that is your friend, your companion. After Moses had known all of his works and miracles, in Exodus 30, it says, “God, show me your ways.” He did not want to be part of the throng who praised God because He parted the Red Sea, because He destroyed their enemies. Now, he wanted to know the ways of God, which represents intimacy and more knowledge to understand the God that created and formed you.
What is the role of praise and worship in the life of the Latino church?
I always learned it this way. There is 50% which praise and worship have to do and contribute in the life of the church. The other 50% is the Word we receive. If one isn’t done correctly, the other isn’t complete. It is a great responsibility of the praise ministry. The church must be conscious in preparing the environment so that the Word can settle as it’s supposed to. On the other hand, sometimes there is great preparation for praise and worship and there has to be 50% of good Word, so that the church can be a healthy church that grows with the presence of God.
What is a worshiper for you?
Someone who has understood that worship is a lifestyle for him or her. Worship is not like a song, it is not a physical and external attitude. Worship has to do with a lifestyle. Abraham worshiped; David worshiped God. They did not do it with a music band. They worshiped because they walked in faith, because they magnified God with their lifestyle. My worship starts from the moment I get up until I lay back down. And if my worship is pleasing to God, when I come to present my offering to Him, it is accepted. I narrow everything down to understanding that worship is a lifestyle, where the purpose is pleasing God.
Then, as a worshiper, do you use music as a vehicle to teach the people how to worship?
Yes. Let us remember that worship goes to God primarily. My first responsibility as a minister is to please God, to present my offering to him, which is the result of how I live, what I do, what I plant for God based on Genesis when Cain and Abel bring offerings to God. I am inviting the people to fulfill 1 Peter 2, from verse 5, where it says “we are living stones, built by God, the work of God. We are a holy priesthood to offer sacrifice to God.” I am inviting the people to be participants of a worship that is the result of my life.
Since you have seen the movement of worship in the past two decades, has the Hispanic church learned to worship?
I think that there is a great remnant who learned. As a result today we have ministers and pastors. A great blessing came and God sees the hearts of these men who came up in pretty genuine worship, but there has been a decline. Really, there was a space, a time, a very dark time in praise and worship.
Let’s call it commercialization whenever the objective is lost and one has fallen more in commercialization of this which is so beautiful and which needs rescuing with all of our hearts. Because we have to return to the fundamental bases and not forget that God continues to “seek worshipers in spirit and truth.” This has always been and continues to always be the purpose of God until the majority of people understand that that is the primary reason.
Do you think that praise and worship have contributed to the growth and maturity of the Latino church?
Definitely. In terms of growth I’ll mention Acts 15:16, which says: “…that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, on all those who invoke my name.” When David consolidated the people of Israel into one, he did it through praise and worship. The Tabernacle was restored. He set up ministers, made people praise with instruments, with cymbals. People prophesied. He brought a restoration of what is the prototype of the house of God, where there must be praise, worship, the Word and the prophetic. I was born in a time when there was that rebirth of praise and worship and I watched it bring notable growth to the church where I grew up, as it did in the churches that managed to embrace and understand that praise played a very important role in evangelism.
Do you think that the Hispanic church would be the same without praise and worship?
No. It would not be the same. Hispanics respond to music. We have been cultured by music. Hispanics are very jovial, very happy, very social. And music plays an important role from the grilled steaks that we grill in parks to the gatherings in homes, not to mention when we meet in church. Music then plays a vital role in praise and worship.
We talked to other worshipers who say that when you go to Latin America, from the moment you leave the airport all you listen to is music.
Do you think that the culture of praise and worship has changed in the last few years?
Yes, it has changed. It has changed because it has diversified; it has multiplied what we had previously and what was then our only form of expression. It has truly gathered strength with the multiple forms out there.
Has it become multicultural?
It has become multicultural, which makes it viable. God’s multifaceted form allows for worship with a Psalter, with harps, with cymbals, with a resounding noise. Some praise Him very quietly, others don’t. For me it is a vehicle to be able to worship the Lord. When it is a matter of it being about worship, I go beyond that. I consider that to already be the culture of the Kingdom, my music has nothing to do with it, my background, it is a culture of the Kingdom where the worshipers worship in spirit and in truth. I consider that the Holy Spirit provides us a form that isn’t more calm or sublime, but a more revealed form of worship.
Even though we basically use slow rock. Right?
Yes, that is what we know both in the North American field and in the Hispanic one. Contemporary music has played an important role. I think that we are getting to the point where we are at the edge of entering that worship—musically speaking—that all people will be able to identify with. But that is in development. I think that we are on that road. But all worship from different parts and cultures contributes to a global worship that involves the entire body of Christ.
Do you think that the music we use for worship experiments different themes both for adults and for young people or does it only use one?
The music is one part of music. But we put lyrics to it, I think that some are more approachable at a certain age. I think that one can choose. In some places we have praise for young people or for children and different praise music for adults. I think that it is wise to handle it that way, given that there are lyrics that sometimes aren’t understood or which a new mind, such as a young person, can’t understand. It could be that they don’t interpret it correctly. One can choose it, although eventually the idea is to educate the person so that everyone can join into a single tune of praise.
What do you think are the basic spiritual elements that worship must have?
Knowledge. Why do you do it, how do you do it? The instruction is important. This is where it’s diminished a great deal. We have to return to instruction, to teaching. I think that is the step that needs to be taken. We did it for many years and we saw thousands of worshipers as a result, people who were knowledgeable behind the altar, with fear of God. Basic and biblical things, like bringing an offering to the altar while you are angry with your brother. Many people overlook that, because it is unknown to them—the maturity that worshipers must have as people who participate in worship. Another element is the resources, such as the instruments and the sound system. These are basic in order to present worship to God.
But the connection and dependence on the Lord on the worshiper’s part is very important right?
The other issue is that the line is very thin between being a worshiper and becoming an artist.
It’s been muddled. There are a lot of Christian artists. There are good Christian artists, and what they do is entertain, which is the same as what a singer does outside the church. They entertain church people, they set up a joyful environment, happiness. They fulfill their role as artists. But a worshiper is totally different. They needn’t have a pleasant voice necessarily, it’s about having knowledge of God, it’s about leading the people of the Lord, it’s about your communion with God being very close, because you are a vessel, an instrument, a channel. The only thing that you have to do is to minister to the people according to how the Spirit is indicating to you. That is where success comes, where you manage to perceive what it is that God wants you to do with His people.
How would you answer a new believer who asked why worshiping the Lord is important?
It is basic for your spiritual growth. Our body filters the air we breathe and has its mechanisms for nurturing our organism. Same with worship, that’s what filters the pollution in our mind. Scientifically, music relaxes; it sets up good development for a flower, for a plant. Music has benefits; it brings life to the elements around it. In the same way worship is the environment in which Christians can develop—a Christian should be engulfed in praise, in worship, and the music that they listen to contributes to inspire themselves in God.
Do you think that worshipers influence others in accordance with their theological principles?
Yes, I think so. We express what is in our hearts and eventually we give the knowledge we have. It’s important that a worshiper get educated, that they have a biblical foundation, theological knowledge even, because they are leading. They really are a pastor who is leading the congregation in a certain direction. That’s why it’s important for there to be closeness between a worship minister and the pastor because both contribute to giving guidance and direction to the flock.
Do you think that worship today projects God in a different light?
I think that God is the same yesterday, today and always. He does not change. We are the ones that change. Starting with that premise, if we know who God is, we develop a good role in guiding and pointing the way to God. Unfortunately there is a lot of need because there’s been a falling into commercialization. What is happening is that there is praise of praise music and worship of worshiping. We have to return to our roots, to stop in our ways and ask for the old road, because all worship must point to a single objective: that He be glorified, that He be exalted. If Jesus is glorified then we will bring many to Him. Every worshiper must be aware of the reason that we are there: for the glory and praise of His grace. Simply: to point the way. The reason is Him, the objective is Him. Therefore, much has been lost, we need to recover much.
Before people sang to a slightly more distant God. You are up there and I’m down here. Now we hear songs of worship that say something like, “You are my breathing, you are so close, I see your eyes, I feel your arms, you touch me, etc.”
I think that in this regard things have progressed quite a bit, because there is more revelation of God. There’s been more closeness to God and His grace has been revealed abundantly. I write what the revelation of the Word teaches me. I put it in more simple terms so that the people will understand it. My revelation of God is expressed in my songs. My songs were inspired in the revelation of God; that is why we call our projects inspiration, because it often is a revealed inspired through my pastor’s preaching. That had an impact in my life and I simply communicated what my understanding captured about God. I think that that’s what it has been based on.
What was the impact of Grupo Inspiración?
I think simplicity, and a lot of humility, because we weren’t very well educated, musically speaking. We went out there with the concept of doing something to affect our congregation, our church, and we turned out to be the ones affected because God surprised us to lead in very private and intimate music. For the first time there was speaking in tongues, worship, people crying. For the first time there was a product like this on the market. That was the impact, that people could lead a worship service in their homes, in their cars. That was something that affected a lot of people.
That was about 20 years ago?
Yes, about 21 years ago.
And it’s still selling well today, right?
Well, I’m telling you that it has touched the entire Hispanic community here and in other countries because some of those songs were translated into other languages. And they continue having an impact.
Do you have any idea how many records and cassette tapes you’ve sold?
I think that over 5 million have sold. At least Inspiración I, which was the first, not counting the illegal copies that have been made.
In terms of content, have you ever written a song with our social reality in mind, such as that of immigrants?
I have thought about it, but I have not done it directly. I think that my contribution as an immigrant has been what I have done. Praise and worship is a product that has to do with the culture of the place from which we come. My father, my land, formed a certain culture of understanding of what music is. And it’s that music which God used to bless the United States and other countries in Latin America.
I’m observing the great influence that worship has in the Hispanic community of the United States, which comes from immigrant worshipers, that is, folks who weren’t born in this country.
Remember that the people of Israel played their harps by the rivers of Babylon. When one is outside of one’s country of origin, one tends to seek freedom, and freedom in every sense: spiritual, financial. You seek one freedom. And that reality allows inspiration to come to light, because you are not in your country; you are nostalgic. I think God uses that as a resource so that we can express it as worship which identifies the millions who are in the same situation as you. That is what makes a song have more of an effect, because there is a relationship. For example, one of the first songs God gave us is the song El me levantará (1991), which has affected millions of people.
Immigrants are a social reality.
Exactly. That is what I saw as people, as an individual, in the midst of a situation and a problem in which I wanted to know more about God, but I wanted to get out of the situation I was in. Then I embraced God’s promises and began to confess them: “He will raise me up,” “He will sustain me with his hand,” “He will do what he promised me.” Millions of people identified with that.
How many of Grupo Inspiración did you write?
A lot, because we are talking about seven productions. In each production there are three or four songs I wrote.
Do any of your songs reflect your political convictions?
No, my political position is God’s theocracy, He is the sovereign, the one who places and removes kings. If you analyze my worship, it has one objective: exalting God’s name. In no way do I address politics. My worship and my writing always have to do with God, singing about God, praising God. That’s the way that our praise can be identified. Before coming to the Lord, I wrote songs for some groups. I wrote protest songs, seeking social justice. I stood out in school. I think that was already inside me seeking the freedom and the liberation of a people undergoing injustice. I did that in my younger years. Upon coming to Christ I found myself with a revelation from God Almighty and my objective from that moment on became knowing God, exalting Him and worshiping Him.
When you have been ministering before a group of people, has God ever revealed to you the pain many of them have because they don’t have their papers?
Oh, yes. There’s been a feeling of compassion I’ve experienced because besides being a worshiper, I’m a pastor. And as a pastor, be it preaching or leading worship, I am aware of the situation of immigrants. I have lived an experience, ministering in Argentina to a group of Bolivian immigrants in that country. My wife and I were broken, we started to cry, because the need we lived was so great. The impact was to see a simple, humble people in such a vast country as Argentina. It affected us even more than what we can see here, perhaps because we were used to seeing our own people and there are thousands. Over there the group was small and I saw it as sheep without a shepherd. Seeing those faces, we were so affected that we spent a lot of time talking about them. Yes, we have seen the reality of the need, because we ourselves were in that situation years ago. Therefore we have it very much in mind, we put it before the Lord in prayer and our desire is that God intervene.
How would you describe the presence of God in your songs?
The presence of God is an unforgettable feeling and experience which marks your life, but perhaps the way to define it, as I see it, is that His presence is when the deepest silence arrives. Silence is worship for me. I understood this after years of ministry in churches and before thousands of people. I didn’t know why my objective was to lead the people in the midst of so much music, so many sobs, of the explosion of joy, to minutes of silence. Deep minutes of silence in which they no longer followed a singer or a worshiper, the people weren’t crying or shouting anymore. It was a deep silence because in that silence is where the Lord reveals Himself to people. The most precious thing I can experience is when in the midst of it all, I can lead the people to silence in God. Elijah entered the cave and did not move either in the earthquake or in the thunder, rather he remained in a peaceful silence. That is my essence, when you accomplish silencing. There is a Psalm that says, “My soul is silent in Him.” When you manage to silence those voices in your soul which want to take you out of that, when you hear accusations, memories, when you manage to silence them, that’s when you have entered rest in God. That rest is the absolute presence of God.
Some thinkers state that God inhabits the present moment. So, when worshipers have the capacity to keep people living that present moment, then God inhabits that very moment.
I think that it makes a lot of sense, because there are a lot of enemies in our mind. So in order to achieve that moment you have to engage in spiritual warfare, you have to blaze a trail through a lot of things; the burdens that people carry are so many that reaching that silence requires putting it all down. That has been the success of our ministry. Many people say, “Brother, that was glorious.” I understand, because they reached God’s silence. In that silence is where God will speak to you, where he will reveal himself to each. I cannot reach the thousands of people to whom we minister, but if I manage to attract them to that present moment, they have a personal encounter with the Lord. In that encounter, God shows his purpose of life, the rescue effort He is carrying out with His family. God reveals Himself in the need that each person has at that present moment.
What is the influence that you hope to have in people’s lives?
I have seen liberation, which has been maybe the greatest evidence. To see a free people who rids itself of its burdens and who prepares to receive what God has for them. My objective when I minister is to guide people toward a manifestation of the Glory of the Lord, but I am aware that people come with many burdens. That is my first battle: taking them to absolute freedom. And his people express themselves through smiles on their lips, through shouts of joy. Now people can easily understand what God has for their lives. It is that battle for which I work, because there are many enemies who attack the minds of people. I guide them to that refreshment, and it’s one of my greatest satisfactions.
Machismo is a cultural element present in our community. At any time has your music challenged the macho mentality? Or is it more your attitude as a pastor and worshiper?
Yes, it’s more my attitude. What many people say, thank God, and the reason that we have affected so many people as a pastor and as a worshiper is that wherever we go, it is because I have always given my wife the room to be a part of what I do. My wife is not Tony Perez’s wife, she is not the wife behind a great worshiper; my wife is by my side in ministry. She preaches as much as I do, in most events she is with me. I am a living testimony that a woman has a very important role in the ministry of a male, as in the body of Christ. A woman is the element that God gave us in order that we, together, can develop a powerful mission. I have not written any songs that express it in that way, but my example in life, as a worshiper, is what has shown it. Also, my preaching has shown it. For me it’s just natural. I don’t see my wife as being second, but as being someone who walks side by side with me, who contributes both to me and to herself.
Then, I imagine that you acknowledge the ministry of worship in a woman, right?
Yes, definitely. I have seen excellence in women worshipers whom God has raised up in recent years, because before we seldom saw them. I have seen an emergence both in the pastoral and in the prophetic spheres, just as I have in worship. The worshiper has a great influence in the prophetic.
It’s true. In recent years there have been more women worshipers than in other times.
Remember that worship has a great percentage of prophetic. Many worshipers are prophetic worshipers. The worshiper is whomever hears the voice of God and expresses it through their worship or in words to the audience. Women are very sensitive to the prophetic. It shouldn’t surprise us that they have emerged in recent years and that in the coming years many will emerge whose prophetic gift will launch them into worship. In my daughters’ case they are prophetic and worshipers also. They express that through the same worship they have learned.
Perhaps the community is more open and more egalitarian in the United States; it’s allowing women worshipers to emerge among Hispanics.
As a pastor I think that this is the time for women. And I want to contribute to bring something to the emergence of women. I am collaborating to that end. My wife has just recently developed a women’s congress, which I have been encouraging her to do for years, telling her that this is her moment. I think that the time is right for women to emerge in all areas in which God has called them.
We speak of rhythms. Generally people use slow rock or harder rock. Would you recommend those rhythms more among the Latino community? Do you agree with including more Latino musical elements in praise and worship?
I think that we all have to achieve a style of worship which is in line with the style of the Kingdom. And I think that we are getting really close because I think that the revelation and the Word of God are taking us to this style. The great impact that has come from growing churches and the impact which is coming out of concerts and events today is the contemporary worship we are seeing today, which is slow rock. I think we are hitting it quite often. Whether this is the end of the race or whether there is something up ahead, I think we have advanced a lot and that we are getting it right.
So, in terms of worship, we have all gathered mostly around slow rock, right?
Yes we analyze it biblically; it has and connotes musical principals found in the Word. For example, the Psalms speak of wind instruments, cymbals and string instruments. What does this music have? For example, it has wind instruments such as trumpets which participate joyfully. All of this is found in biblical principles, not necessarily Judaic, but biblical because they were written in the times of grace, in the times of David. There are cultures where they don’t use strings or trumpets. Drums are everything, only percussion instruments. That is not what the Bible is telling us. When Psalm 150 mentions the different types of instruments there were, it speaks of worship that included all of those instruments. Those which harmonize when we mix strings, flutes, drums. That is what we know as a worship ensemble where all of the elements revealed by God participate—because God revealed the instruments to David.
Although we cannot discount the fact that a tribe who converts to the Lord worship only with percussions, true?
While the revelation comes, while the restoration of the “Tabernacle of David” comes which has to do with all those elements of principles of teaching, of worship music, I think that it is acceptable in its moment. Of course, God does not make exceptions for people. And they will enter in an evolution much as we did.
What about the inclusion of Latino elements in the instrumentation?
I think that one has to participate in all instruments. The thing is that sometimes the principle has been misinterpreted or has been exchanged. There is a Psalm in which the psalmist says the order: singers go up front, musicians in the back and then the dancers. We have changed all of that. We place the dancers up front, the music is very high, and the singers or worshipers are last. We are not taking the message in the right way. I think that along with music, the participation of sound engineers is important. They play an important role in praise and worship, because they are a key piece in order to broadcast everything we have prepared. Because after having prepared it during rehearsal, who is going to reproduce it in an excellent or in a mistaken way? It’s the sound person. They have to be aware that they are worshiping, doing the job that they do. Because what we are expressing has to be heard clearly. The message has to reach the people. The music has to go in a way that is pleasing to the ear, not in a way that deafens them. And yes, we are noisy, but there must be a balance for goodness’ sake in order to bless other cultures. Although there is another culture, such as African Americans, who have us beat in terms of sound, in noise.
Can we use native rhythms, those with a Hebrew influence, in worship?
Those rhythms are still popular, but I think they’ve been fused with contemporary music. It’s what you hear now like Hillsong, Inspiración Moderna, Miel San Marcos. It’s a combination of the “Hebrew” and Rock. That has garnered a great response, because it pleases both the youth and the adults. It’s good because we used to lose young people, but now they like it. With that music we are reaching all ages.