Danilo Montero: “Worship is tuning the Latino ear and musical sense”

In the past 25 years, Danilo Montero’s contribution has had such an influence on the Hispanic Church that his songs are part of worship in the Latino churches of the United States and in all countries that speak the language of Cervantes.

This conversation was conducted by Jaime Lázaro in Spanish and translated to English. Read it in Spanish here.

Throughout his prolific musical journey he has recorded more than 20 albums, some of which have won Billboard and Arpa prizes.

This singer-songwriter, who converted to Christianity at 10 years of age in his home country of Costa Rica, is considered one of the main worship leaders in all of Latin America.

Danilo Montero travels constantly to share the talent that God gave him. On top of being the author of several books, he is also the pastor at Lakewood Church, a Hispanic congregation in Houston, Texas.

Danilo’s answers lead us to several questions:

  • Danilo Montero states that when we worship, God helps us to reinterpret our present. Therefore, we can go through hardship but still worship. He gives us a different perspective on what we are going through. Should this truth be promoted and disseminated more widely in our congregations?
  • If Danilo wants to teach us anything, it’s that people feel close to God. He loves it when people experience this. Has the idea of a distant God, who is up there and not here, changed in the Latino community?
  • Worship is bringing a more elevated musical language, and educating the Hispanic community. It is tuning the Latino people’s ear and musical sense. Have Hispanics realized that once they start to gather and worship and sing, their performance skills improve?

The Conversation

What’s the difference between praise and worship?
In essence, praise and worship are the same. The relationship with God, biblically understood, cannot be divided into praise and worship and thanksgiving, for example, although in Psalm 100 the Bible teaches that there are certain distinctions. Also, the Bible teaches that in the Tabernacle, Moses gave the people a visual image of a process of approaching God through the door where the sacrifices of thanksgiving happened and surrender in the place where there was incense and intimacy in the holy of holies. We are talking about a relationship with God. Just as a relationship with a person cannot be divided into stages in a relationship with God we understand that He is calling us toward an intimate relationship with Him in general.

Then you consider praise and worship as a path to getting close to the Lord?
It is a path to getting close to the Lord. For didactic purposes we separate them in order to teach, but we are talking about a relationship with a person. Therefore, the main point of the call to worship is intimacy with God, knowing him as a person and being affected by that knowledge we have of Him.

Some people say that what praise and worship achieve is to bring people into living the present moment, which is where God inhabits. What do you think of that?
Well, I’ve never heard that comment before. I understand that worship brings us to the reality of the person of God and his presence. I think that worship instead connects us to our future in the sense that we know the God who designed us for an eternal purpose. What better source of understanding where my life has to go and how it can end up than the God who created me. I think that when we worship, God helps us to reinterpret our present. Of course, we can come from strenuous circumstances, of difficulty or of suffering. Then when we worship God, He helps us to get a spiritual and eternal perspective from what we are living today. My example would be Assaf, as the Psalms say, where he is sick of watching the wicked sin against God and getting away with it. He started getting upset and angry, but says that once he entered the presence of God he understood what their end would be. Then he had an eternal perspective of what was bothering him on earth, and he understood that the wicked will have their day of judgment and that he who is just will live moments of affliction today but will have eternal reward later.

Then you carry a great responsibility as a worship leader, for that music and those lyrics which you share. Right?
True. Being a worship director carries the didactic task of teaching the people about the name of God, the ways of God, the Word of God. I’m not doing anything new, it’s the same thing that directors like David or like Assaf in the Old Testament did.  They taught and reminded the people of God all of the Lord’s wonders. They reminded the people how God freed them from Egypt so that they would believe in him. And I do the same thing today. So when I sing, I know that I am repeating songs that have been born in the Word of the Lord so that the next generation may believe in that Word.

What do you think is the main role (summarizing this past concept) of praise and worship within the Latino church in the United States?
First, I think that worship helps bring to our attention and to focus on the person of God.  Second, I think that it lifts our faith, which is why we sing worship songs usually at the beginning of the gathering. And third, it helps us contemplate the person of God. That’s worship: it helps us contemplate the person of God, through His deeds, in His name.  I think that those things are the main functions.  I think that worship also transforms us. Paul says in the second letter to the Corinthians, in chapter three, that we do not worship like Moses, putting on veils, but rather we take off the veil and worship God while contemplating him face to face. Thereby we are transformed.

What is a worshiper then?
A worshiper is a person who loves God with all of their heart; the love that they have for God impels them to live a life that reflects that love.

Do you think that the Hispanic church would be the same without praise and worship?
It would not be the same. I think that because of praise and worship the Hispanic church has lived a very powerful spiritual renewal, experiencing an intensity in the movement of the Holy Spirit, in the display of gifts of the Holy Spirit. I think also that the Latin American church has come together more because praise and worship call us to unite.

Do you think that the culture of praise and worship has changed over the last 10 years?
Yes. It has changed very much. Twenty or 25 years ago there was a radical change. I think that before the movement Marcos Witt headed up, worship in churches was very musically poor. Yes, there were homegrown songs, but there was poverty in them at a technical and musical level. Above all, there was a lack in the understanding of what we were doing. I think it was Marcos’ generation that gave us a desire for excellence in music, a refocusing in the understanding of songs that became completely different. It became a direct prayer between God and me, not just a declaration of God’s truths; rather it was a prayer. And that made it very powerful. We stopped singing about God and started singing to God. That changed the Latin American church. Now, over the past 10 years I think that the largest influence has come to Latin America from Hillsong. And I’d say that is good on the one hand and not so good on the other.

But I remember that you were a precursor among Latinos with this change in music style.
Yes, but only because we sang our own music. We sang our songs, born in Latin America. Sure, it had rock rhythms and North American and British influences,  but they were our songs.

In terms of the evolution of content: Before, in your songs, you sang about the exaltation to God, then about surrender to God, though you also use the Word of the Lord directly, like Psalm 23, but now in your latest compositions you sing to a God that is nearer. You mention that God “is the air, the sun, a heartbeat.” Is there an evolution in your lyrics, the same as there is in your rhythms?
Yes, there is evolution. I think that there is a search for styles that appeal more to young people. I think also that there is a search for not repeating the same things over, but to be more creative.

What are the most important spiritual and musical elements in public worship for you? Do you follow a particular pattern?
I think that public worship has to be biblical. I think that it has to appeal to the taste and style of the people, of the country to which it belongs, because there are some musical genres that appeal to some people more than others.

But are lyrics always going to be the same?
I think they have to be unique, biblical.

Do you think of a specific rhythm that you would like to use for a specific Latin American culture?
It could happen because there are countries like Puerto Rico and Panama that are very Latino in their music, where, if you show up with ballads, their response will be a bit less than in other countries (like Costa Rica and other Andean countries). That’s because ballads are softer and capture people that come from these countries. I believe that public worship has to be well performed; it has to be biblically and theologically correct. It has to have a musical genre that appeals to the sense and the culture of the people. It has to be participatory, because there are songs that are sublime but are written with melodies that require extreme vocal registers.

Do you think about that when you compose?
Yes, one has to think about all of that. There are musicians who are geniuses, such as Juan Salinas. Coalo Zamorano also writes songs for people to sing where, by the second time people hear those songs, they can already recall the melody and are trying to sing them. They are easy to learn.

I was reading some of your blog posts. In the last two you mentioned poor and needy people, some who work serving rich people in this country. When you write songs, do you keep in mind the plight of immigrants in the United States?
I don’t think that I have written something while thinking that way.

Have you ever allowed your political convictions to be reflected in your songs?
No. It doesn’t make sense to me. It has no bearing on it.

How is it that you have a tendency to describe the presence of God in your songs?
I’m not sure if it’s in my songs, although I have descriptions of God and of how He comes into my life through a hug. I wrote a book called “The Father’s Embrace.” I constantly return to that theme when I’m ministering. I teach that people have to let themselves be embraced by God. When I was a child in the midst of loneliness, I felt that embrace.

As a worshiper, what influence do you want to generate in the life of the believer?
I want people to feel closer to God. That’s it. I like feeling and knowing that God is close. And I love it when I see that people experience just that. And in those life moments in which people are emotionally drained (empty) and don’t feel God, in circumstances where they can’t see God operating (working), in which God surprises them by entering their time of prayer through a song and lets them know that He is there, even if they don’t see anything, even though they don’t feel Him, He is there and He gives them the surprise of being drawn close to His presence.  Some years ago I was in such a situation. When the other employees left the office I tried to pray, but I was too stressed. I couldn’t concentrate enough to do it. I went to work on my computer. I hit “play” on the first record I found and it started while I answered a letter. I had to stop, because I realized that the lyrics were for me. Despite having sung it many times. The lyric said: “I left my throne to come and walk in the dust of the earth because I love you and gave my life on the cross for you. I want you to know that everything that fights against you I have conquered on the cross because I love you. Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Can you hear me?” For me that was so powerful. For some it could be a coincidence, but for me it was a divine moment. I had to stop what I was doing and say, “Lord, truly you are here, you are real, you knew that I was upset, thinking that you were far away. But I realize that you are close.” I love that, and I want for that to happen to people.

Have you ever written songs to challenge a machismo mindset?
No, I think I’ve done it at the sermon level.

How would you like for a student to see the movement of worship in the Latino community of the United States?
Worship is bringing about a cultural change in the Hispanic church of the United States. It is bringing a heightened musical language; it is educating them musically. It is bringing forth more beautiful songs, which are better crafted, which tune the ear and the people’s musical sensibility. This seems precious to me. People are learning to sing. There are Christian communities in the United States where people enter only knowing song music typical of their country. But once they enter a church, they find musical genres that they never would have sung and which educates them.

Do you believe that Latino worship and praise music is richer musically than what is sung in American churches?
I don’t know if I can say that to you. What I can tell you is that it contributes to educating and to tuning it. I think that the worship movement is still deficient in terms of not incorporating more Latin elements, from the typical Latin American music. It sounds like a contradiction but it isn’t. I think that Latin people in the United States need more musical education and that worship in the church can provide it; it can help and it can motivate, but at the same time we must borrow from more elements.

Because Latinos basically sing rock in Spanish.
I think that we should further diversify what we do.

Are there certain experiences in which including Latino folkloric musical elements has worked?
You are thinking of Colombia. For example, Colombia is a colossus in Latin America speaking in musical terms. Musicians there are making a fusion of pop, rock and their own genres. When Colombians sing that music, they sing it in a way nobody else can sing it.

But what can we do in the mosaic of cultures that we have in Latin America?
We can borrow a little from each culture. We have to make it a part of our efforts of worship.

Do you mean to say that praise and worship don’t have a defined musical format in the Latino community in the United States?
No. I think that’s one of the great needs that we have. We need to explore other sounds, to incorporate elements of our Latin American cultures, to incorporate our language. I think that there is a lot of Latin American poetry that is, to a certain degree, traditionalist, which we have not incorporated and yet we need to.

Our ways of expressing ourselves?
Yes, I think that’s missing. If you observe Juan Luis Guerra, he uses metaphors that many of us singers wouldn’t use. He speaks of flowers and fruits and the colors and the papaya. These are very Latin American things.

Do you think that we will continue to evolve in our rhythms and in our content?
Absolutely! Yes, it will happen, perhaps in a more accelerated way.

Do you think that praise and worship in the past have depicted a more distant God?
I think that each generation has had the opportunity to sing to God in its own way. And it has worked for each generation.

Are you willing to continue to evolve?
Yes, we have to do it.

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