Eddie Espinosa on Changes in Contemporary Worship Music
Eddie Espinosa, composer of “Change My Heart, O God,” explains why those who lead worship need to cultivate heart holiness.
Eddie Espinosa composed worship songs that spread from the Vineyard Movement to churches throughout the world. Despite being known for such songs as “You Are the Mighty King,” “Change My Heart, O God,” and “Con Mis Labios,” he spent most of his career in public education. In this edited conversation, he talks about how worship music and worship leading have changed since the 1980s.
How did your career in education mesh with your ministry in Vineyard churches?
I spent most of my career in public elementary, middle, and high schools in Southern California. I was a teacher, counselor, and administrator. In 1979, while I was teaching full time, Vineyard founder John Wimber recruited me to be on the worship team at Anaheim Vineyard Christian Fellowship. He asked me to come on staff full time, but instead I found that, with time off for Christmas, Easter, and summer breaks, I could take part in the ministry bi-vocationally. My rationale was to not be a financial burden on the church.
Back then, people didn’t come to church late. They came early, in awe and expectation, bringing their friends. God’s presence was so heavy in worship that people would come to Jesus without even looking for him. From 1984 to 1996, I temporarily left education and worked as a full time paid pastoral counselor and worship leader. This allowed me more time to raise up worship leaders in home groups by starting guitar classes, training worship leaders, and nurturing fellowship. After John passed away, I renewed my credentials, went back into education, and earned master’s degrees in educational counseling and educational administration. The pastor who led me to the Lord when I was fifteen had taught me that wherever I worked, in a school or church, I was serving the Lord first. My wife and I retired from education in 2017.
Did your knowledge as an educator shape your songwriting?
Very much so. In the early days, we recorded our new songs and shared vinyl records and cassette tapes all over the world through Vineyard Music Group. I learned early on that when you write a song and are quick to record it, you can’t go back to edit and change it. So—just like I taught my English students—you have to make your message clear, choose words carefully, and make every word count.
Writing a good worship song is like writing a paragraph. Don’t try to put too much in one song. Sometimes people show me song lyrics that are about many things, like when they got saved, their current walk with God, and how they look forward to seeing him in heaven. I suggest that they have enough ideas and lyrics to make three or four songs.
Did your students’ life experiences influence your songwriting?
I worked with kids in poverty who had to go through such hard things. But in wealthier schools, I saw needs just as deep because people had too much money. I learned that the cry of the human heart to be loved never goes away. This gave me compassion to see many people as “pre-worshipers,” people that Abba Father loves and Jesus Christ gave his life for. Everyone is or will be a worshiper, because the Bible tells us that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.
You have written often about a five-phase pattern of worship song sets. Can you explain that?
We used different models to train Vineyard worship leaders. John had developed a five-step model for how to pray for someone who needed healing, so it seemed logical to look for a five-step model for worship. I think he used my education background to help make the ideas easy to grasp. We see these patterns in the psalms and in the physical examples of the tabernacle and temple. However, each model was about taking worshipers on a musical journey from the outer court of the Gentiles into the throne room, face to face with God.
Starting with “we” songs in the invitation/call to worship [first phase] and initial engagement with God [second] reminds the congregation that we are gathered together in Christ’s name. In exaltation [third] phase, we’d use more “I” songs to glorify God. We’d move to adoration or love songs directed to God [fourth] and songs of intimacy with God [fifth]. Though worship leaders might use all five phases at a worship conference, it’s not necessary in every church service. The important thing is to move worshipers to the place where each individual asks God, “What do you want to do in me here and now?”
Do you think of worship as synonymous with music?
Not at all. Music is a vehicle we use to worship. But silence, tithing, how I drive in Southern California traffic—anything I offer up to the Lord can be worship. To worship well in a congregational context, worship leaders and worshipers also need to be practicing spontaneous worship and devotional worship.
I could be stuck in traffic and see a sunset and use that as a springboard into a time of worship to our manifest and omnipresent God, who joins me in my car. Remember that David’s time of anointing came when he was alone in the field with the sheep. It’s also crucial to have a time and place to be alone with God in devotional worship. Reading God’s Word and singing back those words to God prepares us to meet God in the tabernacle of worshipers. We also need to prepare our hearts in the parking lot—or we’ll spend the first three songs thinking about how we were rude to our spouse or yelling at our kids before entering into worship.
What changes have you noticed in worship music since you wrote “Change My Heart, O God” in 1982?
Many songs now focus more on worshipers’ situations or what they want God to do for them instead of pure devotion to God. Worship seems to have become more performance based. Some congregations are in danger of franchising worship. They emphasize brand names in worship music, just as the Corinthians argued whether they were disciples of Paul, Apollos, Peter, or Christ.
I thank God that you can turn on the radio and listen to worship music that exalts and adores Jesus. But there’s so much marketing, so much pressure for local churches to grow larger by doing worship like “the big guys do it.” At worship conferences, I hear so many questions about electric guitars, smoke machines, and how to choreograph more popping worship team outfits and movements. In Southern California, many seasoned worship leaders are being replaced because the pastor or a board says, “We want to go with a younger look.”
Do you have any advice for contemporary worship leaders?
Think of yourself as the lead worshiper, not the worship leader. You need regular devotions and heart holiness, so you can bless the Lord at all times. The overflow from your heart helps bless others in worship.
I see the First and Second Books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles as required reading for worshipers. Remember when David loaded the Ark of the Covenant on a new ox cart, and God struck down Uzzah for touching the ark? David and Uzzah were like today’s worship leaders who want to do what’s new and fresh. But the ark was the manifest presence of God, and it was supposed to be moved only by Levites, who were consecrated. Who makes carts? People. Who makes Levites? God. As God fills us with the Holy Spirit, we become three-in-one: priest, temple, and sacrifice to bring people into the presence of God.
Do you still write worship songs?
I think of myself now as rewired, not retired. I have more time to compose, though I’m not publishing yet. In March 2018, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship invited me to a songwriters retreat to compose songs for Advent and Christmas. I was the second oldest person there and felt intimidated when I walked in, but I was so blessed by the acceptance of the younger musicians. Being part of that experience awakened something in me. I want to write songs that exalt and lift up Christ and God, draw us in, and express and celebrate who God is. At present, I am composing, and I often will sing spontaneous melodies and lyrics. Sometimes, they turn into a song that I write down to work on later, and other times they are the private praise that only the Lord was supposed to hear.
Eddie Espinosa is available to consult, coach, speak, and lead worship at conferences. He will present at the 2019 Calvin Symposium on Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read Worshiping with the Anaheim Vineyard: The Emergence of Contemporary Music by Andy Park, Lester Ruth, and Cindy Rethmeier.