Marcos Witt on the change in music and lyrics of worship among Hispanics
Marcos Witt discusses the change in music and lyrics of worship among Hispanics.
This conversation was conducted by Jaime Lázaro in Spanish and translated to English. Read it in Spanish.
About three decades ago, a scandal brought about a complete renewal of worship in the Latin American church.
A young man named Marcos Witt, the son of North American missionaries who was born in Texas and raised in Durango, Mexico, began playing the piano and performing music considered unacceptable by many church leaders of that time.
Songs like Cuán bello es el Señor (“How Beautiful Is the Lord”), or Renuévame (“Renew Me”), reached beyond his beloved Durango and crossed borders with such force that nothing was able to stop them. The lyrics were simple but profound, the melodies were easy to sing and hard to forget, and soon the songs became “hymns” in an organic way, in spite of strong opposition from conservative pastors.
But Marcos was not randomly improvising. Marcos simply started to hear the voice of the Lord and then recorded it in the form of songs that renewed the hearts of Hispanic believers around the world.
Since he was a young child, and thanks to his parents, he had learned music along with his basic classes at the American School of Durango. Later on, he continued studying music at the Universidad Juarez de Durango (Juarez University in Durango) and took theology classes at the International Bible College in San Antonio, Texas.
The price that Marcos Witt had to pay for his “daring” was high, though he surely would not have imagined it. Those who weren’t pleased with Marcos’s music said all sorts of things about him. Among many other adjectives, “diabolical,” was used to label him. He was accused of selling his soul to the devil in order to achieve fame.
Today those words might seem like a joke, but at the time they were anything but. Marcos suffered because of the accusations. However, nothing stopped him, though at times he might have felt like abandoning his mission. One of the hardest knocks came when he found out that a youth pastor had invited all of his youth to bring their Marcos Witt cassettes to burn them in a “holy holocaust.”
But nothing stopped Marcos. In 1987 he founded “CanZion Producciones,” then the band “CanZion.” In 1994, he started the CanZion Institute, a school dedicated to the education of praise leaders and music ministers. He has recorded more than thirty albums and published ten books. He has performed before millions of people in some of the largest venues in Latin America and the United States. He has been recognized many times with awards like Premio Gente (People’s Award), the Latin Billboard Music Award, and several Latin Grammys. From 2002 to 2012, he was the head pastor at the Hispanic community called Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas.
Today, almost thirty years later, sitting in a café in Los Angeles, California, he remembers these events with joy and thoughtfulness.
The following interview with Marcos Witt raises some questions to ponder:
- Might God be behind songs that do not conform to our musical preferences?
- Should we criticize or ban a worshiper without knowing him or her, based simply on negative hearsay?
- Should we ever halt a project when we are sure that God handed it to us?
- Are we actively supporting music as an important element of worship?
Were there specific things in your childhood or youth that determined your path?
Many. One of them is my mom, who forced us to study music. There wasn’t a choice at my house. I tell people that in that sense we lived under the law, not under grace (laughs). My brothers and I had to study. But I fell in love with music when I was 13 years old.
What did you play, piano?
Yes, I practiced piano and suddenly I realized that it came easily to me, that it was something I could master, something that made sense to me. I started to get so into music that it led me to think that I could make music professionally.
At what age did that happen?
At about 14 or 15 years of age. By that age I already knew, as a fact, that God would use my music.
Were you always bilingual?
Did inspiration come in English or in Spanish?
In both languages. I wrote my first song in Spanish, but I also wrote songs in English. I was studying opera, so I was also learning to sing in Italian and German.
How many years did you study music?
I formally studied music for fourteen years, on top of my normal education. I studied at the Universidad Juarez del Estado de Durango. I had a classical education, and studied Beethoven, Chopin, and others. In terms of singing, I studied opera.
Was there a significant experience in your life before you became widely known that we should highlight?
There were a lot of experiences. One of the main ones happened when I was 16 and gave my life 100 percent to Jesus Christ. I had grown up in church. My parents were missionaries. But I made a personal decision. I realized that I was idolizing music and that it had become a god in my life. So then, one afternoon, at sixteen and a half, I gave Him my life and all of my music. I consider that the start of my music ministry because that afternoon I said, “Lord, I give you my music, so that you will use it as you see fit.”
Did that happen at a worship service, or somewhere else?
It was not at a service. It was a decision. One afternoon I realized how I was becoming obsessed with music; music was consuming me. Then I went to a place in Durango, the city, where there is a hill known as the Cerrito de los Remedios (the Hill of Remedies). There is a Catholic church there called Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Our Lady of Remedios). I climbed up there. I was looking down at the whole city; it was about six in the afternoon, more or less. It was at that place where I gave everything to the Lord, including my music. I knew that nothing would be the same. That’s exactly how it happened.
That was the start of a long journey, right?
That’s right. From that point on, my plans changed because I was thinking about studying classical music. I wanted to study in Vienna; I wanted to study choir conducting. I was going to continue with my opera singing career.
Now I understand why you always return to somewhat classical melodies.
Any person who has heard my work through the years will notice some overtures that I have written that reflect much of my formation. My compositions themselves have classical influence and structure. So instead of going to study classical music, I decided to study Bible. From that point on, my direction changed.
Is the weight of being a “legend” great?
Oh boy, I’ve never been told I’m a “legend” (laughs). The answer is no. Because I don’t see myself as a legend, it doesn’t weigh in the least.
But as the key influence in transforming worship in the Latin American church. . .
I feel honored that I was able to do what I did. I feel surprised by all of what God does through me and at the same time it is a great honor. But what must be made clear is that I never sat down at a table and said: “Okay, I’m going to transform worship in Latin America.” That was never the plan. My plan was to help people get closer to God through music.
But did it frighten you that everyone was singing your songs?
Well, no, it didn’t frighten me. It made me glad, but it did surprise me. I remember the first time I went to Argentina, in 1993. It didn’t matter where we went, people would sing at the top of their lungs, songs like “You Have Turned My Lament Into Dance,” and “Renew Me.” I had never gone to Argentina. We didn’t even have a legitimate sales route for our music in that place, still everyone knew the songs. It was there that I started to realize that this went well beyond Marcos Witt. It had to do with the Lord’s breath, with an impulse from the Holy Spirit coming from above. There was no way to explain it. We weren’t doing anything.
I’ll give you an example: One day I went to a marketing seminar where they explained to me what I should do. When I got back to the hotel I told a friend of mine who went with me, “We’ve done everything wrong. We have done nothing that this man says we should do.” Regardless, we were selling millions of records and people sang our songs. And there, at that marketing seminar, was where I realized that the Word says: “Let my grace be enough, for my power is perfected in weakness.” Our weakness was the marketing; we did not know how to market, yet God was made strong because he was pushing and breathing into something.
At that stage, when the churches began singing your tunes, replacing hymns, what was the song that was sung the most?
Cuán bello es el Señor (“How Beautiful Is the Lord”) was a very popular song. And that was the tune that theologians attacked the most because it was too simple, because “it didn’t say all of God’s counsel.” And I would tell them that I didn’t write it in order for it to be all of God’s counsel. I wrote it so it would be devotional, meditational, inspirational. The song was not theological, and that was the issue. The elders and fathers of the denominations, of the Christian movement, were very comfortable with their hymns and were not very happy with the change that was rising up within their churches. Then they all-out attacked me. They would burn my cassettes in a “holy holocaust.” Do you know what that is like? They would say that it didn’t come from God—that the music, when played backwards, had satanic messages; that it lacked content; that the music was too worldly. I suffered for being a pioneer and I was the one who took most of the knocks.
Because you were such a scandal?
It was a huge scandal.
Because you not only renewed the lyrics, but also rhythms.
Exactly. It was a total renewal! It wasn’t only the lyrics, styles and rhythms, because we were used to hymns that had verse/chorus/verse/chorus. Suddenly came these little songs, so simple, and people said: this doesn’t have any meat, there is no depth, and so people got upset.
Also, to play these songs you need more than just a piano!
Exactly! Or an organ.
People must have asked, “How can we bring a drum set into the church?”
Man! My own dad would argue that one with me. He and I got into some terrible arguments because he did not want a drum set in church. After many years, he finally allowed it.
What was the toughest thing that people said about you in those days?
When they started to say that I was satanic, that I had sold my soul to the devil, that I had given my soul to have fame—that type of statement. What kind of mind can fathom that? My God! That hurt me deeply. And when I heard that a youth pastor had invited all of his youth to bring my cassettes to burn them in a “holy holocaust.” That hurt deeply because each song, each recording was made with so much love, with so much care, with the Bible in our hands.
I had a dad who did not let me sing a song if it did not have a strong biblical foundation. He would question me all the time. That was very good for me, because to this day when I write a song I am always looking for the biblical foundation. We would pour too much love into these projects and so much of God’s Word for these folks to tell their people that this music came from the devil and that they had to burn the tapes. That was incredibly painful for me.
I can imagine!
In the year 1985, two Mexican denominations banned me publicly through denominational edicts they read publicly to thousands of convention attendees.
But it was sideways publicity, because that is the start of marketing.
Of course it’s publicity, but it hurt a lot because I love the body of Christ. I love people a great deal, and it hurt. They would stand before multitudes and say any number of lies about me.
You write the lyrics and music to your songs. How involved are you in the production of a song?
When they are my recordings, I’m very involved in the arrangements and musicalization. But also, I’ve had the great fortune of working with extraordinary professionals. I hold to their creativity and rest on that. That’s the mix that makes for beautiful things.
Do you have some idea of how many songs you’ve written?
Yes, about four hundred.
And how many have been recorded?
I have recorded about 380 songs, but only about two hundred of them are mine. That’s about 33 records, including compilations.
So we should update the information on Wikipedia (laughs)
Wikipedia is a disaster. I can’t tell you the frustration that I have with Wikipedia because we want to update the information and they say that we are not authorized to do so. I tell them, “but I’m Marcos Witt.” They answer that it doesn’t matter; I’m not authorized. Then I ask Wikipedia who is authorized to speak about my life. The information there is wrong, my brother’s name is wrong, they say that I’ve sold about 10 million records when it’s about 27 million copies.
That’s just “legal” copies, not pirated copies.
Those must be hundreds of millions (laughs).
Changing the subject, I know that you have tunes in almost every rhythm, so I want to ask, what rhythms have you not used in your songs?
There are few left. I think that I’ve not tried a tango, flamenco, cumbia, Mexican norteña music, or Chicano Tex-Mex.
But you have gone through almost every other rhythm, right?
Yes, I’ve written mariachi, ranchero, tropical, merengue, bachata, reggaeton. . . .
I imagine that reggaeton stirred up some critiques.
No. The most criticism came from writing rap, when I did it many years ago in 1992. It was a song called “Love,” written by myself and Edgar Lira. Edgar was a young man in our church in Durango, very curious, very creative. He and my wife worked with the children. He was one of the people who helped my wife implement a children’s program in our congregation. But oh, how they came after me! It was a terrible attack. I also remember that we used salsa as a rhythm on the tune Será llena la tierra (“The Earth Will Be Filled”). They attacked me a lot for that one but the attack over the rap song was even worse.
How do you feel, having fought so much and watched as the music that God gave you started to settle and become established in churches? Because at the same time, churches started to become more appealing because of their new music and they started reaching more people.
I knew that it was God moving, and when it is God moving it’s impossible for man to stop it. I had the shrewdness to know that it was something that went well beyond anything that we were doing. God was moving. Now, at this age in my life, and having studied and known a lot of people around the world, I realize that it was a time in which God breathed on this topic everywhere.
At that same time, God was raising up a woman called Darlene Zschech in Australia, who literally swept through the Hillsong Church with her songs. It was a global movement. It wasn’t just Marcos Witt singing specific songs. I realized later, after many years, that I was a piece, a pawn, in God’s play. And I was the one that God gave the privilege of pushing this movement in Latin America, without even knowing the rest of the players. We did not know each other! And yet, years later, we sat with Darlene one day, two or three others and myself. When we realized that even our vocabulary was identical, we laughed, because we were not arranging all this together. It was something that the Holy Spirit was breathing over His church. I felt very privileged when I realized that God had used me for the Latin American region.
Did you cry at some point when you were criticized?
Many times. It was frustrating. Because when you know what is true, that beats falsehood and obviously that is what won out in the end. So when people said things, when they accused me of being a coke addict, that I was a homosexual, I knew the truth, and that same truth started to win. I’ve been accused of nearly everything.
Another person would have thrown in the towel!
Yes. At the start, when you’re young, you don’t have the maturity to weigh all of those types of attacks that I was receiving. It hurt my soul! They hit me hard with those comments.
Who was the shoulder on which you cried?
My wife. Miriam has lived through the tough times with me, through all those years. One day I was talking to a pastor and I said to him, “But why do they say that about me?” He heard me whimpering, “I don’t understand why people say that about me, I’m a very good person. . . .” He would say to me, “Marcos, two things: number one, if they gave you a kick in the rear it’s because you’re ahead of them. And number two, remember that the earth is fertilized with the manure we toss on it.” Wowowow! I said, “That’s true.” Then he added, “Take all of that manure that they are saying about you and let it fertilize you and become good soil.” Then I began to refocus.
You never stopped.
I never stopped although many times I felt like it. But now I’ve reached maturity in my life, so that it literally just slides off. I don’t care one bit what people say about me. I think that has to do with my age, with my experience, with my self-assurance. I’m a grandfather; I’m 51 years old. It’s very difficult to let a little critique from some small-minded, small-hearted brother stop me. It’s his problem, not mine.
Did you suddenly realize that your Christian community was not as loving as you imagined it?
I realized this very quickly. In 1986 I released my first worship project and not much happened. In ’88 I released the second, which is the one that exploded. That is the record that has that famous song called Un adorador (“A Worshiper”). That was my first legitimate hit. That is when the wars began. That is when they started burning my records and publicly attacking me to ban me, as I was telling you before. I quickly realized that there were a lot of haters in the church (laughs), people who like to hate. The Christian church is very odd. We are quick to judge people who don’t think or live the same way we do. Instead of doing what Christ said to do, which is to love one another, we quickly pass judgment so that, according to ourselves, we can defend justice, defend the gospel. Look, if the gospel needs my defense, then it’s a very weak gospel. We have embraced many things in the Christian church that have nothing to do with the Bible; things that have to do with religious culture.
But it wasn’t all negative reaction from the church, was it?
I have to tell you that in the church there were people who loved me full-heartedly. They supported me and they encouraged me. I was very blessed with the number of gracious people who surrounded me. Alberto Motessi is the first name that comes to mind. When I was viciously attacked, he would come to my side and encourage me. Also Luis Palau was and continues to be like a father, because every time that we got together with him he had advice for me. He encouraged and defended me. Another great man who loved me a lot and who is already with the Lord is Paul Finkenbinder, better known as Hermano Pablo. He was the first man in my life to kiss me on the cheek. It weirded me out.
Was he Argentine? Because Argentines tend to greet with a kiss on the cheek.
No, he wasn’t Argentine. I thought, “My God, what has he just done?” You know, I will never forget the place, the moment, his wife—beautiful, that woman is a soul from God. Brother Pablo looked me in the eyes and started talking about keeping my heart and not allowing the criticism and the attacks to destroy me. By then the criticism was harsh. Those things encouraged me because these were men of God whom I admired, whom I loved and deeply respected. So having that type of support from them was crucial.
How important do you think worship is in church?
It is so important that it is the second most-talked-about topic in the entire Bible. And that has nothing to do with music or songs. It has to do with the true meaning of being a worshiper. If the Bible talks so much about the theme of worship, it must be somewhat important.
I think that what God did with me and many others was to bring attention to this element within the Christian life. The Christian church in Latin America was very evangelistic and sang songs like “Sinner, Come to Sweet Jesus” and “Lord, I Want to Be in That Number.” Those were songs that talked about who we are allá en el cielo, (up there in heaven). Many of us focused on the “beyond.” We were saving souls to have a better “beyond.” But what the church was failing in was how to live right now, before Jesus comes back. Back then we had a very odd theology. I’ve converted, the Lord has filled me with His Spirit, and now I am waiting for Him to return for His people. What fatalism! It lacked a mission, or a reason; it had no mission on this earth. They were only passing the time until Christ’s return. Terrible! What about praise, and worship? What refocuses us is that it’s about a daily relationship, a relationship of fellowship. I am not waiting for Jesus to return, I’m walking with Jesus today. And if He returns today, let Him find me walking with Him.
You don’t have songs that talk about heaven or hell, right?
No. There’s no need to write those songs, because there are already hundreds. Our music brought people closer to Him. It gave them the opportunity to cozy up to the Lord, in the best sense of the word. It gave them the chance to have intimacy with God. To have tenderness with the Lord.
Hymns, on the other hand, bring us a lot of doctrine, a lot of theology, which is why I honor them. I say this because one of the rumors that spread all over is that I didn’t believe in hymns. One rumor was that at one of the worship congresses I brought a coffin and ask everyone to place their hymnals inside, symbolically, because hymns are dead. What creativity to make up such gossip and lies! I would laugh when people would tell me that gossip, because I believed and still believe in hymns. That is why in many of my recordings I started to include one of the old hymns. Hymns brought us theology and doctrine, but these simple songs lead us to be intimate with the Lord. This made people fall in love with God again.
They connected their hearts with the expression.
Exactly. Without a doubt. People now can say, “How beautiful is the Lord . . .” “Your eyes reveal that I cannot hide anything . . .”—these are songs of tenderness. What happened? People fell in love with Jesus Christ again.
In a profound way . . .
In a more profound way, in a more intimate way. What I’m trying to land on here is that it’s not necessary to sing only this type of song, or to sing only hymns. It’s a little bit of everything. We need everything. God used this expression of worship to woo His church again, to give it a new breath of life. And this is the best way to describe it. An elderly woman in Argentina was the one who expressed it the best way I’ve heard it put in my life. She said: “Marcos Witt, God has used you so that the church can not only sing about God, but can sing to God." Before we sang about God and now we sing to God. There is a huge difference.
How does worship influence discipleship?
A lot, because worship is the tool to make someone fall in love. Many theologians, pastors, and leaders want people to accept Christ as an intellectual decision, and there is, in fact, an intellectual choice. When you married your wife there was an intellectual decision and then you signed the document. It was an intellectual decision, but if there isn’t an element of falling in love, it is a dead marriage, it is a formal marriage, without life. And that is what is happening in so many churches where they don’t understand worship. My God, it has nothing to do with music! It has to do with falling in love with God.
Does worship soften the heart?
It brings one’s heart closer to God’s heart. It gives us the opportunity of listening to the beating of His heart. It is important that I intellectually know God, though while I’m at it I want to say that we will never be able to understand God. Who can understand Him? My finite mind cannot understand Him. Therefore, no matter how much people they try to, being intellectual is impossible when one is talking about God. There is a certain intellectuality that allows us to understand the principles, the precepts, the paths, God’s theology, and so on.
But it’s limited . . .
Exactly. Make me fall in love with Christ (he says, beating his chest) and I will follow Him to my very death.
Now there is no musical limit in terms of rhythm and style for expressing worship to the Lord, right?
The topic of rhythms and styles is something very interesting. For example, in Panama they use salsa a lot to worship God; not so in Mexico. I will never forget a Mexican pastor telling me that salsa was the devil’s music. However, you go to Panama and any music that isn’t salsa is the devil’s music. We must understand that those are cultural choices. Personally, I don’t like to worship God with reggaeton, with merengue, but there are people who cannot do so in any other way. I cannot judge and say that their music is the devil’s.
Juan Luis Guerra does it.
Many people do it. How am I going to adopt the role of the Holy Spirit to judge what is good and what is bad? We have to be more mature and understand that in terms of rhythms and musical genres we are dealing with tastes and cultural DNA.
Just like skirts at knee level in Oaxaca are a scandal and in Hollywood they’re too long (laughs).
They are different cultural contexts.
What spiritual content must worship have?
A biblical base. If you cannot base it on the Word of God, no matter how beautiful your song is, don’t bring it to me.
A biblical base, I understand. But if the song talks about forgiveness, does it have a biblical base to you?
If it is focused correctly, then yes.
I am understanding that you don’t have to paraphrase the texts, but you have to rescue the intent itself. Is that the idea?
I get a lot of songs every day. There are young people who want me to hear their songs, who want me to analyze and critique them. A few days ago one of my collaborators gave me a song. When I was reading the lyric, I realized that he was writing a song, not trying to share a message. So his lyrics were full of spaces and rhythmic pauses, which were necessary for his song, but it didn’t have a lot of biblical coherence. But I won’t just sent him an email in which I tell him that his lyrics are wrong—I am going to sit with him and teach him how to have lyrical coherence as well as theological coherence. I am going to ask him a series of questions: Do you see that phrase there? Where did you take that phrase from? What is your biblical foundation for that phrase?
Unfortunately, many young people are recording songs but don’t have someone to guide them with the content. You wouldn’t believe the lyrics lurking about which say the most outrageous things. We need to be more careful to teach our composers to do it biblically.
How do you think worship will evolve in the Latin American church?
We have to understand that praise and worship don’t have to do with music, they have to do with the state of one’s heart. Obviously, music is one of the most effective vehicles to take us to an acknowledgment of the presence of God so we can enjoy it. But music in and of itself is not praise and worship.
I have heard people perform romantic love songs to their partner, and they’re doing it with such beautiful purity of heart because God is in it. Because God is love. God is in that expression. I don’t have to keep saying, “I praise you, Lord; I bless you; I worship you” in order to worship God through the pure love between a man and his wife. God invented that. I am not against there being many expressions because worship is a state of the heart.
Have you ever heard music on the radio or somewhere else and suddenly said, “This had to have been inspired by God”?
That’s happened many times to me. I’ll tell you a very personal story. I was at the Jones Hall in Houston, where the symphony plays. I was listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which is one of his masterpieces and ends with the “Ode to Joy.” In the middle of that symphony I started to cry. I was crying when that great and famous melody, culminating with the choir and the orchestra, arrived. I was sobbing. My wife asked me what was wrong. “Nothing, nothing,” I answered. I felt God in the music of this great master. Impossible to listen to something so masterfully composed and say that God was not behind that piece! When I heard that music, it said: “God, how great is your creation and how great is the creative spirit which you have placed inside of man. Be blessed and praised, oh Jehovah of eternity.” That was my reaction before Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Be blessed and praised! It reminds me of Matthew 5:16: “May your light shine so that they will see your good deeds and glorify the Father in heaven.” That night in Jones Hall in Houston, that piece by Beethoven shone such light in my life that my response was, “Be glorified, God, by this tremendous creative work.”
Did you have the urge to get up and say “Amen”?
That’s what I mean. That, my friend, is worship. And it was not a Marcos Witt song (laughs).
I have been able to attend Christian concerts where the untuned voice of an old woman has ministered to me more than the voice of the person leading. What can you tell me about that?
That’s because she was tuned to God’s heart. Worship has nothing to do with the person leading, it has to do with my heart. And each one of those gathered were being ministered to in a different way.
Was God in the old woman’s voice?
Where there is a heart willing to worship the Lord, He is there.
Is He also in music?
God is musical. More and more, scientists are surprised to find that the universe makes sounds. The Bible says that the earth moans. About two or three years ago, the scientific community was surprised when they realized that the earth is producing subtones that we cannot hear with our ears—an interval between G and G sharp. The earth is making that sound. God is musical, because He makes the birds sing, the wind whistle, the rivers make melodies, and the heart beat in rhythm. Music surrounds us. All creation must glorify God for His wonders.
How do you describe the presence of God?
I see God in many things. I see God when a mother kisses her baby. I see God when a young couple, in love, kisses passionately. I see God in so many different things. My son Jonathan has such a beautiful heart. He cannot stand to walk down the street and see people asking for help. He can’t walk by without giving them something, because his heart breaks for them. There I see God. I see God in the way that my children treat each other, how they love each other and get along, how they seek each other out. I see God there. I see God in the friendships I have. I see God around a table where I’m eating a link of chorizo with a good Argentine friend. Many people wrongfully think that we must only feel God in church, in the weekend gathering or on the day of service. Lies! God can be experienced right here, with everything around me.
And can you stand before a mirror and say, as the Colombian Alex Campos says, “I see you and I see me?”
It’s a very good song.
It’s very bold also, for many people.
Yes. But really, I admired the composition of that song. What a way to say that! I see you and I see me.
I know that your songs try to get believers closer to God. But what is your intention when you write them?
My intention is simple when I write music. It is that people can have fellowship with God. Even the songs that have a different structure like Poderoso (“Powerful”), speak about the power of God, but through that truth we know a little more about Him. And the more we know Him the closer we can get to Him. That is the intention. I always look for that element in any song I want to record. I ask myself, “Is this song going to get people closer to God? Will it help them know Him better? Will it help them have better fellowship with Him?” If the answer is positive, then I want to sing it. There are other songs that are obvious Dios ha sido fiel (“God Has Been Faithful”), Dios ha sido bueno (“God Has Been Good”), those are songs that help people get close to God and have that fellowship. Tu gracia me sostiene, tu amor quién lo comprende (“Your grace sustains me, who can understand your love . . .”) that one is different, but at the same time, when people hear it, they say, “It is true, Your grace and Your love do sustain me.”
Do you also share theology along the way?
Well, Jaime, I try to do it. Obviously one cannot share all of God’s counsel.
When you share theology are you careful to stay in a space that is accessible to different lines of theology?
To me that’s important, because I believe in the unity of the church and I know that theology and doctrine are the points which most divide. I know that if I center myself on Jesus and on the importance of His Holy Spirit, I cannot fail. If I start to go down another path, we will get into trouble. But even taking such care, there are people who dismiss my music as radical. Yes, I maintain a balance so that it is accessible to different denominations.
I wonder, why are we so impatient? A friend of mine once said, “If you are not with me, then you are against me.” What do you think?
What is that? It’s stupidity.
There are people in the last few years who try not to assign a gender as they talk about God. What do you think of that?
I think they are overthinking that. There is a denomination that took out any mention of God as a male in order to make it neutral. In their hymns they removed all references to the blood, the cross, and death. Forgive me, but that’s laughable. I think it is trying to over-intellectualize it. All of those people need to spend two or three years on a beach and get some good rest because they are thinking too much.
Do you think that it’s important to focus on those things?
I think that it is valuing things that are really not worth it. God is God, who can define Him? How can I, with a finite mind, define and describe a God who is infinite? Those people need to go to the beach and drink some margaritas and relax a little (laughs). And forgive me for my saying this in such a strong way, but printing a hymnal without any references to the cross! They just changed the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which has its center at the cross of Calvary. Jesus paid for my sins, experienced a cruel death. When you take out the cross and the blood and how violent that was, you are preaching another gospel. Forgive me, but I don’t have time to listen to that.
I ask you that because there are trends following . . .
Yes, I know. The apostle Paul was very clear. If someone comes to preach a different gospel to the one I’m preaching—that Christ was crucified, risen, seated at the right hand of God, and will come again—do not accept it.
In the last few years, have you seen art being incorporated more in worship?
Much more. I love it because God made us creative beings. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God is creative and He made us in His image. What does that mean? That we also are creative. In fact, we are so like God that He allowed us to reproduce ourselves in our children. He gave us that gift of creativity through natural reproduction. Why have we been so closed to creativity in the church?
That doesn’t necessarily mean we have to imitate a dance from three thousand years ago, right?
Not necessarily. But how about if we gave our creative and expressive people room in our congregations.
You are talking not only about music but poetry and acting . . .
I’m talking about writing, movies, videos. There are so many ways to express one’s self. I think that God wants us to express ourselves, only if, and I’ll return to Matthew 5:16, “our light shines.” If people can say, “Glory to God,” what an incredible expression.
Going back a bit to the start of our conversation, did people respond well to the changes in rhythm and music?
Not at first. I still think there are two or three “dinosaurs” who try to block it. Now I think that it’s become such a strong wave that it is impossible to resist it.
Two years ago I was kicked out of a church. Your music is devil music, they told me, get out of here.
I’ll only ask you two things, and you don’t have to answer: “How many people attended that church, and how much impact are they having in that community? I know the answer to both of those questions. The problem with that type of mentality is that it kicks the whole world out, including the first person who got there. That mentality alienates people; it doesn’t embrace them. This wave is impossible to stop. It is bigger than any individual, than any church, or any denomination.
Speaking of globalization, have you seen worshipers from different places sharing their music?
Definitely. Although purists may not want it, globalization is here. There is no way of stopping that. We need to learn to collaborate and milk globalization and know how to use it for global evangelization, instead of fighting against it. There is a crosscurrent, for example, right now—everyone wants to use Hillsong, everywhere.
And they even sing in Spanish, but with an accent!
Because of the effect of globalization. And it’s valid! Because it is an expression that God is using today. Glory to God for that. Instead of fighting against globalization we need to collaborate with it to evangelize our world.
Can you give me titles of some of your songs that have remained in people’s heart?
Enciende una luz (“Turn a Light On”), has become a hymn. Renuévame (“Renew Me”), is already a hymn, even though it’s a very simple praise song. Churches use it when they invite people to accept Christ. Gracias (“Thank You”) I also think is going to be around forever, because people sing it now even without knowing that Marcos Witt wrote it; they don’t even care. That’s where you realize that it is part of the culture and DNA of the church. A él sea la gloria (“To Him Be the Glory”), Tu fidelidad (“Your Faithfulness”), Quiero levantar mis manos (“I Want to Lift My Hands Up”), those are songs that have become part of the “hymnology” of the church, even though they aren’t hymns. Dios ha sido bueno (“God Is Good”), Dios de pactos (“God of Covenants”), which was written as a hymn. Unfortunately, En los montes y en los valles (“On the Hills and in the Valleys”), also. I say it because it is one of the songs that I least like to sing, but whatever. Cuán bello es el Señor (“How Beautiful Is the Lord”), is one of our hymns. Tus ojos revelan que yo (“Your Eyes Reveal That I”), Temprano yo te buscaré (“Early I Will Seek You”), Hermoso eres (“You Are Beautiful”), those are the church’s hymns.
Do you know what the saddest thing about this is? That people stopped singing those songs because they are old.
That’s natural, it’s normal, because now a generation of new expressions is coming up. My concern is that the new generations are simply sounding like Hillsong. And that is my call to musicians today. Now I am hosting a congress of worshipers with the intention of challenging them to seek their own creativity. It is alright that God is using Hillsong and Chris Tomlin, but where is your creativity? Listen to the Holy Spirit who is singing to you. Be creative, stand on your own two feet, and stop copying those people. That for me is challenging. I’m not disparaging Hillsong, but I don’t want to sound like Hillsong. My challenge is that people listen to the creativity of the Holy Spirit and that they start to express it in their own songs. “Listen, write it down, and teach it,” those are the three words I share when I speak with song writers. “Listen to the melodies of heaven, write down the melodies of heaven, and then teach them to us.”
What is the Hispanic church like in the United States?
The Hispanic church in the United States is very fragmented, very anemic. It is a very divided church. Here, there are a lot of 50-member churches, and there is no power.
Is it because we are a younger church than the one in the south?
As I see it, the Hispanic church in the United States is an odd bird. Only very recently have we had mega-churches for example,—ten or fifteen years ago at most. I had the privilege of founding a church that became the largest in the United States, in Houston. Why wasn’t there a bigger church than mine until then? What happens in the United States where there are so many pastors who are at odds with each other? When there is this atmosphere of division and attack, of criticism, art or music cannot flourish. We cannot even agree enough to have a cup of coffee. When will we support one of our youth who has a vision? But I see positive changes, thank God. I am meeting young people who are writing songs and are starting to rise up here in the United States—young people with brilliant futures. One of them is very close to me, he travels with me and I think he is one of those who will strengthen his generation.
As a worshiper?
Yes. He is a tremendous musician. So, I keep meeting others and thinking that this is going to change. But you are also right that the Christian church in Latin America has a lot of years and strength and perhaps nurtures art more.
Perhaps they are less materialistic over there.
Not perhaps, they are less materialistic over there. The United States is very materialistic.
Christian music is almost always performed with rock or slow-rock. Do you believe that it is important to include other Latin elements in our music?
I think that it is important to be contextually relevant. For example, if I live in Cusco, Perú, I am not going to use merengue to reach Cusqueños. I need to be culturally relevant, to be contextual. If I live in the Dominican Republic, I am not going to use opera to reach Dominicans. Paul said, “I am everything to everyone.” I am going to adapt to the culture in order to reach people for Christ. So if I generalize and say that everyone needs to find Latin sounds and rhythms, no. I think that it would be a mistake. What I want is for people to contextualize their art for the people that God has given them. And if that includes more Latin rhythms and sounds, go ahead. If not, go on. When we generalize is when we make mistakes.
How do you see your life ahead?
I see myself as the father of a movement, I see myself as an uncle, a godfather, knowing, supporting, and encouraging new talents. It is almost the same thing I’ve done throughout my career. One of the things that I decided to do a long time ago was to always share my platform, my influence, my knowledge, my money, my resources with other psalmists. Because of that, thanks to much of my direct effort, many of the psalmists who are well-known today got a good leg-up directly from me. I have always been known as that person, and now I will continue to do it.