Brian Doerksen is a songwriter/recording artist in B.C. His songs "Come, Now Is the Time to Worship" & "Hope of the Nations" are known worldwide. He spoke to Karen Stiller about leading worship with a whisper & his latest project "Hymns for Life."
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Faith Today: Sometimes I’ve gone to concerts, like one of yours, and it actually felt like a worship event. But I’ve also gone to worship events that have felt like a concert. What’s up with that?
Brian Doerksen: When I think of worship, I think of the most elemental things of life, like the breath in and out, the inhale and the exhale, the giving of our heart to our maker, the vulnerability of that, and you know, making music. Expressing that in song is very precious and important to me, but I also recognize that there are performance elements of that.
When you’re singing a song with other musicians, you have to all be in the same key and have worked out an arrangement. And then you’re presenting it in a way so that other people can participate. You’re trying to remove barriers to their participation. Sometimes that participation may not be anything physical. It just may be that in their heart they’re saying, "Yes, you know I identify. This is what I need/want to say to my maker."
But yeah, I’m always aware that when I’m doing my live events I’m doing both. I’m surrendering myself in an act of worship, but I’m also in an act of putting on a public event that other people can access and participate in, and that the concert element of that is there as well.
FT: I know you’re a professional, but what if a worship leader doesn’t feel like it on that day? How do you get your heart in the right place?
BD: Sometimes it comes along kicking and screaming like a rebellious teenager – you just don’t want to be there, but you know somebody’s counting on you. I grew up in the type of family where, if you were counted on for something, then it doesn’t matter what you’re feeling. You just show up and you just start doing it. You hope your feelings follow suit. And often they do. But sometimes they don’t.
Sometimes it’s actually not time to sing a song of joy. Sometimes it’s time to sing a song of lament or a song of grief.
Our feelings are involved. But I also have learned to trust preparation, however many days or weeks before an event when I’m preparing for something, opening myself up hopefully to inspiration from God and then preparing something that feels right.
I have learned over time to just trust that, so that when I enter the physical place I can trust my preparation. Of course, occasionally, I need to completely change gears because what I’m sensing is that there’s a different need in the room.
FT: We see you as someone who is really good at lament. How has that played a part in your writing life?
BD: Practising lament and leading lament has often put me, I would say, outside the camp, especially in the modern worship world. It’s interesting, I was first drawn to practising it and leading lament not out of personal pain and suffering, but out of a deep sense of calling. As I explored that and dove into Scripture, and as I read about history, I began to realize we live in a culture that’s really good at celebrating people’s successes and high points, but it does very poorly at walking alongside the grieving and broken.
The most healthy human relationships are those that can do both really well, grieve with the grieving and celebrate with the celebrating. I had this deep feeling about the injustice of the silencing of lament in our houses of faith – that the suffering who enter our houses of worship and don’t hear their song.
I felt what I was wanting to do was completely out of sync with what was popular. I spent long periods of time wrestling with God, asking God for direction. Out of that time I felt He spoke two things to me. "Lead worship with a whisper. And sing over the suffering."
And those two things have stuck with me for life.
I think now we’re in a season where the modern worship, expression and songbook has moved to practising intensity over intimacy. We feel like somehow if we just get bigger and louder and more epic – [but] I felt like, from the very beginning, my direction was to go the opposite way, to lead worship with a whisper.
From that point on every time I would stand to lead, I would always (with my physical eyes and the eyes of my spirit) ask, "Who is suffering in the room? And where are they and what do they need?" You know they don’t necessarily need the song that is a shout of triumph. What they need is the tenderness of Christ, and the gentle word and the encouragement they are loved.
That was the beginning of me starting to explore the sound and the songs of lament, and songs in minor keys, and things that just by their musicality and by their lyrical makeup connected with people who are struggling.
FT: How have you resisted the temptation of your industry where there could be huge commercial success to those "inside the circle"?
BD: Two things come to mind. One is that I’m an artistic person. I’m shy and introverted, but I’m artistic and I’m also stubborn in my artistic sense. So if I don’t feel like something is genuine, and real and coming from my heart, I’m not interested. Even as big and popular as some other things have become, I’m actually not even remotely interested in them.
And the second thing is that my amazing wife Joyce (we’ve been married 36 years) and our family, which includes two sons with special needs, have anchored me and rooted me in a way that stopped me from accepting many larger invitations. I had the opportunity to move to the U.S. to move into the heart of Christian music and then to tour with big artists. I said no for the sake of my family and for sustaining the pace of life we can manage. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my family on the altar of success in Christian music. My hat goes off to some of those mega artists who have managed somehow, the Michael W. Smiths of this world, to maintain family and all of that. All I know is my path has been a little different, and I’m super grateful.
I’ve tasted some success. I’ve had songs like "Come, Now Is the Time to Worship" kind of go around the world and at one point that reached number one. It’s kind of like I had a little blip where some of those songs really crested and had influence in the broader Church, and then fairly quickly the Church moves on to other things, and I carry on being me and lead worship with a whisper, and sing over the suffering. By the grace of God and the kindness of some parts of the Church I’ve been able to make a living doing what I love to do, and I’m grateful for that.
FT: Now with your 10th album you’ve shifted your attention to some classic hymns. Tell us why you did that.
BD: Well, I did that as a culmination, I think, of my writing journey. After 30 years of writing original songs and pouring my heart into them, and at times those songs really connecting and other times, I feel, like some of the songs that most represent my heart never connected – and sometimes that’s pretty hard because you pour yourself into a project and it’s ignored, and you actually think it’s your best work.
And so I felt like I had done everything I’d wanted to do up to this point, and then of course the pandemic comes along. All my concerts are cancelled, and I’m asking myself how I can serve. As I heard people releasing songs that we need for this time of pandemic and new song after new song, all of a sudden I thought maybe we need some old songs heard in a fresh way. What are the songs that have endured through all the storms, all the changes?
I started thinking about my father, who is 84 and still singing. What are the songs that have helped him in his life of faith for 60 years?
I started thinking about my father, who is 84 and still singing. What are the songs that have helped him in his life of faith for, you know, 60 years? And I just started sitting with him, and just singing with my piano, with my guitar. And these hymns just became alive in me, like they were just living. That’s why I called the project Hymns for Life.
There were obviously hundreds and hundreds to pick from. I had to narrow it down. Connected to my life’s calling about whispering and the suffering, I chose to sing hymns about this tender voice of love, about the way creation regenerates us just with its gentle beauty, that God is our refuge. There were certain themes I was drawn to.
FT: Your dad seems very joyful when he’s singing with you.
BD: There’s an incredible life and joy in it. He’s 84. He calls himself a junior senior. He’s just unstoppable with his tenor voice, and I continue to marvel because I’m more of a baritone and he’s a soaring tenor, and because he keeps singing he keeps being able to sing.
And it’s just maybe the most precious way that I know my dad. I have memories of Saturday evenings and he would open up a hymnal and start reviewing the Sunday hymns on Saturday night, to get ready to lead them at our little Mennonite church.
So it was this incredible joy 45 years later to sing these hymns with my dad. He sings four of the hymns with me on the album. There’s something special about it.
FT: Thank you, Brian.
Listen to our full interview with Brian Doerksen at www.FaithToday.ca/Podcasts. You can find Hymns for Life or Brian’s other music online at www.BrianDoerksen.com.