Saturday, April 3, 2010

Research Notes Part 4 (Interview Documentation)

This past Sunday, I interviewed Chris Link (CL in the documentation), Northpointe’s Director of Community and Generosity, along with my main contact for this project thus far, Jordan Plumier (JP), Director of Worship Arts. We met after the service in the Northpointe office, which is in the Lincoln Mall in between the Cinemaworld and the rows of shops. The office was hectic with the “kids” daycare during the service was being dispensed. Additionally, there was a movie starting at noon, so there was plenty of hustle and bustle to take down all of the equipment and paraphernalia that go into making the Sunday service happen. Despite being so busy, Chris and Jordan sat down with me amongst the ruckus for about a half hour to discuss music and Northpointe.

I tried to offer broad questions that would have Chris and Jordan telling me what they wanted me to know. As the interview went on, it might have turned into more of a conversation—I doubt this would get the Jeff Titon award for methodological excellence. Nevertheless, this in-depth interview was pretty typical of the dynamic I’ve experienced doing “research” at Northpointe. As a young church, its leaders were intrigued as to how I found them in the first place and why I have been interested in the church as a subject. Chris and Jordan have been extremely helpful and willing to talk with me and include me in the church. For that I am very thankful. In turn, they have become increasingly reflexive in their thinking, the more discussion we have about the current state of music and the church, and more specifically music at Northpointe. That being said, by the end of our conversation, I felt we were in full-fledged discussion and I pray my questions didn’t become too loaded/leading.

Here’s the majority of the interview, transcribed. My questions are in bold, and Chris and Jordan’s answers below. Happy Easter.

AS: So what exactly do you do at Northpointe?

CL: My official title is director of community and generosity and so I have all of the responsibility and leadership over community groups—which is our small group structure—and anything that we do generously in the community. We believe Christ has called us to be generous to our neighbors as well as our community and the world, and I lead those three initiatives. So those are my two official titles, but I’m kind of the fill in the gaps guy. Our main marketing strategy is called “community touches”—it’s not so much what we say we are but what we do. So I lead all of that. We do the Easter egg thing. We care about families, so we do family events. And so we let our values lead those things.

AS: Were you one of the three families that started Northpointe?

CL: Yes. Me and my wife moved out in June—we’re originally from the St. Louis area, and we were one of the three couples that moved to this area.

AS: So what did you have in mind for music when you started the church?

CL: Well, I’ve known Jordan for a while, and he has a lead over all of the music stuff. I was excited to have someone who could take lead over the music stuff. I knew where some of his talents were, but also where his heart was, and so for the first time to really be involved in church to set the trend in the church with the arts—making something happen. Just to really have music that could worship god, bring the people in together, and to really create the environment where people can worship God. So many times that just hasn’t happened in my experience where people come together and they really worship God instead of just singing songs. That’s what I really imagine the music being—more worship than just songs.

AS: So what were your past experience in other churches? Were they similar ideologically to Northpointe?

CL: Yes. Theologically, ideologically, similar. Methodologically, completely different. I came from a church that was traditionally like, “let’s sing with a piano and a choir and some old guy standing up front singing songs that couldn’t carry a tune”. But the church absolutely loved that—it was more rural, Illinois… And there wasn’t any atmosphere. So that’s what I was brought up with. When I was leaving the church which I came from, they did move to more of a style that we have here, but it wasn’t anywhere close to what we were doing.

AS: So they put together a band?

CL: Started barely getting a band. A couple of people got their feathers ruffled when we brought a drumset up on stage, you know, that kind of stuff. It was moving that direction. This (Northpointe) is completely different. There’s an environment. It’s not just about—we’ll explore this later as we get older as a church—but there’s an environment that we’re intentionally trying to create inside on Sunday with all of the arts—we really believe that arts can create an environment in which to experience God.

AS: How important do you think music is in terms of shaping the service and shaping the congregation?

CL: I think it varies on multiple levels. I think it’s very important to some people, and then not very important to some other people. Everything we do is based on “discipleship”. One on one conversations. What draws people into that conversation is going to be different for every single experience. So maybe for you guys who are just drawn in by music, it’s so important and shapes everything you do on Sunday. But for some people, it might not be that important, and so there might be different experiences that could draw them into conversation. So I guess it is important as it is to that person. I know people come to the church because of the music here. I know people here. I know people come to the church because they like the speaking… or the popcorn (laughs).

Jordan: Some people come in spite of the music

CL: Yeah, so I really think it’s important, but it’s not the goal. Everything revolves around one on one conversations. Whatever it is that draws people into that conversation is what is the most important thing. Music’s important to shape the experience, but it’s not the goal.

AS: In terms of syncing Northpointes “methodology” with the messages in the music, do you feel that they “line up”?

CL: They line up OK right now. I wish it was better, and it will only get better in time. We have a meeting every week where we get ideas together, and we talk about the environment, what we’re trying to do, what the end goal is—everything revolves around a dominant thought. Jordan creates the environment around that thought. So I think it syncs OK right now, but it’s not great. But that’s not the end goal. On Sunday, it’s important, but it’s not the most important thing. If we have conversations with people to get them into relationships, that’s all that matters to us.

AS: I’m a novice to the Christian music scene, locally and commercially, but it seems like Christian music in general is a very diverse thing. Do you see any cohesive style amongst the broad umbrella of Christian music that you can latch on to?

CL: Well, definitely. I feel like we already are latching on to a specific style. And in talks that we’ve had, we don’t want to do that forever. We really want to set the pace in a lot of things that we do because that’s going to attract certain people that will continue to do that. So yeah, there are trends that we are following—is that what you’re asking?

AS: It seems like selecting certain songs bring particular elements to the table. Elements particular to the people who write and record these songs. When Jordan sends me mp3s etc., I look up the songwriters and some of them are mega-stars. Do you ever feel there is a conflict in engaging with these songs—between the particular individuals who make the music and using that individual’s work as a vessel to something… else?

CL: This is not me and music—I mostly listen to whatever he (Jordan) gives me… and what Justin is into as well. I’m not the cutting edge guy, you know. I just listen. I mean, I’d listen to Jack Johnson until I die.

AS: Maybe that’s a question we can direct to Jordan… what about when you’re participating in the service. How do you feel about your role as a component of the musical element in the church?

CL: I see mine as a voice of many. I don’t see the band as being any more than leading us a relationship or experience with God. They really lead in the experience. I’m having a different experience than anybody else will in that auditorium. And so, I feel like I’m part of many voices and many people having the same experience at the same moment. I don’t play any instruments, I don’t do anything—I just hang out… I talk.

JP: He plays the tuba

CL: The Sousaphone… a long time ago, in high school. The reason why we focus on music and the creative arts here is—eventually one day—Jordan might not be the one to do it, but when we create songs ourselves, there are people who will be attracted. There is a creative element to God. We believe he created everything, and he has inherently given that element to us. And so I’m excited for people to be able to experience God in that way and show their appreciation by writing, developing, doing things like that. So you ask about the mainstream guys? They’re only mainstream because we make them mainstream. The words that they say connect to our hearts for the moment. Hopefully we’ll create our own stuff eventually.

JP: The cool thing about that is that a lot of the songs we sing have somebody else’s words. They’re writing those words out of experiences from their own lives. And as we grow as a church, we’re able to tell our stories, and I think that completely changes everything for us. If I’m writing a song, and I’m thinking of a specific individual and something that’s happened in their life, every time I see those words and every time we sing those words a church we’re thinking about that. It becomes more personal.

AS: Have you ever written anything yourself?

JP: No

AS: Do you have any aspirations… hopes… dreams to do such a thing?

JP: Honestly, I’ve come to the realization that this important just recently. I’ve been wrestling with that. For a long time I was like, “Oh, I’ll just sing other people’s stuff”. But as this church grows and we accumulate stories here at Northpointe, we definitely want to make our own songs. With no real goal but to sing them here…

AS: You’re still interpreting these songs every time you play them. What goes into that interpretation? What’s your process? Do you try to make them your own or are you trying to be authentic to the recording?

JP: It’s interesting because sometimes I’m thinking about what everybody else is playing and people are watching me, and it’s hard for a worship leader to be in that place that he’s trying to lead others to. Not all the time do I think about what I’m singing. Today there were times when I probably wasn’t thinking about what I was singing, but there were other times I definitely was. Start crying and my voice gets shaking and I look like a pansy…

AS: What about the group you’re playing with? It seems from our conversations that you have a rotating cast of players in the band.

JP: It depends on the person. You met Nate… sometimes he gets lost in what he’s doing. He’s one that always sings along while he’s playing the drums. He’s fun to watch. It depends, there are some people who are just playing music.

AS: What about sonically… stylistically?

JP: Are you talking about what we do live with the recordings we have?

AS: Yeah. Are you developing your own style at Northpointe?

JP: It depends on who’s up there. We’ve got a guy who plays electric guitar and it sounds like Metallica. If he had it his own way, it’d probably sound like Metallica all the time. So that kind of comes through—there’s a little more 80s rock sound in a lot of the stuff that he plays. The way that I corral that a little kind of thing is to tell people to learn what I send them. We don’t have a ton of time to rehearse, usually a couple hours on Thursday or Saturday morning, and so we don’t have a ton of time to shake that stuff and make it our own. I tell people to do their best to learn what’s on the recording and then we can go from there.

AS: As a new church, is it important to have a cohesive style, whatever that may be?

JP: Oh yeah.

AS: It seems like you guys have put a lot of thought into having a well-defined image. As a new church you’re trying to attract people to come. Everything from your website to your logos to your signs and team of volunteers who staff the service. The service is very smooth and transitions are clean and seamless and the sound is good. How is this actually important to you?

JP: We try to limit people’s distractions. If stuff like that goes wrong—technically in the service—it can be distracting. If they’re in a place where they’re mentally worshipping God and the something like that happens, then immediately (snaps) it’s just done. We do our best. We have the battlecry of “excellence without extravagance”. We fight really hard to not make it all about that stuff. To our volunteers we say this is important, but if you get some wrong, it’s not a big deal. You’re not going to get fired or something.

CL: And I would say this. It’s important, but it’s definitely not the most important thing. Everything goes back to conversation—how do we have one on one conversations with people. I seriously spend maybe 5% of my week on a Sunday—what are we doing on Sunday. Jordan probably spends 25-30% on that kind of thing. The rest of our time is spent with people talking about discipleship, community group coaching. That can maybe gage how important, but really our battlecry is “we want to be excellent, but we don’t want to be extravagant”. We’re not going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on things that are not necessary. At the same time, we’re going to make sure we spend the right amount of money in the right places to make it look like we have it together. Which we do, but that could be a distraction to people. We want to be put together, but we don’t want to go up there with five button suits…

JP: We try and be polished and know what’s on, but never too polished.

AS: So I guess my final question is how conscious you are in developing a musical voice, both stylistically and with the words, and how much of the effort is to actually develop music or how much of that is just a tool to get to the greater ideas or purpose of the church?

CL: We’ve had a lot of conversations because there are a few areas where we want to set the trend. One of them is the in the arts. The question is “why?” Jordan will say, “I don’t get it, why would we want to do that?” Because that seems very, “look at us…” Let’s just assume that that could possibly happen, if people want to learn something about the arts, they could point to Northpointe. Isn’t that just kind of self righteous? What’s the purpose of that? And really everything has to funnel through our real purpose, which is our vision, which is to transform people led by God to change lives. A simple way of saying it is to create disciples who create disciples. If people just come to the church, we utterly fail. If people come and just want to learn some music and hear some cool music, we utterly fail. I want to be part of a place that’s changing and moving—not just within a building, but actually doing something in the broader perspective of the community and culture. I hope we set a voice. I hope we set multiple voices. I hope people see us as trendsetters, but not for our own glory, but for God’s glory. Ultimately that’s what it’s for. So our end goal—do we want to do that? Completely? I think we will do that… but if we don’t create disciples, we fail.

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