Richard Kentopp is a worship leader and musician in Austin, TX. Recently, Richard talked to Worship Links about contemporary Christian music, creating unique worship experiences, and the most intimate of prayers.
I can guarantee that this is one of the most interesting interviews we’ve ever done. 🙂
WL: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions for us. It’s truly appreciated! The first question is an easy one. Tell us a little bit about yourself in five sentences.
RK: My name is Richard Kentopp, and I’m the music pastor at two churches full of young people here in Austin, TX: Servant Church and Mosaic. I went to school at the University of Texas and Fuller Theological Seminary where I got my MDiv. I love playing music both inside and outside the church. I can get by on guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards. I am married to a pretty lady named Molly, and we are expecting our first kid! I love to play and watch basketball. Unfortunately I’m a Dallas Mavericks fan.
How did you get started in worship ministry?
I’ve been leading worship since I was 16. I grew up in Dallas. It wasn’t until I left the shelter of a private school for the realities of public education that I really got involved in my youth group. As I became a regular of the high-school program they asked me to start leading songs on Sunday. I remember pulling out overhead slides from huge 3-inch binder to sing every Sunday. That was way before powerpoint.
What came after that has been over fifteen years of trying to get away from leading music on Sunday, only to find a divine bouncer keeping me from leaving the club. I’d like to think that I’ve come a long way from randomly pulling songs from a binder, at least now I have a laptop to project the songs.
Your website says “Richard never employs ‘Contemporary Christian’ or ‘praise and worship’ music. He does, however, excel at leading people through a theologically rich, ancient yet current, and engaging musical experience.” What does that look like on a practical level?
One of the main developments over those last fifteen years has been the process of finding music that actually says what I want/need to say to God. I never got Christian rock. I have never understood Praise & Worship music. I thought ‘Lord I Lift Your Name on High’ sucked in 10th grade, while everyone else around me raised their hands, closed their eyes, and smiled along to the lyrics. Unfortunately I was often the one leading the singing.
What I’ve found over the years is that I am not alone. Not only is there a whole sub-culture (larger than we might think) of Christians who simply don’t get mainstream Christian music, but people who don’t call themselves Christians certainly aren’t down with DC Talk, Jars of Clay, or even someone like David Crowder.
So at my communities we never sing Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Michael W Smith, Jars of Clay, Crowder, or whoever. I know that these folk’s music help many in their faith journey, and I don’t want to dismiss that. It’s just that I’ve finally found another way of expressing my faith musically on Sundays. And the more I do it the more I find that I have not been alone.
Practically this means we sing centuries old hymns (like a lot of young churches these days), songs we write, ancient songs or poetry that I unearth and set to music, or songs by people we know in the Austin music scene.
I know from reading your blog that you have some strongly held opinions on modern worship music – in short, you’re not a fan (as evidenced by your “No CCLI” ethos). Can you share with our readers some of the criticisms you have?
Yeah, as I said, I never understood P&W music. It’s not like if I get in your car and hear you playing Hillsong I throw a fit till you turn it off. I’m not the vegan in the steakhouse. I hope you hear me say that I know that God works through P&W music. I just think that it’s time for us to expand God’s repertoire in the American church.
So basically my problem has always been that P&W tends to be anemic musically and lyrically.
For the most part, if you’re in the North Western Hemisphere you’re either singing Organ & Hymnal or Praise & Worship songs. Even all the churches I’ve been to in Mexico sing variations or translations of British and American P&W. It has become this musical genre that is a mixture of Coldplay, Sarah Mclachlan, Jars of Clay, and whatever else. It’s all very safe, pretty, unchallenging, and unobtrusive. That simply doesn’t express the creativity I believe God’s people are called to.
Lyrically, I think most of our ‘contemporary’ praise songs were written for kids or teenagers. Much like a newspaper like USA Today is written to a elementary school reading level, so is the music of today’s Church. It tends to emulate pop music, substituting ‘Jesus’ for ‘baby’, emphasizing the relationship between me and my lover… I mean savior, Jesus.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, and I know that this music can be very helpful for some.
What we don’t realize is that our music is hindering us in reaching and serving those who have a more refined appreciation for music and depth of meaning.
This doesn’t even begin to mention those who come to our worship gatherings for the first time. I put together the music for each week’s worship with the idea in mind that there will be at least one person in the room who’s never been to church before; someone who has never sung a chorus of “Open the Eyes of My Heart.”
Are there any contemporary worship songwriters or artists that you think are making positive contributions?
Yes. I imagine there are tons. I am the wrong person to ask though. I don’t know much about the Christian Music world. I am an outsider, and I think that can be both a strength and a weakness. People send me Christian music all the time and say ‘You’re going to love this’ but to me most of it it sounds like pop Praise & Worship.
That said, I worship well when listening to Tom Waits’ spirituals or Johnny Cash’s gospel stuff (THE DUDE WAS A PROPHET).
I am a big fan of instrumental music, and I have always listened to Godspeed! You Black Emperor or A Silver Mount Zion when praying, journaling, or studying the scriptures. God has connected with me deeply through their music even though I’m pretty sure none of them are Christians. Last I heard they’re atheistic anarchists whose beautiful music reflects but a glimpse of their creator, whether they know it or not.
Now that I’m traveling around and talking about worship music to church leaders I am starting to pay more attention. I have heard the Welcome Wagon are pretty good.
Desert Island Worship Mix: You’re trapped on a desert island, and for reasons too ridiculous to explain, you can only have one CD with five worship songs on it. What are they?
Good question. I’m going to ignore it though and give you five tracks that have been important to my faith that come to mind right now:
- Sisters! Brothers! Small Boats of Fire Are Falling from the Sky! – A Silver Mount Zion
- Were You There? – Johnny Cash & The Carter Sisters
- Please – U2
- There is a Kingdom – Nick Cave
- Jesus Gunna Be Here – Tom Waits
If you could give one piece of advice to up and coming worship leaders, what would it be? Conversely, what’s some advice you wish you’d received earlier on?
Don’t listen to Christian radio; don’t be a cover band. Keep outside the Contemporary Christian system. Write new songs. Do the hard creative work and your community will be better off for it. I can’t wait to hear what songs God puts on your heart, and in your people’s mouths!
What do you think worship in the church will look like in ten years?
In the mainstream I bet it will look pretty similar to today. The Christian music world seems pretty immune to change. The most successful artists have been the same since the ’90s. My prayer however, is that there’s a huge movement, a burst of creativity in the church. So I can come to your church and have a completely unique worship experience, and you can come to our hood and get something equally as valid and creative, but different.
What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done while leading worship (that you’re willing to share)?
Anyone who leads worship enough has those space-out moments. I sometimes get lost and sing the wrong line or end the song a stanza early or something. Most of my mess-ups probably haven’t been too noticeable to the congregation. My band, however, the Gentle Wolves, always let me know by snickering or shooting me scornful glances. Those cats are too on the ball.
That said, I do remember a friend of mine praying one time during a worship gathering. He was praying for God’s Spirit to be with us. His intentions and spirit were good, but all of the words he was saying sounded a lot like intimacy between a man and a woman, if you know what I mean. Let’s just say there were several times where ‘That’s what she said’ would have been quite appropriate. Half the people in the crowd lost it laughing under their breath.
After that I really think my mistakes on the mic are no big deal.
Thanks again for answering our questions. If people want to find you online, what’s the best way?
- My website: www.richardkentopp.com
- My blog series on worship leading: www.richardkentopp.com/sunday-noise
- My alt-country worship band, the Gentle Wolves: gentlewolves.bandcamp.com
- My primary church work: www.servantchurchaustin.org
- My twitter: @RKSundayNoise
Thanks so much for listening/reading!
Please look for the new Gentle Wolves records that will be coming out in 2014!