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The Sheep or The Parade - an interview with Jesse Reeves

The Sheep or The Parade - an interview with Jesse Reeves

By Erica Boutwell on November 13, 2018

If you’ve been attending a church with a contemporary bent for any length of time, then you’ve likely sung songs on a regular basis written by a gentleman named Jesse Reeves. Jesse has co-written on some of the most widely known worship songs of our generation such as How Great It Our God, Lord I Need You, and Our God - just to name a few. 

Growing up in the Bible Memory Association, Jesse’s spiritual life consisted mostly of rules and regulations, until September 23, 1990 when he met Jesus at the ages of 15 and his life was changed forever. A rancher’s son, his love for playing music left his father stumped, but he continued following his passion and played with a band all the way through college. Then in 1997, Jesse met a country boy from Grand Saline, TX named Chris Tomlin who asked him if he’d like to lead worship, to which Jesse responded in all sincerity that he didn’t know what that was. At this point in the contemporary worship movement, the term “worship leader” hadn’t really caught on. There were music ministers, and that definitely was not the route Jesse wanted to go. But the two had lunch and the rest was history. 

I, myself, was raised in the church as the daughter of a Baptist youth minister (or student pastor as they’re called these days), and I was finishing up my high school years in youth group right about the time all of this was taking place. In fact, much of the soundtrack to the season in my life when God called me to ministry and began shaping and forming my passion for leading worship was penned and recorded by these two Texas boys. So to find myself today sitting in an 8,000 sq. ft. mountain lodge at a writing camp with the likes of Jesse Reeves is a full-circle, what-even-is-my-life moment to say the least. 

Nevertheless, you better believe I took full advantage of the opportunity to sit down with Jesse and talk about his heart for worship, the worship leader, and this next generation that God is raising up. I asked him first about the role that worship has had in his life growing up and how it has evolved throughout his time in ministry. 

“If you’re talking about the expression of worship through music, growing up it was just hymns and they didn’t mean anything to me. But now looking back, I have a huge appreciation for my childhood and learning those songs, because I learned what it means to teach theology through lyrics. It’s a lost art and so I’m very passionate about trying to revive some of that. And I’ve done this long enough to see that everything is on a pendulum. When I first started playing, everything sounded like U2, and then everything sounded like Coldplay, and then everything sounded like Mumford & Sons, and now it’s probably like Chainsmokers. And I just always come back to the question of ‘If the Spirit of the living God lives inside of us, why aren’t we creating things that are original and better than what the world is doing, instead of trying to chase what they’re doing?’ I do understand the context of being relevant and playing stuff that’s going to resonate with people, but I always want to come back to what the Spirit of the living God wants to hear, not what we want to play.”

Over his 20+ years in the worship leading world, Jesse has stood on every platform and stage imaginable and in front of every crowd size imaginable. I would venture to guess that making that mental shift from event to event and church to church had to require some form of finesse and adaptability. So I asked him what it looked like for him to make that adjustment, especially as it relates to transitioning out of touring and back into the local church setting.

“I would say that I’ve worked my way all the way to the bottom, and I think it’s kind of where I want to be. I didn’t always want to be there and it wasn’t an easy journey. I have been to the mountain top of Christian music and definitely want to honor that, but I very specifically was called out of that. It was through a sermon that I heard from Tommy Nelson. He was preaching on the anointing of David as king. If you go back and read 1 Samuel 16, they are looking to anoint the next king of Israel. Samuel shows up and they have this parade of all of Jesse’s sons . . . this is Eliab, this is Abinadab, this is Shammah . . . they went through seven sons, to which Samuel’s response was that none of these are the king, do you have any others?  Jesse says that yes, he has one other son but that he was in the field tending the sheep. Now when I was listening to this sermon, I was on a run training for a marathon, so I was a good 15 miles from my house. Tommy Nelson said one statement and it was this. “What God is looking for in a man is a man that more concerned about the sheep than the parade.” And I don’t know why, but that’s when the Holy Spirit wrecked me and I literally started weeping. I was still running, but now I’m running with my hands in the air and I’m saying “Jesus, I’m listening.” On a public path by the way. People are passing me thinking that this guy has lost his mind. But that was a moment in my life when Jesus started trying to get my attention. Hear me say this, there is nothing wrong with the parade. God sent Samuel to the parade. There’s a time and a place for the parade. But our generation lives for the parade and there’s not enough people who care about the sheep. I feel like that’s my mission in life going forward, to simply care for sheep. The parade will take care of itself. So to bring it back around to the question, yes I’ve been in megachurches to now I have a house church of about 20 people that meets in my home and it’s awesome. And right now, my favorite worship leader on the planet is the girl who leads worship in my house, because she has an anointing on her, and to get 20 people to sing in a living room is actually way harder than getting 10,000 people to sing because it’s awkward, but it’s beautifully awkward. And she has an authority on her that she can pull this out of people and turn people’s eyes on Jesus in such a way that you forget there’s only 20 people in the room. That’s something I haven’t seen in a long time.”

Reeves has a strong passion for pouring into worship leaders and songwriters and has done so in different ways over the past several years since settling back down with his family in Austin, TX. We discussed the fact that it seems like every generation of worship leaders has something that really marks them. For our particular generation, we were a part of that group that sort of stepped in right as that transition from traditional to blended to contemporary was really gaining its momentum, and so maturing as a worship leader looked very different from what it does now. I asked Jesse what he thinks the “mark” is for this current generation of worship leaders taking up roles in the church and coming into their own as leaders, and what it might look like for them to reach their full potential. 

“While I don’t want to make a blanket statement about it, I do feel like we have a generation of people who looked at my generation and saw what we did and thought, “That’s really cool, I want to do that.” And so we have a large percent of churches with people filling the platform that wanted to do that because it was cool, instead of because they have a calling on their life from God. So honestly I think what’s marking this generation is that, but I’m also not a doomsday-er. I don’t think all is lost. I think what God is calling people to right now, and you can see it across the nation, God is calling people out who are authentic. And that is who is rising to the top. I read a book called The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch and he says that this next generation wants three things . . . they want authenticity, they want community, and they want social justice. And if they don’t find those things in the church, they’re just not going to go. My generation will go to church just to check a box. Not this next generation. I think what is going to have to mark this generation is for true worship leaders to figure out how to reach them because they’re not going to come to us. Which means we’re going to have to lead worship not with just songs. We’re going to have to lead worship with our actions. So maybe God is raising up a new generation of worship leaders that has very little to do with music. Look at Romans 12:1.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God - this is your spiritual act of worship.

That’s our definition. That definition doesn’t say anything about music, it doesn’t say anything about songs. We’ve had a whole generation that defines worship by our songs. God defines our worship by the degree to which we present our bodies as a living sacrifice. So what I pray is that the next generation will lead the charge in that. That’s something I would be willing to follow.”

As you can imagine, there’s not a whole lot to say after that, except this . . . where are you pouring out? Where are you investing your resources and energy? Is it into the parade or is it into the sheep? This is probably a question that we as worship leaders need to ask and re-ask ourselves on a regular basis. Like Jesse said, neither is right or wrong and there is a time and place for both. But it is always worth checking in periodically to make sure we are spending ourselves where He wants us spending ourselves. The alternatively will leave us simply exhausted. 

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Erica Boutwell

Erica Boutwell

Erica Boutwell is a wife, mom, and worship leader. While her first love is leading others in authentic times of worship, one of her greatest passions is developing and equipping the next generation of worship leaders. She is the Director of Operations for songwriter/producer/artist, Michael Farren, and recently joined the Here Be Lions team.