Interview with Rob Howard

Throughout the Bible, a team approach to teaching is in effect. Rob Howard shares how the musical diet the church feeds its congregation shapes the worship experience.

About Rob

Rob Howard serves full-time as Executive Pastor, Worship and Communication at Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, TN. He has been involved leading and shepherding in church ministry on a full-time and part-time basis for over 20 years.

Several years ago Rob joined David Guthrie in launching Little Big Stuff Music, writing and recording kids’ musical projects that serve the church and proclaim the gospel. He loves the opportunity to create, to work with his wife as a graphic designer, and alongside his kids in the studio.

Click to read Transcript

EASLEY: A cursory reading in the book of Acts shows how the church was born out of discipleship when Christ and the disciples are initially in groups, and then by twos. At the time of the book of Acts, we see that team is still in effect. Groups of disciples were going out and making disciples. For example in Chapter 11 of the book of Acts, the Church of Antioch is recorded, where the persecution scatters the believers; we see the character Barnabas who goes off to Antioch; later he’ll leave to look for Saul and this ministry continues with a team approach; where God is using more than one person to affect the ministry. At the Fellowship in Nashville, we have a team approach. It’s an unusual approach because it’s not built around one person. You’ve heard from our Teaching Pastors and today in studio I have Rob Howard.

Rob, thanks for being with us.

HOWARD: Thank you. Glad to be here.

E: Rob, your career after Baylor University, was with with Word. Is that correct?

H: Yes, actually after Baylor, I did a graduate degree at SMU. At SMU in Dallas is where I really started working with the church and started falling in love with the church and serving the church. So I served the church there for two years while I was doing my grad degree, then moved to town served the church part time for nine years, while I worked ten years in Music Publishing at Word.

E: At the local church, what was your role?

H: I was their Music Minister and now this is 1992, right in the middle of the worship wars, you might say, and I got a call from a friend of mine from Baylor whose father was the Music Minister, and he said, “Can you start a contemporary service?” So that’s how it all began. I had no idea what I was doing. I bought two books on contemporary worship.

E: (Laughter)

H: One book by Don McCann and one by LaMar Boschman. I guess you’d say, a Christian Billy Joel and I just started leading worship.

E: That’s a picture I’ve never had. (Laughter)

H: Exactly. I don’t know if it works. That’s where it really began for me; that I fell in love with serving the church and I think God started to stir something that eventually we’d see become full time.

E: So when Word moves to Nashville, you are part of that transition?

H: Yes, I followed them here and hung around until they hired me full time and then worked with them for ten years. My role was really shaping resources for the church: print publishing. So we did worship resources; we did choral music resources; and I really looked at that as a ministry of putting the right resources in the church for them to be able to do what they needed to do in worship music.

E: By the way, you and David Guthrie still do some writing on the side?

H: We do. We have a company called “Little Big Stuff.” We do two childrens musicals a year. The funny thing is I really thought that I would come to Nashville and be a songwriter. That was a little bit of my dream and it wasn’t realized until fifteen years later. Now I do that and my wife is involved with art; my kids are involved in a recording process and we can really see how we’re able to serve the church. I believe if we marry truth with music and put it in the minds of children  they’ll never forget it. I really believe that. I’m a product of that. I could sit here and sing you songs from children’s choir when I was six years old.

E: How did you end up at Fellowship?

H: I served a church here in town part time. You know what that means, part time for nine years while I was still working full time at Word. I just got to the place where I was terribly unhealthy, but I didn’t know it. I was caught up in this doing, doing for God. They were good things. I was doing good things, but I was doing more than I think God had really called me to do and I just came to the point to where my well was dry. I let go of that church which was really hard to do because my wife and I moved to town and we had no family and we really didn’t know many people and they had become our family; they were surrogate grandparents; they were best friends and we had a very tight group there. We sat in the pew at Fellowship for a year and the Executive Pastor at the time at Fellowship was my community group leader, and he let me know of a position that was open. I think that I had already seen how healthy it was at Fellowship and I responded to that. I didn’t know all of what was going on inside of me. I also believe that’s where I’m supposed to be. Ten years ago this fall, I was hired at Fellowship.

E: So ten years ago we just had the one campus in Brentwood. Were you shepherding four groups, four worship leaders?

H: Well the way it started for us; to get into a multiple worship leader approach, they brought me on to oversee the weekends, oversee the volunteers, and help us build out our teams to be able to serve two venues on campus. One was a video venue with a host, so we fielded two worship leaders, and two teams each weekend. After a year, we realized that was really difficult to do. There’s a lot of energy to do two venues. If we opened up Saturday night, all of the energy was already being spent in that venue, with those people, same service, but we built our teams up. In that year of me coming onto our staff, Brian Petak, who was our former Worship Pastor before me was just making the decision to transfer his full time energies to our Global Pastor role, so they moved me into his role. I was kind of hired as a Worship Director. So at that point Brian stepped out of leading worship altogether; I stepped out of leading worship and then we had built our worship leader team to focus in the two different venues. We went to four people in our body and said, “We really believe this is part of who we are, part of our DNA at Fellowship, team ministry, and multiple leader approach from the platform especially.” We asked four people that had been serving a little bit over that last year to move forward contractually with us to give us x number of weekends a year. All four of those were very,very good worship leaders that were just sitting in our body and there were gifts to be utilized.

E: Now not every church is in Nashville.

H: Oh yes.

E: Not every church has got the talent pond out in the pew or the chair. But we’re in a unique city and you’ve got to believe in major cities: Chicago, parts of LA, parts of New York, the New England area that there are talent rich people sitting in a pew doing nothing. How do you change? Well, maybe not change the culture so much, but how did you get to the place where you say, “Ok, we can exploit in a good way, these men and women with their talents and we can share the load, so it’s not every weekend you’ve got four services?”

H: Right, and for us it really was easy for us to make that decision because the four people that we asked to lead, they were all in our church. Several had been there for years so they really  embodied who we are. They were also amazingly gifted Worship Leaders that were doing that anyway most every weekend, some as artists, some doing camps, and most all of them were songwriters. That was their vocation; they were involved in that. So there was something beautiful about asking these people to plant their feet in local ministry; to be accountable to the local church, and in a sense to let us send them out from the local church; than just asking people in the body that are gifted; let them use their gifts. So that’s really how it began for us.

E: Not unlike the Senior Pastor role in my former world, forty two Sundays a year I was teaching and in Fellowships case, it’d be Saturday night and three times on Sunday. It’s the same with a typical Worship Pastor. He or she is leading a choir or orchestra, a special ensemble and they are doing it all, and all the choir rehearsals, all the rehearsals. What’s it look like for multiple teams?

H: We’ve chosen at Fellowship to take on a contemporary model and music that reflects our culture. I was just with a group of Worship Pastors from different Fellowship Churches last week and we were having a discussion around this. You know when we bring the contemporary music, our culture’s music into our church, it says something. One thought that keeps going through my mind these days is the more we sing a song, the more we teach whatever we’re singing; the more we say something or the more we raise up a story or talk about something the more we are teaching. We’re constantly teaching people. So what is it teaching that we’re bringing our cultures music into our church? I think that I’m for it. I think it’s relevant and it helps people to respond to God in a language that they’re familiar with. If you think about it, we bring in Rock Music; we bring in Pop Music and what does our culture create? We create Rock Stars; we create Pop Stars, and so one thing that I love about this multiple leader approach is it’s not personality driven; it’s not about one person and we’re all familiar with that model and maybe grew up with that model. I did. But with the multiple leader approach, it takes a little bit of the spotlight off of one person and I love that we’re able to do that.

E: From my vantage point, being six years now, I’ve appreciated that we don’t have prima donnas. I don’t mean that unkindly.

H: No, we don’t.

E: The men in our case, the women who lead worship, it’s really not about them and they’re differential and they’re open to input. I’ve watched them rehearse with many of our volunteers and some of the volunteers are pros and some aren’t and to be able to watch the way they can shepherd those other musicians. It’s really interesting because you say rock and roll or pop, I’d say we’re pretty tepid. I mean there are churches that are really rockin and rollin, right? Smoke machines, lights.

H: We do an awful lot to have it not feel like a show. We really do.

E: When you talk about these individuals, it’s really their character and who they are in Christ, right?

H: Right, absolutely. We are fortunate to have a lot of mature believers and a lot that have been around here for years. Our church has been going sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years and we have a lot of volunteers that have been with us that long. We’re talking about some pretty deep followers of Christ that it can be pretty easy to lead a group like that. Also there’s great potential for those people to come alongside newer members.

E: We started a second campus a little over four years ago in Franklin and God willing we’ll start a third one very soon. From your role, which has changed, when you think about exporting the good part of who you are as a Worship Leader/Shepherd, what concerns you about this and you say, “Ok, we’re going to put this in another campus, and then a third campus, and maybe a fourth and a fifth?

H: I don’t know that I necessary have the answer for that because I’ve been thinking about what is the core DNA in worship and arts that we want to pass along? I don’t think it’s necessarily a style of music. I think we’re looking more at the heart of people, the kind of volunteer, the kind of disciple we want to make because that style may always change. I was talking with one of our pastors maybe a year ago and he was saying, “When we first moved to town, we were really the only church doing expository teaching.” Now there are several churches doing expository teaching. We were one of the first churches, but there weren’t many doing contemporary music; now most of them are. What’s next for us in contemporary music or what’s the next style of music? I thought for a long time about that and I don’t know that we’ll answer that. Our children might answer that, but I want to be more concerned about the people’s hearts, and people’s character.

E: So we begin with a Worship Team philosophy, not built around one person?

H: Right! Together is better.

E: We look then for Godly mature men and women who are in those roles. We’re trying to develop a culture of discipleship and maturity among those teams. You said, “DNA” and it’s one of those Christian cliches we kick around a lot. It’s not fellowship, it’s not grace, it’s not, you know whatever it is. That’s not our DNA. Beyond the style issues, and the style arguments, what’s the DNA?

H: Well that’s what I’ve been thinking about but I don’t know that I have an answer for you yet and I don’t think I would be the only one to carry that piece. I don’t know Michael; that’s a great question. I really don’t know that I’ve got an answer for you yet on that, that I’m really certain of. It’s almost like, take music off the table. That’s kind of where I am right now and say, “What kind of followers of Christ are we helping create? Helping shape? Helping teach? Helping grow?” That their musical gift is there. You know one thing that we say a lot around worship and arts ministry is that you cannot be a distraction in any way. The people say, “What are your guidelines?” That’s really it! We didn’t come up with that. We got it from a good church and a really good Worship Pastor that’s a wonderful leader. But you know, you think about that and that covers all areas of the person’s ability and skill on their instrument, and their character. Are they the same person at church, at home? How are they living? How are they walking their walk? Even what they wear.

E: Their dress. Sure.

H: How are they treating each other? Do they show up on time? So it’s almost like I’m taking music off the table at this point and saying these are the kind of people that we want on stage leading our body because again, we’re putting these people up on the platform, on the stage, and we’re putting them up in front of people and what is their character?

E: Plus, they are leading whether they know it or not.

H: Exactly.

E: They’re leading and teaching. Let’s talk a little bit about style and complaints and you used the word contemporary. Worship words are never going to stop so what’s your counsel to a church regarding, “Why don’t we sing more hymns? Why don’t we sing a song that has overly repetitious choruses? There’s too much drum. There’s too much whatever.”

H: I was thinking about that the other day and I don’t want to tell the story and get off from your question but, I was driving up north of the city and I drove past this church, my old worship church. We used to go play there a lot and there were partner churches, friend churches, and they were trying to get a contemporary thing going and so they would drag us in on a Sunday night and we would (unfinished thought).

E: Willingly. (Laughter)

H: Yes.  We were their guinea pigs and we’d bring drums and electrified instruments. I remember this old gentleman came up after the service, very old gentleman and I thought, “Oh no, here we go.” He said,“You know I don’t prefer this style of music, but I can see it’s making a difference in the young people, but I want to offer you something.” He said, “All four songs we sang tonight, I never heard us sing the the word “Jesus.”

E: Wow.

H: I think I was smart enough at twenty some years old to hear the truth in that and respond to it. I grew up on hymns and when I’m in a situation, a trial, suffering, or in a tough spot that’s where I go back to.

E: You don’t think that’s the current, contemporary song, right?

H: I don’t. I really don’t. I go back to the hymns. I may be a bridge in that generation that gets both. I remember at Baylor the first time I ever heard drums in a church, I came alive and thought, “Why haven’t we done this before?”

E: Interesting.

H: So I really want that. That’s the style I want, but we can’t let go of that and a couple of things that help us shape it and what we’re trying to hold tighter to these days, is what our song choices are. One is the phrase that we’re responsible for the diet of songs that we’re feeding our body; so how healthy is our body? Do we have too many songs about God’s faithfulness and not enough songs about Jesus blood? Do we have too many about whatever and not enough lament songs? Which we don’t have enough of. We don’t do that enough. Hymns help us in that language, in that diet that we’re feeding our body. I love the new songs. Every generation is probably going to write their new songs and not all of these will last. The cream of the crop will. What are the cream of the crop of the hymns? That’s something I’m kind of wrestling with too. Someday my seventeen year old son is going to discover the hymnal and I’m just going to smile and say, “Wow, yes. He never would listen to me before.” (Laughter) The second thing is are we singing the gospel? Is that the story we’re telling every week because what are we teaching through the songs that we sing? Are we singing about attributes of God? God is holy. God is creative. God is faithful. Are we singing songs about man’s sin, our sin? Are we singing songs about Jesus saves? What has Jesus done? We could even go so far as to how God has called us or how we respond.  We’re trying to let those two things guide our song selection and we would say we want to draw from the pool of songs from ancient history past to, where do we go in the future?

E: I remember years ago reading a secular book by, I believe she was a Methodist, and it was a  social look at hymn lyrics for several decades and she made these extraordinary observations:  To simplify it, what we call a horizontal vs. a vertical hymn, and at some point when the songwriter starts pivoting towards singing about man’s condition, rather than a vertical doxological glorifying God’s attributes of Christ, or attributes of God. It’s a simple observation and sometimes when we’re hearing the lyrics, they are horizontal, and even hymns can be that way. It’s not just contemporary Christian music. Any thought on that?

H: Oh yes. We haven’t gone this far but we’re careful about being real rigid about the structure of it. We have to look at that because at some point if you and I aren’t engaged in a dialogue with God in our songs, vertical, then we’re just talking about things. Does that ever get from our head to our heart? I think that the vertical songs help us get from our head to our heart.

E: What concerns you most about worship in any local church as you think about the future of the church?

H: I’d say this concerns me most. I could probably come up with something. I can be a worrier. I could probably come up a list of concerns.

E: What are some of the things that concern you?

H: One things that concerning is what are we teaching the next generation? What are we saying by what we sing? What are we saying that is important to them? That’s where I come back to the diet songs and are we singing the gospel? What are we teaching? So does somebody curate that? Does my generation or this next generation curate that to where we don’t lose those older songs? So we just don’t sing eight to ten of them. We don’t lose the richness, the depth of theology because we need to be singing that. We need to have anchors to hold onto when we’re going through our suffering just like I was talking about the little kids and the truth that they’ll come up with twenty years later. There’s something that happens when a text is married with a melody that makes it stick in our brain. So who’s really curating that? I don’t have a theology degree. I think I grew up with pretty good theology and the path to being in music ministry is you used to go to seminary and that changed with this contemporary worship. You used to have to take music classes and read music and that’s changed in this new culture. I would hate to see it go so far that we get soft on theology in our songs.

E: To the average church in America, and that’s the church of two hundred ish, who doesn’t have a deep bench, they don’t have great musicians in their audience, what do you tell them?

H: I lived that for nine years. We were two hundred, two hundred fifty, soaking wet and we were talking about what is true in Nashville churches is a higher level of musicianship. When I was with Word and we’d go to different conferences and talk and people would say, “Is that really true about Nashville?” I’d say, “You know it is. At my church of two hundred, I have one drummer.” When he left we never got another one. I had one acoustic guitar, one bass player, and those people were with me for nine years. At fellowship, we’ve had twelve drummers, and half of them have either played professionally or are playing professionally and that kind of culture is there, but in the small church that I served in for nine years the older I get, the more simple everything gets. Are you loving God? Are you loving people and are you leading them to Jesus? I think that when we talk about ministry, we talk a lot about shepherding ministry, pastoral ministry, and team ministry, and even on our teams it’s hard to get along with people. We’re always going to have problems on our teams. We’re always going to have problems in our churches. You know this. Your children come home from elementary school and they’re not talking about times tables, they’re saying what happened at the lunch table; what happened at recess because that’s where conflict happens. God has put people in front of you in this church of two hundred and one of our jobs is to love them and to lead them to Jesus, to point them to Jesus, to talk to them about Jesus. That’s the way I always approach that team is to really dig into the relationships. But you know when we talk about multiple Worship Leaders, and team ministry, well that was my team. I learned team ministry being in a small church with seven other volunteers; that was my team; they were the sound guys that set up for the Sunday morning service; they were the person that was going to sing the special with the choir; they were the ones that were going to show up at three o’clock to take down the podium and move the Communion Table; to set up the instruments to do the contemporary service and then they were playing the instruments. That was my team. There’s something about whatever position you are in; are you coming alongside people and are you helping them grow? Are you loving people? That’s what we do in ministry and you don’t have to be in a church of five thousand to be doing that. Is there somebody there that has a gift that you could see leading worship? And how do you bring them alongside you? How do you teach them? How are you with them in it? How do you let them go? How do you have good feedback about how they did? They can fill in for you. How do you help them grow like that? It doesn’t have to be like we do it.

E: Rob, I want to thank you for being with us. If you want to know more about Littlebigstuff.com check it out. See what Rob and David write. Thanks for being on the program. This is Michael Easley inContext.

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