INTERVIEW: Dennis Allen, M.C.M., 3x Dove Award Winner

by Norm Miller
Editor/Moderator, SBCToday

Dennis Allen is a 3-time Dove Award winner, writer, arranger, orchestrator, digital programmer and studio producer. For nearly three decades, he has served in various church roles such as minister of music, pianist, arts director and more. He holds a B.A. from the University of Georgia, an M.C.M. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has served as guest lecturer in several academic institutions.

For the last 25-plus years, he and Nan, his wife, have published several hundred choral, instrumental, and dramatic works for adults, students, and children with a wide variety of publishers, and have established two self-publishing companies.

Pastors, worship leaders, and anyone else interested in some of the issues surrounding church music and worship should enjoy this candid interview, wherein Dennis shares his heart and vision for his new ministry to students.

Q. Why would a person with your credentials leave an incredibly successful career for the relative obscurity of a professorship in the North Georgia Mountains?

A. After 25 years or so in Christian music publishing, that season for us had begun to taper off; it’s in kind of a different place now. Lots of reasons: the economy, the changing nature of the church, and other things. These changes made us think God had something else for us. I had always thought about passing what we have known and done to those who will follow.

The connection to Truett-McConnell seemed so natural, and the interview experience was so God-filled. We believe this is what God wants us to do. I don’t come from an academic background. My teaching role here primarily is what I have been doing for the last 25 years — music ministry, writing, and arranging. I’m delighted in this new season for us.

Q. You mentioned the nature of the church – what about that?

A. The nature of the church today is in a continuing state of flux. Many have experienced success in traditional worship forms, however many don’t know what to do with the contemporary influences that, frankly, are here to stay.

Maybe the worship wars have abated, but a state of uncertainty remains in churches still trying to relate what they have done in the past, and perhaps need to do in the future. I have experienced a great deal of both traditional and contemporary worship, and have faced about every kind of situation students might encounter out there in a music ministry. My goal is to simply help them be prepared.

Q. What’s your take on the decline in church choirs?

A. I don’t get it. I feel strongly that the choir has a biblical role – that it’s God’s design for the choir to be in place. The Old Testament has several examples.  Church organs, choirs, orchestras, hand bells are all elements in music ministry we used to call important. But many churches have stripped away a lot of the traditional things. Even student choirs, a real passion for me, are fewer. A lot of music ministers are giving up on student choirs, and I just don’t understand it. There are still teenagers in their churches. And we still believe that the arts – music, drama, and any other kinds of arts – are a vital way to share the faith and to teach. So, I think music programs, whether traditional, contemporary or blended, should offer ministry of various kinds to all age groups.

Q. How can the student who has preferences about contemporary worship be successful in a traditional church?

A. The first thing to do is meet with all the church staff and put all the cards on the table – releasing everything they have gripped so tightly as their personal preferences for worship content and style.

At the same time, they need to learn the church’s DNA. That helps determine how to best minister. Church DNA is based on the years it’s been in existence, the people in past leadership roles, and most especially the people who are still there. Probably, your church hasn’t wandered in the wilderness until you arrived. Maybe the church has had a successful worship ministry, and you, as the new person, could learn something from what they’ve been doing. They have been experiencing worship on whatever level, doing the best they can as other staff have led them to sing, preach and teach. So, your arrival is not necessarily like a rescue. You are there to contribute the next layer.

Like so many biblical illustrations, God called people to a task and then equipped them, not the other way around. So, I think God can give you a heart of ministry and the patience to slowly unpack the things that you believe are critical. Now, you may have the fresh spirit that the people need, and God brought you there.  But, it is good to have deep sensitivity toward those God has called you to minister. The church is a family. You’ve got to put up with the weird “Uncle Joe” and moody “Aunt Sally,” who looks like she’s losing her marbles, not to mention defiant “Cousin Jimmy.” You’ve got all of that in the church. And they are not always going to love you for everything that comes out of your mouth.

Remember, you’re new to them. But you can earn your way into a church family…just go slowly. You can’t say, “Everything you’ve done so far is junk. Now let me unpack all my wisdom for you.” Now, don’t let go of the things God has laid on your heart, but be wise. Just because you have the right to the final word doesn’t mean you must exercise it.

I see nothing wrong with that same student taking a traditional hymn and freshening it a little bit. Contemporizing the hymn can help it segue easier with a more modern song that ties into it thematically. I recently got an ad talking about a CD with these “fresh new praise songs” songs on it. The featured artists made a laundry list of some of the best-known contemporary musicians, but the song titles included “Blessed Assurance,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” and “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” All these familiar hymns  had a contemporary touch. I want our students to understand this. There are already many good musical examples out there of blending the old with the new, such as “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” and others.  The wise worship leader will find a way to make hymn and song selections which blend these two styles smoothly.

Q. How broad is the spectrum of ministry for the worship leader?

A. A church music ministry can be so many layers. I don’t know of anything more entrepreneurial than being a worship leader/minister of music. It can be as big or as small as you prefer. At the church I served the longest, we had an adult choir and ensemble, a youth choir and ensemble, a diverse instrumental program, plus I also helped coordinate a children’s choirs program.  That doesn’t mean every church needs all this, but that was the way it was back then.

It fascinates me when I hear a worship leader say, “All I do is prepare worship for Sunday.” I’m thinking,  “What do you do with the other four-and-a-half days of the week?”

As I get to know our students, I am very interested in having personal conversations with them on this topic. I want to help them discover what it means to them to be a contemporary worship leader, but to also understand how broad the church music ministry can be.  It’s more than just putting together a song set each Sunday of the latest and greatest worship songs.

Q. What is worship?

A. Worship is a lifestyle. It’s not the music we choose to sing on Sunday morning. Our language is so messed up sometimes. Worship is more about what we do Monday through Saturday than it is the songs we select and sing on Sunday. Worship is in your heart. Man looks on the outside, but God looks on the inside. The first worship we have each day is when we get up in the morning and thank the Lord we are breathing, and we pray that we are somehow effective in God’s kingdom that day.  Worship is when we get our minds off of ourselves, and focus on the Lord. Giving our lives, laying our all on the altar – that is worship. I don’t think the Bible knows about worship any other way. Romans 12:1-2 is a good standard for that.

But as far as expressions of corporate worship, we need to be very careful in what we see as authentic worship. I saw a picture that looked like a contemporary worship service. Young people with raised hands…smoke in the room…different colored spotlights shining down through the smoke…a band up on stage. It looked just like a contemporary worship scene, but, in fact, it was a nightclub, a bar.

I’ve read that young people are not always responding to music ministry that is only skinny jeans and a heavy rock band mentality. They are looking for a lot more substance. So, having something that mirrors the secular world can be a mistake in the long run, as the research shows

Let me hasten to add I am not putting down presenting worship in this way. There’s a new wave of focus on the Lord and a growing understanding of what worship really is. And I couldn’t be more excited. But in combination with that, there is some critiquing that needs to happen. Let’s be sure we’re not worshipping worship. Let’s get ourselves grounded in the Lord and in connection with God’s people for what worship is really about.

Q. Then, what is a worship leader?

A. We have a semantics problem in the church today, in my opinion. Worship leader is a curious phrase in today’s usage. It seems to imply that the only time we are worshipping God is when a musician is leading us. And it implies that worship is the same as singing. I think that anyone who encourages and leads people to praise God can be referred to as a worship leader. It’s not all about music.

So, I think all the pastoral staff shares equally in the task to grow and mature and edify the church. Each uses different tools perhaps, the pastor emphasizes preaching the Word, the education minister emphasizes teaching, the music leader emphasizes the use of music tools/resources.

I think it would be a good thing for all the staff to realize that the church needs inspired leadership at every position. And at the same time, the staff needs to know the DNA of the congregation well enough to know its tolerance for change.

Q. What about the spiritual life of the worship leader; how important is that?

A. The nice thing about the contemporary worship movement is that it has given a lot of focus to that, specifically. To be a worship leader, you’ve got to be a worshiper yourself. Your own devotional life has just got to be solid, regular, focused.

Q. How involved in personal worship should the leader be during corporate worship?

A. Worship leaders have a responsibility in leading worship, both to be a worshipper and to select material that helps the congregation engage. That’s the job. However, the worship leader’s worship in the corporate setting might have to take a back seat to others’. It is important to demonstrate worship, but not be distracting.  This is a highly debated topic, but I do feel the worship leader’s primary responsibility is to the congregation.

Q. What should be done if the leader is too personally involved during corporate worship?

A. It’s the pastor’s responsibility to express appreciation for that worship leader’s sensitivity to personal worship, and then suggest the focus needs to be more on the congregation’s worship. There are always sacrifices in ministry. One for the worship leader is to lead the worship and not run too far ahead of the congregation.

Q. Regardless of a church’s worship style, what about introducing new songs?

A. Too much too soon is not a good thing. One new song every couple of weeks or so is plenty. Perhaps the new songs can be introduced by the choir, or sung as a solo. The songs most often selected for worship should be ones the people can join in and sing. This gets back to knowing the church’s DNA.

Q. So, you’re not advocating completely ignoring the hymns?

A. Oh, not at all. True, one of the reasons people didn’t want to sing hymns anymore is because for decades we sang them by rote, and were not paying attention to the words and meaning anymore. Well, now we’re doing that with contemporary songs. The more repetition there is, the less we think of the power of the words and their meaning.

But if you actually read the old hymns, there is some strong, really chill-bump strong stuff in them. And the same thing is true with many contemporary songs. There is some power in all styles; don’t dismiss any of it.  Think about “O, for a Thousand tongues to Sing,” and think of those words in the third verse, “He breaks the power of cancelled sin.” Wait a minute. Let’s read that again. He breaks the power of cancelled sin. Hey, cancelled sin is sin that’s already been forgiven. But there’s still power that Satan wants to use by asking us, “What are you doing in this church? You know who you are, and I know who you are.” But, Jesus breaks the power of that cancelled sin. Wooooo! That’s a tear-filled moment right there. I mean, to come to grips with it – that it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, Satan cannot hold that up in front of you anymore.  That’s the power of song lyrics.

Q. How important is the theological content of songs whether traditional or contemporary?

A. If Nan were to answer, she would say, “That’s the only thing that’s important,” because she’s a lyricist. And you know what? She’s right. Therefore, any music you use is fine. There is nothing sacred about a melody or a chord change. But there is something very sacred about the lyrics. When you study hymnology, the text the focus. That was the scary part at the beginning of the contemporary worship movement; some of the lyrics were so lightweight. But many modern worship songs these days are filled with great theology.

Q. Do you see a priority in worship concerning preaching and singing?

A. I don’t see the Bible breaking it down that way. I don’t see either preaching or singing as the focal point of worship. I understand and respect the pastor’s roles as chief teacher and net-drawer to bring people to a point of decision regarding everything that happened in the service, and of asking Christ to be the center of their lives. I see that as an expository and exhortative ministry.

I’m a big believer in the whole service being one cohesive unit. I would hope that the pastor and worship leader would meet to talk about how the sermon and music can complement each other. I love to be in a service where it’s clear that everybody on the podium has been talking that week…that they have been planning and thinking how they can provide for me an experience with the Lord. When a church staff discusses and plans a worship meeting, it is obvious. And so is the lack of planning.

You see, a church staff spends most of the week on the things of God. But average member Joe works in the shop all week, and average member Jane is a homemaker. Every Sunday, people are in the congregation who have had a hard week and perhaps have a bad attitude. Their marriage is falling apart, their kids are rebellious, and they’re losing their house due to finances. They’re thinking, “You can sing any song in the book, and I’m not worshipping today. My hearts is so heavy and my life is screwed up — I don’t care what you sing.” Yet, they come to church, hungry, needy, hoping that the worship service will open the windows of heaven so they can peer in, and then the whole week’s worries can drop off their shoulders and they can experience God so when they walk out they are ready for a new week.

So, both the preacher and worship leader share the responsibility of seeking the Lord as they prepare a service for a diverse, and many times, hurting congregation. Quite a responsibility!

Q. If you could encapsulate all of what you have said, what one word would want people to take away from this interview?

A. Discernment. Students should avoid putting so much stock in their own wisdom, and be able to look at a church situation with sensitivity and a Spirit-guided awareness of the people they are working with. That kind of sensitivity helps us get a look at the big picture and the best chance at being used by the Lord in an effective ministry to His Body and for His glory.  If we can train our students to have this kind of discernment, we will have given them our best.

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Professor Allen will not be monitoring/commenting on this blog post.

If you have a question for him, please send it to sbctoday@gmail.com