An Interview With Modern-Day Worship Music Pioneer Don Moen
“One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.” –Psalm 27:4
At just 12 years old, songwriter and worship leader Don Moen underlined this very scripture verse in his Bible. He has spent the last three decades with this verse at the foundation of his ministry. We had the privilege of talking with one of the pioneers of modern-day worship music about his music, his ministry, and the mark he hopes to leave on this world.
Let’s start from the beginning…you’ve spent over thirty years at the forefront of the Christian music community. When you underlined that very first scripture verse, did you ever picture your path to God would look like this?
DM: Early on, I decided to put my trust in God that he would show me the way. It was a somewhat unorthodox approach, I didn’t have a manager or an agent but with each door God opened, I took a step of faith. Could I have accomplished more if I had been more intentional? Possibly. But in looking at all that God has allowed me to do, I can’t imagine any other way.
I believe my music and my approach to ministry and life is a result of keeping my priorities right. Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.”
You have written hundreds of worship songs throughout the years – how do you continually find new themes to reflect upon and unique sounds to bring to listeners?
DM: Some songs, like “God Will Make A Way” and “I Will Sing,” were inspired by real-life experiences, others are simply prayers put to music. And finally, the Word of God. How can you go wrong using God’s word for your lyrics? Isaiah 55:11 says, “His word will not return void, but it will accomplish the purpose for which it is sent.”
It’s also important to listen to as many writing styles as possible. Otherwise, you may find yourself in a rut, going to the same chords, the same musical form, the same lyric style again and again. I would encourage any songwriter to listen to other writers. Study their technique, find out what you like or dislike about it, and find out what works for them. Even if you don’t use anything you heard, you will come back to your writing with a fresh perspective, simply because you listened to something else. Songwriting should be objective, like putting an object on the table and viewing it from every possible angle. When you become too subjective, you will write good songs, not great songs. Collaborating with other writers can be a bit intimidating, but it will also force you to think about different ways to write and create. Iron sharpens iron.
Your songs have a way of expressing those “raw, every day” emotions that people experience – how do you manage to capture those feelings?
DM: In my early days of writing, I would sometimes sit in an empty church and ask myself the question, “What would I like to say to God?” or “What do I think God would want to say to me?” I would close my eyes and picture myself walking into church on a Sunday morning, which after getting our five kids ready, was almost always crazy! I would sit in the quiet and try to write something honest and sincere that expressed what I was feeling in my heart at that moment.
Looking back at your career, your music has touched millions of people around the globe. Could you take a minute to reflect on the impact your songs have had?
DM: I’m always humbled to hear someone say to me, “your music helped bring me through the worst time of my life.” Many have shared that my music was instrumental in them coming to Christ. There is no greater accomplishment than this.
But just as important are all the seemingly small ways that music touches people. Some of my favorite stories to hear are from those that come and tell me they used to fall asleep to my music as a child. Someone asked me, “Don, doesn’t it bother you to hear that mothers use your music to put their children to sleep?” I always reply that I could not think of a higher compliment than a mother trusting me to sing to their babies as they go to sleep.
Your music is truly the sound of multiple generations. How have you managed to stay relevant throughout the years when so much about the music and worship continues to change and evolve?
DM: I think the key to staying relevant is to be true to yourself. There are so many talented singers and worship leaders today that are much better and hipper and cooler than Don Moen. The Holy Spirit continues to remind me that I can’t be them; I can only be Don Moen.
There are so many talented singers and worship leaders today that are much better and hipper and cooler than Don Moen. The Holy Spirit continues to remind me that I can’t be them; I can only be Don Moen.
As a producer, I’m always interested in new sounds, new approaches to a project, new musical expressions, but I must be true to what I can deliver musically. If I do that, I hope that it will come across as authentic and real. I think that’s what people are looking for today. Also, I try to surround myself with talented singers and musicians who will always push me to achieve greater things.
Love what you just said about the Holy Spirit, reminding you that you “can only be Don Moen.” In this era of social media and influencers, what would you say to songwriters and worship leaders grappling to find their own voice?
DM: You could spend less than 30 minutes on social media and find out what the well-known churches and worship leaders are doing, what songs they’re singing, what clothes they’re wearing, etc., and begin to compare ourselves to them. Like songwriting, I think it’s good to find out what others are doing, but ultimately, we have to find out what works for our community of believers and us. What works for a crowd of 15,000 young people probably will not translate to your congregation of 150. Learn from everyone, but always remember to be yourself. Be authentic; keep it real. You may not be the most talented, most beautiful person, but I believe you’re on that stage because God saw the desire in your heart to worship Him and to be used by Him in a greater way.
What works for a crowd of 15,000 young people probably will not translate to your congregation of 150. Learn from everyone, but always remember to be yourself.
Resist the urge to become someone you watched on YouTube; your audience can smell a phony from a mile away. Just be yourself, stand in your own skin, and I believe you will feel the Holy Spirit affirming your calling, giving you a new sense of authority as you lead worship. Remember, God will not anoint who you want to be. He anoints who you are.
You spend a large portion of time touring the continents of Asia and Africa. How did this come to be such an essential part of your ministry outreach?
DM: As head of the label and an artist at Integrity Music for 20 years, I toured twice a year internationally to try to encourage our distributors. All the seeds I planted as a worship leader and artist were international, and that’s a big reason why my audience is more global than domestic. The seeds planted many years ago are still producing fruit today.
You have a quite significant music following globally – what is it about your music that crosses cultural lines and has no language barriers?
DM: I’m not sure I completely understand why people embrace my music internationally, but I’ve observed a couple of things over the years. For starters, ballads seem to transcend cultures and generations, and a lot of my songs are ballads. I’ve always been a sucker for a beautiful melody. From my earliest years, I remember listening to my mom play the old standards, notably Frank Sinatra singing Sammy Cahn songs. I think that influenced the way I write.
And secondly, as I mentioned before, many of my songs are simply prayers put to music, and I think people can relate to that regardless of location or language. A great worship song connects with people everywhere, no matter the culture, and can be a great catalyst in bringing unity to the body of Christ.
Speaking of planting global seeds – can you share with us about your ministry Worship in Action?
DM: When I founded Worship in Action about ten years ago, I wasn’t exactly sure what direction it would take, but I wanted to do something that went beyond my songs. Worship is more than the songs we sing. Worship is bringing God’s presence in practical, tangible ways to those in need, bringing hope to those who have lost hope and bringing encouragement to those who have become discouraged.
After one of my tours to Ghana several years ago, some friends took me to an orphanage about 90 minutes west of the city of Accra. There were over 100 children at Royal Seed Home, and this precious little four-year-old girl dressed in a blue jean skirt and a pink top, reached out and took my hand, and from that moment she stole my heart.
Gifty was her name, and she didn’t let go the entire time we were there. I noticed a scar on her head, so I inquired how she came to the orphanage. Left in a garbage bag in a field as an infant, she was found by some boys playing in the area. Almost every child at the Royal Seed Home has a similar story, and now there are 284 children there, 15 of those with special needs.
Worship is more than the songs we sing. Worship is bringing God’s presence in practical, tangible ways to those in need, bringing hope to those who have lost hope and bringing encouragement to those who have become discouraged.
They recently moved from their original location to property where they can grow crops and raise animals to help sustain them, but they are walking or riding a rickety old bus four miles each way to the old school building. We have consistently tried to provide money for food, medical aid, clothing, schoolbooks, teacher’s salaries, and many other essentials. Still, I felt one of the best things I could do for the children was to invest in their education.
I wanted them to have a school building on their new property, so they could spend their time learning rather than traveling back and forth. So, I did several concerts last fall, sharing my vision for an 18-room school building. Because of the generous giving of so many, we have all the money for the Royal Seed School. The children are so excited!
That is amazing – and a perfect example of bringing God’s presence to others in tangible ways. As a worship leader and songwriter, you have taken on the job of doing just that – helping people experience God’s presence in a new and fresh ways. What advice would you give to worship teams and songwriters based on what you have learned over the past three decades?
DM: Our role, as worship leaders and songwriters, should be to help create an atmosphere through our songs and worship leadership that welcomes God’s presence and allows Him to move among His people. Our congregations don’t need fancy production or high-tech displays; they need God’s presence. Not that I have anything against these sorts of productions, they have their place as well. But we must never lose sight of our goal – to help create an atmosphere that welcomes God’s presence. Songwriters need to truly understand their audience, not just those sitting in the front three rows every single Sunday. Be sure to pay just as much attention to the back rows to see if the guy who just drove a truck 80 hours last week is singing and worshiping with you. That’s the real test.
What can we expect from Don Moen in 2020? Anything on the horizon you are especially passionate about or looking forward to in the coming year?
DM: In the next couple of months, I’ll be going back into the studio to record some songs that are special to me. I always enjoy being in the studio, sitting down with talented musicians, and creating something that I hope will help people experience God in a new way. In August, my wife Laura and I are hosting an Alaska Cruise with my good friends Paul Baloche, Lenny LeBlanc, and Bob Fitts. It’s been a long time since we’ve all been together, and I know there will be some extraordinary moments of worship taking place. It will be a unique time for us to come together and revisit songs with some real “pioneers” who helped usher in the modern praise and worship movement – plus, they’re all my friends, so it will be fun to catch up! Finally, I just got back from Ghana, where we broke ground on the new school we’re building. I’ll be spending a lot of time this year focused on that project, and will be heading back several times between now and the grand opening in September. I’m excited to watch a field of brush turn into a beautiful facility that I pray God will use to transform the lives of children for generations. It’s going to be a busy year, but I’m looking forward to seeing all God has in store!