What Courage Means

Our Interview with Stuart Townend

Songs such as In Christ AloneHow Deep the Father’s Love For Us and Psalm 23 (The Lord’s My Shepherd) have firmly established Stuart Townend as one of today’s leading writers and lyricists, and a mainstay in CCLI’s top 20 songs as reported by churches around the world.

His latest album, Courage, explores issues of vulnerability, loss and mental health in a collection of songs that have resonated powerfully with audiences across the UK. CCLI caught up with Stuart to find out more…

Stuart, thanks for talking to us. The title of your new album, Courage, appears to sum-up a collection of songs written through deeply personal times. What can you tell us about the album?

ST: It’s probably the most personal album I’ve done, including several songs reflecting our journey as a family over the last two and a half years, with the loss of my brother Phil to cancer; but also touching on wider issues of mental health that affect so many of us. And the courage we are talking about through the songs is the courage to be vulnerable, to be honest with ourselves and one another about the pain we all carry in our lives, and the courage to sit with others in pain without passing judgement or offering solutions.

What finally kick-started me into going ahead with the album (and the recent UK tour) was reading a quote by Brené Brown, which really struck a chord with me – that vulnerability is the thing we most want to see in other people, but the thing we least want other people to see in us. And that prompted me to take the risk of being vulnerable, in the hope that as a result others would find the courage to be vulnerable themselves.

Keep You Here is a profoundly moving song, written through the experience of your brother Phil’s journey with terminal cancer. You then came together to record the song as a family. What are your abiding memories of that weekend?

ST: Yes, it was an amazing experience to be able to record the song as a family – and, of course, a particularly precious thing to have Phil singing on the track.

The song itself was an unusual experience for me. I never had any intention of talking publicly about how Phil’s illness affected me, let alone writing a song about it! It was just something that came out, quite unexpectedly, after hearing a fellow songwriter talk about writing ‘from the well’ of our own experiences and feelings. As someone who tends to consciously ‘craft’ my songs slowly and carefully, especially the lyrical side of things, to write something spontaneously that felt so raw was a bit of a new thing for me. But I suppose it is that sense of vulnerability which has given the song such a resonance for many people walking a similar path to mine.

I played an unfinished version of the song at my mum’s house at Christmas 2016, when the whole family had gathered from different parts of the world to be with Phil. And afterwards Phil asked if I was going to put it on the next album, and if so could he sing on it? And I thought, ‘yes, that would be great’.

But by the spring of 2017 it was clear I wasn’t going to have the material ready for another album in time, as Phil’s health was beginning to deteriorate. So I thought, ‘hey, let’s record the song anyway!’ So we had an amazing couple of days in the studio with our respective families, recording and videoing the song and our time together. When I posted it on YouTube and Facebook, the response was overwhelming.

Another stand-out song on the album is I Am Here For You, one of two co-written with your daughter, Emma. Am I right that the song has provoked a powerful response wherever you’ve played it on the tour?

ST: Yes, Emma sings the song live on tour, and prefaces it with a very honest account of what courage means to her, and her own personal journey regarding mental health. It’s a very profound moment, and usually even her spoken introduction is greeted with applause!

For some people it’s the first time they have heard issues of mental health mentioned inside the walls of the church, which is tragic, really, considering the number of people we talk to whose lives are affected by these issues. Church should be a place of honesty, vulnerability and acceptance, but sadly that’s not people’s experience, and many seem to be silenced by a sense of shame and personal failure.

It must be pretty special to write with your daughter…

ST: Yes, it’s great. We both have strong opinions on things, so the sparks do fly a little when we work together! But I think that ultimately makes for a better song. The mental health issues that affect us as a family, and the whole journey of losing Phil, has meant we share a deep understanding, and it’s just been a question of finding the right melodies and lyrics that express that.

It’s great being able to tour with Emma and Joseph (my son, who plays drums). My youngest, Eden, sometimes tours with us, but he’s at university at the moment, so can’t be with us.

The lyrics of the title track, Courage, read like a moving and honest Psalm. Do you think there are enough songs that enable congregations to express and respond to life’s most difficult issues? How can churches, and worship teams in particular, approach these themes during times of worship, knowing that within any church there will be those who are struggling or experiencing great sorrow?

ST: I think the scope of our songs is broadening, but we’ve got as long way to go! Our guiding light here should, in fact, be the Psalms, which express joy and extravagant praise, but also disappointment, confusion and even anger. I’m a strong believer that our repertoire of songs should reflect the repertoire of our life experiences; that worship should be our response to the goodness of God in all the situations of life, good and bad.

Unless we let the reality of life seep into our church services, Sundays can become a form of escapism, where all is joy, everything is unerringly positive, all our problems are solved. We leave the building thinking everyone has their lives sorted out except us, and we go home to lives of unresolved problems, difficult relationships, unanswered prayer… and the resulting disconnect between the life we live in church and the one we live outside leads us to feel like we’re failing, and can ultimately undermine our faith in a God who is always there.

So yes, we need songs of joy, songs of intimacy, songs of hope and faith. And we also need songs of lament, songs of disappointment and frustration, songs that cry out ‘God, why do you feel so far away? Why do you not intervene in this or that world situation? Why is life so tough sometimes?’

Your songs are renowned for having the style of modern ‘hymns’, and you’ve said before that you’re intentional in writing songs that congregations can sing. How related are these aspects of your songs? What is it that makes a song ‘hymn-like’?

ST: I think that the distinction between songs and hymns is very much in the eye of the beholder! I’m happy for people to call my compositions whatever they want, if it makes them feel more comfortable singing them! Of course, there are reasons why a particular song might be more hymn-like – a more regular pattern of rhythm and rhyming; a more formal poetic language; the pulse of the song driven by the rhythm of the melody rather than the band arrangement; and so on. But whether we categorise a composition as a song or a hymn, it goes without saying that it should be singable (in a singable key for men AND women!), otherwise we will be just adding to the growing problem of passivity in our congregations.

In terms of musical style, personally I’ve gone for a more more folk feel rather than a rock one with my band. There are many reasons for that, but one is that it feels more conducive to congregational singing, especially among smaller churches where the ‘stadium-rock’ sound feels a little out of place…

You co-write many of your songs with Keith and Kristyn Getty. In a recent interview with Keith I was struck by how important he feels songs are in teaching theology, and his concern to reverse a decline in congregational singing. You’ve mentioned the problem of passivity in our congregations – so do you share those concerns?

ST: Yes, I do. I think it’s generally acknowledged that songs play a huge part in forming people’s theology, and we all tend to leave the church service on a Sunday singing the songs rather than reciting the sermon! I thank God for the explosion of songwriting that has impacted the church over the last 40 years, helping us to articulate an emotional as well as an intellectual response to the truth of the gospel as we recognise God’s powerful presence among us.

But we have to some extent fallen into the trap of concentrating solely on using songs that heighten that emotional response, when music can play a much bigger part in our lives than just give us a good Sunday worship time!

As we carry those Sunday songs into our daily lives, they can remind us how to live for Christ, of God’s promises to us in every situation of life, and help to feed our souls throughout the week. Transcendent Sunday experiences are to be valued and enjoyed, but I also need a song that calls to mind God’s complete forgiveness when I seriously mess up on Tuesday morning; a song that helps me to turn to God for guidance when I have a difficult decision to make at work on Thursday afternoon; a song that helps me to know God’s closeness when I’m hurt by a friend’s comment or when I feel that wave of depression closing in. Those are the kind of equipping songs that I want to be stored in our memory, that will help us to be true worshipping followers of Christ in the joys and sorrows of life.

It seems incredible that it’s now 17 years since you wrote In Christ Alone with Keith, and its popularity shows no signs of abating! During that time, the song has been covered by countless others, and I’m intrigued to know if you have a favourite version of the song (other than your own of course!).

ST: Yes, it doesn’t seem that long ago that I was introducing the song at the Stoneleigh event in the UK in 2001. I’ll never forget the recording we did at that event. In the musical section after the third verse the band really goes for it, and there’s an extraordinary roar that emanates from the congregation at that point, the likes of which I’ve never heard before or since. It was the sound of thousands of God’s people caught up in heartfelt worship at the tops of their voices…

Since then there have been lots of amazing versions of the song. My current favourite is a recording by Steph Macleod, which begins with Scottish bagpipes…

After an extended tour of the UK at the end of 2018, what does the year ahead hold for you?

ST: We’ve deliberately not put too much in the diary for 2019 yet, as the last half of 2018 has been pretty crazy! But we’re hoping to do a tour of Northern Ireland in the first half of the year, and over time we’ve developed a number of folk arrangements of Christmas carols which I’d like to record. And it kind of appeals to record a Christmas album in the summer…!

Stuart, thank you so much for talking to us. We wish you all the best for 2019.