“Not every worship song needs to be a ballad.”
While Rend Collective’s Gareth Gilkeson certainly isn’t against slow songs, given his own worship band has recorded plenty of their own, he is passionate about rounding out the worship experience with a broader range of emotions. For Gilkeson and the rest of the Northern Ireland quintet, a missing component is joy.
If you’re familiar with Rend Collective, then you’re well aware of the band’s commitment to joyful expression in their songs. With albums like Organic Family Hymnal, The Art of Celebration or, most recently, As Family We Go, Rend Collective has gifted the church with energetic, vibrant songs filled with faith and hope, joy and strength.
“It’s not about being happy-go-lucky. Rather, as the scripture says, ‘The joy of the Lord is our strength,’” says Gilkeson. “That’s what sustains us through difficulties.”
It’s a facet to the worship movement that has clearly gained a strong foothold. With over 300,000 total album sales to date, Rend Collective is just scratching the surface on their success. When As Family We Go released, it hit the top of every iTunes Christian Albums chart around the world—from the U.S. and U.K., to Australia and South Africa. They’ve played Madison Square Garden and Red Rocks Amphitheatre. They’ve played Hong Kong, Brazil, Switzerland and Hungary. A fall tour with Chris Tomlin only accelerated the growth curve for their popularity.
It seems this whole joy-thing is catching on.
“On our last tour, we had a thing called the Celebration Wall where we got people to write their stories. It was amazing,” recalled Gilkeson. “We read them every night when we got onto the bus, and so many were stories of people choosing to celebrate through the most difficult times. There’s something about that which is more faith-filled than anything you can imagine.”
In that vein, it was very a specific story that cemented their celebratory calling as a band after Gilkeson witnessed the testimony of a young couple who remained faithful in their joy, and continuous worship to the Lord, even as they grieved a tremendous loss.
“I remember a few years ago, there was a couple in our church who lost their three year-old son,” says Gilkeson. “I have a two year-old boy, and I couldn’t imagine how I would cope if something happened to him. I remember they were in church the week after his funeral. They were at the front of the service with their arms lifted high, worshipping God and choosing to trust and find their joy in Him.
“That’s changed me forever. It’s very much committed us as a team and community on that same path to draw that out of people. It’s sometimes something that is lacking in worship in churches. Joy is a fruit of the spirit, so that’s our focus.”
The process of finding their specific vision has been an organic journey since the beginning. Gilkeson, whose wife, Ali, is also in Rend Collective, was originally a pastor in the small town of Bangor, Northern Ireland. The band formed from the church community without any real mission or purpose, other than write music and have fun. Now, however, they’ve become keenly aware of a greater mission as they’ve continued to see their songs impact in unexpected ways.
“Maybe at the start, we were just having more fun with it,” says Gilkeson with a laugh. “We were writing worship songs, but we were like, ‘Let’s make this a cool, funky bit.’ Then it would be too hard for people to sing. We’d be leading concerts and people would just be standing there looking at us. As soon as that starts happening, we know that’s not a song that we ever want to sing again.
“I think over the years, we’ve learned to develop who we are,” he says. “We’re writing songs for the church. We’re a worship band. That’s who we are and what we do. We also want to do it in the most creative way possible, and in a way that makes sense to us and to our generation—also perhaps to those who are cynical of the church. We want them to come in from the streets and not feel like they don’t get it. If they hear a song on the radio or at a concert, they could say, ‘I’m not so sure about God, but I’m into this.’
While celebration is the primary theme for Rend Collective, Gilkeson is quick to point out the band’s heart for a solid theology within the same breath. “Again, we’re a church worship band. It’s our responsibility to bring theology and things that matter in a context where they can sing it in churches or they can come to our concerts and experience the freedom and the joy in Christ.
“Being from Ireland, we’ve such a rich Christian heritage,” he says. “We all grew up on hymns, but not on the most recent, current worship songs. Whenever we write songs, we write them from the classic hymns standpoint, whether it sounds like it or not. Theology is just so important to us. Somebody once said to me, ‘You don’t believe the church’s theology by what the pastor says, but by what the people sing.’ That really affected me.
“I want to make sure people are singing about a beautiful, expansive, wonderful, creative God, not some boxed-in version that we have self-made, but the God of the universe. I want to sing that salvation didn’t come for free, but at the highest cost, and is available for everyone. That’s what I want to sing about, we don’t want to ever get away from that.”