This one comes to us from Daniel Melvill Jones.

The Parson Red Heads are a beloved West Coast indie band with a cult following and consistent critical acclaim. They are known for their harmony-rich psychedelic sound, rooted in the American folk and rock traditions. Evan Thomas Way, with his wife Brett, have led the band over the past decade, but on a day-to-day basis Evan serves as the worship pastor of Portland’s Door of Hope church. Door of Hope is remarkable for the many celebrated creatives that have been part of its community, including Josh Garrels, Liz Vice, Wesley Randolph Eader, and The Bible Project. Evan has written an album of worship songs for his congregation, and heads their record label, Deeper Well. To learn more about Evan’s role in the church and his creative life, I met with him last summer.

With a gentle voice appearing from behind his shaggy orange hair, Evan described how his Christian worldview has seeped into his songwriting for the Parsons. “The more I’ve grown as a Christian and have taken following Jesus seriously, the more I can’t help it. I’m not thinking about it when I’m writing lyrics, but it’s coming through somehow.” He’s noticed music website and radio interviewers increasingly ask him if his lyrics reference God. “When we first started, no one would ever ask me that about any of my songs. It has just kind of sneaked in.” Writing songs for The Parson Red Heads has allowed listeners who would never pick up a gospel record to hear a message that “is not explicitly Christian, but certainly has an engrained worldview that could soften their hearts.”

His music for the Parsons also allows him to express ideas that church music would not be the right context for. “It allows me to be more introspective about life, expressing doubt or pain. It allows me to sing from different perspectives. I’ve written songs from the perspective of characters who are not me.” He believes that Christians have a lot of freedom to be creative, but not all of that freedom is best suited within the context of church music. For someone who writes for Parson Red Heads with such freedom, it was striking to hear how seriously he takes writing music for the church.

Evan and his band, The Parson Red Heads

“When I write worship songs, they’ve got to be theologically sound. The lyrics have to communicate clearly, and it has to be easy to sing along with. I don’t write Christian songs; rather, I write all of my worship songs for the needs of my church.” But Evan also sees the need in the modern church for better congregational music. “There is a lot of bad music being done by churches. The songs aren’t pleasing artistically. They tend to be devoid of actual content, just Christian lingo repeated over and over again that means nothing. Certainly you don’t want to go to a church and feel conflicted because you just don’t like the songs. You’re not there to please yourself or be entertained. You want to worship God well and humbly, but you’re like, ‘Man, I can’t help it. This song is terrible.'”

Although Evan believes in the importance of good quality worship music, he’s had to learn not to let that desire control his own worship. When he and his wife moved from L.A. to Portland and began looking for a church to attend, he found himself showing up ready to judge the music. “It wasn’t healthy. Everyone else was worshiping and we were being self-righteous, treating it like we were supposed to be entertained.” Eventually he and his wife decided to put aside the music and select a church purely for its health and good teaching. The very next Sunday they walked into Door of Hope, whose pastor, Josh White, is an experienced musician and talented songwriter. They’ve never stopped going.

The pastor learned of their band and soon asked Evan to lead worship with him. As Evan continued to help Josh, he saw firsthand how busy and often unorganised the lead pastor was. Evan volunteered to take over the scheduling of musicians and was eventually offered the role of music pastor. “I didn’t really want the job! I was comfortable in my current career. But after praying about it, we realised that I was called to this specific church.” He doesn’t view being a music pastor as a career, but as a natural extension of his role in this community. “If I were to lose my job, I would go back to web development. Besides, I don’t think any other church would have me.”

Evan feels like most worship pastors are hired for their music abilities. “‘Can you sing good? And play guitar good? Then you’re the worship pastor!” But Evan resists that definition. “How does that qualify you to be a pastor? You’re just a musician. Do you have a healthy vision of what constitutes humble worship rather than a concert? My job is first and foremost caring for the musicians and volunteers that are put under my care.”

To Evan, discipling his musicians is a natural extension of going through life with them. “We try very hard not to be program-driven.” But there are specific ways he counsels those in his care. “Artists have the tendency to think that they are a gift to the church, that the church needs artists. I feel like one of the best ways to disciple artists is to try and strip away the idolatry of their art. You don’t live for your art. You live for Jesus. And you’re lucky to be able to do art.” Evan doesn’t take the talent in his church for granted, but insists that Door of Hope would be fine without their 48 musicians. “We could have one guy up there with a guitar who leads a hymn and it would be awesome. So I remind my musicians, ‘We don’t need you. You need the church.'”

Door of Hope is full of artists, and Evan often gets asked how to cultivate a church’s creativity. He responds with a chuckle. “You can’t. Unless you are serving a church that is made up of people who are artistic in that particular way. And you shouldn’t want to! A church is responsible for the people who make up the church, and it should not try to be something they don’t consist of.”

But Evan remains very aware of the “stinking good” talent in his church and the number of musicians who are writing songs for the congregation. “This is something that God has blessed Door of Hope with. What are we supposed to do with that? Are we just supposed to sing these songs on Sunday?” It is out of this desire that Evan and Josh White founded Deeper Well Gospel Collective. The label provides an avenue for musicians in the church to grow as recording artists, as well as letting these songs have a reach beyond their congregation.

“There’s something really powerful about having the bulk of the songs that you sing as a community be written by people in that community. They speak to our growth as a church. They’ve come from our experience as a church. There’s something inherently powerful when we sing Wesley Randolph Eader’s song ‘Victory in the Lamb.’ Wesley is a part of our church, and he wrote it while he was at our church.”

During my week in Portland, I attended several Door of Hope music practices. I watched as Evan played his guitar and sang backup harmonies, supporting the musicians who were leading the services. It was obvious that he was there to serve the church and those entrusted to his care. Although I was impressed with their talent, I left the city with a better appreciation of the role of worship and creativity within my own humble church. The instincts of a musician are often at odds with what healthy servant-leadership should look like. Evan Thomas Way’s daily work at Door of Hope and his music career with the Parson Red Heads provide an antithesis to that instinct, and the songs his congregation are writing under his ministry have reached into my own community.

The Parson Red Heads’s latest album, Blurred Harmony, was released on June 9th to critical acclaim. It can be found on music streaming services everywhere, including SoundCloud. Evan’s gospel album, Deeper Well, is also streaming and can be downloaded for free off Deeper Well’s website. You can also hear Evan and the Door of Hope musicians on the church’s SoundCloud account.