NRT's Jasmin Patterson spoke with Elias Dummer about his solo project and what's next for music and ministry.
Give us a quick recap of what life and ministry are looking like for you these days.
I'm wearing a few hats these days–so most days look like switching hats several times. In January of 2013, my wife and I packed our family (we now have five kids) into a van moved from Hamilton, Ontario to Nashville, TN. I've continued writing and playing out but since moving I've also helped to plant a church near our new home. I work with and train our worship leaders and I'm involved with the leadership team there, too. When I'm not on the road, I'm basically working from home. With this new season of music ministry, I'm excited to delve into some other things–new music, podcasts, more writing, etc–so its fun to spend a bit of time on that, too.
You've mentioned as you were nearing the end of the season with The City Harmonic that you are not done doing ministry, just walking into new expressions of what that looks like. Share both a highlight and a challenge you've experienced from this new season of ministry and how you've seen God work through those things.
Obviously being home with family a lot more has been wonderful, but maybe that seems a bit too obvious of an answer! So, though I'm doing the artist thing again, one of the things I love about this season is having the time to pour into others through our church. For example, one of the worship leaders at our church is a lady named Olivia Turco. She's a fantastic worship leader and vocalist. Her husband Kyle is a monster guitar player, too. It's been really fun taking them out on travel dates, certainly, but we arranged for her to sing the lead vocal on "This is Holy Ground" in the acoustic video for WorshipTogether and it was really exciting seeing a bunch of people discover her voice for the first time. The fact that I've been able to see her really grow in her ability as a leader at our church has been a thrill.
As far as challenges are concerned, the biggest ones are sort of self-inflicted. When we decided to end The City Harmonic, we had already finished our record contract. I knew that whatever I did next, I would want to do it independently precisely so that it could go where I believe God wants it to go, with fewer stakeholders. It's not for everyone, but I enjoy that freedom a lot. With that said, that's been both exciting and challenging. Learning how to do that well and manage everything in a system that's really designed around gatekeepers has been difficult at times. Thankfully, things have gone well, but not without a few bumps in the road.
What are some of the themes that inspired The Work, Vol. 1? Spiritual themes that shaped the lyrical content and musical themes that shaped the album sonically.
Well, I had just come off of over a decade with the same group of guys, and we had a few successes along the way. It's really easy in music–even in music ministry–to get your identity caught up in your successes and failures. As the band ended, I was really thinking about and wrestling through what you might call "the flip-side of grace". We talk a lot about grace as the forgiveness of sins, and it certainly is, but the other half of grace is that it is a free gift. We can't earn it. That means we have to learn to reject the idea of the self-made person. This theme found its way into a few songs; "Enough," "The Work (It Ain't Easy)," and "Free" being the most obvious.
I've decided to call my studio albums The Work as a play on words. It's a reference to the word, liturgy, often understood as "the work of the people", because I think worship and discipleship are intrinsically linked. But it also sort of refers to the work of discipleship over time. So, for me, I really enjoy that this album became a moment in time for my faith.
Stylistically, I knew that I wanted to record an album that was as musically "live" as I could make it. For better or worse, I played every instrument except drums, strings, and backing vocals. So, I was able to explore parts in a way that was harder to do with a fixed band. I guess it was just something I had to get out of my system. I'll probably end up somewhere in the middle next time around.
Talk about the title song, "The Work (It Ain't Easy)". We hear a lot about how the call to follow Jesus is a call to find forgiveness through Him, but sometimes it seems harder for us to talk honestly about His call for us to die to self and let Him transform us. What inspired the song? What has God been doing in you through this song and what do you hope He will do in others as they hear it?
You nailed it. I think we need to admit that the American ideal of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency aren't as "Christian" as people seem to think. If we're serious about being a disciple of Jesus, it means learning to reject things in our hearts and lives. I'm not saying I've got this figured out--this song and "Enough" are both songs I need to keep singing myself, as it is. I knew that going in.
How has your creative process been different working on a solo project than it was working as a member of a band?
Well, it has its ups and downs! On one hand, I was able to take my time working ideas through. Because I recorded the album at home and self-produced, the budget and schedule really didn't drive very much. But I'm also someone who really enjoys give-and-take conversations around creative ideas, so doing things this way I second-guess much more than I did in the band. On the plus side, I definitely feel the freedom to be more transparent lyrically, as we're not writing songs that represent anyone else. Though these are almost all songs that came out of the life of our church and my own faith, I get to stand on my own two feet intellectually, and that feels good. I definitely miss the working relationship with the band though–it's great to have partners you can lean on who are in it together. I'm still trying to figure out what that looks like in this new season.
Throughout the City Harmonic days and even now as a solo artist, you've always carried value for staying connected to the local church and for ministry to stem from that context. Why do you believe the connection to the local church is so vital, especially as it applies to the ministry of worship leaders and Christian artists?
The City Harmonic was a band born out of a movement of small local churches working together. It was built into our DNA from day one and is, in a way, still very much in mine. Jesus is alive, and I believe that Jesus has called us to be the Church. The Church was born out of Covenant with a people–the Jewish people. Here we are, recipients not of a belief system but a promise to a group of people: now, the Church. It may not be perfect, but it's good. When we lose sight of that community and accountability, it becomes far too easy to become an echo chamber or to find ourselves painting a smaller and smaller chalk line until we're the only person in it.
Part of what it means to be human is to worship. We inevitably assign ultimate worth to something, whether we realize it or not. And incredible things happen when we worship with others. One of the most interesting side effects of singing together, for example, is that it produces incredibly high amounts of a hormone called Oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes called "the love hormone," because it creates deeper trust bonds and has recently even been shown to increase altruism. In other words, when we sing together, we grow deeper bonds together and are practically rewiring ourselves in a small way to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the world.
The internet might have made it possible for us to reach people and project our ideas onto the world, but I kind of think that we artists need to belong to organized community or we'll quickly run out of meaningful things to say and fall into the pattern of rehashing the familiar out of a pragmatic need to support a business model. A small part of why we stopped being a band was recognizing that we didn't want to be guilty of that as a group. I certainly don't want to be guilty of it now. I've made a number of decisions because of this, and being rooted in the local church is certainly one of them.
The Gospel doesn't produce some enlightened but diasporic individuals. It produces communities of people that are, in an organized way, empowered by the Spirit to be the "salt of the earth" to their city. We aren't competitors and shouldn't act like it--not our churches, nor we artists. We may have different ways of organizing, but I think it's essential that we organize to worship and serve together to do that well.'
What should we be looking out for now that The Work, Vol. 1 has been released? Upcoming projects? Tour plans? Things like that.
I'm excitedly working on an EP of songs from Vol I which I'm calling The Rest, and that won't be long now. I'm also writing for Vol II. and beginning work on a podcast, but it's early yet. As far as live, YES! I'm really excited to be booking tour dates again and have loved what I've been able to do so far. It's been really fun getting out there and singing older The City Harmonic songs and the new stuff side-by-side with folks across the country, and I'm looking forward to more.
How can we be praying for you?
For my family and continued faithfulness to the unique ways, God has called me to be in the world. I hope to dig in deep and write songs that spur people on into incredible things in the world, by the Spirit. I pray I don't lose sight of this and ask that others might, too. Thanks!
NRT contributor Jasmin Patterson is a lifelong fan of Christian music who is passionate about helping others connect with Christ. She lives in Kansas City where she serves in college ministry and runs a blog to help seekers and believers discover and live biblical Christianity.
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