DJ Led Worship: Interview With a Local DJ

by Darcy L. Watkins

While conducting research and planning for a regional worship conference, I checked into the matter of DJ led worship because I figured it would be a candidate subject to cover. I spoke with a local Christian DJ who conducted some DJ led services in the Vancouver region. In respect of his privacy, I will refer to him as “The Champ”.

We discussed many things about what he has been up to and the whole DJ led worship scene in the Vancouver area.

Where exactly does DJ led worship come from? It appears to have originated in the UK, pioneered by Andy Hunter and some others as part of youth oriented ministry.  Andy has been featured during some WorshipTogether tours and has also DJ’d during some locally sponsored events.

DJ Led Worship appears to be a bit of a misnomer, or at least for the phase that the movement is at on the local scene today. It appears more to provide an alternative environment for youth to drop-in. Many of the youth who would drop in are from the dance and rave culture,  some may even be addicted to drugs such as crack and ectasy. Obviously there is opportunity here to reach out in love to a new generation of the lost.

The Champ and a few team mates have been local pioneers of this new form of music ministry, spinning vinyl during Sunday evening services named “Altar” which is a play on the idea of the altar of worship and “alternate”.  At this stage, The Champ uses a fair amount of Progressive Trance and Progressive House in his musical atire.

Since DJ Led Worship is still in its infancy, there are not yet any hard and fast rules. The Champ has struggled with such questions as, “Where are the rules?” and “How do I make this spiritual?” but after prayer and reflection has come to the realization, “Just play what’s in you; what’s in your heart! Don’t make a show out of this!”

The Champ uses a pair of turntables and a small DJ mixer and is looking forward to when he can add a sampler to his gear. DJs prefer magnetic drive turntables by Technics which allow the platter to be stopped and swept back and forth by hand without burning out the motor.  This effect is popularly know as “scratching”.  Turntable design has changed very little since the 1970s.  (I had my hands on Technics turntables back then during my late teen years and early 20′s just prior to when I was saved).

The Champ looks forward to the day when he can mix visuals. On the spot mixing of audio cuts with visual images and various lighting and sound effects is the future for DJ’ing.

Since there is very little Christian venues for DJs,  most will DJ at clubs for some living and experiment with applying the art in evangelistic or worship settings on the side. Few churches will open their doors to provide venue. Where does one find material to spin? Unfortunately there is very little good quality Christian material available that fits the genre. The Champ and other DJs have to wait on the Lord and pray that He guides them to specific musical pieces which can be used to move people to respond towards God. This often means a collection of selected tunes from secular albums.

The Christian content is then in how it is pieced together as part of ministry and an experience. Andy Hunter will MC as he spins, encouraging people to enter into God’s presence. The Champ has a friend who works with him on this doing the MC’ing while he spins the tunes.

The challenge is how to connect with those present, to foster a sense of community and then to draw people towards God. This isn’t easy, but I could sense from my conversation with The Champ that Christian worship leader DJs struggle with the idea of a show. He described some experiences by Andy Hunter who has been flown in to DJ at major Christian events. The organizers would be disappointed by poor turnout. They would have had greater turnout showing a football game on big screen TV. Despite the high tech computers, audio and visual equipment involved, DJ led worship counters the whole idea of putting on a show or performance. “I’m not polished, I just spin records”, The Champ says.

So how has DJ led worship fared in the Vancouver area?  The Champ has described it as touch and go. Sometimes 20 to 25 will show up. Sometimes about 10. This new music ministry attracts people mainly in the 14 to 22 age group.

Some still struggle with the whole concept of DJ Led Worship. I have found that some reaction is just a form of contempt by musicians, which isn’t much different from the attitude of musicians towards DJs back in the 1970s. A band of 4 or 5 accomplished musicians and/or star wannabes is replaced by a DJ and a stack of records done professionanlly. Of course some people won’t like the change.

To underatnd the significance, I reflect back to my experience as a new Christian back in 1981. I started going to church. I used to DJ a bit and experiemnt at parties with sound and lights. At the church they asked me to run the sound system. My reply was, “Why not? I used to do this for the devil, why not for God!”

It wasn’t long before I became involved in the worship ministry. I quickly caught on to the idea of how worship songs flow together in a sequence to set a mood and to facilitate people entering into the presence of God.  I went to the Pastor who led worship one day and handed him a set list, suggesting he use it to lead people into worship one day. His response was to slot me in to lead worship the following week. This was the start of my journey of worship leading, but when I reflect back on this, I never wanted to nor hoped to stand up in front of people to lead worship. That wasn’t me,  but I felt I had grasp of the gift to plan and road-map the experience. It is only now that I see that I approached this from the same angle as a DJ would (or perhaps a director or producer) as opposed to how a singer, musician or other performing artist would approach it.

The whole idea of DJ’ing is to provide an experience or, in a sense, a short journey into some realm, but without really putting on a show. The focus is not on the DJ in the same sense as it is on an artist. Really effective worship leaders and bands are those who possess both the gift to road map and guide the journey, and to deliver it live. In effect they deliver both a journey and a show. Some struggle with the show element. Others get hung up on the show and get ensnared in the pressure to perform.

DJ Led Worship very well may be a way out of this, providing an alternative format with appeal to many.

DJ Led Worship over the next while will likely be driven by the following:

  • The specific genres of music will likely include people who previously found nothing for them at church.  There will be evangelistic opportunities here at first and then later, the movement will have to facilitate how those who come to the Lord will become part of the greater Christian community.
  • Many songs are available online as MP3 and through the usual channels of CDs tapes, etc. There is also more redily available editing software allowing people to produce sets, do remixes and experimentation with things that DJs do. Just like kids pick up guitars and learn to play while they are young, so accomplished DJs will show up at the church as youth and young adults. The challenge then is linking this to worship.  The art element will be present from culture.
  • DJ Led Worship will likely florish more in the areas where there is a perception that the venues of live worship have become too artist and performance oriented to the extent where the journey or experiential element is missing. It will be part of a counter culture to “show” culture.

Finally, DJ Led Worship is not an only alternative, but just one of many. The whole “unplugged” fad that came in a while back was well received because of the perception that it lay aside the show for a more personal experience. Of course, once “unplugged” became totally polished as a style of show, it was no longer different from what they had before, except style.  Of course DJ Led Worship could fall into this trap too, but the point here really is that other alternative forms of worship will also appear on the scene, probably with specific appeal to other sub-cultures within our community. As such, DJ Led Worship may never take off to the same momentum as we see some existing forms of contemporary worship, but that makes it no less real.

This summary and report is based on an interview years ago so it will be a bit dated.