Jen Aldrich, Musician
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out, to find a dream and a life of their own? — Dixie Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces”
Jen grew up on her family’s farm in Iowa, miles from any town. After four years at Iowa’s Morningside College and five more years teaching music to middle schoolers in Nebraska, Jen moved to Chicago during the summer of ’98 “looking for some adventure.” I think she did end up finding adventure, and unexpectedly, much of the adventure has been this church and its wild journey over the eleven years she has been around.
Moves to Big City
No lovelier lovely – smoke, fire, and curved steel. One great rusty heartbeat – no lovely so real. — Poeme, “Love Song for Chicago”
Jen had a friend who was coming to Chicago after graduating from college, and for Jen, accompanying this friend seemed like an open door into the unknown. Jen considered: “I can take this chance and go or stay in small town Nebraska… When the opportunity came, I took it.” And so she came out to the city of the big shoulders without any plans.
For six months, Jen worked at a bakery in nearby Riverside. She had grown up Methodist, but felt very open to exploring the area’s churches, which she perused in the Yellow Pages. She remembered a friend telling her back in Iowa that she should try out a certain church because she would like the music, but Jen was not going to drive an hour away each Sunday to attend it. Jen remembered that the church had been called “Vineyard,” so when she saw another Vineyard church here in Oak Park, her curiosity was piqued.
After visiting, Jen explains, “I didn’t like it right away. I liked the music right away. The teaching wasn’t the polished style I was used to. But what I recognized was that something would stick with me each time. God was speaking to me.” She had grown up going to church camps where she learned that “you could have a relationship with God that was alive,” but churches she had gone to in the past had not always inspired that same feeling. “God and I had a relationship to begin with, and once I got past the ‘this isn’t what I’m used to’ feeling,” Jen felt that the Vineyard was the church for her.
Plays in Band
Maybe I’ll be an astronaut and work for NASA. Maybe I’ll see you on the moon. There’s lots of things that you can be when you grow up, just wait and see. — Great Lake Swimmers, “See You on the Moon!”
A classical piano major and percussion minor in college, Jen can play many instruments well. Joining the music ministry team at the Vineyard was a natural step, but she had wanted to play drum set. She was frustrated when that door did not open, and she was instead asked to play percussion. She explained, “They had a set of congas in the back room,” and someone said to her, “‘Well, we’ve got these drums, but we don’t have anyone to play them.'” Though percussion was not her choice, partially because she had never played percussion in a band setting before, she described the opportunity as “a fresh start to worship through an instrument I had never been paid to play.”
Coming in as a trained musician, Jen “had some performance things to let go of.” She got the opportunity to “take my eyes off of everything around me and learn how to be intimate with the Lord.” Jen says, “Pride stuff was the first thing God worked on and that took a number of years.” She explained that you don’t need a percussionist in a band, making her music an unnecessary part of the worship.
Jen described what it is like to be a part of a band. She is rarely the one on center stage, playing lead–her music is most often there to add depth. She explained, “If I am on keyboard and John [Fancher] is on guitar–those instruments play the same role–they add atmosphere and color–I have to listen to the other instrument so we’re not stepping on each others’ toes. You have to listen to each other and give space. It’s about being community-wired and letting each person have their voice.”
Sometimes during worship, someone will get a particular beat or melody to share, which sounds like an amazing experience. Jen doesn’t like to feel as though she is just performing, but she says if she thinks about sharing her music in a certain way, it is a thrill: “I feel like I can get melodies from heaven and release them and I am happy to do that. When I think of myself as a conduit, I am ecstatic to be God’s voice in those moments. I want to be close enough to God to hear his heartbeat.”
Jen doesn’t have just one favorite instrument–each one plays a different function in her life. “If I want passionate warrior worship, it’s percussion. My heart really connects with that expression in an intentional way… If I need to just spend time with the Lord, I’ll play the piano. All those hours at the piano have really affected my sensitivity to the Spirit… My personal worship time is with the guitar at home. Writing songs on the guitar got me through my hard years… Drum set is the most fun–it’s my joy place.”
In addition to playing music, Jen writes songs, an element of her artistic self-expression that is also deeply entwined in her spiritual journey. “I wrote my first song on a women’s retreat in Wisconsin while sitting on a picnic table under a tree. Songwriting always started out with God speaking something to me in a way that would reach me. I don’t consider myself a songwriter, more a song-receiver.” Jen shared lyrics from the first song: It’s not your big plan for me. It’s not how you can use me. You are all that I need.
“During my hard years–after my first few nights of counseling [where therapy enabled Jen to work through relational challenges from her past]–I would have worship night. Some of the friends who came were singers, and I would share my stuff. I’ve started writing more again, totally in a different way, not because I am broken and need him to heal me through song, but because music is my language.”
Jen’s language is understood by children too. She had an awesome experience of “receiving” a kids song in Mozambique. “It came to me while I was in bed, and I wrote it in my journal. I knew it was a kids song and knew it was for our church when I got back. The song, which I had heard my four-year-old daughter singing around the house long before learning that it was Jen’s, goes, I’ve got joy in my toes and wiggle in my bones. I’m gonna clap and shout his name – Jesus!
Is Bound for Big Things
This is the story of how we begin to remember. This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein. — Paul Simon, “Under African Skies”
The path Jen has been on–the change in her music and worship–has also reached other areas of her life. “The prophetic journey has been to shed those personal things. It started in practical ways with the band but progressed to deeper ways. That’s what motivates me: to make sure I’m not harboring anger or having unresolved issues but just being available for God to use. I really feel a friendship with God: it’s not like he’s using me; it’s like we’re working together. I want to be where he is and do what he’s doing.”
“When I first came, I had a hurdle to jump over with the Holy Spirit stuff. But I learned to worship under Dave Fife, who has a heart of gold. Dave would never perform but just close his eyes.” It took Jen some time to be comfortable worshiping while not worrying about the people around her. “I learned to raise my hand, and that was my first hurdle in worship. Once I got up to where the church was–once I caught up with everyone else and experienced the freedom–I grew with the church alongside people I trust.”
I didn’t mention that six months after moving here those eleven years ago, Jen quit her job at the bakery (cavities for the first time in her life had been an unfortunate side effect of that occupation) after applying and getting an administrative position she had seen advertised in the Vineyard bulletin. Over the past decade of working at the church, Jen has been been able to observe and participate in various seasons of change. “I love being on the inside and knowing things that are going on. I love knowing what God’s doing with individual people. I love hearing prophetic words and seeing people the way God sees them. I love hearing words for the church and having a bigger picture of the future. I am a practical person,and when I hear those visions I can help take us there.”And from all of her experience, Jen believes this is an “exciting time in our church.”
As for herself, Jen says, “I feel myself getting bigger and bigger, because I am destined for big things. I’ll probably go back to Africa, but I don’t know when or for how long. I think once you go to Africa, it’s in your blood.” Jen went to Mozambizque on an exploratory week and then again for three months a couple years ago. Jen relished her time there, but she has her own perspective on the purpose of her trips. “I don’t know what I did for them. I gave some music lessons and visited some people who were dying. I think really God took me to show off his kids to, as if he was saying, ‘Look, look, aren’t they great?’ They are great. I love them. Their worship is amazing.”
When I asked Jen if she had anything she wanted to share with me before this interview, she sent me a recorded clip of a ‘prophetic word’ she had received. She said it would give insight into her life now and what her future potential would be, and she said she could tell me about her life thus far. Among other things, the recorded ‘word’ talked about Jen being a powerful worshiper and how she was choosing to devote herself to worshiping God. The speakers also talked about how Jen is someone who isn’t afraid to tell the truth–things that people need to hear. Jen is someone who is not focused on the past. She is present now, fully engaged in and thrilled to be living her life, and somehow without pride, she is confident and certain of her value in the Kingdom.