Dave Fife, Worship Leader
Part 1: The Inner Gaze
For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. –Romans 8:19
The challenge of a worship leader is to create excellent music while providing an atmosphere in which people turn their inner gaze to God. He or she can choose to do one or the other—to bring people to worship while making bad music, or to make amazing music that brings the listener’s attention only to him or herself or some other distraction, but the real challenge is to do both simultaneously. Yet another challenge is sticking with something, whether it’s a vision, a commitment, a community, or a journey, through all the ups and downs. Both of these are part of Dave Fife’s life. They are his life. As the longest member on Greater Chicago Church’s (GCC’s) staff since he first began to lead worship in 1997 and having been part of one of the original churches that became GCC since he was a child, Dave is on this adventure for the long haul.
Dave grew up in Oak Park, and as he puts it: “Ministry runs in my family.” In fact, he is the fifth generation involved in Christian ministry. His own father, Wayne Fife, became pastor of Christ the King Church when Dave was in high school. He maintained that position until Christ the King joined with the Vineyard Oak Park church plant that began in 1997, which later became GCC.
In addition to ministry, music has been a common theme in Dave’s personal history. He fondly, albeit comically, recalls being part of the Fife Family Singers. “We would get up every special service and do ‘our thing.’ I just remember that not being ‘my thing…’ I actually did play music, trumpet and piano during my high school years, but I was much more into sports.”
After graduating from Oak Park River Forest high school, Dave left Illinois for Arkansas, where he went to participate in Youth with a Mission’s (YWAM’s) Discipleship Training School (DTS) and School of Evangelism (SOE). Sometime around then, before he moved out of state, Dave’s picked up the guitar and began to learn the instrument for the first time, foreshadowing the unfolding of his destiny. “My dad introduced me.” And when Dave headed to Arkansas for the DTS, he was in good company. “It seemed like half the guys played guitar, and that was the big draw for me. I played a few basic chords, some strumming patterns. So that was kind of the beginning of playing guitar and singing, but I didn’t start leading worship until the second phase of my YWAM.”
It is strange how life’s most significant moments, as small as they might be as they are happening, sear themselves in your mind–how you know even as you are experiencing something that you will never forget it. Dave continues, “I remember sitting on the porch of my dorm and the leader of my SOE came and asked me about leading the worship for our school. I knew only a couple chords and a few songs, but it seemed like it was meant to be. I was nervous, but it felt really natural. It was more acoustic so it really enabled me to find my own technique of playing the guitar and singing at the same time. I was able to hold my own in that as well as leading other people.”
After YWAM, Dave went to Montana, near Glacier National Park, where he continued stepping into his future. Dave describes, “The first year was training, a mix between boot camp and Bible school, and then they asked me to stay on staff for two years…” The time passed quickly, and soon, Dave explains, “I was out in Montana and coming to the end of my second year. I was at a crossroads, part of me wanted me to stay in Montana and then another option was to come back to Chicago.” Dave came home.
Dave’s first Sunday back in Oak Park happened to be the first day of the merger of Christ the King and the Oak Park Vineyard in 1997. “I came back for a month or two break after my second year [in Montana]. I had a youth pastor position offered in southern Illinois, but during my two months here there were several confirmations that seemed like they were from God that spoke to my staying here. The former worship leader of the Vineyard church plant was already planning on moving so he and Dave Frederick identified me and asked if I wanted to take on the leadership role.”
“[Coming back] was certainly a transition point. It was a little letdown getting back into the routine of life back here–ministry, training, leading songs, leading worships–after being away for four or five years. And leading worship was my first time working with a band, so that was a whole new experience. It was cool to enter that realm of working with people from all different places. For a while I did that as a lay leader, and I did carpentry full time. But eventually it became pretty evident that this was becoming more of a job, so they brought me on as part time staff somewhere around 1999 or 2000.”
Part 2: The Perfect Pose
I can’t hear you
But I feel the things you say
I can’t see you
But I see what’s in my way
Now I’m floatin’
Cause I’m not tied
to the ground — Neil Young, “I’m the Ocean”
Dave’s job is to do what he loves, which is to lead people as they worship God and to assist others as they learn how to lead people to worship God. To me, it sounds ideal: he gets to do his thing—create his art—which is at once a corporate experience and an expression of his love for God. During those times on stage, he is in one sacred moment creating art, worshiping God, and connecting with other humans who he is also helping worship God. How good can it get? “I don’t have any questions about what I am doing in any way, because it does align with my core passions as an individual, and having adequate time to give to it is a real privilege. I love playing music, I love leading worship, I love leading other musicians, I love writing songs, so that being what I get paid to do is pretty cool. But I can honestly say that’s not why I got into it. I can say I would still want to do this even if I had to go back to carpentry.”
Dave leads worships and he trains musicians to lead worship. However, a few years ago, a visiting couple doing ministry within the church told Dave that he would begin to document our church’s worship music and that it would be disseminated far and wide. Since then, Dave and the church leadership have founded Greater Chicago Music and recorded two albums, The Hiding Place, by Jess Smiley andGlimpse, featuring a number of church artists… Which leads us to now, as the third album, Greater Things, becomes available. This latest release is a compilation of original songs that have become part of GCC community worship over the last year—mostly songs by Dave Fife and Heather Treadway, along with a couple by GCC musicians Trevor Parker and John Fancher.
Part3: The Rising Lotus
Hope is the thing with feathers–
That perches in the soul–
And sings the tune without the words–
And never stops– at all– –Emily Dickinson, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”
Dave loves bringing musicians in to join him in the worship experience, even if they do not share his faith or his own motives for being a worship leader… “I am excited to work with them if they are open, if they are hungry, if they really connect with why we are here, if they are willing to engage with God on some level. You’ve got people who have years of experience with church and people who don’t, and it seems like we have been able to make a place for both. I think the music is the key element, the common thread that brings everyone together. Typically, musicians don’t sing. I think musicians feel the music, they feel the power of our praise through the music and that’s what they engage with. Even if they aren’t engaging with the words, they are engaging with the power of the music. There are a couple guys in worship who have been around for years. Some are attracted to our church because of the music; they don’t necessarily pay attention to all the lyrics.”
Recently, however, Dave has been experiencing a new artistic endeavor in which lyrics also play a central role. In what sounds like an Old Testament-in-the-desert-with-Moses-manna-like experience that began in spring of 2010, Dave has been writing original worship songs with Arts Pastor Heather Treadway. Dave is an experienced songwriter, having composed and published beautiful worship songs that have been recorded on Vineyard albums and sung in other churches, but this new method of songwriting has been a strange phenomenon for both him and Heather. She will write the lyrics, in huge chunks of words at a time, and he will, upon receiving them—often in the unlikely form of emails or text messages—almost immediately write the music for those lyrics.
Dave explains, “The first song [for which this happened] was ‘Radical Love.’ It was the first time I have ever had that experience where someone has sent me a full song in lyrics, and within 20 or 30 minutes I had the whole structure of melody and chords. It was one of those times where I thought, ‘What the heck just happened? That was not normal.’” And the pattern continued… “Heather started sending me lyrics on a consistent basis, and every time I received this download of melody. Some songs weren’t as solid in song structure, but there have been quite a few songs that are just finished, complete—written in the moment with me laying down music. It has been a whole new experience for me in songwriting.”
Having personally participated in worship during which we sing these very songs, I can say they are haunting and interesting and thought-provoking and individual and passionately worshipful. In Dave’s words, “Some songs out there lack creative elements from a musical standpoint. They all start to sound alike. The challenge for us as worship songwriters is to continue to stretch ourselves musically and lyrically, and Heather and I have found that dynamic.”
Dave and his worship band brought these songs to life for posterity when they recorded the live album, Greater Things, at the stained glass, grey-stone-walled house of worship that has been the home of GCC. “As Heather and I started just busting out song after song, I began to think this could be the next album. This could be meant to be. I really believe timing is everything when it comes to this sort of stuff. I am really glad we didn’t try to do this sooner because these songs wouldn’t exist. Working with Heather has been amazing—having her send me these incredible lyrics and then being able to bring music to it. Her lyrics bring something new out of me every time which is fun. There are melodies that have come out of me that I didn’t know were there, and that wouldn’t have come out of me with my own lyrics. There is something special about collaborating.”
It was only a little over a year ago that this joint artistic process began, and since then Dave compiled the songs and orchestrated the live congregational worship service recording of them. “Some worship albums are just made up of corporate worship songs that don’t necessarily tie into each other musically or thematically.” That is not the case with this album—it is intentional. “I worked with Daniel Larson behind the scenes on song order and arrangement. The surprising thing about this album is that it takes you on that journey as a whole and each song is a journey in itself as well. I am delighted how much the songs have tied together as an album which isn’t something I initially tried to make happen.” The band practiced the music together for a month or more in advance, the list of songs were sent out to the registered attendees before the live recording so that they could familiarize themselves with what was going to be sung, and some two hundred people attended the final night.
Other musicians within the church have been experiencing this explosion of creativity. The two songs on the album that are not by Dave and Heather reflect this. One is a popular GCC worship song by John Fancher of Johnny and the Beloveds, and the other is a songwriting collaboration of Heather [Treadway], John [Fancher], and Trevor Parker. Nevertheless, almost all of the songs were already familiar to the live audience; they are regularly sung during GCC worship. “Being able to lay all the songs together in a corporate setting and… distribute it through the product itself has become my preferred way of recording. I have done the studio approach where you layer each part, each instrument, each vocal—one by one—but this [recording process] was a lot of fun… This was that much more enjoyable for me from a recording standpoint, and I think the dynamics of the song were enhanced in a way that may not have come into play in the straight-up studio approach because we had that team dynamic chemistry happening.”
At last, as the separate worship and arts groups have been joining hands within our church, I was curious how and where Dave saw himself fitting in. “As an artist, as a musician, I identify more as a worship leader than just a performing artist. I think there are people who can do both worlds and I know that is a part of who we [as a church] are…What do I really feel called to? Right now at least I really feel called to the church in the music realm and worship leading. I doesn’t mean I can’t play music in the bars sometimes or don’t want to, but I think my primary role right now is to be a worship leader within my gifting of music and songwriting. But there is still that balance as a worship team that we are not here for ourselves but to serve. I think it’s okay to be blessed and it’s ok to expect that as we come together. I think God likes to fill us up and provide us life on a personal level. Less is more is a pretty popular phrase with us in worship and music… Something that we learn from each other is that sensitivity to what’s happening in the moment. We try to touch on the most spiritual realm.”
Dave is following his path without regrets, without second thoughts, without longing looks over his shoulder, even as the road ahead remains not entirely visible. He is walking ahead, onward and upward into the light. He is being the person he was made to be.