River Valley Church has served the greater Minneapolis region for 25 years. Led by Worship Pastor Ryan Williams, their weekend worship services are known for being inspirational and vibrant. Ryan is joined by six additional members on their newest live album Altars, their fourth project as a group. Coming from a unified worship culture in an established church made the leap into recording albums a natural transition.
While the team has been preparing for the album’s premiere, River Valley Worship’s home city of Minneapolis has taken the world’s stage following the death of George Floyd, as a setting for both peaceful and sometimes destructive protests. I spoke with Ryan about the new album and what it’s been like to experience such emotional peaks and valleys in his hometown.
River Valley Worship is based in Minneapolis, which has been in the news for a few months now. Looking at social media, your church has not shied away from talking about it. How is all of this affecting your team?
It’s such a weighty and serious issue we’re facing really as a country now. As you can see, the spark was lit in Minneapolis and has rightfully so. It’s spread all across the different cities in our country. For us, we’ve seen firsthand the streets that we know well, the neighborhoods that we know well, be deeply affected by the division by violence, by the decisions of people who are hurt and wounded themselves. And for us, it comes back to an issue of unity. It goes back to an issue of empathy and compassion. And ultimately the bottom line of it all is it’s a Jesus issue. It’s a gospel issue. People are hurting. People are broken, people are self-serving. We as a human race, when we’re on our own, we’re going to divide each other and hurt each other. And injustice, racism, bigotry, prejudice, all stem out of a sin problem. I’ll use this word blueprints, the blueprints that people are taught when it comes to bigotry and racism, the only thing that can change those types of hearts is Jesus.
We see that there is a place for civil protest. There’s a place for reform and change of laws, maybe change of leadership. The only way that a person’s heart can be changed an only way that a heart can turn away from prejudice and racism, bigotry is really through the gospel and the grace of Jesus Christ. So that’s the stance we take. We value life. We value our black brothers and sisters who have been unheard for a very long time. And people want to bring up stats and facts and data and all that has a place, but in this time and this season and these last few weeks, all of us need to sit down with our black brothers and sisters and have conversations and just listen, let them talk and hear what they have to say. And let’s build something from there.
I’ve been enjoying watching the ways that you all are going out into the community with Street Sessions on Youtube – worship on the street. Was that part of a strategy or was that just something that just came naturally?
That idea of doing these kind of street sessions really came from the theme of not overvaluing a stage – a platform – where there’s lights and where all the attention and focus can be placed on a group or certain people. So we thought ‘Let’s just take the songs out into normal, ordinary highways and byways, and play them stripped down in places where people are walking by, people are working, people are living.’ We had finished those just weeks before everything started. It was in some of those same streets and some of those same places that were hit pretty hard by violence and rioting. And I guess it brings me just a little bit of peace, a little bit of clarity that we worshiped in the streets, that weeks later would be handed over to violence and destruction.
And I believe that God did that on purpose because there are probably people in those streets in split second moments that were faced with fear and destruction and uncertainty. And I got to believe that the spirit of God was there guiding people and helping people. I mean, I couldn’t, you know, you talk about getting into your community and doing things. I couldn’t stand on the stage, once church was allowed to come back together, I couldn’t do that without going down to those neighborhoods myself. I, my two sons, we were sweeping, we were cleaning. I had to smell the smoke myself. I feel like I had to do that before I could stand on a stage and sing words about reconciliation, about grace, about unity. And it all goes back to that theme of living a life of worship, as opposed to worship happening in some sort of time capsule up on a stage somewhere.
You and your wife Allie have four kids. What’s your strategy in talking to the kids about what’s happening in your city?
The two oldest (10-years-old and 7-years-old), we’ve had one-on-one layered conversations with those two. Basically how to treat your neighbor and how to love people. But a couple of days ago, we took the whole family to the George Floyd Memorial. As we drove down there and as we drove back after we’d been there for about an hour, we had conversations about how the color of someone’s skin should never direct or guide the way that you treat them. And reinforcing to them the value of every single person, the value and the sacredness of every single life on this planet and how God made us, made people of every color in such a beautiful and intentional way.
How do we move on from here? Where does this start? Where does real change start? I feel like it starts in hearts. It starts in homes and that’s the parent’s responsibility. As much as I can go down and sweep and clean up the streets, I also have responsibility to be in my house and to set the tone and set the commentary in such a way that reinforces to my children – everybody matters. Black lives matter. Brown lives matter. God is in the business of valuing everybody a hundred percent. And for a five-year-old, my son, who’s my third born, he’s just developing little commentaries about this world himself. He needs to be hearing this stuff from his parents, so it puts them on the right foot.
Let’s dive into the album. River Valley Worship just released the new album Altars. Tell me a little about that project.
The project for us started very practically… We dove in to start writing, creating for this project in December of 2018. And we started writing for few months about or four months and just trying to stir up ideas and kind of see what would come of just exploring song writing. It wasn’t until about months three or four, where we really realized for this to turn out and be worth anything we gotta have a common thread or a theme for what these songs say.
Obviously when you’re writing songs for church, you’re essentially telling the story of the gospel. The gospel is inherently simple and at the same time, there’s lots of layers to it. So I think it’s a noble pursuit to try to find a fresh angle without obviously changing or compromising the basic truth of what the gospel is about.
We’d been running for months and I received a handwritten letter in the mail from a missionary. This missionary is called to the darkest, most dangerous places on the planet to live out the gospel. Long story short, it was this handwritten letter to me and it was kind of a prophetic encouragement to me and the team and our church. It read just beautifully. It was written just like poetry. And one of the sentences was “Ryan, you have to remind yourself that every time you step on a platform to lead worship, that you’re not stepping on a stage, but you’re stepping onto an altar. And just as quickly as I read that, it was such a shift for me. I shared it with the team and shared it with our crew. It became pretty obvious that this would be the theme of our project. This idea of altars over stages – believing in what God can do in the shadows behind the scenes – as opposed to what he’s doing on a stage or in the spotlight. Once we had that theme, it was really easy to run and create and choose the songs that best appropriately carry that theme.
I just love that artists have a unique perspective and a unique sound and just have their own thing to offer the world. How would you describe your sound to people who have never heard River Valley Worship before?
Sure. The best way to answer that question is to go back to the origins and the start of the church (River Valley Church) itself. The church is turning 25 years old this year. It’s a great milestone. When our lead pastor started the church, he was in his late twenties. One of the things that was important to him was to start a church for the young and for the young at heart. The church throughout the 25 years has definitely changed quite a bit and shifted and gone through different seasons and different personalities.
But that thread has stayed the same. If you were to come to one of our campuses, you would see multi-generations represented, see different ages, different races. And so we are thinking about young people when we make this music. We’re not trying to exclude anybody, but again, we see the data of people who find their way to our songs and it’s 18 to 35 year old. And so we’re definitely thinking of that age group when we’re crafting and creating this music. I think music is such a wide tool. Within that umbrella, you can write songs that have a general wide reach to them. You can write songs that maybe take a few more risks and might connect with a smaller group or smaller audience. But I guess the best way to describe it is we try to be a reflection of who we see in our community, and that’s a pretty diverse group of people. We hope that comes across when you hear these albums.
This is not just a recording of your personal worship, but it’s going to go out into other churches too. Did you guys think about that when you chose songs for Altars?
We do very much take a time to focus on who we are as local church worship leaders and worship pastors. We’re very much in the lives of people. You know, I have my credentials, I’m a licensed pastor and I do wedding ceremonies and funerals and visit people in the hospital. It’s not hard for us to have real, tangible faces and lives and people in our mind’s eye when we’re writing songs. That’s kind of how this has maybe the synergy of how God works is if you are valuing and taking care of the people in the community that you’re living in, that there’s just the Holy spirit type of touch on that. And so if you do that and you honor that, that allows for these songs to make sense and be effective everywhere from Minneapolis, Tokyo, to Los Angeles, to Dallas, we see the data of where these songs go and they literally go all over the world. I think it’s because we honor first the place where we’re planted.