While back home in Malaysia, Caleb met with Stew Mcilrath, to hear his thoughts on creativity, working in ministry and his advice to creatives.
Originally from a little town called Ballymena in Northern Ireland. Stew and his wife Abi, decided to join a team to plant a church in Kuala Lumpur. He heads up Worship Central for Asia, a ministry seeking to resource worship leaders and worship teams all around Asia and beyond.
Walk me through your story of going from music college to worship leader?
I went to music college to study Saxophone Performance. After graduation, I had this season where, for about one year, I had no idea what direction I was going to take. I’d been leading worship in my home church for 4-5 years, had always been involved in worship, but never saw that as something that I would do full time.
Over the course of this one year, I applied for a few jobs but got rejected. The pastor of my church asked “Have you ever thought about pursing worship leading or some form of ministry?” And I always said “it’s not for me, don’t think that’s right.” He said it a few times across the year, and I kept ignoring it. It reached the point where I began to realise that all the other doors were closing and maybe I was saying no to something that God had for me.
So, I applied for 3 worship training courses in London and got accepted to all 3, that was a clear sign that this was the path to pursue. I spent a year in London at HTB church and attended the Worship Central Academy, that’s when God put a real desire in my heart to lead worship and give everything that I had to develop musicians in the local church.
On the back of that, I worked at a small church in London. Long story short, I sensed the call of God to come and be part of a church plant with the team from the UK in Malaysia with a view to resourcing local churches in Asia. Our heart is to build a church that has a strong emphasis in worship, songwriting and creativity.
For me, the journey has been one lesson in obedience after another, it went from reluctantly obeying God’s call, to then obediently stepping into those things I felt called to.
So how did you feel being obedient? What challenges did you go through?
It's been a process of realising that when we are weak, God is strong. When we step into that obedience, even though we don't feel like we are ready or don't think we can do it - we see God's faithfulness. It's never easy, but seeing God be faithful in the past fuels obedience in the future.
You’re a songwriter in a church, give us an insight into your creative process? What gets you going?
It’s an incredible privilege to stand and lead God’s people into his presence. And for me, the fuel for creativity is when I see that happen. I believe that leading people in worship leads to writing songs. It’s also my biggest place of inspiration, I hear melodies and lyrics from the Holy Spirit.
Also, it’s how we approach everyday life. I think inspiration is all around us, in the world we live in, in the people God has put in our lives, in every detail of what we do. We can approach life by keeping our creative nets open all the time - constantly gathering and collecting ideas.
As a songwriter, I'm a slow burner - I often sit on something, mull over a concept, a bible verse or a phrase, and I'll build around it. I keep two sides going - I collect melodic stuff, chord sequences, the musical side, and then I also collect song lyrics. So I have two collections. So I'll start a melody and work that, and I'll go to my bank of lyrics to find something that fits. And sometimes it's the other way around. That's practically how I operate.
How do you stay creative being in a church context? What are the few key lessons and takeaways that you've found useful in your growth?
Often as creatives, we think that the ideal scope of creativity is freedom i.e blank page and no boundaries. When in fact, you cannot create without boundaries. If we think of an artist choosing their canvas, they have the size of the canvas as their boundary. When a songwriter, their boundaries are time constrains of the record, certain structures.
I’m passionate about the local church - being a place of creativity. However, I try to be less specific about how that looks like. It’s very contextual and that’s the boundary that we create from. Creativity is less about the output and more about the mentality that you’re operating with.
So Set Sail’s vision is to encourage, equip and inspire other artist. You are the pastor of Worship Central Asia. So how do you encourage, equip and inspire?
As Worship Central Asia, we run a 4 day a week Worship Academy, training worship leaders in practical and theological ways. We also run an 1 week intensive course too.
As much as inspiration is played out in a big context, it’s also played out in relationship. Living an authentic life inspires me. We can give great talks, run amazing conferences and all that stuff. But actually the lasting impact is relational authenticity, getting alongside the person who needs encouragement, hanging out and building a community amongst worship leaders and musicians who wants to explore new ideas. Training, resourcing but also inspiring people through the way we live and relationships that we have around us.
We always want to generate content around the topic of Faith + Art? How do you create content relevant to your church and context? Within a team and the people around you?
As creatives we need to ease the pressure in finding “the next best idea”. Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NIV) “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” However we live in a time where content is much sort after.
I’m a firm believer when we feel a passion, that’s God’s confirmation of “ this is the creative avenue to pursue.” What I’ll always ask myself when we’re brainstorming are:
1. Does this excite us?
2. Does this feel like something in us bubbling up when talking about the idea?
We have the responsibility to think about the content that we’re creating. Obviously there’s time where we do have to get stuff done and create. But it’s important that we have a healthy balance of both sides too. A good question to ask ourselves in that space is “How to we continue to create content that we really care about, rather than just for the sake of it.”
How do you stay authentic within ministry and working in Ministry? How do you stay authentic in your walk with God & devotions?
We all can relate that it’s never easy. Understanding the concept of Grace and God’s unconditional for us is very freeing in our walk with him. He sees our hearts, knows everything and loves us on our best and worst day. It allows us to be completely honest and transparent in good and bad days. Our hearts have to be authentic because that’s where our communication flows from.
The simple disciplines of worshipping privately, writing songs in private that’s between you & God, reading his word are values that are important to me as a worship leader.
Also, it’s really important to have people around you that you’re accountable to, God has given us relationships for that. Proverbs 27:17 (MSG) “You use steel to sharpen steel, and one friend sharpens another.” My wife is amazing, she keeps my feet firmly on the ground. She always brings me back to authenticity and making sure that I’m living the way that I should be. We hold each other accountable to that. Close friends are great for that as well.
What would be your advice to young creatives and creatives around you?
My encouragement to creatives is “Do not get trap in perfectionism, don’t let that suck creativity from you.” Like many creatives, we’re all a perfectionist which sometimes leads to the fear of beginning the creative process. We know the only thing perfect is God so we shouldn’t let the stronghold of perfectionism stop us from creating. As simple as it sounds, just start. Don’t wait for divine from heaven. It’s the analogy of a tap, you turn on the tap, it’s rusty from the beginning, brown water, it’s not been use for years but if you keep it running the water becomes clearer and clearer. Trust that as you keep creating, your craft will be continually be refined.
What are your future plans? What should we look forward to? How can we support you? If people want to get in touch, how do we go about it?
We’re in an exciting season at HTBB. Our church is growing, new people are coming to faith so that’s amazing.
As a worship team, we’re beginning to build a culture of songwriting, encouraging other worship leaders to begin writing. We would love to see more worship songs being written in Southeast Asia and sung in local churches here and it’s a big part of the vision. It’s our hope and prayer that we continue to help facilitate that. It’s our dream at the moment to see that fan into flames. So watch this space for songs and creativity coming out of local churches in Asia.
You can keep in touch with us on Instagram @htbbchurch and @wcentalmy. We have the Worship Conference Asia coming up this year, October 28th. We got Tim Hughes, Luke & Anna Hellebronth from Gas Street church in Birmingham leading worship. We’re gonna have sessions on songwriting, production and a whole loads of tools for worship teams and creatives. We can’t wait to see you there!