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A conversation with one of the most prominent praise and worship songwriters of our generation, Paul Balache

You performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London recently. Had you been there before?

I have. It’s an amazing place; it’s like the Taj Mahal of music venues, so historic and classy. It was quite a privilege to be part of an event there called “Prom Praise.” For Americans, the word prom implies going to the prom your senior year of high school. But for the British, it refers to promenade. Prom Praise was started several years ago to coincide with the BBC Proms, a summer-long series of concerts in London. The BBC Proms is quite a big deal; even the Queen attends one evening. For Prom Praise, Martin Smith, formerly with the band Delirious?, joined us, as did Graham Kendrick, who blazed the trail in the ’70s and ’80s in the area of modern worship, and the All Souls Orchestra.

So the concert was a little more acoustic than what you usually do?

Yes, this wasn’t your typical four-piece rock band, which is what I do 95 percent of the time. In our latest album, Live, though, we did add some cello and orchestration, but not to this extent.

Tell me about your new album, Live.

This album was recorded last year at the end of a 10-city tour across Canada. We ended up in Toronto; our final evening was with a group of 1,000 worship leaders from all across Canada. We realized the church we were at had this amazing recording system and nine HD cameras, so we thought, Wouldn’t it be beautiful to capture this evening with so many worship leaders?

Worship leaders in general have better voices than your typical congregation — sorry to say that! And they already knew the new songs, because we’d sent them demos. We didn’t overthink or overproduce the recording, and it really came off. Live sounds almost spontaneous. It doesn’t sound like a huge stadium event with 20,000 people but more like my church on a Sunday morning, with a good flow from song to song. I’m pleased with how we captured this journey of worship. I use the word captured because that was our goal — to capture something authentic, sincere, genuine. The CD, with an accompanying DVD, released on April 1, and contains new songs with a few more recent, familiar songs.

Your music always puts me into worship mode so quickly. It’s amazing.

That’s encouraging to hear. That’s our prayer — that we can serve others in the Church with a simple song that provides them with the vocabulary to express the things they want to say to the Lord. That’s the goal.

What is God telling you these days about worship?

We recently toured across India, Malaysia, Singapore, and China. How awesome it was to see thousands of people gather, hungry to experience God, and to see the power of corporate worship. I don’t know if God’s saying something new about worship beyond how we’re to continue to gather as the body of Christ and sing our prayers to him, to make our worship authentic, to make Jesus the raison d’être, as the French would say — our reason for living.

I love Romans 12:1-2. The apostle Paul says, “I beseech you by the mercies of God”— you can just hear the pleading in his voice — “I beseech you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice to the Lord.” That’s the best definition of worship there is. He’s saying worship is much more than music and singing and gathering together. It’s presenting our bodies — our lives — to that person to whom we’ve made a commitment. And that person is God, who made a commitment to us on the Cross.

Paul, you’ve been married to your wife, Rita, for how many years?

We just celebrated 27 years.

Congratulations! Are you empty nesters yet?

We are! We have three grown children. It’s a definitely a new season for us. All our kids are scattered about. Our oldest daughter has a six-month-old boy and he is just so cute.

You know, Rita and I still feel pretty young. We started early, doing music and ministry and kids. We moved from Philadelphia to Texas and lived in mobile homes and traveled. It’s been a crazy adventure. My pastor will often say, “Paul, your life is complicated [laughs].”

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He means that in a good way. He supports me. He prays for me. We’ve been at the same church in Texas for 24 years, so we’ve spent most of our marriage there. It’s been healthy for us to grow older with the same group of church people instead of hopping from church to church. There’s value in being connected to people who know us, who aren’t impressed by the fact I record albums or do concerts. They just know me as Paul the husband, or Paul the father, or Paul the guy who loses his temper, who needs accountability in all areas of life.

It’s rare to meet a couple who seems to have a perfect marriage – but for some reason, some marriages are a little easier than others. But Rita and I — well, we’re just two hard-headed Yankee kids from Philadelphia, two creative types . . . we’re both a little ADD, and it’s been crazy at times! Being grounded in the Lord and in a local fellowship really anchors us. When we’ve undergone challenges, we’ve been able to turn to a handful of friends and be candid with them about our struggles. That’s been super healthy for our marriage. So please find a few couples — even if it’s only one or two — to whom you can be accountable.

How do you and Rita express spiritual intimacy?

I’d like to say we get up every day at 6:30 and have our devotions. I’m sure there are some couples who do that, but for us it’s more hit-or-miss. The apostle Paul says, “Pray without ceasing”; obviously you can’t stay on your knees with your hands folded 24 hours a day. It’s more about making your life a prayer. So for us, we’re trying to live it out 24/7. We involve the Lord in our conversations, our daily plans, our routines. We ask ourselves, Does what we’re planning feel in line with where God’s leading us? Is he pointing us in this direction? We try to be cognizant of his presence in our lives.

Also, over dinner we talk about the Lord and our children and then pray for them. This is a big deal to us; we’re consistent in this. We’ll eat dinner, then afterward, pray for our kids.

We’re also glad we’re part of a spiritual family that extends beyond our own. Being part of our local church for 24 years has forced us to keep short accounts. I can’t lead worship every Sunday if I’m holding this huge grudge against Rita, or if we’ve had this big old fight we haven’t dealt with. We’ve made the commitment to show up at church no matter what, not out of religious obligation but because we need it. So when we do go — even if we don’t feel like it — we end up seeing friends who share something that really encourages us, or find ourselves praying for or encouraging them. We’re never disappointed that we went. We never go, Man, that was a drag.

When is the last time you and Rita had fun together?

Well [laughs], it depends on what you call fun. We’re still figuring out that part of the empty nest because since Day One we’ve always had kids. Rita was a single mom when we met. Then I married her and adopted her two year old, and we had two more children; we’ve always had a family. It’s been great; no regrets. But this season is the first time it’s just me and her. We’re asking ourselves, How do we do life now? Do I keep traveling? Does Rita come with me on the road? So the last time we had fun? We went skiing in Utah after I came back from our trip throughout Asia. And then Rita and our daughter joined me while we recently toured France.

I used to think going to the Jersey Shore with all our kids was a vacation [laughs]. It wasn’t until years later someone said, “Bro, that isn’t a vacation, that’s called visiting family.” And because I traveled so much, when I came home, I felt as though I had to step up because Rita kept the home going while I was away. So I jumped back in and focused on doing fun things with the kids, making them more of a priority. In hindsight, I should have focused more on planning getaways with Rita. I wish I’d been more intentional about that; it’s so important. You don’t have to do something as expensive as skiing; you can do an overnight somewhere at a decent hotel and get room service. Budget for that. It’s worth it for your marriage.

How much do you think about your legacy?

Rita would laugh at that question, because since I was in my 20s, I’ve thought about legacy. I read a book once that talked about “beginning with the end in mind.” That thought really affected me; through the years it’s inspired me, it’s motivated me to say, By the grace of God, I want to run the race, I want to finish well. I’m aware that the actions I take today have consequences for generations to come.

Frankly, this concept helped us get through difficult times in our marriage, too. As with most marriages, there were times we hit a place and thought, Is this worth it? What if we just part company? Then I’d think about legacy — the awkwardness of the holidays, the impact on the future. I don’t judge anyone; I know marriage can be difficult for many reasons. But that’s how the word legacy has played a role in my marriage. My actions will affect my legacy.

There’s one other thing. Whenever I became really angry at Rita, I told myself, If I can’t love this one person, then who am I to say, “God so loved the world,” or “We’re to love our neighbors as ourselves?” I realized I needed to start right here, with my spouse. I needed to love that one human being — and I mean love in a biblical sense, where you seek to understand idiosyncrasies, weaknesses, challenges, instead of holding those weaknesses and challenges against them. I needed to cultivate empathy for my wife.

Empathy is a great word. It’s so important in a marriage. It’s too easy to judge or be critical. Oftentimes cultivating empathy starts with being kind to yourself, giving yourself a bit of grace, knowing God’s looking at you through the filter of love and grace and second chance and third chance. So why should you not have empathy for your spouse? Write down the word empathy and post it on your refrigerator for the year and say, “Lord, teach us how to empathize with each other every single day.” That’s the goal: to become an empathizer of your spouse.

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