(Photo courtesy of Evan Wickham)
The Anticipation of Advent
An Interview with Pastor/Worship Leader Evan Wickham
By Sarah Komisky
The observance of Advent during December is Christmas is a special season for worship leader Evan Wickham. In 2012, he kicked things off with an amazing holiday album (Christmas Music Vol. 1) that celebrated and centered on that very theme. Then, over the past year, Evan and his family moved from Oregon back to his native hometown of San Diego, California to church plant and lead Park Hill Church as part of a shared leadership team. This December, he again is coming back to the message of Advent – time of expectant waiting and preparation of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmastime. Starting this month, he will be teaching a series on this beloved topic and officially launch a church in a community he desires to connect with. This winter, Evan took some time to chat with us at Marked Ministry and we are excited to share his heart on what it means to sing with his brother (Phil Wickham), the importance of reaching out to the community this holiday season, what Advent means to him, his holiday album, and the excitement of what’s to come this new year. We hope you enjoy the dialogue!
Currently, you are heading out with your brother (Phil Wickham) for the Singalong Tour. When we publish this, you will have already played those events, but share a little bit about what that experience is like for you being able to do this with your sibling?
We love when we get to play together. It’s always special for us. When we were teenagers we used to lead worship together all the time. Then marriage and jobs and life happened and we had to divide and conquer. Phil’s trajectory has been global reach as a touring artist. Mine has been local depth as a church leader. But once in a while we get together and make stuff happen. It’s a blast.
One thing that is unique about this tour is that it a night of worship, prayer, and community. How important is incorporation of all three elements and why are they vital to our souls?
Wow. Big question. Worship, prayer, and community are vital to the human soul because humans are made in the image of a communal God. We flourish when we live like Him, in loving community. Long ago, humanity fell short of God’s ideal for human flourishing. This happened through human sin. The whole Old Testament is the story of God lovingly chasing after sinful, non-communal, idol-worshipping humanity. This is why the Jesus story is so amazing. This carpenter from Nazareth shows up, and He has somehow always been in community with God as the second Person of the Trinity. As a human soul, Jesus perfectly worshiped the Father through total obedience. He also taught and modeled how to pray well. So Jesus shows us what true human worship, prayer, and community are. But the most surprising thing is that Jesus didn’t stop at teaching. He has actually been actively building a New Humanity around himself since the first century. I like to think of it this way: Jesus wasn’t a “Christian.” He didn’t come to start a withdrawn subculture of Christian stores, Christian education, or Christianese insider slang. He came to renew the nations through his own life, starting with a multi-ethnic group of spiritually renewed human beings who would simply practice his teachings in faithful communities throughout every culture of the world, with a meal of bread and wine at the center of their shared life together. Since Jesus’ resurrection, this renewed human family (the Church) has been rediscovering what it means to be truly human. This rediscovery looks like true worship, rhythms of prayer, and authentic community.
Also, you recently started a church plant in downtown area of San Diego. Congrats! I know your heart as a pastor is to love God and love the community. What are some practical ways you want to do that this Christmas? In turn, how can we do that in our day-to-day lives?
Yes, my wife Sandy and I are blowing our minds at what God has already done. We’ve been gathering in prayer every Sunday morning to prepare for our official launch as Park Hill Church on Christmas Eve. We will be celebrating together Christmas Eve morning at the historic North Park Observatory theater. Phil will be with us as well as our friend Bob Goff. It’s the same theater where the early Jesus Movement folks emerged in San Diego back in the 70s. It’s full circle! After we launch, we will be a church that both gathers on Sundays and scatters throughout the city in homes and around tables the rest of the week. This is the example of the earliest church in Acts 2:46 and 5:42. Both gathering and scattering. We gather around word, table, hymns of praise, and one another. We scatter throughout the city, house to house, to love and serve and share the good news of Jesus with our host communities. We recently did this in a very practical way. We moved our whole church gathering out into a local park. Instead of doing the typical songs-and-sermon thing, we just gathered into groups and prayed for one another and then shared a long meal together. We made sure we had plenty of food. In fact, there was so much food that we invited the 40-50 guys playing basketball in the gym next door to come line up for free tacos and burgers with us. Our goal is to be the kind of spirit-filled church that is such a blessing to our city, that if we were suddenly removed from our city, then our city would grieve. It should be the same in our day-to-day lives. Be the kind of neighbor that is such a blessing to your street, that if you were suddenly absent from your neighborhood, your whole street would grieve. There is an endless list of practical ways to do this. Throw great block parties. Remember names. Offer moving or cooking help. Be attentive and responsive. Celebrate your neighbors’ lives. Don’t withdraw from them.
Advent is a special season that I know is close to your heart. I’ve heard you talk about it on a previous interview with worship leader Scott Cunningham. For those who might not be familiar with it, maybe you can share a little bit about it?
Ok. This is such a great question. I wish more people would ask it! This question is really about time. What is time? Time is the measurement of motion through space. A day is one rotation of the earth. A month is one orbit of the moon around the earth. A year is one orbit of the earth around the sun. But those measurements are meaningless to us until we have a story. Without a story, time is pointless. For almost 2,000 years the Church has wisely and creatively marked time by the gospel story of Jesus. This is sacred time. This is the church calendar year. And the church calendar year begins with Advent. Advent anticipates the coming of Messiah. It’s the four Sundays before Christmas. Simply put, calendar creates culture. How we tell time determines who we are. If you anticipate fireworks on the fourth day of the seventh month, chances are you’re an American. The Chinese calendar told the Chinese story. The Roman calendar told the Roman story. The American calendar tells the American story. The Jewish calendar tells the Jewish story. The Christian calendar tells the Christian story. The Islamic calendar tells the Islamic story. The Secular calendar says there is no story – only politics and consumerism and whatever story you make up yourself. So at Park Hill Church we’re going to do everything we can to step into Advent, then Christmas, then Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost. We believe the story of Jesus is the one true story that redeems the world. We believe this so profoundly that it’s how we tell time.
In December you will launch your Advent series at your church. What is on your heart to talk about this Advent season?
This year the fourth Sunday of Advent happens to be Christmas Eve, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. We thought it would be beautiful to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the birth of Park Hill Church on the same day. He is the light of the world. We are the light of the word. His physical body was born on Christmas. His local body Park Hill will be ‘born’ on Christmas. For the four Sundays of Advent we will unpack hope, faith, joy, and peace, starting with “hope” on 12/3 and ending with “peace” Christmas Eve. We’ll celebrate how Jesus is all four of those things for us and for the world. And we will consider how Park Hill is called to embody those four things as the hands and feet of Jesus in San Diego.
Known as an expectant time of waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus as well as the anticipation of Christ’s second coming, why do you think the message of Advent is so important currently in a hurting, broken world?
I think Advent is tremendously important, especially for our age of instant gratification. On Black Friday, our consumerist culture obsessively rushes toward Christmas at breakneck speed (sometimes literally breaking necks!). Sadly, the American church often gets caught up in this irreligious rat race. We’ve forgotten how to collectively anticipate. We’ve forgotten how to wait in the longing for Jesus. We prefer noise and numbers over silence and solitude. Advent is choosing to view time from a higher plane. Advent is resistance in an age of instant gratification. Advent anticipates the coming of Messiah, and then comes Christmas day (12 days of Christmas to be precise) when we finally celebrate the birth of our Lord! At Park Hill Church, we’re going to make a big deal about the church calendar because I want my life and the lives of my family to be formed by the gospel story of Jesus. To reduce the Christian calendar to a day for Christmas (a day when we don’t even gather as a church!) and a single Sunday for Easter is to almost totally cave in to secularism. The fact that much of the American Church is more formed by the Fourth of July than by Advent is evidence of our being influenced by the secular.
In turn, also as a worship leader, a musician, I love how the songs on your Christmas album (Christmas Music Vol. 1) really reflect the story of this season. It is literally one of my favorite holiday albums! How did you decide which songs to include and did you have a favorite?
I loved making that record. That project represents such a fun time for us as a family. In previous albums, I had a rule that I would only record songs I had written. This project was different. My rule was to only record songs that I truly loved. There are only five original tracks. The other six were written by others, a combo of classics and new favorites. I’m not sure which track I like most! They’re all so special. Personally, I love how “Listen! They’re Singing!” turned out. I wrote it to serve as a kind of intro to the well known carol “Angels We Have Heard on High.” But I love how it stands on it’s own. It’s all about anticipating and waiting and that moment when you think you may have found the answer to your deepest longings. I pictured the shepherds at night – they were really one of the most marginalized groups in ancient Israel next to lepers. Jewish shepherds were so looked down upon that they couldn’t even participate in many common religious activities in ancient Judaism. So it’s actually extremely profound that the angels showed up first for shepherds. Not the religious people. Not the middle class. Not the privileged people of God. The gospel for all came first to the marginalized shepherds. That is exactly what Advent is all about. So I think I like that track the best.
Your church (Park Hill Church) will officially launch on Christmas Eve! What does that mean to you and what is your prayer for that day?
So far we’ve only really been a Sunday gathering. After Christmas Eve, we want to be a church of communities that meet in each other’s homes throughout our city. We will also be reading through the Bible in a year together as a church. My friend Tim started this incredible organization called The Bible Project. He created this amazing app that is by far the best Bible Reading plan ever created. That will be central for us as a church. We will also be stepping into the church calendar. It will be new for a lot of folks, but it won’t feel like that big of a shift. We will still gather around word, table, songs of praise, and one another every week. The difference will be in the way we will humbly join with thousands upon thousands of other Jesus communities that draw their overarching vision from a deeper well than their own lead pastor. Our prayer for Launch Day is that Jesus is glorified in everything that is said and sung and that San Diego knows how loved she is by Him.
As the New Year is quickly approaching, what is on the horizon for you?
Sandy and I have plans for a couple different albums right now. We’re pumped to get cracking on the next one in January! Our kids are growing fast, and we’re excited to see how they step into their individual callings in 2018. I also graduate from Western seminary next year with a Masters of Divinity. It will be really good to get that done so I can focus on other writing projects I’ve had in mind. 2018 is Year One as Park Hill Church. We’ll be focusing on the life of Jesus in one of the Gospels, probably Matthew. The idea of “practicing the Way of Jesus” needs to be brought back to the center of what it means to be a Christian today. We’ll focus on that idea of “practice” in our first year. Lots of ideas! It’s an exciting time to be part of what Jesus is doing in the world.