“Following Christ is much more than music; music is the by-product of living for Christ.”
In the opinion of acclaimed songwriter Paul Baloche, the best songs are not the ones that are crafted purposefully through human skill, they are the ones that are birthed out of a heart naturally overflowing with praise. And he should know.
One of the most respected music producers, prolific songwriters, and well known and well-loved worship leaders in the church today, Paul has recorded and produced an impressive number of praise and worship projects and has worked with a wide range of artists, from easy listening’s John Tesh and Michael W. Smith to Christian rock’s Sonicflood. A producer for Integrity Music, Paul has also produced four albums for Maranatha! Music’s Praise Band and is a successful recording artist in his own right.
In fact, since the 1970s, Paul has lived a life that is filled with music. For a time, growing up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Paul thought that he might be called to the priesthood. Instead, as a young adult he found himself making a living as a rock musician, playing late into the night at East coast hot spots. Though Paul made a name for himself on the club scene, his success left him dissatisfied and unfulfilled. Eager to experience something more, Paul set out to fill the emptiness in his soul and in December of 1980 had a born-again experience that would change his life forever.
Soon Paul—still a single young man—moved to the West coast to attend music school. There, he met two songwriters who would prove to be influential figures in his both musical and spiritual life. “I went to California and that’s where I met Kelly Willard. I didn’t really even know who she was,” he says of the woman who wrote such worship favorites as “Cares Chorus” and “Make Me a Servant.” “I started to hear Christian music and I thought, ‘Man, that’s cool: to be able to do pop music that’s about God.’ Because I’d never heard such a thing growing up in Philadelphia.”
Paul found himself spending a great deal of time with Kelly, her husband Dan, and their children. “I would go to their house on weekends and hang out and play with their kids and mow the lawn or do whatever. It was just fun to hang around with a family and just being around them. I’d go with Kelly on some of the concerts and maybe sell records or do whatever. “She and Dan were so influential in that early Maranatha music period. I learned a lot from them about humility and transparency and being authentic. I saw that really following Christ, in your life, in your family, is much more than music; that music is sort of the by-product of living for Christ; that songs become more of an overflow of your life.
A second mentor who took Paul under his wing during this time was Lenny LeBlanc, author of such tunes as “There Is None Like You” and and co-writer with Paul of the song “Above All.” After Paul met and married his wife Rita, his own songwriting also began to take off. “Rita had a similar, born again experience. She was writing new songs and I had never written much. I had just been a guitar player. I would send Kelly our songs and she would say, ‘Oh, that’s really great.’”
As Paul’s songwriting developed, so did his career in music ministry. In 1990 he began leading worship at Community Christian Fellowship? He also became involved in the ministry of Youth with a Mission, working with Jimmy and Carol Owens, and leading overseas worship schools in such places as Singapore and South Africa. He recorded his first live worship project, He Is Faithful, with Integrity Music in 1992. In 1997, Paul had what is, to date, the most pivotal songwriting of his life.
The experience followed the pattern common to the creation of many of his songs. “For me, a lot of songs just sort of come out of those worship times when you are just praying with a guitar in your hand,” he says. “At our church, it’s not uncommon for there to just be time when I’m playing one or two chords as people are getting prayed for. I just begin to sing out some prayers.”
Throughout the mid-1990s, Community Christian Fellowship found itself operating under the climate of revival. Together, the congregation and its leaders were praying for renewal at numerous worship nights and prayer meetings. As the worship leader, Paul sometimes found himself leading worship for almost two hours at a time, interspersed with periods of intercessory prayer.One morning, while standing at the front of the church, leading worship, the phrase “Open the eyes of my heart” suddenly sprang to mind. “I’d heard a pastor prayer that a couple of years before and I had written it in my journal. I just liked the way it sounded. He was saying something like, ‘Lord, we just ask you to open the eyes of our heart, to help us to see into your Word tonight.’ He just kind of blew by it, but it really struck with me.
Later I looked into Ephesians 1:18 and spent some time there, praying that.” On the morning that “Open the Eyes of My Heart” was written, Paul was—as usual—singing out prayers as men and women were being ministered to at the end of the church service. “ Oh, Lord, right now, we ask you to just come and touch our hearts, Lord Jesus,” he prayed out loud, strumming his guitar. At that moment, he says, “ that phrase just popped into my mind: ‘Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord. Open our eyes, Lord. We want to see You.”
Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord. Open the eyes of our hearts. We want to see You. We want to see You.
“You know when you kind of feel like, ‘Yeah, that feels right’? At the time, you’re not thinking, ‘Boy, that sounds like a good song!’ You are just thinking, ‘Yeah, yeah, Lord, that’s our prayer right now.’ It just felt like the sincere prayer of our hearts at that moment. “I was singing that through a few times and people started singing that along with me. I don’t know how the other part came about. I think I was just thinking about when Isaiah saw the Lord, and was thinking, ‘Lord, to see You high and lifted up. It’s just shining. It’s shining so bright, Lord. Shining in the light of Your glory.’ I was just saying these phrases and my sound man always keeps the ‘record’ button on because you never know…
“ Those are moments I try to capture. I’d much rather try to stumble upon a song idea in the midst of worship or in the midst of prayer than sitting in a room trying to come up with clever hooks, because it rings true. It’s more honest because it’s springing from the act of worship instead of saying, ‘ Okay, I’ve got to write some cool Christian worship chords.’ You end up with a Christian jingle. I’ve written those and I’m not proud of those. I find myself just wanting to be in a place of worship and letting songs come as a by-product,” he says, proving how completely the lessons from Kelly Willard have hit home.
Later that week, Paul listened to the tape of the spontaneous version of “ Open the Eyes of My Heart.” There in his office, he says, “I just kind of took that idea, which was mostly written as a prayer, and basically sanded a few of the edges so that it could just be a simple little prayer song.” In the following weeks, Paul taught the finished song to the church, as he has done with so many of his and Rita’s songs, many of which have ultimately landed on Integrity Music recordings. “Rita and I feel like that’s our role,” he says. “We try to write songs for our church. I’m always thinking about, ‘What do we need to be saying to God as a church?’ I’m aware that we have the privilege and the awesome task of putting words in the mouth of God’s children that they can sing to Him with. Much like a greeting card: I’m not sure quite how to say that I love my wife again on Valentine’s Day. I go to the card store and I look through several until I find a card that makes me say, ‘Wow, that’s neat! I never thought of saying it that way.’
As writers, it’s our privilege and also, with fear and trembling, our task to put words in the mouths of God’s children for them to sing back to Him. “As we sing it to God, it changes our lives). It has the potential to change our hearts, change our marriage, change our family, change our community. It’s the ripple effect of a song that amazes me and that we’ll probably remember. Somebody once said, ‘Maybe we’ll remember ten sermons in our life but we’ll remember hundreds of songs.’ “Sometimes people have asked me, ‘Did you know Open The Eyes of Your Heart would become a big song?’ Definitely not. They all feel kind of good when they first come out, sounding honest and natural. You kind of go, ‘Yeah, that’s sincere. That’s what I want to say.’ “The more I would sing ‘Open the Eyes of My Heart,’ the more I found that people just immediately grabbed onto it.
It really meant something to them. Maybe it’s because that is our desire. We’ve been Christians a long time and we’re frustrated with ourselves for lack of growth and say, ‘I want to be changed, God.’ “When people have an encounter with the Lord, they see Him. It seems like the prayer of our hearts is, ‘I don’t want to just learn about You, talk about You; I want to see You. I want to become more aware of You actually working in my life and in my family and in the world..’ You don’t have to be a ‘songwriter’ to write songs to the Lord. Just sing your prayers. “That’s where the best songs come from.”
By Shari MacDonald
Free-lance writer for national publication
In the opinion of acclaimed songwriter Paul Baloche, the best songs are not the ones that are crafted purposefully through human skill, they are the ones that are birthed out of a heart naturally overflowing with praise