Former Sonicflood frontman now developing next generation of worship leaders
It's been a journey of surprises for Jeff Deyo. The singer first came to Nashville in 1993 looking to take the CCM world by storm as a pop/rock artist. After five years of trying to make it in Music City, Deyo says the Lord "totally changed" him, and ignited an anointing and a heart for worship.
It was then Deyo became the frontman for the band that once was dcTalk's backing band, Zilch, and they rebranded themselves Sonicflood. As part of Sonicflood, and later with his solo project, Deyo was at the forefront of the modern worship movement in the early 2000s --seeing hundreds of thousands of people's hearts awakened to new expressions of praise.
Little did Deyo know that God had another surprise in store for him. Now Deyo serves as teacher and mentor for the next generation of worship leaders in his role at Minneapolis' North Central University.
On the heels of NCU Worship Live's first national release, Always Remain, we asked Deyo about his new mission and the things that get him excited these days.
Fill us in on where you're at, how you got over to North Central and what your role is in all that.
Through the Sonicflood years and my own worship recordings and all that good stuff through the early 2000s, I was just traveling and singing. But yeah, what totally was not on my radar was the idea of going to a university to teach. It just wasn't at all. It's interesting though how God works, and He certainly knows better than we do.
If you'd have told me 15 years ago that I'd be doing this, I probably would have cried, and been like, "Oh no!"--because I loved what I was doing, I loved traveling and all that stuff.
I have been through that before. If you'd have told me 20 years ago that I was going to do worship, I'd have thought, "Wow, that's second class music." I didn't really grow up in a church where we had a ton of worship music per se, it was more of like a horizontal sing-along, so this idea of singing to God was so new to me.
So what was the catalyst for this big change?
[During the early 2000s] I had just been eating up knowledge about what worship was, since I didn't really grow up with it. So as I learned, I wanted to share. It was just kind of a natural thing, so I would share in concerts and in the worship nights I was doing.
My heart for teaching just kept growing and growing, so in around 2008 I started the Pure Worship Institute, which was this idea of pouring into this generation and the next generation to help them--musicians and singers, specifically--learn how to love God with their songs and their lives.
I've seen too many people loving God with their songs but then behind the scenes not being who they appear to be, and it just broke my heart. I had this passion to train up people who wanted to do both, who wanted to be excellent and who wanted to have true hearts for worshipping God. So I started doing that in 2008 and there were these whisperings from a friend of mine at North Central who was constantly bugging me, "You need to come teach at North Central!" and I was like "What? What are you talking about? I don't have any grid for that at all."
I got my Bachelors and graduated from Anderson University with a music business degree, but man, it never even entered my mind to go back to teach. But I visited there and when I went to lead worship at North Central, when we hit the first note in their chapel, people just kind of lost themselves in Jesus. It was a powerful atmosphere and it wasn't anything that we did; it was something that was already happening at the school. I thought, "Wow, this is really cool," so God started birthing stuff in me then and during 2009, we were trying to decide if we were called to be worship pastors at a church. We knew there was a change coming.
There were a couple different schools that were talking to us and we ended up feeling that the Lord led us to North Central. That was as scary as it could be. Again, I had no idea that this was what God would have for us or if I could even be successful at teaching. It's amazing to me that they would even take a chance on me that way. I think it was the Lord, so He showed them and He showed me and we made steps of faith and it's working really well. I'm loving it, loving teaching.
How's the change in pace and scope?
There's obviously things that you don't anticipate, traveling the world and singing for thousands of people, and now you've got 10, maybe 20 students in a class and sometimes it has felt small, but the Lord just keeps reminding me that we're talking about multiplication here. I'm pouring into these students and then they go out and they're changing the world. I can only be in one place at a time, but now there's these kids all over the world and I get to have a little piece of that influence. It's really amazing to see what they're doing and I'm so proud of our students.
Explain what your day-to-day with that is like.
I teach a number of classes. The past seven and a half years that I've been there, I've taught classes. We have a worship leading major and then a music pastor major, kind of two different types of people. Music pastor majors are someone who kind of oversees the whole program, where maybe a worship leading major may want to travel, do some singer/songwriter stuff, also be playing at a church, that kind of come-and-go type thing.
I teach the worship leading class, I teach songwriting, I've taught a class called "performance preparation" that tries to help people engage with the congregation and not just put up a barrier between the stage and the people, and then also a class called "music ministry philosophy."
I'm also responsible for putting on our annual conference, Pure Worship Institute that I mentioned earlier, and then we also do a recording every other year. That's part of my responsibility as well to put that live recording together.
Then I work with our worship team, helping train them up. Our chapels are just so amazing. Honestly, I've been to a lot of Christian schools and there's somewhere you have to go to chapel so it's kind of this clock-in-clock-out vibe, but man, we have chapel every day at North Central and we're just thinking we have to capture this, what God's doing in this special place, on CD. So that's what we've been doing.
I didn't go to a Christian university, but from what I understand, chapel isn't a thing that typically happens every day, right?
Yeah. When I went to school at Anderson, we had Tuesday/Thursday and there's a lot of that. Either Tuesday/Thursday or Monday/Wednesday/Friday or once a week for most schools. And you would think by doing every day that it would be worse, but it's almost the opposite because it's happening so often. People come with expectation and it has a lot to do with how we lead as well.
Part of my role--and I love it, I love church culture and the opportunity to develop that--is not only speaking into our music students' lives, but also training the rest of the students in chapel and giving them Biblical understanding of why we do what we do. It sounds cliché, but the Bible doesn't return void, so you bring that in a passionate, powerful way and people really understand and open their hearts. I think a big part of it too is the president that we have there, Dr. Anderson, who's a big part of helping us cultivate that vibrant chapel spiritual atmosphere.
Talk about the singers and the instrumentalists who make up this North Central Worship Live, the team that puts out these albums and is part of this ministry. Are these students taking that as a major or are they from the whole spectrum of the school? How do they join?
We usually have three main worship live chapel teams that have classes. You have to audition to get into these teams and anyone can get into them; you don't have to be a music major. However, because the music majors are so focused on music, a lot of the time they're the best ones because they're constantly growing and learning, but it's open to anybody and we do have some that are not music majors.
There are three different teams. We have one that stays together for a year, it's Worship Live Chapel and they play in chapel on a rotation. Then we have Worship Live Summer and they do the same thing but then they travel the following summer after their year of classes, and then Worship Live Summer/Fall will also travel in the summer and fall.
Then out of those three, we just pick the best of the best of our students--usually juniors/seniors who have been there the longest, honing their skills and their heart--and we spend at least a year before that writing songs, which to me is like the main issue because if we can make beautiful music but the songs are not strong, there's really no point in spending the time to do that. So we work really hard on the songs and then we put that team together with myself and a co-producer.
This year we had a guy named Ben Gall who is an alum of North Central. He actually is a creative arts pastor out in Phoenix, but he also traveled playing guitar with Michael W. Smith for a while and currently with Paul Baloche and has produced a few of Paul's projects, so he was a perfect fit for us. He came in and the two of us worked together and produced the record, so it was anywhere from students to alumni to faculty. There's another faculty member that sang one of the songs, he's over our music pastor program. The rest of it, singers and musicians, are all students.
It's a real challenge and it's an amazing learning experience for them. It's not like a class; you don't get credit for it. It's just a volunteer deal and they have to spend quite a bit of time preparing and learning. It's not just like the adults create the music and slap some singers on there; we all get involved in this, hashing out what kind of sound we want for the school. It's quite a big undertaking and just when we get them to where we want them, then they graduate and we get the privilege of starting over each year with some new folks. It's worked out good so far and we've done three recordings since I've been there.
You talked about developing the sound the university would put forward--how would you describe where you guys landed?
It's a bit of a hybrid. Everyone loves the new Hillsong Young & Free synth-y stuff, and we do as well, but we still have this kind of organic feel. In some of the tunes, there's definitely a synth or programmed stuff back there cruising along with us, but then you have this organic thing as well. There's just a nice balance to me.
I feel like one of our inspirations is the Bethel album, We Will Not Be Shaken. I really appreciate some of the new stuff they were doing with that record. We felt like their hard work on that thing was really evident and we loved how they did a little departure from the traditional big ramp-up builds that we always do in live music and more stair-stepping it instead of these obvious builds that happen. We were doing some of that as well and then we're weaving in a lot of counter-melodies, so there's a lot going on, but we worked really hard to make it not feel like too much. You're still hearing the melodies and the hooks, so I'm excited about it.
With your background with Sonicflood and your solo stuff, obviously you've had quite a bit of experience with the recording process. What sort of extra things were you able to teach in the recording from your experience that you wouldn't be able to in the classroom?
There's a ton of stuff that I teach our students in the classroom that is invaluable, but getting out and actually doing it is a whole other thing. Taking the information and applying it is a whole other experience. They're learning leadership and time management by doing this; they're learning how to work together and really arrange music, not just slap some chords down.
Some of them are involved in the songwriting process, too, and that's huge. When you're a young songwriter, you kind of get attached to your songs and one of the things I think they learn through this process is we've got to hold loosely to our songs.
I think there's so many things that could be learned, and then of course just the heart. We want to capture the heart and to me, the balance between excellence and heart is very clearly spoken in Psalm 72 and 78. There it says that David led the people with skilled hands and a true heart, and that's our heart here at North Central. We want to lead and equip these students with skilled hands and skilled voices, but we want them to also have tender and true, authentic hearts for worship and for the Lord.
When we start our rehearsals each time, even though we have a million things to do, we discipline ourselves to spend time together just seeking the Lord. We take maybe fifteen minutes and put on a CD and we'll worship together or pray together, take prayer requests and lay hands on somebody who's going through something hard. Those things are invaluable as well.
Obviously you make this music for your student body, but also the greater worship world and the Church and whoever would listen to it. Would you say that's a reflection of a desire to show what God's doing at the University or are there additional reasons?
I think our heart--and a lot of these people are worship majors--is a heart for the Church, for building the body of Christ and each individual person learning how to connect with the Lord. There's these "connect moments," and if we're honest, we all kind of zone out sometimes in the middle of a worship service. But then there's those times where you really connect and God just really touches your heart and you maybe fall on your knees or you're overwhelmed with tears or whatever it is, but there's a genuine connect moment that happens with the power of God and the person of God.
If we could--by worship and song melodies, through presentation, through our own worship--if we could by chance help increase those connect moments, that would just mean the world to me. One of the best compliments I've ever received from anybody was something like, "Your song helped me say what I wanted to say to God but I didn't know how to say it." If we could help people draw out what's already in their hearts, that's amazing.