Songwriter, worship leader strives to place Jesus in center of worship
FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – Southwestern student Tim Lawles says that 100 percent of who he is today is a direct result of God bringing his wife, Molly, into his life.
Though Lawles was already writing and coordinating musical productions for his family by age 9 and was playing music professionally by age 14, it was his relationship with Molly that gave him direction. Specifically, it began a process that produced in him a desire to see people love God more than themselves, more than money, more than glory, and more than the rock star lifestyle of touring around and “living the dream.”
“Molly is just a really beautiful example of this,” Lawles says. “She's changed a lot of who I am.”
Lawles grew up in a Christian home with 10 brothers and sisters. Each of them musically talented, the family performed in multiple venues in the U.S. and Mexico. Their parents taught them that whatever they do should be done for God. More specifically, they taught that God has called all Christians to use their abilities for His glory.
For Lawles, a Christian since age 5, that had always meant music, but not necessarily from a ministry perspective.
“It was more this idea that, as I'm going about what God's doing in my life, making sure everything that I do represents Him,” Lawles says. “Not necessarily using religion, but showing the relationship I have with Jesus as the most important thing in my life and reflecting that in how I treat people.”
By age 20, however, after playing music professionally for six years, Lawles began to see the value that music and worship have together. Specifically, he saw that playing music as a form of worship within the church was not just more fulfilling than playing music professionally but also more significant.
God began this process through Lawles’ relationship with Molly, who served as an example of God-centered living. Additionally, she introduced him to her father, who played a significant role in shaping Lawles’ views.
“I ended up having to have breakfast with her dad every time I went there to hang out with her,” Lawles says. “So he basically asked me the questions. He counseled me through my decisions and tried to help me see there's more beyond just this certain project or this income from that tour. And I really had no reason to think beyond that before then.”
This new perspective led Lawles to attend New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s extension center in Birmingham, Ala., for a biblical studies degree. At that time, he also served as worship leader at a local church and worked as a worship consultant, drawing on his extensive music experience to help churches modify their worship services to better reach their communities.
Regarding this time, Lawles says, “The more I learned, the less I recognized what I was seeing in Scripture in the ministry I was serving in. That's really the time when I started seeing God move in my heart from a desire to see better quality songs in church to actually wanting to be able to see the Gospel represented—truth, Scripture, and Jesus as the center of ministry.”
Trying to implement this philosophy, however, proved to be problematic.
“Something that was really difficult,” Lawles says, “was looking for where these songs that we sing come from in the text [of Scripture]. And if songs weren't represented in the text, and I couldn't find them, then we didn't sing them. I ran out of songs pretty quickly.”
This shortage of music found in Scripture ultimately brought Lawles to Southwestern Seminary for a bachelor’s degree in musical composition.
“I came here for songwriting—to be able to put together a greater volume of songs that represent more aspects of God than just the fact that we know Him,” Lawles says, noting that he wants his music to display “the character of God, what a relationship with Him looks like, and the benefits of knowing Him.”
Lawles says the musical competency that Southwestern provides, paired with its kingdom focus, is exactly what he needed.
“It's the combination of the fact that professors are thinking about churches and that we're focused on the church member and reaching the community for Jesus,” Lawles explains. “And then we realize this through the excellence that we learn in every layer of what is required to do music well.”
Lawles adds that his professors are “brilliant guys who have so much experience in the industry that the way they teach is not like you're reading from a book. … It aligns with what you learn in the book, but it's insight rather than just instruction.”
For the past two years, Lawles has applied what Southwestern has taught him by serving as music director at Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Greenville, Texas.
Until he was hired, Ridgecrest’s music ministry comprised only a pipe organ, a piano, a hammered dulcimer, and a 12-member choir.
“And when the rest of the worship industry is displaying [a worship ministry] that's so glorious, it's very difficult for churches that don't have the means to be that glorious,” Lawles says. “But that’s kind of the point of it—we’re not supposed to be trying to manufacture glory because we have Jesus, who is glorious.”
Lawles began by rearranging the church’s existing resources in a way that produced a good sound, writing music catered to the strengths of the band. Then, as more people stepped up to serve, one piece at a time, Lawles put together a sound that was comfortable for everybody.
He explains the process: “These two people read music. Not everybody does. So then we build everything on the people who do read music, and instead of me having to instruct them and teach them something, I write it into their parts, and then in six months, we have a drummer, three guitar players and a bass player. Plus, the organist and pianist are still playing. The choir goes from 12 to now we're running 28 on Sunday morning. That's in just two years.”
Lawles now characterizes Ridgecrest’s music ministry as a complete sound that fills the whole stage, which they recently had to remodel to accommodate the growing numbers.
“It's not about volume of people,” Lawles explains, “but when the foundation is there, people are able to be involved without the pressure and weight of providing the glory. Instead, we focus on Jesus.”
This has been Lawles’ philosophy for worship ever since his relationship with Molly got the ball rolling on his life of ministry—that is, if worship is about Jesus, it cannot be about the people. His long-term goal is to impact as many churches as he can with that philosophy.
“And the way that trickles down is just really beautiful,” Lawles says, “because you get to see people who are growing and learning and serving. And they're able to take ownership in ministry and do things that are personal [and] produce a quality worship environment because what's required for that is hearts toward Jesus. And secondary is music, and even further down is presentation.”