His rendition of Army hymns such as Send the Fire, Take Time to be Holy and I'm in His Hands are sung in congregations around the world, but singer-songwriter Phil Laeger will tell you that keeping his principles in check hasn't always been easy. While promoting his third solo album, Return, on a North American tour, Laeger speaks with features editor Melissa Yue Wallace about his Army background, challenges in the Christian music industry and how a three-year-old stirred his heart for worship.

Why did you choose Return as the title for your new album?

Halfway through the recording of my second album, I realized that, at some point, my motives were in the wrong place. Even though I was happy with the songs and production, it wasn't for the Lord. It was me trying to get signed to a label and sacrificing principles to achieve personal goals. Return symbolizes finding my way home and the relationship with God our Father. It's more important than any kind of accomplishment we try to achieve.

Is it a challenge for Christian artists to constantly ensure they have the right motives?

It is for me. The artist friends I have and the ones I've looked up to through the years have, at some point, struggled with gaining recognition and the desire for their songs to be heard while making sure they are always subservient to God, too. But at the end of the day, the only audience that matters is the one who will be there when our time is over. The only recognition that matters is from God.

How did you become a Christian?

I don't remember the exact day I said the sinner's prayer, but at five years old I was writing poetry for Jesus. I still have some poems that my mom recently gave back to me that I had written on paper. Then in high school, I got mixed up in the wrong crowd, rebelled and wandered away. My life wasn't really going anywhere. I hit rock-bottom in January 1996. I felt empty and directionless. So I made the decision, as plain as that sounds, and said, “OK, God, I'm gonna give you a chance,” and started reading the Bible again. All the words my parents taught me when I was a kid flooded back over me and I started experiencing the joy of the Lord again. Since then, I've been making music and following Jesus.

What are the messages you want to get across through the songs on this album?

That God loves you, as simple as that sounds. The album is about your identity. So many people struggle for so long to find who they are. I used to listen to a Christian rock band called Petra. In their song Godpleaser, the lyrics are: “So many voices telling me which way to go/So many choices come from those who think they know….” Who we are shapes what we do. This album is about realizing our primary identity as children of God and loving him because he first loved us.

You've been singing at several Salvation Army corps on this tour. What is your connection to the Army?

My parents are officers [Majors David and Anna Laeger] so I grew up in The Salvation Army and worked as a worship consultant/specialist in the United States and Australia. Most recently, I was the Australia Eastern territorial worship development and resource consultant, networking songwriters and creating new resources for congregational worship in the Army. My family and I are active soldiers at the Northlakes Corps in Newcastle, which is on the east coast of Australia, two hours north of Sydney.

You're known for your new arrangements of traditional Army hymns. How did that come about?

It started in 1996 when I was staying at the Boston Jubilee House in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where Majors William and Susan Dunigan were the corps officers. Major William Dunigan was trying to create a new version of Send the Fire so I had a look at it and it became the first song I approached from the Army song book. I was asked a few more times to do it and in 2004, Lt-Colonel Eddie Hobgood asked me to lead worship for the territorial youth institute in Oklahoma. He wanted me to look at old songs, so we pulled them out and arranged new compositions. We were not expecting the response we had. God used that in a powerful way at the territorial youth institute so we went into the studio to record it and that started a whole journey, revamping these songs and doing some original music as well.

How do you come up with lyrics for your original songs?

Usually what happens for me is one of two things. Either I will get a seed of thought for a song coupled with a melody out of nowhere or, since I'm an introspective person, I'll come up with one line and develop from there. The trick is to come up with good lines that stick to your original thought rather than meandering all over the place. It's a bit of an art and craft.

What is your all-time favourite worship song?

That's a tough one; there are so many good ones. My favourite is And Can It Be by Charles Wesley—all the verses from that hymn and its wonderful imagery. I love going back to experience the richness of older hymns. Of late, one of my favourite worship songs is by my friend, Aaron Shust, called My Hope Is in You.

What can a good worship song do for the listener?

I've been leading worship for 15 years and I think music has the ability to suspend reality for a second. It has the ability to make people stop. Music done well lets people appreciate beauty and connect on an emotional level that words alone cannot do. When you couple music with God's truth, amazing things can happen.

How can Christians better engage in worship?

What any worship leader would love to see, no matter how good the music is or if it's your favourite song, whenever you gather to worship the Lord, come ready to worship. Many times we rely on the leader to get us into worship. By using our will to enter into worship and not only our emotions, we are saying to the Lord, “I am going to worship you, for you are good.”

Phil Laeger with his wife, Sarah, and their three children Aiden, Hope and Samuel (Photo: Shairon Paterson)

Can you describe a worship experience that profoundly affected you?

I have three kids and they know all my songs because my wife plays them in the car when I'm away on tour. Last year, we released a worship album in Sydney called Hope Glory and my three-year-old daughter's favourite song, Stars in the Night, is on it. The other day, I was sitting in my office and she was walking around with her doll outside—I could see her through the window—and she was singing these lyrics at the top of her lungs, “Take it all, Lord, sanctify us/All we have is yours/Separate us from this world, Lord/Be our joy and song….” That was pretty special for me to hear the praise of God on the lips of my kid.

Sounds like the music gene has been passed along to your kids.

My kids are still experimenting in music and I'm in the encouraging stage. They love to bang on the piano. My middle son is four and was diagnosed with autism, but he loves music. We got him a little keyboard for Christmas. When people say my kids might be musically gifted, I agree, but I might be a little biased.

And did you come from a musical family?

Yes, definitely. My parents are both brilliant singers who play the piano and a little bit of organ. Neither one of them trained classically. They both played for a long time and my brother, sisters and I all sang and played piano growing up.

What are your plans after this tour?

My siblings have amazing voices and I'm hoping to get a quartet together either this year or next. Aside from that, I'm just going to keep praying, trusting God and doing the next thing.

Visit www.phillaeger.com for information on Phil Laeger's music, blog and upcoming schedule.

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