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Phil Wickham opens up about journey from 'lifestyle Christianity' to rediscovering joy in God's presence

Phil Wickham
Phil Wickham |

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, Phil Wickham’s song “Battle Belongs” became an anthem for Christians worldwide. The tune, released in the fall of 2020, reminds believers that “nothing can stand against the power of God,” with lyrics including the lines, “So when I fight, I'll fight on my knees/ With my hands lifted high/ Oh God, the battle belongs to You.”

“It became such a fight song and a faith-building song for me,” the 38-year-old worship leader told The Christian Post. “Almost immediately, I started … getting all these DMs and messages and emails from people saying, ‘This has given me words to my prayers. I didn't know what to pray when I was in the hospital bed, by the graveside, or when we lost our job, and we just prayed this song.’ And it was just moving.”

But as he witnessed the way God was using “Battle Belongs” to uplift those struggling, Wickham, who attends Light Church in Encinitas, California, began to feel the Holy Spirit challenging him to examine his own beliefs and take a closer look at his walk with God. 

“As I was hearing people say, like, ‘I was going through this, but I just kept crying out to the Lord and it was great,’ I was just thinking, ‘Man, I'm the one singing the song … but is it really true for my life? Is this my go-to playbook when I hit a wall or face a metaphorical mountain?’”

So, he began combing through the Scriptures, writing down stories and praying the lessons over his life, from Moses’ courage in crossing the Red Sea to Joshua fighting the battle of Jericho against all odds. 

“I just started going to the Scriptures and said, ‘I need more of this in my life. I want to sing ‘Battle Belongs’ with so much conviction and confidence that this is true for my life,” he said.

During that process, Wickham was surprised to discover he’d accidentally settled into what he described as “lifestyle Christianity,” missing out on the joy and excitement of being in God’s presence in the process.

“I felt so — I don’t know if convicted is the right word — but just like, ‘Lord, I'm so sorry that I've missed out on the joy and in the beauty of it’ just because I haven't been cultivating in my heart this excitement to be in His presence, this real faith that He is listening and wants to do things. … My mind is less on, ‘What are the good things to pray?’ And more like, ‘I wait to ask God for things according to His will in the name of Jesus because He's going to do it if it's according to His will, in the power and name of Jesus, to His glory.’”

A self-described “church kid,” Wickham is one of today’s most prolific worship leaders. With numerous awards and two decades in the industry under his belt, he’s the powerhouse voice and lyricist behind church favorites like “Living Hope,” “This is Amazing Grace” and “House of the Lord.” He’s collaborated with countless other artists, from gospel legend CeCe Winans to rising star Anne Wilson

But the events of 2020, he said, were a “wake-up” call for him, his Christian music community and the American Church in general. 

“A lot of my friends in ministry and pastors were kind of shaken out of the … formula, or the things that we just do,” he reflected. “Because we had to be like, ‘What are we really doing here? What's important? What do we need to strip away? What's the fluff? What's the stuff that lifts my ego up? What's the stuff that really helps, what's really Kingdom here?’ At least a lot of my friends, and myself, were asking those questions and didn't really even know we had to. But in an exciting way, we're saying, ‘Life is short, it could change any minute. We just want Jesus, and we just want to be about the Kingdom stuff.’”

Now, the 38-year-old father of four is sharing what he learned about the power of prayer and being in the presence of God in his debut devotional,On Our Knees: 40 Days to Living Boldly in Prayer. The 40-day study, releasing Sept. 27, highlights the importance of cultivating a lifelong practice of prayer and how doing so builds a deeper connection with God. 

“Writing this book helped me to remember [the power of prayer],’” Wickham said. “I would hope that this book would help people to understand the beauty of it, the joy of it, the intimacy of it. That it's not this religious act, but it's this communal act with God. There's an urgency; the world needs for people to pray.”

K-LOVE Books
K-LOVE Books

Though there are countless reasons to pray, Wickham said the greatest and simplest argument for prayer is that Jesus practiced it regularly and with fierce intentionality. 

“Jesus relied on it even when He was at the end of His rope after healing people and people clamoring for Him; He still got alone to pray. Before He went on the cross … Jesus knew He was about to get absolutely slaughtered for the next 24 hours and just go through excruciating pain, both emotionally and physically and mentally and even in a spiritual sense; the Father turning His face away from Him. And what does He do? He prays; He prays to his Father, and He wrestles with His Father a little bit.”

“I feel like we learn so much about how to talk to God through Jesus,” he added. “Jesus showed us that in all things, being communion with the Father — there's so much life there.”

Though Wickham’s devotional is the result of a season of serious reflection, he’s quick to stress that he doesn’t consider himself a theologian: “I definitely didn't write this book saying, ‘Hey, I'm professor Phil,’” he said. “I wrote it because I needed it, and I hope it's the same for other people too.”

In addition to releasing a book, the artist, whose song "House of the Lord" is up for Song of the Year at the 2022 Dove Awards, recently announced his 2023 Singalong Tour along with Matt Maher and Leeland Mooring. He expressed optimism for the future of Christian music, pointing out that like the Church, the industry experienced a “shaking the dust off a little bit” following COVID-19 and the lockdowns. 

“I think the last couple of years … it’s like, what's important, and what are the simple things that we need to just remember and bring to the surface and proclaim,” he said. “I think there's a lot of people on that same page. There's a lot of community.”

And unlike when he first emerged on the music scene, Wickham pointed out that thanks to Spotify and YouTube, “you don't have to have a label anymore for a church in North Carolina to hear songs from a church in Oregon.”

“That's all cool,” he said. 

But looking ahead, Wickham said he prays that he and his peers have the courage and strength to “stay faithful in the little things” — like staying faithful to their spouses, being present parents and walking with the Lord — because those are the things that “bring power to their music.” 

“I just pray that they … lay aside the things that weigh us down and just keep moving forward because they're the guys that inspire me when I call them and talk to them. They're the guys that I say, ‘Hey, can you pray for me?’ So that's what I just hope — that it's the behind-the-scenes stuff people stay faithful to,” he said. 

“I think all the music, it's going to come, and people are going to keep pushing each other to make more and more, better and better and more beautiful, and I love all that. But I just want people I can trust to lead me. … I think we all really just want to see God's Kingdom here on earth through the songs, and everybody's rooting for each other.”

Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: leah.klett@christianpost.com

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