An AVAIL Conversation: Ron Kenoly reflects on 40-plus years of leadership in praise and worship

blog Jan 04, 2024

AVAIL Media Host Virgil Sierra recently sat down with legendary worship leader Ron Kenoly for the AVAIL Podcast. At 79, Ron is known for popular worship songs such as “Jesus Is Alive,” “My God Is Able” and “We’re Going Up to the High Places.” His Integrity’s Hosanna Music album Lift Him Up, released in 1992, was certified Gold, with more than 500,000 copies sold.

Reared in a Christian family, Ron graduated high school and went into the Air Force, where he sang with a Top-40 style band. When he left the military, he went to Los Angeles to make a career of music, landing contracts with A&M, Warner and United Artists. But Ron’s success caused him to wander from the faith of his childhood.

After 10 years in the music business, he rededicated his life to Christ. Ron’s mother had given him a Bible, and it became an inspiration for writing and performing songs, first in the Washington State Penitentiary where his brother was an inmate, and eventually for Full Gospel Businessmen’s events and church gatherings.

“I was in obscurity for eight years, singing my songs. Wherever the door would open, I would go, and I would sing, making no money,” Ron explains. “But that was the gift that was in me, and I was determined to use it. And I prayed, ‘Father, I’ll go through any door that you open.’”

AVAIL talked with Ron about the breakthrough that launched his career worship music, his perspective on the church music landscape and the must-have qualities that make an effective praise and worship leader.

AVAIL: Could you just share a little bit about how you came into the worship music world?

Ron Kenoly: In 1985, Full Gospel Businessmen had invited Lester Sumrall to speak at one of their meetings, and they asked me to be the soloist for the meeting. At that meeting there were two people: Dr. Dick Bernal, who was pastor of Jubilee Christian Center in San Jose, California, and an evangelist named Mario Murillo. They both heard me sing, and Pastor Dick invited me to come to his church to sing on a Sunday night. While I was singing the first song, the pastor’s wife told the pastor, “Hire him.” I was a worship pastor at Jubilee Christian Center, and we were doing songs that I wrote and also some of the other team members—I encouraged them to write as well. We put a band together that was big, with horns and strings. It had the same energy as the music that I was doing in the secular world because that’s what my pastor liked. Don Moen from Integrity Music came to hear us, and the rest is history.

AVAIL: Let’s fast forward to 2023, sitting here with nearly 40 years of leading worship and writing worship songs and training up and developing worship leaders. Can you tell us a little bit about your current ministry and what you’re doing now?

Ron: Primarily, my ministry is threefold: I teach now as much as I sing. I’m on the faculty of two different universities: Kingdom Life University in Tampa, Florida, and Christian Life School of Theology in Augusta, Georgia. And I still travel. I put together a mentoring program for pastors, musicians, worship leaders, choir directors, anybody who’s involved in the music ministry of the church, congregation or parachurch organization.

AVAIL: What’s the focus of your message and teaching?

Ron: I don’t mean this to sound derogatory, but I sense that there is a worship of worship as opposed to worshiping the King. I realized at one point that was what I was doing. I was worshiping what I did. I was worshiping my calling more than I was worshiping the Savior. And as a result of that, I discovered a difference between being a song leader and a worship leader.

AVAIL: Where do pastors fit in?

Ron: Ultimately, the pastor of the church is the worship leader, because God holds the pastor responsible for the level of worship that goes on in that congregation. God puts a pastor in that place to worship Him, and worship is not just a good idea, it is not a suggestion. It’s a command. With every account of the heavenly experience, there’s praise and worship around the throne of God. And it doesn’t stop. Praise and worship are the priority so that is the thrust of my ministry today: teaching praise and worship, demonstrating a proper balance between worship and the Word. This country was born out of rebellion to a king. So, when we call Jesus King, we don't always act like He’s King. We don’t always treat him like a King because we’ve never been taught. We don’t know what the proper etiquette is in the manifest presence of God.

AVAIL: Based on what you just mentioned from your experience, from what the Lord has taught you and what you’ve seen throughout your years in leading in ministry and worship were, if you were a lead pastor today looking for a worship leader, what are some of the characteristics you would look for in a worship leader for a church today?

Ron: The first thing above all, you’ve got to have a leader that loves people. And he has to demonstrate his love. Love is an action word. It’s a verb. And because everything in true ministry is built upon love, Jesus said to Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter said, “Yeah, I love you.” He said, “Peter, do you love me?” He said, “Come on, Jesus. You know I love you.” He asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” “Yes, I love you.” Jesus said, “Well, feed my people.” And what do you feed them? You feed them the Spirit of Christ. We have to show the same love to others that God has shown to us. We’ve got to demonstrate generosity, compassion, acceptance and forgiveness. We have to demonstrate these things in everything that we do. If love is the foundation, then everything grows from that. And that’s what leaders have to have. In my opinion.

AVAIL: What's another trait or characteristic for a worship leader?

Ron: Be approachable. I’m saying things that have nothing to do with music, but you see, character is the next thing. And inside of character is being approachable to people, hearing their heart, understanding their concerns, or contributing to their advancement. You’ve got to give love the same way that God gives love to you. And when you do, you show people that you care about them.

AVAIL: Would you add one more characteristic?

Ron: Creativity. The most important thing that we need to know as worship leaders and as pastors is to create an environment for God to manifest His presence in our midst. And how does He manifest His presence? Through an inspired word from heaven. As you know yourself, you study all week to preach one thing, and then you step in the pulpit and God says, “Preach this,” and right there on the spot you have got to make a decision. Why? Because somebody needs this word.

AVAIL: In recent years, a lot of new worship songs have been coming out of large influential churches versus in the past coming from dedicated music labels. What are your thoughts on some of these new trends?

Ron: I think more pastors are coming into the reality that their music has to be good. It has to be creative. It has to be inspiring, because many times a song will say more than a sermon, and worship leaders need to know how to write songs out of the pastor’s sermons. Many of the songs that I wrote and recorded I would write out of my pastor’s sermons. Everybody else would be taking notes, but the Holy Spirit would be giving me songs. And several times, right at the end, before service was over, I had a song on that particular word. If you’re a pastor, you can only preach that sermon one time a year. But if we put that sermon in a song, people can live that sermon for the rest of their life. That is the beauty and the power when you create a proper balance between the music and the Word, then you’ve got a recipe for revival. Isaiah said, “My word will not return void. It will accomplish what I purpose it to accomplish.”

AVAIL: Sometimes there are churches that might be facing budget limitations, or maybe they’re newer churches that don’t have as big budgets. What are some ways, from your perspective and your experience, that church leaders can still prioritize worship, even if there’s limited resources?

Ron: Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. All the other things will be added to you.” When a pastor is trying to put a music team together, he needs to, in some way, compensate those people who he’s going to depend on for music. That’s scriptural. When David, in 2 Chronicles 16, established the tabernacle of David with the musicians and the singers in the tabernacle, that was their job. That’s what they did. And music was continual. Now, if you’ve got a small budget, if you going to preach living by faith, then you you’ve got to live by faith. You believe God for what you want, and he'll bring the right people. When your team is together and functioning properly under proper leadership, then they will attract good musicians.

AVAIL: You’ve written hundreds of songs throughout your career. What is it like to hear others sing and worship with your songs?

Ron: Well, it does two things to me. First, it humbles me because I see the evidence of his presence in me touching other people. And the next thing it does—I’m trying to look for the right word—it helps me to realize that His presence is in me. I’m not alone. I’m not by myself. When I stand up there, I can’t speak for other people, but it just blows my mind that God would use me after I all I’ve been through. When I was singing in the secular world, the direction that I was going, I thought to myself, I don’t think I'm going to live to see 35. Then I rededicated my life, and God began to use me in things that I didn’t ask for, I didn’t pray for, I didn’t even imagine. The only thing I wanted Him to do was just use me. I’m like that guy on the bench that’s telling the coach, “Put me in the game, coach. I’ll pass the ball. I’ll go steal it. I’ll do whatever you want me to do. Just put me in the game. I don’t care if I’m a star. I just want to be where you’re doing so

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