Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Michael Aukofer

Aukofer.phpAs my wife and I prepare to move to Ohio, there are a handful of things we’re going to miss about Illinois. For me, it’s all the Dunkin’ Donuts locations in close proximity to our apartment. For her, it’s the chicken salad from Augustino’s. Also for me, Portillo’s chocolate cake shakes (Yes, they actually put chocolate cake in the shake! If you haven’t had one, you must!)

On a slightly more serious note, we’re also going to miss our friends, co-workers, our small group, and our church.

We’ve been attending West Ridge Community Church for almost a year and a half now, and we’ve loved it. The atmosphere is so casual (during football season, I enjoy counting how many different Chicago Bears players are represented by the jerseys on Sunday morning), but the worship is so genuine. And that’s the biggest thing for me.

I’ve never felt like I was able to worship in church. I’ve never been musically inclined, to say the least. I can’t clap and sing at the same time; I struggle doing either, actually. Before coming to West Ridge, there were times when I felt moved by worship. But most of the time, for most of my life, I just wanted the singing to end so I could sit down.

But at West Ridge, the worship is…special. It varies on a weekly basis. And even from the time we first visited the church, it was clear that the church is committed to worshiping through music. They take it seriously, and they do it well.

It’s hard to explain exactly what makes this worship setting so different from all the other churches I’ve attended. But I think the following will say it better than I can:

I recently worked on an Orientation Guide for Worship Leaders for For one of the articles within the Orientation Guide, I had the opportunity to interview West Ridge’s Worship Director, Michael Aukofer.

I enjoyed that interview so much, I decided to post the article in its entirety here:

Advice from an Experienced Leader
One music director offers insights about finding volunteers, challenging musicians, and the importance of passion.

Michael Aukofer is director of music at West Ridge Community Church in Elgin, Illinois. He worked with Rich Mullins for five years, and he continues to work with Phil Keaggy periodically—mainly in recording. In addition to being the director of music, Aukofer is also the director of West Ridge’s Center for the Arts—which features five professional musicians (including Aukofer) who provide private music lessons for students who currently range between the ages of five and fifty-three. Tyler Charles spoke with him about his experiences as music director in the church.

Tell me a little bit about the emphasis on worship at West Ridge.

I’ve only worked here for five and a half years full-time, but from the beginning, I’ve noticed that the leadership makes an intentional investment in the music. In their meetings, they spend a lot of time talking about the music, trying to make it better. That’s one thing that’s a little different at West Ridge. Behind closed doors, they devote extra time to music.

Another thing, they invest in the Center for the Arts. They could be using their facility for something else, but they’re allowing the Center for the Arts to take precedence.

Is your position as the director of music different than a “worship leader”?

It’s just a different title. But I wouldn’t say I direct worship. Worship is to God. I direct the music. And I work with the musicians in and out of the church.

You’ve worked with well-known musicians like Rich Mullins and Phil Keaggy. You’ve played with a band that performed throughout the country. You were obviously experiencing success musically, so what made you decide to leave that lifestyle to work in a church setting?

I was finding success, but it was the typical “turn-on-the-TV” kind of success. I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. For two reasons: spiritually, I felt like part of a product. I don’t have an objection to that product—going to a Christian concert and hearing music at an elite level is awesome—but for me personally, it wasn’t satisfying. And the other thing, it wasn’t satisfying me musically. It was a good exercise to learn how to play the same songs over and over again. I wouldn’t change it for anything, but I needed to move on.

I think those times were essential to understand where I’m at right now. And for me, it’s moving forward. What I’m doing now is a huge jump forward—to really investing in people’s lives instead of providing a snapshot.

Is that what you enjoy most about your position? Investing in people’s lives?

Well, that’s what I’m doing—teaching and mentoring. I don’t know if that’s what I enjoy most, but I will say that I’m feeling in line with God. It feels right.

How do you get volunteers involved?

In the five and a half years, I think I’ve gone through three different stages.

The first stage was about approaching other people. I went to Open Mic Nights; I went to bars at night trying to find musicians. The first couple of years, I was just trying to connect and understand the music community. I had to step outside the West Ridge community—not just to find other talent, but to be familiar with the area, to become familiar with the community I wanted to help spiritually.

It was an important thing to be doing, but I’m glad that stage is over. That was the hardest stage.

What was the second stage?

Once we had people who didn’t have a lot of limitations, I had to create a program. I also wanted to create a setting that felt safe—where the musicians would be comfortable. I worked on the backstage area—putting pictures up and creating a workstation where they could fix their instruments. But the second stage was really about trying to develop a program.

And the third stage?

After the program is developed, it’s a maintenance thing. We have 58 musicians now, so it’s about keeping them in line with a similar vision.

When you were recruiting musicians from the local bars and Open Mic Nights, did you have any reservations about putting people on stage who weren’t Christians?

I don’t have any reservations about whether they’re a Christian or not. If they’re not a Christian or not familiar with a church setting, it’s a lot of responsibility on me to make sure they don’t become a distraction when we’re doing worship.

But I’ve been in solid communication with the pastors about this from the day I got here. I can speak most confidently about Scott [West Ridge’s pastor, Scott Alexander]. I know he and I feel that, once somebody is at West Ridge, it’s the church’s responsibility to embrace them and show them a new way. Our first goal is to get people inside the church.

My goal is to get musicians inside the church.

How do you respond when volunteers have a desire but lack ability?

I don’t even know how other worship leaders do this; I don’t have a clue. But for me, if somebody has an interest, it’s going to happen; there really isn’t a “no” for that.

At that point, it’s my job to know the art of music well enough to find a way for them to participate. If I can’t, that means I don’t know my craft well enough. It means I need to spend more time honing my craft. If they have a desire and I can’t make it happen, I feel like I’m doing something wrong.

Sure, it leads to creative scenarios, but that’s what working at a church is all about. It’s about loving people—loving people enough to find a way.

What kind of feedback do you get from your volunteers?

The consistent feedback I hear is a real excitement about growing.

If they’re participating in music, that means they’re interested in developing musically. Even the ones who are great musicians, those people are consistently asked to play instruments they aren’t familiar with. We have a drummer who frequently has been playing piano or the bass guitar. My job is to find a way to develop him and challenge him—and it’s not on the drums. He knows if he participates here, he’s going to be challenged to do something he doesn’t normally do. When we need exceptional stuff, he’s going to be on the drums, but other than that, I’m going to be challenging him.

There’s not a week that goes by when a musician isn’t being challenged to do something better. Overall, it seems like a very healthy learning, growing environment.

When choosing people to lead worship, should churches opt for people who are supremely talented but lack passion or passionate people who aren’t as talented?

My answer is, without a doubt, the person with passion. No question. At that point, once you’ve selected the person with passion, that’s when your work starts.

What are some ways other worship leaders can get more people involved in worship?

In the arts, in music—anything that’s going to be in front of people—there’s a misconception that those people are confident, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. To meet the people who are going to take music to another level, you have to meet them quietly—instead of saying, “If anybody wants to participate, come and see me.” A certain kind of people will respond to that request, and they might not be the best people to improve your ministry.

I think you have to spend a couple of years—and be in no rush. So plan to invest and be fully committed to a team. Pick the people with passion, be willing to invest, and be patient, or it’s not going to work.

—TYLER CHARLES; © 2009 Christianity Today International/