Briercrest Alumni Celebrate Victories at GMA Canada's 2023 Covenant Awards

Posted: January 8, 2024

On November 17th and 18th, 2023, the Gospel Music Association of Canada (GMA Canada) held the 2023 Covenant Awards in Kitchener, Ontario. These awards celebrate excellence in Canadian Christian music and include performances by Canada's top Christian artists, plus opportunities to network with people in the industry.

This year, two of our esteemed Briercrest alumni, Jake Fretz ('08) and Joshua Leventhal ('14), have been honoured with GMA awards. Jake won the Worship Song of the Year award, while Joshua secured both the Song of the Year and Album of the Year awards. We interviewed them to get their perspective on what role their education at Briercrest played in their music career success and to hear more about the music that earned them awards from GMA Canada.

Let's start with Jake Fretz.

Jake graduated with a B.A. in Music with an emphasis in Worship Leadership in 2008. His song, "LOOK UP," won Worship Song of the Year in the 2023 Covenant Awards.  

Briercrest: Can you share with us how your education at Briercrest College has influenced your music and songwriting?

Jake: Briecrest was such a positive influence on both my ministry and artistry because of the well-rounded education I was able to receive. Naturally, the training I gained from classes that focused on music, such as theory, history, recording, songwriting, and worship leadership, provided me with a Marriott of skills I use daily. But that’s only half of it. Classes such as English, Theology, and Biblical Studies helped me hone how to use the skills I gained thoughtfully. Combining this quality teaching with a faculty that legitimately cares about the health of their students and ample ensemble opportunities to practice what we were learning, Briercrest easily became a very formative season in my life.

B: How do you see your music serving as an extension of your ministry? How do you balance serving the Church and the music industry?

J: Great questions! So, in addition to being an artist, I’m also a full-time Worship Pastor at Prairie Alliance Church in Portage la Prairie, MB. Personally, I have found it nearly impossible to separate music from ministry. I often struggled to find my voice as an artist until I grounded that voice in the experiences of my local church. Admittedly, it took some time for God to shape my heart to love others well, but as He taught me to love the people directly in front of me, and as my affection grew for my congregation, I felt compelled to serve them with the gifts I have. Music is such a wonderful combination of expression and cultural formation. So, I began to write songs that would, one, help us honestly express our affection and intentions to God and, two, help shape the way we experience God and His world. I never intended for these to be "my songs"; they are "our songs." The fact that "our songs" from a church from a small town in Manitoba have found a place in the lives of others and their congregations is incredibly humbling and inspiring. It feels like a "last and least" kingdom blessing. 

B: "LOOK UP" won the Worship Song of the Year award. Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind this song and how it ties into your faith?

J: The real heart behind "LOOK UP" is inclusion. I wanted anyone to be able to attend our church and feel that they had a song to sing to God regardless of their story. It doesn’t matter whether we’re drowning, wandering, or even running and hiding; God extends His love and grace to us—He comes running! So pragmatically, to begin writing this song, I pictured the faces and stories of people in my congregation. Then, I related my life to theirs and wrote out of our shared need for Jesus.

An interesting "behind the scenes" part of the story is that I was having a particularly insecure week the first time we tried to record this song. As I was tracking vocals, I felt myself emotionally questioning what I was singing. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in God’s grace, but like anyone, I was having a hard day. Not surprisingly, the recording really captured my struggle, so much so that we couldn't use any of the takes. We had to reschedule. That’s when God used "LOOK UP" to minister to me and remind me of His grace. A couple of weeks later, we were able to approach the song again with a freshly reaffirmed confidence in God’s care for me. This second take is what you hear on the recording.

B: "My Home" not only won the Adult Contemporary Song of the Year award but also the Musical Collaboration of the Year award. Can you share more about the collaborative process and how it enriched the final product?

J: The collaborative process on this song was kind of wild! I usually like to be in the room or studio, creating alongside the producer. But in today’s age, we can work remotely across the country. Cynthia Lok, the co-writer and fellow artist, is from North Vancouver, and Daniel Etoroma, our producer, is from Edmonton. So, the entire production of the song was done remotely. The writing occurred over a series of Zoom calls, production notes were texted back and forth and coordinated amidst three different time zones, and only once did all three of us end up on the same video call to make some final decisions. All this being said, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The beauty of collaboration is that the outcome of the project is greater than what you can achieve on your own. Collaboration is a breeding ground for creativity and refinement. By working together, new perspectives, wisdom, and ideas have the opportunity to be combined and expanded upon before being distilled and crystallized. The process takes vulnerability, humility, and persistence and is totally worth the effort.

Funny story: We were asked to perform "My Home" at this year’s Covenant Awards. Due to schedules, Cynthia and I didn’t even meet in person or practice the song together until the morning we had to perform it before Canadian music industry professionals! As you can imagine, the stakes were high, and so were our nerves. Luckily, technology allowed us to coordinate and prepare, and the performance went splendidly.

B: As a Briercrest alumnus, what role do you think Christian education plays in shaping artists and musicians like yourself?

J: Christian education can play a huge role in shaping artists. After all, artists play an integral role in shaping the culture around them. We often have the opportunity to help people "feel" the truth, sometimes even before they are able to articulate it. This is a massive responsibility. An important role of education is to challenge and refine our worldviews, especially the ones that we didn’t even know existed within ourselves. In my experience, Christian education helped me begin to wrestle through the ideas, beliefs, and feelings that I endeavour to convey through art. Additionally, Christian education helped me learn not only how to refine the message behind my art but also the medium and method. The music education I received from Briercrest was amazing and provided the foundation upon which I continue to build. The Christian environment developed the ethics of how to approach being an artist. Within the music industry, it’s easy to fall into the trap of building a self-promoting little empire that is primarily concerned with gaining fame. Naturally, an empire like this will never stand when compared to God’s Kingdom. Briercrest was the place where I learned how to live and submit to a community for accountability and encouragement in my Christian walk.

B: Can you share a particular lesson or experience from Briercrest that has significantly impacted your approach to your music and ministry?

J: Two answers here: Regarding music, the greatest lesson I learned at Briercrest is that silence is the most overlooked instrument we have. The absence of sound is equally important to the notes we play, and the relationship between sound and silence is the foundation that rhythm itself is built upon. The greatest "tell" of a mature musician is their patience and that they know when not to play!

Regarding ministry, my most valuable lessons occurred after class while chatting with one of my professors. He described how so many of the biblical characters started leading in less-than-ideal circumstances—Joseph, David, etc. Each character found God in surprising places alongside surprising and sometimes even unlikely people. These moments were often opportunities to choose obedience, and when those characters responded to God faithfully, they often got to experience the reality of God’s Kingdom in surprising ways. It always stuck with me, and I continue to look for God in the places that I might have initially overlooked.

B: Finally, what advice would you give to current Briercrest students who are hoping to use their talents in the arts for ministry?

J: For the current students looking to go into the arts, here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way:

  1. Never stop learning. Industry and arts are always changing, so don’t get stuck in a trend. Dedicate time to learning how to learn.
  2. Patience! Success (whatever that looks like) often takes much longer than people expect. Trust in God’s timing and continue to hone your craft, especially when you don’t see success. No effort will be wasted.
  3. Believe in the seeds of creativity that God gives you, and then be humble enough to let others help you develop those seeds into great art. The fruit of healthy collaboration is magical, but it takes vulnerability and a posture of genuinely wanting to see others succeed, too.
  4. Lastly, no skill, no matter how well it is developed, is a substitute for God’s presence. Pursue intimacy with Jesus above all else. His voice is life and sustenance. Learn to listen for His leading and follow when He calls.

Thank you, Jake, for your profound and inspiring words. Your message reminds us that worldly measures do not always define success, but rather by fulfilling our God-given purpose and using our talents for His glory. As we continue to cultivate our skills and pursue our passions, let us also remember to trust in God’s timing and remain humble and open to collaboration and growth.

Here's our interview with Joshua Leventhal.

Joshua graduated in 2014 with a Great Distinction for his BA in Biblical Studies and a minor in worship arts. He took home the GMA Covenant Awards for Song of the Year (THE GALLOWS) and Album of the Year (ALL YE LEPERS).

Briercrest: Can you share with us how your education at Briercrest College has influenced your music and songwriting?

Joshua: I knew I wanted to go into both songwriting and worship leading vocationally, but I wanted to do it from as Scripturally formed a place as possible. When I checked out Briercrest, I spoke with a student who was majoring in Biblical Studies but also leading a chapel worship team, and knowing that I could have that as my major while also still participating in worship ministry at the school helped me make the decision—my time in Biblical Studies at Briercrest had a profound impact on my walk with Jesus. I've read the Word my entire life, but the tools I gained to read it through my studies better were invaluable. And it extended far beyond the accrual of knowledge; I have distinct memories of weeping in class alongside my peers as we were moved by what we learned. This naturally had a deep impact on how I approached my lyricism. In addition to the expansion and deepening of my Biblical worldview, the songwriting modular course I took with Ken Dosso was the single greatest influence on the craft of my writing. He took a lot of my raw creativity and helped hone it through the lens of critical thinking. I even wrote "Lazarus Heart," which appears on All Ye Lepers, during that class! 

B: How do you see your music serving as an extension of your ministry? How do you balance serving the Church and the music industry?

J: I would say I don't see my music so much as an extension of my ministry, so much as fully part of it. And that has remained the case even as my art has evolved. With my first EP (LION|LAMB, 2017), I  sought to straddle the line between congregational and singer/songwriter. As I began explicitly writing for congregational worship in my church, I took that constraint off of music I released under my name. However, everything I release is still intended to help people commune with their God, to know Him better and who they are in light of Him. That discipleship and formational role is obviously what I do in the local church as well. As far as balance, I don't know if I'll ever fully figure that out! Haha. I have to find capacity outside of church ministry requirements to do a lot of things. Still, thankfully, my home church (Main Street, in Chilliwack, BC) is very gracious in helping me steward my time and energy across both my local and broader ministry.

B: "The Gallows" won the Song of the Year award. Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind this song and how it ties into your faith?

J: "The Gallows" started the way all songs do—with an idea. Normally, as a songwriter, I'm really big on staying consistent with one central image in a song. But with so much of the Christian life containing a multitude of metaphors, I couldn't help but feel the need to let them all spill out, and some need to justify it. And so, the first verse began with the idea of mixed metaphors itself, becoming an image of life in Jesus and some of the struggle. Because the metaphors are out of order—in the same way, that so often is how we live as justified saints—they tend not to reflect the fact that the work Jesus has done has made us new. Think Paul speaking to almost every church he writes to in the NT—"this is what's been done, this is who you are as a result. Now live like it." That confusion and frustration are expressed in the verses, and then the simplicity of the chorus image cuts through it like a knife—"but this is what You saved me from." And it's funny because originally, the chorus was this wordy, almost Springsteen-y-sounding thing, and it just wasn't sitting right with me. And so, I simplified it, completely re-wrote it, and carried some of the ideas originally in the chorus to the bridge. So that the chorus is what we're saved from, and the bridge is what we're saved to. Wildly enough, I made those rewrites literally days before starting pre-production! I didn't even have a scratch demo to show my producer ahead of time, haha. But I'm so glad it ended up where it needed to be.

B: As a Briercrest alumnus, what role do you think Christian education plays in shaping artists and musicians like yourself?

J: I would say that higher Christian education is about so much more than just making yourself eligible for employment. It is so valuable in spiritual formation. My prayer for my generation of makers and worship leaders is that they would be utterly shaped by the Word and well-versed in the history of arts in and out of the church. We are not meant to be musicians/artists/anything else first. We are disciples first, everything else second. We need our leaders in the arts and worship spaces to be spiritually mature, biblically literate, and artistically saturated. I think that has allowed me to write deeply honest music without betraying reverence or hope.

B: Can you share a particular lesson or experience from Briercrest that has significantly impacted your approach to your music and ministry?

J: There are countless moments from classes and community moments from my time at Briercrest that have made it into my songs. My LION|LAMB EP was deeply affected by the Revelation course (Dr. Culey) I took (which also came at a time when God was orienting my heart to live in the light of eternity). So much from courses like the Gospel of John (Dr. Olmstead) and Hebrew Poetry and Wisdom (Dr. Ortlund) has subtly made its way into my lyricism. In fact, I'm currently writing a 25-song concept project that will go from Genesis to Revelation, all point-of-view character songs. Everything I studied for my BA is deeply contributing to me distilling these biblical passages to their essence as I write.

B: Finally, what advice would you give to current Briercrest students who are hoping to use their talents in the arts for ministry?

J: I would say use this time to start truly honing your voice as an artist. And the only way to do that is to write (or paint, draw, dance, etc.) A LOT. It doesn't happen overnight, and to truly find what you yourself have to say, you'll have to go through iterations. First, you'll clearly sound like you're emulating your heroes because you are. It's a necessary phase. Eventually, you'll find what makes you you. But treat whatever creative craft you have like an instrument. You wouldn't learn five songs on a guitar and feel like they were the sum total of who you are or what you just had to perform in front of 20,000 people. But someone will write five worship songs, the first they've ever written, and think the world needs to hear them. I would only put my name to one song I wrote before I was 23 (I started writing at 14).  Spend time in solitude. Read voraciously (if you don't know what voraciously means, you're not reading enough). Have a consistent, deepening devotional life. Consume as much art as possible. Do that, and you'll find your voice. Both your art and your life in Christ will be all the better for it.

Thank you, Joshua, for your insightful words on finding one's voice. It seems like a common struggle for many artists and creatives. As Christians, we are called to be lifelong learners and seekers of truth. And as artists, we have the unique opportunity to use our talents to bring glory to God and share His message with the world. But in order to do so effectively, we must first truly know ourselves and understand our own voice.

Once again,  we'd like to thank Jake and Joshua for their time and their in-depth answers. Their words have inspired us to grow in our talents as individuals and in our relationships with God. To recap what we learn from Jake and Joshua's interviews, being a Christian artist is a journey that demands the cultivation of a unique voice in the arts, a commitment to spiritual maturity and biblical literacy, and an openness to divine inspiration. With the right mindset, Christian education, and dedication, one can find their unique artistic voice, impacting lives and glorifying God through their craft. It is evident from the experiences shared that the intertwining of faith and art can lead to profound expressions of worship and inspiration for others on the same path.