Music at Mars Hill: The Followers, Josh White, and Musical Division in the Church

Music at Mars Hill is a weekly column by Luke Larsen that seeks to find God amidst the newest trends in both mainstream music and independent music.

The Church has a long history of being divided by the music we use in our services. There’s no question about that.

Sometimes it’s stylistic, such as around the year 900 when church singers had controversially started embellishing unison chants with harmonizations and tropes. Other times it’s been more about social conventions and liturgical practices. Take the the Reformation, for example, when congregations began singing their songs all together rather than letting professional musicians do the music-making at church. The point is, debates about what kind of music we use in our church services are not a new thing and they are certainly not pointless diatribes.

With the Contemporary Christian Music industry standing on the verge of its own extinction, the future of church music has never been more uncertain and open-ended. Have all the divisive changes that churches have to make to modernize their services in attempts to stay relevant been for nothing? Few people have any trust or faith in the future of CCM. Who then will lead the direction of not only church music, but of Christian music as a whole?

Here in Portland, Oregon, one of the hippest neighborhoods of the one of the hippest cities in the country, is a church called Door of Hope. This small community-centered fellowship was founded by and led by a man named Josh White, who acts as both worship leader and senior pastor. Josh White doesn’t have your typical pastor background though, that’s for sure. He used to lead worship at a mega-church in suburbs of Portland, was the frontman of the successful Christian worship band Telecast, and was heavily involved in the mainstream music industry before that. So when I heard that Josh White was starting a church a few years ago, what music they were going to play for church was one of my primary curiosities about the community.

With this new church and a new music project he started called The Followers, Josh White began taking his music in a new direction. The culmination of that is an album called Wounded Healer, which was released for free on Bandcamp just last week. Calling itself “neo-gospel”, the album was put together by Josh White and the frontman from indie rock band Blitzen Trapper. The collaboration is particularly bizarre — the kind of thing that seems like a blatant attempt to be hip.

You probably thought I was going to present Wounded Healer as a shining beacon for the future of church music — a daring experiment that would push Christian music in a definitive direction. It definitely tries to be that — and in some ways it succeeds. The album takes its straightforward worship songs and soaks them in the sounds of gospel and 70s pop. It might sound like a strange combination, but on songs like “You Did Everything” and “Overwhelmed”, it really comes together in a unique way.

But ultimately it’s unclear what purpose Wounded Healer was made for. It’s tongue-in-cheek tone seems too silly for congregational worship, while the lyrics seem far too much like Christian worship cliches to be enjoyed by those outside the Church. It’s an example of Christian artists looking forward into the uncertain future of church music and responding with a creative, but somewhat contrived attempt to do something new.

Stream the entire album below:

About Luke Larsen

Luke Larsen is a freelance writer, music lover, and indie game enthusiast hailing from the Great Northwest. His writing has been featured in publications such as Paste, RELEVANT, GameChurch, and Prefix. You can find him tweeting at @lalarsen11.

  • http://dustin.sullivanclan.net theanimation

    I’ve gotta say, this is the best new Christian music I’ve heard since Strangers & Pilgrims “Part One: Saints” in 2010.

    I tend to stay away from most CCM, but this just strikes a chord with me for some reason. Thanks for the post!

  • Luke Larsen

    Glad you enjoyed it! It definitely exists outside the bounds of CCM. The fact that it was released for free on Bandcamp is the first indication of that.

  • Josh White

    Hey Luke, thank you for your write up on Wounded Healer. In regards to what the intention of the record is, I would simply say the songs are the outcome of what we sing at Door of Hope. There was really no attempt to be anything other than gospel centered. I would probably say with the exception of me, no one who played on the record has ever heard of CCM. Eric Earley of Blitzen Trapper, who produced, played the majority of the instruments, and mixed the album, is a member of the church and part of worship team. The style of music is merely a reflection of the community of faith we’re a part of. With many people coming to Christ for the first time and becoming excited about their faith in Him and the power of the Gospel. It seems only natural that they would desire to reflect that in the way that they understand.

    Have a great day!
    Josh

  • Peter

    I don’t hear this music as being tongue-in-cheek or contrived at all, but honestly a wonderful combination of lyrics that are true to the Gospel – while staying simple yet poetic – and music that is really great, catchy without making sacrifices to the integrity of the song.

    Saying that the music sounds too “silly” for congregational music proves that you’ve never been to a service at Door of Hope, otherwise you’d know that these are songs they sing together for worship regularly. And what is SILLY about the lyrics, may I ask? The worship is the most vibrant and Spirit-filled I’ve heard at a church in a very long time, and that is including worship at Mars Hill.

    And to say that Eric Earley being involved in the record is “bizarre” is a bit offensive, as he is simply a member of the congregation and volunteer on the worship team. Are you saying it is bizarre that he is a Christian? Bizarre that they would let him help with the music at the church? It couldn’t POSSIBLY be that since he is a contributing participant to the music being created at the church, that it would naturally lead to him helping out with the album, since it is something he is gifted in, could it?

  • lpr1836

    I am still baffled that Larry Norman’s The Son Began to Reign and The Rock That Doesn’t Roll haven’t become part of worship in some cutting-edge church somewhere. They are “bizarre” in even tyical contemporary worship services but both are tuneful and memorable and not without some theological weight. Plus, both songs avoid the “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” trap.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xy2G7PnfKw — The Son Began to Reign
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y18yPO03zjo&feature=related — The Rock That Doesn’t Roll

  • lpr1836

    Oh, yeah, I like The Wounded Healer. Quite a bit.

  • Luke Larsen

    @Josh White and @Peter, thanks so much for your response.

    Also, thanks for clearing up issues over the origins of the songs and the collaboration with Eric Earley. That definitely changes my view of the album a bit.

    But if I could clarify a bit — I’d say that the intent of the article wasn’t for it to simply be a review of the album. If it were, I would have talked more about how I truly enjoyed a lot of the songs off of it and how the production had a great nostalgic fit for the “neo-gospel” style it was going after. The article was also not an attempt to make jabs at Door of Hope or Josh White. I actually respect your church and what you’re doing there quite a bit in fact.

    However, what I was trying to do was to understand the album’s place in the direction of Church music as a whole. Whether or not it was intentional, Wounded Healer clearly jumps ship from the sinking ship that is CCM in just about every way. I found it to be a challenging album that divided my attempts to label it and fit it into any clean genres or categories, which led me to the conclusions I mentioned in my final paragraph. I know you both said that the style of the music was an outflow of your community, which I absolutely love the idea of.

    But for us outside your community, it’s more about considering the idea that what we sometimes think of as merely stylistic musical choices are never just musical choices. They are spiritual, theological, and liturgical choices that we must all carefully discern as the Spirit leads. I could keep going, but lastly, I’d just say again that debates and opinions about the kind of music we use in church are not as pointless and hateful as they can sometimes feel. They are, in fact, absolutely necessary for its continued growth!

  • Tim Cordova

    Hey Luke, cool site. First of all, let me state that I do have experience as a musician and songwriter in a wide variety of Christian and non-Christian settings, from major label to independent, from corporate church worship, to radio-friendly church worship, to me on guitar and my Mom on vox, etc.
    Truly, I think your article is cliche. Because talking about thinking is cliche. Thinking about thinking is cliche. Reading books about thinking and talking about them is cliche. I would rather stop talking and just make something. All the talking in this world makes me tired, I think.
    Making an honest album with pop sensibilities will never be cliche. Honestly, I don’t typically like anything trendy( Mumford and Sons and the rest of that shaky voice crap with antique instruments) or Christian (KLOVE). I like Led Zep and Mastodon, Marshall full stacks and pyro. That being said, Josh White has always been hip, but more importantly, every album he has made has been quality. And you’ve probably guessed I would say so if I thought otherwise. Most importantly, his heart is to lead people to Jesus, and articulate the Gospel. Even though I’ve never met him, he has been an inspiration to me for many years. I wouldn’t call him contrived or an attempt at anything, because to me, he is as real as can be.
    Additionally, to your point about this album being a departure from CCM has a couple of flaws. First, to me, The Followers could be a return to the roots of CCM (think Keith Green). Second, nobody has talked about CCM in years. I doubt it is still even a genre. Christian music is represented by every musical style, but we haven’t called it CCM in years. At least not since I wore Bill Cosby sweaters and pleated pants, or since the term contemporary ANYTHING fell out of everyday use.
    So, maybe I can respectfully challenge your thought process to archive the CCM lens in your microscope, and replace it with one that is perhaps more relevant to current times, as well as to the actual intent of artists who seek to honestly sing their faith.
    Thank you, and that is all.

  • Michelle Thorn

    Hi Luke and everyone. I just wanted to say that I have been far, far away from the church for …. forever probably. This album that I found for free on a search for anything Blitzen Trapper has brought me back. I love these songs and they are getting me back to God’s path (I hope.) Seeing the songs referred to as ‘ too silly’ made me feel bad. I’m glad that Josh White hopped on to talk more about his church and their community. I only wish there was a Door of Hope near me. I cherish this album.

  • pearl

    Door of Hope is such a wonderful church with a wonderful worship time. Maybe you should try attending the church in order to get a broader view. They aren’t “trying” to be hip, they are just people coming together to worship the Lord. If you don’t understand the direction of the music, I understand even less the intent of this “Not meant to be a write-up”


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