I’ve just asked John Mark McMillan how he stays vulnerable while playing worship sets night after night on tour, and suddenly, he’s blinking back tears.
He pauses and looks at his wife Sarah, sitting quietly, reassuringly, next to him, before he answers.
“I try and remind myself every night that this is an absolute gift.”
McMillan has been in the music business for more than a decade. Last year, he established his own record label, on which he released his fifth full-length album, Borderland.
This summer, he and Sarah released their first EP together, You Are the Avalanche, which he says focuses on “finding glory in the mundane, finding that there is more beauty actually in the common things sometimes than in the novel.”
But as we talk about the evolution of worship music, cynicism and the importance of letting down your guard, it’s obvious that McMillan doesn’t take anything for granted.
You have been involved in the worship and Christian music sector for a long time. How have you seen things change in that time?
It’s funny, because I’ve been a part of it for a long time, but I’ve always sort of felt like I was just outside it, too.
The culture of worship has changed a lot. When I first started, there was not really this idea you could do it as a job. I didn’t grow up with a lot of people who did it for a living. But now, especially big cities in the South, there’s whole culture, full of hundreds of people who make a living doing worship.
In one sense, that’s really cool. When I was younger, I thought that would be a dream. But in another sense, you have a bunch of people whose passion has become their job—and there are a lot of weird things that go along with that.
When your passion becomes a job, all of a sudden you find people who can’t stop doing it, because they need it for a living, but their heart’s not in it anymore. There’s this interesting, weird worship culture that didn’t exist when I grew up. When I grew up, worship was, if there was nothing to do on Friday night, we would go out into the woods and sing songs. We didn’t feel like we had to. We just loved it.
Now, when you talk about worship culture, you think about tight jeans, and hair and big production.
What do you think we’ve lost in going from that more organic sort of worship to this new sort of worship culture?
When I was young, I thought, “I’m gonna be awesome for God. I’m gonna help God out.” I’ve sort of realized God doesn’t need a lot of help. I don’t think God wants help as much as He wants friends. I think there’s this whole culture of people who are trying to help God out, who are trying to be good looking for God. You know what I mean? I speak as one who is totally guilty, but it bums me out at the same time.
What I am looking for in my own in life is that genuine place, that thing I loved back then and I still love now. I’m realizing now that all the hype and stuff sometimes can distract from the real goodness, which is just the fact that we’re in a room together and we can share a moment together. There is just not much better than that.
I think people become guarded when they get hurt. It’s easy after you’ve been hurt to want to continue the same activities, but to do it to a point. You shut down that genuine part of you, because you’re guarded. But I think it’s worth revisiting that thing even though there’s a chance you might get hurt.
It’s actually easier to go to church and do the big production thing—and I’m not putting lights and the smoke machines down, because I like the lights and smoke machines when I sing songs. But it’s so easy to hide behind the hype and to convince yourself that we’re doing the hype because we’re helping God out. When the truth is, we’re actually doing the hype because it’s easier to do the hype than to be vulnerable and put your heart out there—but the real goodness is in that.
We keep ourselves two or three clicks away from the real goodness sometimes, because it’s painful to get there. I think you see that a lot in church. You see a lot people who sort of have grown hard and cynical toward things they once loved that made them feel alive.
So for me, it’s not even about the aesthetic of church, you can have the wood panels, or you can have the smoke machines, or you can have the coffee shop. But really it’s more about “What are we hiding behind, and are we willing to come out from behind that?”
How do you guard against hiding behind the hype? How do you stay vulnerable?
I try and maintain that vulnerability with the people I work with. I try and remind myself every night that this is an absolute gift. It’s a gift that I get to do this for a living, but there’s an even greater gift, and that’s the fact that I get to do it at all.
My goal is to not lose that, and to remind myself every night that and that this is why I’m alive. This doesn’t keep me alive; this is what I’m alive for. Those people are real people. They’re not an audience, they’re individuals. I mean, to pay 20 bucks and get a babysitter and stand for an hour before we get there, they must have some sort of connection to me. We must have something in common that’s pretty special for them to want to do that.
So I try and remind myself every single night that I’m about to walk out and have an incredible experience with people who are a lot like me. We’re about to share something that’s gonna be incredible. I always try to keep that in my forethought.
What do you hope this album makes people think about or feel?
I think we’re so saturated with irony and cynicism. I hope people can hear something and remember a part of themselves that maybe they haven’t taken for a walk around the block in a while. I’d like for people to rediscover a genuine part of themselves again. Because I’ve definitely been incredibly cynical, and I’ve realized I’m really tired of it. I’m tired of being cynical. I’m really ready to be apart of something genuine again in my own heart and in my own life. I hope people hear that in this record.