by Susan Lloyd
Chris McClarney Interview
"...the biggest thing I see that people have in their heads but not in their hearts is that God really loves them. As kids we sing Jesus loves me, but I don’t think we really know that. And the love that I’m talking about is completely unconditional." --Chris McClarney
Worship leader Chris McClarney released his debut album Defender a few weeks ago, and I had an opportunity to talk to him about the album, his ideas about what worship is, and a few other things related to the church. We had ample time to talk, and Chris was candid about what he feels about worship, who holds him accountable, and what is most important for believers to know about God. Our conversation was very interesting, and the half hour that I had to talk to him offered a glimpse into the mind and heart of one of the most exciting new worship leaders in the church today.
Titletrakk: Tell me something about your own story. How did you become involved
in worship music?
CM: Well, my dad was a pastor, so for as long as I can remember he was pushing me in front of a church to sing a song. When I was really young I started playing piano or whatever I could get my hands on. Then around fourteen or fifteen I realized I could carry around a guitar. You know I couldn’t carry a piano in my trunk. And I needed a gimmick…I wasn’t the best looking kid in school, and I needed a gimmick so I could fit in. So I bought a guitar probably for all the wrong reasons and learned to play. Once you learn guitar you can lead worship for a smaller groups, and I happened to be the one guy with an instrument. People needed someone to lead worship for a home group and I thought, “Yeah I could do for that.” I kind of fell in love with seeing people connect to God. There’s nothing wrong with performing but being able to lead worship and being in an environment where the end goal isn’t that people clap and you make good music. Instead the end goal is that people connect to the creator of the universe. That’s pretty cool stuff.
Titletrakk: That leads into my next question. Do you consider yourself a worship leader or a worship artist?
CM: Definitely a worship leader. I hope that I can kind of perfect some sort of skill or craft of music, not that I can ever be perfect. But I do desire excellence in the act of making music. I’ve been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and they do worship in a room with the weirdest sounding instruments. For a westerner it was brutal to try and get into the music, but God showed up and people really worshipped. And that happens all over the world with not the greatest musicians all the time. So in the end what’s most important is people really worshipping. By that I mean people really connecting. Getting past whatever junk is in their lives and being in relationship with God
Titletrakk: It’s like you read my questions today…because my next question is how do you define worship? And more than just the “style” of worship, do you consider it a lifestyle?
CM: Absolutely. And my answer is in danger of sounding a little cliché, but I think it’s the truth. Worship is more than just singing a song. As I’m leading worship my goal is that people would connect to and have a relationship with God. He wants to have a relationship with us. It’s not just this holy thing that’s billions of miles away, and someday we’ll get to see him if we are good enough. He’s actually here and He’s with us now. He’s not far away. He desires to know us and have us know him. Sometimes the power of music and the reason that we have “music time” in church is that it helps brings down our guard. There’s something about music that gets to the deep places inside of us. Once we get there we can make that connection. One of the jobs of a worship leader and a song writer is to give a language to the church. I mean, they are already feeling it. Some of the songs I’ve written . . . it’s not like I’m giving people new thoughts or ideas. I’m just giving them words to express what they feel. Some of the greatest songs are so simple. They are just saying what the church is already about.
Titletrakk: Well, one of my favorite songs on your new album is “Immortal Invisible” where you take those old words and work them into a song that may fit our culture better. Do you think it’s important to connect people back to our rich heritage of music that we have in the church?
CM: Oh yeah. Again, I grew up in church so those old hymns meant so much to me growing up. The church in general, more of the church now is not singing the hymns like they used to. I know that some churches still do. But for me I was kind of missing that. I wanted to come up with a way to take those lyrics that are packed so full of good theology and put it into a package that is relevant for people today. It’s not a new idea. If you look in the hymnal there are composers who have taken one hundred year old songs and have rewritten them. Some of those songs are so memorable as they are, but I kind of went for it anyway and give them new life. But I do hope that rich heritage makes it to the next generation.
Titletrakk: I love the idea that we want to bring that hymn heritage forward for younger generations. One of the larger movements in the church, Jesus Culture, has latched onto one of your songs “Your Love Never Fails” and pushed it to the forefront. Were you expecting something like that to happen with teen and young adult believers?
CM: I don’t know. I just turned 30 this year. And I fully expected to be a kid for my entire life. Then you have kids and you have to sort of grow up. In my mind I still see myself as a young person, I guess. Those guys are such good people to hang out with, and we’ve become good friends, the Jesus Culture guys. It’s funny how things happen. I had written the song and it’s not like I had done anything with it. I’m horrible at promoting myself. But they got the song and recorded it. What’s so shocking is that there are so many people who sing it around the world. I go on Youtube, and I do because I find great joy in searching Youtube for people singing this song. It’s so cool. When I write songs it’s not to make me famous but they are usually about what’s happening in my life or my church. To see it kind of go and be much bigger than what I am is really cool (laughs)
Titletrakk: I imagine it could be a very humbling thing.
CM: Oh it is, definitely!
Titletrakk: I feel like there is a lot of depth in your lyrics and that may be what sets you apart. And this might be a hard question for you to answer, but what do you feel sets you apart from other worship leaders?
CM: I don’t know. There are so many great worship leaders, and I’m trying to think of what would make me different. Stylistically when I’m at my church where I lead worship I think we are a little more unstructured. Being in Nashville there are so many great musicians, and that gives us the freedom to change on the spot, and plus we’ve been playing together for so long. Where other leaders may have to stick with a set list we kind of have the ability to flow with what is happening at the moment.
Titletrakk: I think another thing that sets you apart is your voice. I kind of went nuts when I heard your voice on the EP in January. There is so much soulfulness in your music and in your voice. So what influenced that? Is it the music you listened to growing up?
CM: Okay, you’re going to laugh. And it wasn’t until recently that I made the connection. My parents were listening to Sandi Patty albums when I was growing up, and while she might be soulful, she’s not that soulful. So I was at dinner one night and it hit me. I looked at my wife and said “You aren’t going to believe what connection I just made” And definitely you are going to laugh and this is going to make me seem so uncool. You remember the movie Sister Act? I remember watching that movie and thinking “I want to sing like THAT”. So after that I started listening to more soulful stuff. And that bled over into the worship. So yeah, it’s Sister Act. That’s what did it.
Titletrakk: I think it’s awesome. I think your voice is going to connect with a lot of people. I think that voice is one more thing that will help bring down the barriers. And you’ve got this album out now that will reach people. And I know that releasing this is going to change things for you. And we all need someone who holds us accountable, but suddenly you are going to be in the spotlight and that accountability is crucial. Who keeps you grounded?
CM: Yeah, one of my biggest things is to keep my family first. At the end of my life it won’t matter if I’ve sold a million CD’s if I’ve been a bad dad. In the back of mind my I’m always thinking “Am I being a good dad? Am I being a good husband? Are the choices that I’m making around music benefitting my family someway?”. Sometimes we think God first, then my family, then work. But I’ve tried to make it so that it’s God first, then God in my family, and God in my work. I’ve tried to make sure that God is a part of each one of those. There are people that speak into my life and the best way I’ve found to do that is to be part of a local church and being on staff there, being submitted to my pastor. The word submit can have such a bad connotation to it, but there’s something powerful about it. Like when Jesus said to the man “I’ll come to your house and your son will be healed” and that man was a soldier and he said “No just say the word and I know it will be done” He understood authority because he had people under him who would do what he said. If he told them to do something they did it. He understood the authority of Jesus. There’s something about authority that if we are under it it releases power. I’m not perfect, but being in a place where people are able to say “Hey, that was bad” has kept me grounded. That and I have two little girls that love to remind me of just who imperfect I am. It’s awesome.
Titletrakk: I think it’s so important that you have that structure in place. There is a maturity in you that speaks of what God is doing in your life and that you are listening to him. And there are so many things happening in the world and in the church today. What do you see as the biggest message that the average church member needs to hear and be reminded of daily?
CM: I think for me the biggest thing I see that people have in their heads but not in their hearts is that God really loves them. As kids we sing Jesus loves me, but I don’t think we really know that. And the love that I’m talking about is completely unconditional. It’s a love that covers all, and it’s really really good. It’s not based on what we do or don’t do. At least for me growing up I had this view of God that is really far away and He’s mad at me for doing bad things. As I’ve grown and grown in relationship with God I’ve realized that God is closer than we could ever imagine, and he really wants to be with us. Despite all of our nastiness, despite the bad choices that we make He wants to be with us. And He has a plan for us. His plan is that we have life, and we have it more abundantly. I don’t know what that means exactly. I used to think that meant “Oh God has good things in store for us after we die” but God has completely changed my whole thought process on that. He has life NOW, He is the life, He is the truth. I’m not saying that bad things won’t happen. There are earthquakes, financial ruin, bad things really do happen every day. But in the end, God really does work all that out for our good. That might end up being in heaven, but I think that God wants to work things for our good right now. As opposed to struggling through this life and how bad it is, let’s live life and let’s live in relationship with God. Let’s believe that God is a good God, and He has good things in store for us now.
Titletrakk: I agree that we have the opportunity to live now in this kingdom life.
CM: Jesus when he taught us to pray said “Your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven”. And I think we are all waiting for heaven but God is saying, “Bring heaven to earth”.
Titletrakk: I have just a few more questions for you. About the album, what’s the vision that you have for it? What are your hopes for what it will do?
CM: I’m not sure that I’ve really thought of that. Part of me feels like I’m along for the ride. Ultimately, making the CD has been more about the songs themselves. As I was writing for church we needed a song for something particular or there wasn’t a song that said what I was feeling, it was all about these songs. After seeing the success that Jesus Culture had with “Your Love Never Fails” and the way people responded to that I thought maybe there are more songs that the church needs and maybe they are inside of me. I don’t know, it’s kind of a weird thing to think that maybe God has put a seed inside of me that is for the people. I kind of find myself challenging myself to put words to what the church is needing to express to God. I don’t know if I’m there yet, but definitely the goal has been to get the church songs that help them connect to God. Moving forward, I hope to be able to do something live because that’s definitely what I feel most comfortable doing. I’ll definitely keep writing, and who knows? Like I said, part of me is really along for the ride.
Titletrakk: You mention doing something live, and Defender is a live track on the CD. In a lot of ways it stood out from the other tracks. What was your reason for including the live track?
CM: I felt like it needed to be there. I actually feel really uncomfortable doing the studio thing and it’s super comfortable doing the live thing just because I’ve done it for so long. And so I guess I was just thinking “Can we just put something live on here?” I truly am hoping to do an entire live project somewhere down the road.
Titletrakk: I seriously hope you get to do that! And I thank you so much for your time today. I know God is blessing you, and I pray he will continue. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, you are definitely a man set apart to lead His people to connect with him more strongly.
album Defender as well as his EP are available on iTunes. You can learn
more about Chris by visiting his website at www.chrismcclarney.com or hitting up his myspace at www.myspace.com/gracecenter
Susan Lloyd is a professional photographer in Charleston, South Carolina who specializes in shooting concerts. She holds a degree in Music Education and has worked as a worship leader and as a youth minister. She is passionate about all types of music and enjoys encouraging and supporting bands who seek to glorify God. She also loves movies, animals, traveling, and making new friends. She and her husband have three kids and have been married for nearly 17 years. More info about Susan's photography can be found at www.susanlloydphotography.com or www.susieq3c.wordpress.com