Exclusive interview with Mars Hill’s Jonathan Dunn
Mars Hill church in Seattle Washington, home of well-known pastor and author Mark Driscoll, has decided to start a record label. We talked a little to the new manager to get his take on why the church decided to go in this direction. (Mars Hill Music is offering 5 free downloads from their new label, to find them go here.)
Tell us a little about your background and how you wound up at Mars Hill?
I’ve played music since I was 14, and have been in touring bands for a while. I started working at Tooth & Nail Records back in 2001, and worked there for 10 years. After a while I became Director of A&R at Tooth & Nail and their subsidiary Solid State Records. I signed bands, developed artists, made records, helped manage artists’ careers and sometimes oversaw their development from infancy to world wide touring status. Back in January of 2010, some friends from Mars Hill approached me about a role they were looking to fill that involved working with the worship bands. I definitely felt called by the Holy Spirit to take the job (which seemed crazy at the time), but there was no denying that’s what God had for me. A little over a year later, here I am.
Why does Mars Hill need a music label?
Firstly, we’re looking to encourage our congregation by capturing what happens during a Sunday service, so that they have music to worship to during the week. Secondly, it is about mission and using song to share the gospel of Jesus to anyone outside of our church, Christian or non-Christian, who will listen. And thirdly, we wanted to provide a resource for the global church, if they’re interested in hearing what we’re up to. And we’d like to be able to serve anybody who’s interested in using our resources.
What will the difference be between the music you release and something that other churches with labels, like Hillsong, releases? How will it be similar?
I’ve got a little anecdote to make my point: when I was 12 I took a few guitar lessons, and on the first day the guitar teacher said to me “music is a language, and there are many different dialects that people use to communicate.” That really stuck with me for some reason, and I have viewed music through that lens since then. You have dialects (or you could say genres) that speak to different people in different places and at different times. You can trace many of the origins of movements and music to cultures, communities and points in time. And there were situations within those communities that the music intended to address. And through all of these conditions, music genres were formed. And that’s the whole point of what we do and why. We want to get the message of the gospel out through music in the dialects (or genres) of the cities God has called us to.
To stretch the analogy, so many other churches and labels have done an amazing job of engaging their cultures, and struck a broad chord that resonates with a broad dialect across the globe. Mars Hill is 14 churches across 4 states, and each one has its own dialect. We’ve really been blessed with amazingly talented musicians who are from those cultures and because of that, we sound like our cities, which is distinctly unique.
Of course the common bond is that we’re worshipping the one true God and proclaiming the gospel through music to the cultures we find ourselves in.
You have said that the music you are making sounds distinctly different from what is available on the radio now, please explain that. How will Mars Hill music be different?
I think the previous response answers this as well, let me know if you would like something elaborated.
Church music has a reputation for being somewhat behind in quality when compared to secular/mainstream music. Whether that is accurate or not, why do you believe Christian music is seen this way? How will you try to change that?
Much of church or “Christian” music is written for a broad appeal in a familiar voice to Christian popular culture, and that’s great! If 10,000 voices can join together with one song and arrangement across the globe and worship Jesus, that’s awesome. The broader culture can judge that and say, “wow, those guys are 10 years behind everyone else.” If our focus on writing is for broad appeal to every church, that will come out through our songs. But if our focus is to write to a specific people at a specific place at a specific time, then that music is going to sound vastly different. Music written for a broad appeal typically isn’t going to be the music that pushes a genre forward in its development.
Many of our musicians play in bands outside of the church, some that tour nationally and some that tour globally, many with established bands that would be considered culture makers in the music world. And we’re blessed to have them leading our congregations on Sunday. We’ve had musicians play Saturday Night Live on NBC, then take a red eye flight home to lead music first thing Sunday morning at their church. It’s a tremendous blessing to have that caliber of musicianship, and we give them the freedom to worship through song in the style that communicates to them, and communicates to our cities, rather than trying to make everything uniform is sound. In the process, we end up with a huge array of styles. Our mindset is not to be different than anything, but to focus on mission that God calls us to in the cities our churches are in. That means that our music ends up sounding different than a lot of others. The word “missional” tends to be overused but this is our whole intention. The musicians are ministering to a specific people at a specific time and place rather than just using a homogenous music template. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just not what we do.
Do you see the music you create being useful for congregational worship?
Everything we record is simply capturing what is happening in our churches and congregations on Sundays. The songs and arrangements you hear on the recordings is the same music you hear on Sunday morning. And the music is a reflection of the communities and cultures they are based in. In terms of style and genre, we know that each city and neighborhood is different and what engages one neighborhood might not connect with another. But a melodically strong song will translate from one guy playing an acoustic guitar to a 10-person band with an orchestra behind them. So while the arrangements and styles of the songs might not work in every congregation, we stay rooted in scripture and craft strong songs with the hope that the core of the song could be used anywhere.
What’s the most important thing Mars Hill music could do in the upcoming years?
The most important thing we could do is worship God in our daily lives, and to be so moved by the gospel and His grace, that we can’t help put passionately proclaim the goodness of God and to point others to Jesus and to respond to His majesty.
(Mars Hill Music is offering 5 free downloads from their new label, to find them go here.)