As answered by Citizens’ lead singer Zach Bolen
You are part of Mars Hill U-District. First off what is the U-District? What does your church look like and sound like? What is your role there?
The U-District is home to the University of Washington. So as you can imagine, there are a ton of college students, along with some families dispersed throughout. For the past year and a half I have had the great pleasure and joy of being able to serve as the Worship Director at Mars Hill U-District. We meet in a 100 year old building that is about 2 blocks away from the UW campus. The building is awesome and has a ton of character, but doesn’t come without it’s challenges. The sanctuary has very tall ceilings and stain glass (which some of it looks more like an Easter egg than cool art) and so having more of a rock sound in a building like that is super lively. When people sing it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard. There have been many nights, especially during our 8pm service which is mostly college students, that I could barely hear the band because the students were singing so loud.
What is the story of Citizens (who are the members, what is your vision, how did you come together)?
When my family and I moved to Seattle for me to become the Worship Director at the U-District the first job I was given was to build a band. No matter what the sound wound up being, I knew I wanted to assemble a group of people that were unified in a desire to proclaim the gospel through song. And not just proclaim it casually, but boldly and passionately. As I began to pray through what the name of the band would be, the Holy Spirit revealed to me the beauty of Ephesians 2:19 where we see the body of Christ being made into a Holy Dwelling place for God the Spirit. I loved the way that the word Citizens was such a unifying title for the body and how in reference to us as band, meant that the congregation was just as much a part of singing praise to God as we were. In a sense, our band was made up of 600 people. Right off the bat God provided me with one of the most talented musicians that I have ever played with. It was my third week at the church when this dude, Tom McConnell, with an amazing mustache and incredibly horrible sweater, came up to me looking to play in a band at the UD. As it turned out, Tom played a couple instruments so I grabbed another guy to come and jam with us one night and threw Tom on drums. We began writing as a 3 piece and we’re getting really excited about the arrangements. Two weeks later, a band at the UD took a break, and so two of the members from that band, Nate Garvey who plays keys and is a riff king, and Adam Skatula who plays drums like an animal, began praying about joining Citizens and as you can see/hear eventually joined us. We got together and I’ll never forget our first rehearsal. Somehow we managed to arrange 5 songs in one night and out of that came In Tenderness and Nothing but the Blood (the other 3 never really stuck). Adding those guys really brought things to life in a way that I had never really heard before when it came to worship music for the local church. The last person to come into the mix was Nathan Furtado. He had this background of playing in a lot of post-hardcore and punk bands and so bringing him into the mix really complimented the energy Adam brought on the drums.
What happens on a weekly basis in order to plan a service for this specific congregation, keeping in mind the other campuses and the Mars Hill church as a whole? How do you plan with the other worship leaders and pastors?
Mars Hill Church is one church with 14 locations. The way it works is that one of the locations every week will serve as the capture site for the sermon, and then it is distributed to the other 13 churches for playback on the following weekend, which puts them on a week delay. With one of the churches serving as the capture site we are able to get sermon notes and songs from that service to help in preparing for the upcoming weekend. Getting the sermon a week prior allows us to unify as church and make sure that we are all hitting the same trajectory. With that being said, every church has it’s own identity. Depending on the neighborhood it is in, the demographic of people, and even the cultural diversity of many of our churches, some of the methods may look a little different but the common goal across the board is to land at the same big idea, to proclaim the gospel. This means that some of the churches may play different songs, include testimonies or even do baptisms on any given weekend. All in all, we are one body with each church ministering and serving the needs of it’s local community.
Why is it important to lead worship in the musical vernacular of a community?
As a church it’s a huge value to us that the members of the body understand that everything we do as a church is for Jesus. That means that proclamation of the gospel isn’t limited to just the word being preached, but also through song. The gospel is something each of us need to hear daily and giving the body a way to sing that truth not only builds her up but also brings glory to Jesus. The music is always secondary. The gospel cannot be out done and so our motivation should never be to try and convince people that the gospel is “the good news.” Our job is to let the gospel speak for itself by communicating it clearly, believing in it’s power to move hearts and lastly arranging and writing music that compliments what the song is communicating theologically.
Citizens will be your first full-length album. What are your hopes for this record? What are you most excited to share with listeners?
Our hope is that it would be an encouragement to local churches all over the world and that it would bring about heart transformation through the work of the Holy Spirit. When people listen to the album what they will hear is the gospel being proclaimed. When we sat down and wrote these songs we prayed that the Holy Spirit would help us to do things that we were not capable of doing. This album is a total working of the Holy Spirit and to that we can trust in Him to bring about whatever fruit this album is meant to produce.
You have said you write to bring healing and peace to your community, how do you accomplish something like that with music?
I don’t know that I would word it quite like that, except to say that Jesus is peace and healing to both sinners and sufferers. People need to hear the gospel and next to it’s transformational power the most influential ways of distributing that truth is through preached Word and music. Music in particular is a universal language used throughout the entire world that has a way of allowing you to communicate gospel truth to anyone, who will listen. Music is an amazing gift from God that must never become the object of our affection, but rather a gift we use to outwardly express gratitude to our Creator. (Eph. 2:10; Col. 1:16)
What are some suggestions you would give to worship leaders that desire to write songs they can use for their church?
The first place to start is by asking the question “why do I want to write music the church can use?” Is it to serve the local church? Is it being viewed more as a business than a mission or calling? Or is it something to do because you feel like if you don’t then that makes you less of a worship leader? I think a lot of people write out of obligation or pride and that can cause the music we write to be really watered down, forgetful and even worse, uninspired. I know that I used to be in this place a ton. My desire to write music for the church was mostly motivated in wanting to please my own ego, rather than write something that truly edified the body.
Thankfully, our great God is faithful, even when we are not. The second thing I would say is to make sure you involve other people in the process who you would consider to be “theologians.” It’s important for people who have a lot more knowledge of the Word than you to speak into the theological accuracy of your song. The purpose of this is not for them to help write your song, but to help you shepherd the congregation as the song you write, if it’s good, will be what people take with them as they go through their week. Melodies have a way of doing that, so make sure it’s foundation is a biblical truth.
Being immersed in a community of worship leaders that also write and record albums on a label run by their church is a fairly new and rare concept in most churches. Tell us more about the dynamic this brings to the Mars Hill community.
Every band serves at a local church. We are dispersed throughout a couple different states, which means that contextually, every area is a little different from the other. So that means we constantly have a ton to learn and offer to one another. We all have the same desire to proclaim the gospel through song and tell the truth by accurately communicating sound doctrine, so the biggest dynamic you get is mostly in the musical styles. The message stays the same while the methods may differ. This is a beautiful depiction of the creativity God has given to his people. You could go to 4 different Mars Hill churches on a Sunday and hear Come Thou Fount in every service but it sound completely different in every service. At the same time we love to share each other’s arrangements and songs. It really is a great community of humble people that God has brought together. I’m super blessed to serve the church with them.
What does your band have coming up in the near future?
Our focus is and will continue to be the local church. With the exception of me, all of the guys are working jobs and going to school. This band is how they serve. We are excited for opportunities that will come up and our hope is to do as much as we can, but the truth is, this band was started out of a love for Mars Hill U-District, and so staying true to that calling is a top priority.