In a journey that took Dustin Kensrue from a successful post-hardcore/experimental rock band (Thrice), to worship pastor at Mars Hill in Bellevue, Washington, we can pull the curtain a bit on the secular/religious divide and get a glimpse at the overlap and the absolute differences. Kensrue recently released his first CD for the Church, The Water & The Blood, and it is filled with all the insight and depth that you would expect from the talented writer and artist.
Tell us about your journey from being the frontman of a post-hardcore rock band to being at Mars Hill.
I loved playing with Thrice and hope and plan to again in some form at some point. The transition to where I’m at came about from two things. I needed to stop touring for a while because it was taking too big of a toll on our family with three young daughters. And secondly, God began to give me a heart for worship music. I had never listened to it, because I was bothered by a lot of what I saw there. Poor theology and boring artistry. But my negativity was not helping anyone, and God eventually burdened me to make a change instead standing to the side complaining. I helped plant Mars Hill Orange County, and later moved to Mars Hill Bellevue to take a leadership role over Mars Hill Music as a whole.
The lyrics you wrote for Thrice often had biblical overtones and were sometimes scriptural. Where was that coming from? What was the draw for you in exploring spirituality in your music?
It comes from the fact that I think the best art is honest. I wrote about the things that were important and interesting to me. I’m not a small talk kind of person. I like talking about life, death, meaning, art, ideas, space, time, etc. So I wrote about those things in a way that was nuanced and layered so that it could be engaged but different people on different levels.
What role does spirituality have in mainstream/secular music today, that you see?
Hmmm. Spiritually is a broad thing. Assuming you are talking about Christian spirituality, I think its influence is sadly lacking. We need to be making great art as Christians because we have a great and amazingly creative God. If we believe that our view of the world is right and true, then we should make art that reflects that and should expect that to resonate within people since they are created in the image of God. Too often Christians feel they have to make a certain kind of art about certain kinds of things because they are Christians, and in the end, it comes off as forced and insincere. I have a lot of respect for Christians who are out there making great art in excellent and original ways. In terms of music, MeWithoutYou comes to mind.
What is the difference in writing for Thrice and writing for congregational worship?
(disclaimer, this is from a recent blog I wrote, but there is not really another way to say it)
The songs on this record differ from other songs I’ve written primarily in only one regard—their purpose. The purpose of most previous songs I’ve written (in my band Thrice and on my own) was often simply to express things that I was feeling and thinking about through music, and to share that with others for our mutual benefit, growth, and enjoyment. In a sense, the end was the song itself, or the listening to it, or the performing of it.
This record explicitly expounds many of the concepts that undergird every song I’ve ever written.
The songs on The Water & The Blood (with the exception of “It’s Not Enough”) also express thoughts and feelings to be shared with others, but they additionally have a narrower purpose: that they would be songs that would be helpful and singable for groups of Christians gathered together to worship God. This changes how I write in many ways. The lyrics may seem more “on the nose.” The meter or melodies may be more consistent. The range might be more restrained. All these elements aid in a group of people singing the song together, learning it quickly, and understanding it even as they sing through it for the first time.
What kinds of songs does the Church need to be singing?
Songs that are saturated in the truth of the gospel. Songs that speak of who God is, what He’s done, and what that means for us. Songs that give hope and life. Songs with clear and compelling language that are robust enough theologically that people get saved listening to them.
The Water & the Blood seems to be filled with grace and rescue. What encouragement do you have for someone who feels far away from the grace of God?
In Acts, the Apostle Paul was says:
“…He is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’” (Acts 17:27–28, HCSB) And in Ephesians 2:13 he tell us that “…now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of the Messiah.” (HCSB)
Because of what Jesus has done, anyone who trusts in him is brought near.
Mars Hill is a very creative community. What suggestions do you have to help other worship leaders cultivate a culture of creativity?
Don’t isolate yourself from the world. Jesus calls us to be in the world but not of the world. A big part of this is to understand that all truth and all goodness is God’s truth and goodness, and you can claim it wherever you find it. Calvin has this to say on the subject.
Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in such slight esteem, we condemn and reproach the Spirit himself. (Institutes 2.2.15)
So we should be inspired by the creativity of all people, and not turn endlessly inward to our safe subculture.
What’s the most important lesson you have learned from your transition to being a worship leader?
It’s not really a lesson per se, but I continually grow in my love for God’s church. I would love to see more people pour themselves into growing the kingdom of God on earth by caring about Christ’s bride the church.