Effects pedals line and drums line the stage. The instruments have been checked. There’s even a small basket of earplugs available for the audience. It’s time for the Sunday worship service at Mars Hill Church in Bellevue.

Music drives the services at the campuses of the Christian megachurch. Mars Hill was founded by pastor Mark Driscoll in 1996 and now serves 13,000 weekly visitors at 14 locations across four states, as well as some 260,000 who watch or listen to sermons online at marshill.com. On Sundays, the churches are packed with twenty- and thirtysomethings with families who are drawn by a service that’s like a festive participatory rock concert, with a program of songs, then a lengthy, often videotaped sermon, followed by communion and more songs. 

On this Sunday, Dustin Kensrue, Mars Hill’s worship director, leads his band the Gathered. The seven-member group sounds more polished than many local rock bands, with lyrics focusing on biblical verses. The 32-year-old Kensrue is best known for fronting Thrice, a fixture in the national alt-rock scene for over a decade before going on hiatus in 2012. In 2011, Kensrue took a position leading worship at Mars Hill’s Orange County Church. He moved north to lead at the Bellevue church in July 2012. 

Mars Hill employs volunteer bands to lead worship, with each church having three or four bands. Each band forms its own sound, from the mildly folky Ghost Ship to alt-rock leaning Red Letter Musicians who might be playing at Seattle clubs like Neumos or El Corazon any given night—in bands like Ivan and Alyosha, Emery, and Pretty Broken Things—make up the worship groups on Sunday. 

And now, the church has its own record label—Mars Hill Music. Founded in 2011 under the direction of Jonathan Dunn, the label is run out of a recording studio from Mars Hill’s headquarters in Ballard with assistance from Kensrue. The bulk of its recordings is what’s known as “corporate worship” songs. They deliver specific biblical messages designed to be sung by the congregation at Sunday services, set to the rock sounds of bands like Citizens and King’s Kaleidoscope. This differs greatly from the mainstream form of Christian rock, which often has only vague Christian themes. “We have a term [for them]—“‘prom songs for Jesus’,” says Kensrue, “where you’re basically writing a worship song, but it’s so ambiguous that it could be mistaken for something else.” Dunn and Kensrue exhibit a strong distaste for this prevailing form of Christian rock. “Dunn used to play this game on the road where he would change the radio station and within a second try and guess if it’s Christian or not,” says Kensrue. “Because Christian music was so bad, that without even hearing words, you would be able to pick it out.”

The label has had mild success on the Christian music charts, but its worship-heavy focus makes it somewhat outcast in the larger Christian music subculture. “It’s made it hard to even get into Christian radio,” says Kensrue. “We had a big radio station [tell us our music was] too much about Jesus. Because Christian radio is generally not actually worship radio.”

“The Christian music industry has this fictitious girl named Becky,” says Dunn. “Becky is a 35-year-old mom with two point five kids, plays soccer, drives a van, lives in the suburbs. Things are built around what Becky wants. Will Becky listen to this song? There’s all this talk about Becky. It’s just terrible. It’s the dark underbelly of Christian culture.”

To date, Mars Hill Music has put out 11 EPs and two full-length records, but the label’s biggest moment comes October 1, when Kensrue releases The Water and the Blood, his second solo record of original material and his first on Mars Hill Music. Most of the 11 songs are worship focused, but the album also features “It’s Not Enough,” a number Kensrue worked on while in Thrice that has appeal for fans not looking for corporate worship tunes. 

Music is a prime selling point for Mars Hill. It engages the church’s target audience of young males and entertains their children, who gleefully dance and clap along in front of the stage during the Gathered’s worship numbers. Thirty minutes into a seemingly endless pretaped sermon, an incredibly patient two-and-a-half-year-old named Halcyone exasperatedly proclaimed a perfect summation of a Mars Hill service. “Is anybody going to sing yet?”

 

Published: October 2013

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