After the release of the Economy album in 2011, it appeared John Mark McMillan was poised for fame within the subculture of popular Christian music. McMillan’s career began to take off in 2009 after his now popular song, “How He Loves,” was spread across the country by The David Crowder Band. Soon, churches everywhere were discussing whether God’s love was an unforeseen kiss or a sloppy, wet one. Economy was the second of two albums released through Integrity Media after “How He Loves” rose to popularity in the church world. Both albums were well received, and John Mark McMillan and his band were gaining a growing audience. But John Mark felt like he was losing himself.
Assessing the Wreckage
It was at the end of the Economy tour that everything came crashing down. Several years on a worship label had revealed things John Mark didn’t expect to find out about himself. “I began looking at other Christians as competition. I started becoming something I didn’t believe in anymore, looking at people, art and worship as a means to an end.”
As he surveyed his family, career and friends, he realized that everything had changed from his start as a worship leader and playing shows with rock bands in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area. He was now a husband and a father. Friends had been lost to cancer, murder and car accidents. There were sleepless nights on the road and at home with young kids. And as the music machine raged on, John Mark felt his dreams dying.
“Everyone was so tired at the end of Economy. We [the band] started with one child, and at some point we [the band] had a total of 9 kids. People didn’t want to do it anymore. In their hearts they were over it.”
By the end of the Economy tour, it was all over. Almost in succession, McMillan left his record label, parted ways with his manager, and the band decided to split up. John Mark felt like it was a necessary step, but a step that led him into what he now calls the “borderland.”
“A borderland is an area of land between two countries no one will take responsibility for. I wasn’t who I wanted to be, and I wasn’t who I used to be as an artist, husband, dad or Christian.”
Over the next two years, McMillan would fight through the process of learning the meaning of real faith. And what he learned was that we never really have it all figured out.
John Mark embarked on a journey through the book “Divine Conspiracy” by Dallas Willard. It was in those pages that he discovered a deep reality would come to define his borderland experience. Faith is not something we figure out or understand. Faith, at its core, is about trust in a God who dwells in a reality bigger than the one we can see.
Questioning It All
In the borderland, he was pushed to get familiar with the words of Jesus for more than knowledge. He needed the words for survival. “I fell down to the bottom. The unraveling seemed like a terrible thing. [But] when I looked back, I saw the structure to climb out of the hole.”
Through the albums, tours, shows, record companies, sleepless nights and long days on the road, John Mark began to realize that somewhere along the way he had started to believe he had to have everything figured out. But faith isn’t about figuring Jesus out. Faith is about trusting Jesus. C.S. Lewis said, “Education [or knowledge] without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”
As questions about the meaning of faith were stirred up inside of him, John Mark began to burn with the desire to create the raw music that started everything. While wandering through the borderland between mainstream Christian music and whatever lay ahead, he started to write worship music again. Music that helped him wrestle with the inherent struggles associated with faith. Music that expressed the painful change he was experiencing. And most importantly, music that was free from the competitive world of sales and numbers.
It was there, in the borderland, that he wrote the song “Counting On.”
“I wrote ‘Counting On’ from a place of dealing with my own questions about being a believer. How do I have this guarantee that Jesus is who He says He is? There may not be any guarantee. It’s not about having a guarantee but having the choice to trust Him. It was a choice not to walk away from Jesus. I gave it real energy. I started to read what Jesus actually said. I knew so much of the Bible but so little about Jesus.”
Suddenly, John Mark began to see where that time in the borderland was taking him. He had been living in the place between places, wandering like a lost boy. But this newfound freedom to have questions, to have doubts and to not have all the answers liberated him. Soon, more than his faith was set free. He was set free as an artist.
John Mark set out to create a new, independent album with a new band and a new approach. A powerfully raw sound emerged as a result of fighting his way through the unknown.
Previously, most of his albums had been created with the live show in mind. But this new expression of his growth was about creating music he wanted to create. It meant including different instruments and sounds. Eventually, all of the hard work gave birth to the Borderland album which was released, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, in March 2014. The album allows listeners to journey with him through that scary and freeing place between places.
Light of Heaven’s Porch
Now, with his own independent record label, Lionhawk Records, a Borderland Sessions release and a new project with his wife due out in early 2015, it would be tempting to think that John Mark McMillan is ready to claim he is out of the borderland. But that’s not how art, life or faith works. As we pass through this world, we find ourselves in a perpetual borderland. Not quite who we were but not quite who we want to be. John Mark said it pretty well in the Borderland title track:
Help me, Holy Lord.
I see the light of Heaven’s porch,
But so many of us are born here
Outside your chain link fence.
Through the ups and downs of life, it is easy to get lost in the wilderness. But it’s that light of Heaven’s porch that keeps us pressing forward. We may not have all the answers, and we may not know exactly where we are going. But the beautiful thing about faith is that it’s not about answers. It’s about trusting in the hope of a God who leaves us a light by which to see in the dark.
Find John Mark’s albums on iTunes and Google Play.