Dove Award New Artist of the Year Tenth Avenue North
We Are Free To Struggle: Tenth Avenue North Challenges Others Through Music
Written by Mei Ling Starkey
Young or old, most people have questioned their identity at one point or another. Tenth Avenue North has become known for their thought-provoking lyrics that let people know that they are free to struggle in Christ. Their style has resulted in two successful albums, “Over and Underneath,” and “The Light Meets the Dark,” and being awarded the 2009 Dove Award New Artist of the Year. As they get ready to debut their latest album, “The Struggle,” Tenth Avenue North continues to push their musical creativity and challenge their listeners. Risen sat down with the band while they were on The Rock & Worship Roadshow tour, to talk about identity, true love, tour life, and community.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: Online dating, one-night stands, divorce rates that are the same inside the church as outside the church… How does your song “Love is Here,” speak to a culture that has so many different definitions of love?
Ruben Juarez: The song was originally written out of frustration. Mike and Jason were leading a youth group that was looking for validation and love in the wrong places. The song says that everything has already been done for you. Love is already present through the cross.
Mike Donehey: We put parameters on God proving his love. “If you heal my dad, If you give me a girlfriend, If my parents don’t get divorced…” You are asking God to prove something he has already proven. Romans 5:8 says, “God proves his love that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The Greek is actually present tense, “God proves.” It doesn’t say, “He proved.” It’s present tense, ongoing, active. He proves his love every day. It was a past event, Christ died, but he is presently demonstrating that he loves us now. Knowing the Son of God died for you, and that God loves you, should convince you that you screwed up so bad that he had to die for you, and to know that he was glad to die for you. Well, that should simultaneously drop you out of your pride and lift you out of your depression.
Risen Magazine: Peer pressure, gossip, broken families, depression… these are just a few of the things that describe what young people face on a daily basis. Your songs really address the tension between faith in God and the situation. What encouragement do you have for people to worship God in spite of their circumstances, or through their circumstances?
Mike Donehey: The biggest thing that I see is the question of identity… you cut, you are bulimic, you got pregnant, you didn’t make the soccer team, you are a straight “A” student, or you didn’t get the scholarship… we are all fighting to build our identity in something. One of the most powerful things is being able to say, “You’ve done all those things good or bad, but they don’t define you.” It’s a lie to say that the choices you make, make you who you are. It’s true that the choices you make have consequences, but the Gospel is the glorious message that in spite of all those choices, in spite of mistakes, you are a child of God, who happens to do those things. A girl came up to our table the other day. She was on the verge of tears. She was probably about 20 years old. She said, “I just want to thank you for writing music that gives me permission…” She got choked up and started crying. She didn’t say anything after that. I said, “To struggle?” She nodded yes. I think that has been a powerful thing for me in my own life, and for other people, to say it’s okay to struggle with these things. It is not about how much faith you have, it is about whom your faith is in. It is not about a competition over who is the best Christian, it’s about celebration of what’s been done for us. That’s going to be the whole message of our next album, the struggle through this life, the battle of heaven, the hope of redemption. We’re not home yet, but that’s okay.
Risen Magazine: What experiences in your life have you faced that have given you that perspective?
Mike Donehey: I have had amazing teachers and mentors in my life that have helped me to understand the Gospel. The turning point for me was realizing that the Gospel isn’t a one-time event, but it is the thing that sanctifies our motivation. We need to preach the Gospel to ourselves everyday.
Ruben Juarez: I had a couple of family members that have fallen away and the conversations we’ve had, has allowed me to doubt God in a healthy way. It is not so much about believing or not believing, but refining what I think in the first place. Processing their questions helps me to wrestle with those things and solidify my own faith.
It is not about how much faith you have, IT IS ABOUT WHOM YOUR FAITH IS IN
Risen Magazine: Your song, “You are More“, talks about a young lady who has lost her way and is questioning her identity. What inspired your lyrics?
Mike Donehey: It is a combination of things. Jon Foreman from Switchfoot described the song writing process like an oyster making pearls. Oftentimes for him, the song starts with an irritant. Oysters make pearls not clams, right?
Jeff Owen: Oysters make pearls. Clams make fine meat.
Mike Donehey: It started with the irritant of “the choices you make, make you who you are.” Just seeing the horrible ramifications that has played out on church and society, to me it is the antithesis of the Gospel. The Gospel is counterintuitive.
The choice to use a girl was because I wanted to make it a little more personal. We put together all the girls we have talked to at camps, signing autographs, messaging with on Facebook, and said this is obviously something people are struggling with. The big thing that got me is that the biggest group of people that have responded to the song has been girls who cut. We had a couple of girls last summer come up to us with razor blades with numbers written on them. One read, 572. She said, “that’s the number of times I have listened to this song in the last three months, since I quit cutting.”
The church endorses this message by saying, “You’re a cutter. If you’re a Christian, you need to live like a Christian.” But the reality is that you can’t put the cart before the horse. The work of Christ is what enables you to be free. One of my pastors said, “The most important thing to remember is that if you are in Christ, your name is no longer addict. Your name is child of God.” You don’t have to work to become that. You need to live out of that reality. John Piper said, “Your work doesn’t make you holy. Christ’s work makes you holy. Be in practice who you already are in position.” We like to say, “We are not struggling to be free in Christ, we are free to struggle.” That’s actually going to be a song on our next record.
Risen Magazine: You guys all come from church backgrounds and you have shared that you are, “not satisfied with doing the same old things, the same old ways.” What does that practically look like as you put your music together?
Mike Donehey: Jeff is the most left-to-center as cerebral processes go.
Jeff Owen: We are making a new record and we are trying to not make the same record we have done before. I think if we have had a certain chord progression to a certain song we have wanted to push our boundaries and make it sound different. Lyrically, we also are not saying the same thing that we have said before. We are working on songs that have new struggles and new points to make.
Ruben Juarez: The Gospel is a bit of a journey. So we are encountering different things and writing different things as we go.
Risen Magazine: Your heart to teach this generation to worship is impressive including the way you have interacted with students at the Student Venture conferences. Why have you become so passionate about this?
Mike Donehey: It’s a matter of enjoyment. You become passionate to share with people whatever you enjoy. No one had to teach you to be passionate about your favorite restaurant, movie or hobby. You are just naturally that way. So for me I kind of got ruined when I went to college when I met a group of people that were more passionate about worshipping Jesus than going clubbing. No one was making them. They weren’t putting it on an application or resume. They literally wanted to sit and be in the presence of God. I often say that kind of ruined me for even being on stage, because when you get a taste of what the Scriptures call, “the fullness of joy, His presence,” you naturally want to share what you enjoy. I could talk to you about Chipotle and coffee for days, because I have enjoyed them and want you to enjoy them as well.
We like to say, WE ARE NOT STRUGGLING TO BE FREE IN CHRIST, WE ARE FREE TO STRUGGLE.
Risen Magazine: We picked a question from our readers. They want to know, “How do you balance your personal intimacy with Christ alongside ministry for his glory?”
Mike Donehey: It is a challenge.
Jeff Owen: I was talking to a friend the other day and he said the darkest times he had was when he was touring with Christian music. He had mistaken his main objective of pursuing God passionately with the accolades he received while touring. He shared, “We could be playing onstage and people could be saying, ‘You guys are doing great things for the Lord,’ and we could mistake that for our journey with Christ rather than an intimate, personal pursuit. We could go through this day after day and have people tell us that we are doing a good job. We may even legitimately think we are doing a good job, but inside we are not pursuing Christ on our own everyday.” So for me I think about my friend’s experience a lot. In my personal relationship with God, I don’t want to mistake what we are doing for my personal involvement.
Brendon Shirley: Sometimes I question my motives when I am in the Word [Bible]. Am I just getting this to throw it at other people or am I digesting it and sharing it out of an overflow of my heart? Sometimes I just want to know the right answers, or know things to impress others, instead of just eating and seeing that the Lord is good and then sharing it out of a personal experience. That’s definitely something that I am always aware of.
Mike Donehey: Ministry should be a bi-product. It shouldn’t be a focus. Knowing Christ should be our focus.
Risen Magazine: You guys have shows night after night. How do you challenge each other to keep the focus on worship and not a performance?
Jeff Owen: Tell everybody they are doing a bad job. It’s kind of a joke, but it’s kind of true.
Brendon Shirley: You just have to humble yourself and go back to the heart of worship.
Jeff Owen: Before every show we pray, at least one of us always says, “Let this not be about us, but let this be about you [God].” It kind of naturally manifests itself through our own prayers. We all hear it everyday. We don’t have to remind ourselves, we are naturally reminded.
Mike Donehey: It’s sort of a level-layered question. It is about the performance. Psalms says play skillfully as if unto the Lord. It doesn’t say get up there and do whatever. We are actually supposed to analyze our performance and critique each other and even say, “Was what I was doing getting in the way?” There’s a whole slew of things we need to address and analyze. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s our hearts and whether we believe the Gospel, whether we believe our performance saves us or not. It’s okay to dissect a performance and ask, “What can we do better? What can hold people’s attention a little longer? How can we bring Christ to the forefront?” Ultimately, our hearts will always be very tainted with a motive of validating ourselves unless we find our validation in the cross and what has been done for us. It isn’t to prove ourselves because we already have an identity. It’s quite a different motivation. I ask this all the time, “Are we playing to be accepted or are we playing because we are already accepted?” It’s a much different focus when you are on stage. Even last night, I didn’t feel like I was cool enough. But then I realized, it’s okay, because that is not the focus.
Risen Magazine: How do you balance the grueling tour schedule, your relationship with God, and time with your families and friends? Jeff, you have your wife and your kid on tour with you.
Jeff Owen: Us married folk try to balance our families with the tour. We trade which family and wife gets to come out on the road. We have a short list of friends at home because we never see them. This is kind of like church out here being in community all the time every day. You’re not married to them, but you have to deal with the same issues pretty much… not getting in each other’s hair, encourage each other. It is a fierce battle. Right Ruben?
Ruben Juarez: Brendon and I are the single guys. It’s hard enough trying to get time to yourself and being a part community of friends. I can only imagine if there is family to add to that equation. It is taxing.
Risen Magazine: You use social media to share your music and inspire your followers. How have you seen this benefit their relationship with God and worship experience?
Mike Donehey: Jeff had an idea for our next record to use social media to have our listeners participate in one of our songs. We did these sing-alongs all over the country that we organized through Facebook. We recorded them and made them part of the choir in all different parts of the song. It was a cool way to be able to connect with people that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to connect with.
Jeff Owen: We use Twitter and Instagram a lot to allow people access into what we are doing and thinking. We try to use it purposefully, because we know that it can be used to positively influence people’s lives. Mike usually sends out a few good nuggets daily to encourage people. I like to keep things light and show people the things we experience on a daily basis. Like, “Check out this dumb looking ice cream.”
Brendon Shirley:It has also enabled us to tell fans about after shows. We will tell our fans last-minute to come over to a coffee shop. It gives us the chance to interact with them on a deeper level than just signing autographs.
Risen Magazine: What would you caution this culture against as social media permeates every aspect of daily lives?
Mike Donehey: The dangerous thing about social media is that we exchange true community for a pseudo one. How many times can you think of when you are in a conversation with friends and you are all looking at your phones? I think the reason is that the capitalist system has infiltrated our way of thinking. Our whole system is investment and return. We believe the lie that if, “I’m going to spend 30-seconds saying something, why would I waste it on one person, when I can say it online where thousands of people can read it?” The other side of that is that when we put down our phones and look each other in the eye, there is now more value to that. As much as you want to type away, you are still made to look into the eyes of another person. I know that because when I look into the eyes of another person, I have a profound and different experience than when I look into the eyes of a dog. We are made in God’s image and there is something divine in eye contact. It is important for us to put down our phones and see each other.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Summer 2012