I dare say that Citizens & Saints‘ “Made Alive” was the theme song for my previous congregation, & I’m still waiting for that perfect opportunity to introduce it to the church I’m currently serving. Theologically rich, lyrically succinct, & musically fresh, the song is simultaneously unique & singable, a rare combination in worship songs. Zach Bolen of Citizens & Saints has spent the much of his life writing songs, & since 2007 has primarily written with a congregation in mind, & it shows. So, at first listen, their latest CD A Mirror Dimly may come as a surprise: often dark, & deeply personal, it’s much harder to find that big corporate song for Sunday morning. This makes perfect sense after my recent conversation with Zach.
“Starting off as a church band, we were writing for those people we were serving, but when Mars Hill disintegrated, we all ended up at different churches & each have their own distinct style, so it’s hard to write for them, so we decided to come at this differently.” Approaching this project as a team effort, they began working through a ton of question & doubts which had arisen in the aftermath of Mars Hill’s implosion. “Sometimes banging a drum of celebration can become cliche – a facade – so we wanted to talk about the beautiful moments with God, but also the low moments. I still consider this a worship record, but our primary focus simply wasn’t writing songs for the church to sing.”
Writing songs is anything but new for Zach – in fact, it’s the very reason he originally grew interested in music: he wanted to have the sort of impact on others than the best music he’d heard had on him. “My entry-point into music was a desire to write songs,” Zach explained, “I was in 4th & 5th grade, & I would listen to things with my friends & I wanted to do that! So, we created a glorified boy band & would sing songs to our families.” With a laugh he added, “It was terrible – I’m so glad there are no pictures or recordings!”
Watching a friend play an original classic piece on the piano in the 6th grade, & realizing that he could play it, Zach was struck with a thought: “Maybe I could write?” He explained his progression; “I sacrificed a lot of musical knowledge so I could learn to be a songwriter – I was taking piano, & my piano teacher would spend the first 20 minutes of every lesson reviewing what she had taught me, & the last 10 minutes letting me share new songs!” Picking up the guitar soon after, he eventually moved to Savannah, GA, to study at SCAD, & before long was serving as the student ministry worship leader at Savannah Christian Church (now Compassion Christian Church). Three years later when he started leading worship at Mars Hill in Seattle, his original songs became a key part of their sung theology. It’s understandable, then, that when Mars Hill was suddenly no more, some sincere questions would arise.
This the soil from which their latest release was born.
“‘Doubting Doubts’ is my favorite song. I mean, it’s a concept record – there are phases of great faith, & moments of restlessness & being tired – but at the end of ‘Doubting Doubt’ there is this confidence that comes in and says ‘Even though I’m struggling to believe, the more that God is changing me, the more I want to keep searching & trusting God, even in the face of things I don’t understand. I love that.”
Released on Gospel Song Records – a subsidiary of Tooth & Nail – A Mirror Dimly is a powerful piece of art I particularly recommend to those walking through a painful trial. Though Zach is honest about his pain, he always lands back on solid ground in the end: a deep trust in God. It’s a powerful confession, indeed.
Shannon Lewis is “The Worship Community Guy“. Passionate about helping others respond to God, & training people who are passionate about the same, Shannon also blogs at SaintLewisMusic, where you can grab his free eBook, UNSEASONED: How to see Godly Growth in an Inexperienced Worship Team.