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Interview with Citizens & Saints

Interview with Citizens & Saints

By Glenn Stout on November 17, 2014

All About Worship's, Glenn Stout, interviews Zach Bolen from Citizens & Saints on their newest album, what they've learned from leading worship over the years, and the transition of leaving Mars Hill Church.

GLENN STOUT: When and how did you realize that God was calling you into music, specifically to be a worship leader?

ZACH BOLEN: It’s tough to pin point a specific moment where there was absolute clarity. From a young age I would write songs about God and as I got older and more developed as a musician I began to process through the idea of writing songs for the church to sing. It wasn’t until a year into working at a church that the role of a worship leader seemed to really crystalize. Up until that point I would say that I was very self-centered and not Christ-centered. I used people and saw my role as a guy who had to write awesome music.

Thankfully, God humbled me to the tune of humiliation on multiple occasions. Mostly those came when I screwed up a song or someone else was not doing to well, and I ignored my responsibility to shepherd them and it resulted in much bigger challenges that exposed my greatest weaknesses. From that point it’s been a slow and joyful journey of discovering more and more about the riches that we possess in Jesus.

Even as of the past 3 months, it’s been the daily reminder that I’m a child of God and that my performance does not determine how much He loves me. I would say the “calling” has been affirmed through the fruit that God continues to produce through the band and also my role as a worship leader. I sort of use that as a gauge for discerning whether or not the door remains open to serve Jesus’ bride in this way. One of my greatest mentors has a phrase, “hold it loosely.”  It’s my desire to do just that, and on the day (if) God leads me to do something else, I hope to joyfully respond to His guidance.

GLENN: Seems like you’ve gone through quite a few changes since your debut release. You are no longer a worship pastor for Mars Hill Church, nor is the band associated with Mars Hill anymore. You’ve also had a name change as well, going from Citizens to Citizens & Saints. What led to all these changes and what impact have they had on you?

ZACH: Well, us leaving Mars Hill and the name change are actually completely unrelated. Leaving Mars Hill was difficult on one hand because we had so many great friends and a community there that we loved and didn’t want to see get wounded. On the other, I could no longer lead with a clear conscience in light of the many dangerous leadership decisions being made. It’s very very sad to see things come to this, but nevertheless Jesus has been and always will be our only hope.

So, when I left Mars Hill it wasn’t even a given that the band would continue. My wife, Natalie and I, along with the other guys in the band and their families, all just came to the conclusion individually that this was a ministry that needed to continue. What I mean by that is, the door was still open, and we felt a certain responsibility to continue writing gospel songs and leading the church until God directed otherwise. Our main filtering question right now is, “What does faithfulness look like?” Faithfulness looks like encouraging and building up the church with Christ-centered, theologically rich, well-written songs. It’s such an honor to do that.

The name change really just came down to another band in the UK (called Citizens! and you should definitely check them out) having the same name, and both bands coming to a mutual decision that one of us had to change our name. In the end, the name is not what defines us. In fact, if there’s one thing I want to be remembered for it’s not the name of the band or the style of music we played, but our faithfulness to God, proclaiming the good news, and serving His people. 

GLENN: I love "Father You Are All We Need" from the new album and that it’s about asking God to provide us with the hope, the faith, and the joy that’s needed in order to trust Him in providing for us. What was the inspiration behind writing this song?

ZACH: About a year ago, I was really into this book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, Psalms: The Prayer Book of The Bible. The whole premise of the book is that when the disciples ask Jesus how to pray in Matthew 6 (The Lord’s Prayer). What Jesus is essentially doing is summing up the prayers of the psalms into one smaller prayer. Bonhoeffer makes the case that in each section of the the Lord’s Prayer you find different themes that are consistent with the psalms.

I was profoundly impacted by that. Jesus tells us that we don’t need to go on babbling or heaping up empty phrases, but if we are to truly and faithfully pray, then the Psalms (the prayer book of the Bible), must be deeply saturated in our hearts so that out of the treasure of our heart the mouth would speak wonderful and transformative truth. Many of the psalms possess pleas for help and often follow with a response of thanksgiving. An example of that would be Psalm 3 where the psalmist describes the calamity they are surrounded by and the need for God to rescue. Their plea concludes with “Selah,” and continues with praise, adoration, and thanksgiving.

That’s really what the song “Father You Are All We Need” is about. In the verses, it follows much of the Lord’s Prayer where we make requests of God. The chorus is meant to be in response to that, thanking God in advance for all He has done and will continue to do. It’s our confession that regardless of our circumstance He is truly all that we need. The ending bridge, follows along with the traditional more liturgical ending to the Lord’s Prayer, which is so beautiful. It’s a song all about exalting God for being our great provider both in common daily needs and for making us one of His dearly loved and eternal children.

GLENN: What is your personal philosophy on worship? How do you approach the process, from songwriting to leading?

ZACH: I would certainly not be the first to say, and in fact whatever philosophy I’ve had on this keeps falling short of Romans 1, that worship is all of life. So many great, even modern writers, like Harold Best and John Piper have written such wonderful words on what it looks like to be worshippers. The band and I recently came to the conclusion that we are no longer going to call ourselves a worship band, because the name in itself is not very clear if we are to align with scripture.

In Romans 1, Paul says that people exchanged the glory of God for things God created, which as Harold Best points out, is evidence of our often wandering yet continuously worshipping hearts. For us, to call ourselves a worship band just seemed like too broad a name to truly describe who we are. It seems rather inauthentic and, again in our case, pretentious to say we’re a “worship” band...as if that is truly all we're about.

In truth, I sin, I fall short, and I often worship many things other then God. Yet in His grace, even that debt of sin has been paid for by Jesus. So the motivation to come clean and walk in the light when I sin is huge because I’m responding to a God who loves me.  My desire to worship God is greater when I realize my undeserved standing with God. So when people ask now, we say we’re gospel men in a band that sings and writes gospel songs to the glory of God and the building up of Jesus’ church.

GLENN: As a worship leader, how do you go about introducing new songs to your congregation?

ZACH: I may be one of the worst people to ask about this! I’m sometimes the most indecisive person, so I’ve yet to land on a method I’m really stoked on. One of my favorite things to do though with this, although probably not always the best method, is to pull a sneak attack. It’s sometimes fun to play a new song without an introduction. I have seen it work, but it seems the best times have come when we are intentional about explaining the song and giving people a chance to engage with it as quickly as possible. 

GLENN: Along the same lines, as a worship leader, how do you go about selecting songs for a Sunday setlist? I’ve read that some worship bands will structure a whole set in the same key, do you take a similar approach?

ZACH: Great question! I think it’s important as worship leaders that we always start with the content of the sermon. Secondly, while I love arranging music, I tend to focus more on themes throughout the service. So starting with a song that speaks more on the transcendence of God like "Praise to The Lord," and then moving into songs of maybe confession or thanksgiving. I don’t think it’s ever a bad idea to get to the cross as soon as possible. That’s just one way of doing liturgy. There are so many great ones out there.

I will say though, that making the music the primary focus for a Sunday set list and not the content is a slippery slope to go down. After all, it’s God’s word that is ultimately transformative. Music has it’s effects, it’s beautiful, but it’s not meant to be our focus as worship leaders. I’ve spent many regretful weeks focusing way too much on music and not engage enough on how I’m going to shepherd the congregation. It has to start with getting our directive from God’s word.

GLENN: What advice would you give to worship teams in developing unity, setting aside egos, and being receptive to change?

ZACH: I suppose it starts with being intentional about getting to know one another. For instance, in Citizens & Saints we’ve never really had a whole lot of drama. Just recently, I was thinking about why that is, and the conclusion I came to is that every guy in the band is incredibly selfless. It’s really encouraging to watch them serve one another so well. I’m not saying we don’t have conflicts or hard stuff to talk through, we do, it just goes way smoother when you start with knowing that there is a genuine desire to love each other and show respect.

So yeah, I guess it starts first with being relational with one another, and then from there I think it comes to addressing the different idols of ones heart. The rebuke is then received in love rather than micromanagement of another’s sin. This obviously doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve certainly responded with a ton of defensiveness and I’m thankful for the grace and patience I’ve been shown by my brothers and sisters as God removes that sin from my heart. One of my really good friends has always said that the best relationships are built through shared experience. I wholeheartedly agree with that. 

GLENN: Lastly, if you weren't in Citizens & Saints right now, what would you see yourself doing?

ZACH: Tough to say. Maybe play in another band or do some sound design stuff. It’s so hard for me to imagine doing a job that doesn’t involve music. Additionally, I always want to be serving the church. That’s really the one constant in all of this. Jobs, locations, and seasons will change, but my desire to love and serve the people of God is one I hold very dearly.

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Glenn Stout

Glenn Stout

Glenn is a husband, father and bass player for Witness, the Worship band at Church by the Chesapeake. Glenn grew up in San Diego, CA but now lives in Saint Leonard, Maryland with his beautiful wife, Geoya, and their 5 kids. Glenn’s desire is to see believers come to know God better through praise and worship. When he’s not on the road as a result of his job with the US Navy as a program manager for Foreign Military Sales, Glenn leads the men’s ministry at his church. He is also an avid sports fan and can be found cheering on the Washington Redskins, Washington Capitals, Washington Nationals, DC United, and the SDSU Aztecs!