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The story behind Citizens

This month, Mars Hill Music is releasing the label’s first full-length album, Citizens, in partnership with Tooth & Nail Records and BEC. Here is the improbable backstory on how Citizens bandleader Zach Bolen ended up at as a worship leader—much less one at the forefront of an exciting new era of church music.

Anything but a worship leader

Zach Bolen never thought he’d end up working in ministry. Not only was he nowhere near envisioning himself on staff at a megachurch—he never even saw himself as a worship leader.

Hailing from the Northeast, Bolen moved to the South to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design. He began volunteering at a church nearby, and after graduating, accepted a full-time position as the student ministries worship leader there. Rounding up students to play and urging them to actively worship, Bolen felt his heart for ministry completely shift.

“God showed me I needed to love people,” says Bolen. “Before that point, everything about my life was centered on me, and here I was surrounded by people that needed to hear Jesus’ gospel. They needed a dude who actually believed the Word.”

It was there that Bolen started to develop the much-beloved sound that defines his music today. He began to cultivate impassioned ideas about what worship could look like, taking notes from how musicians engaged and motivated their fans. Instead of pursuing the crowd for his own sake, however, he wanted to engage people through music for the glorification of God. He was about to get an opportunity to do just that.

Moving to Seattle—job or no job

Not long after moving to the Midwest with his wife and two children, Bolen felt compelled to leave his job. Less than a month later, he received a call from Mars Hill. A phone interview didn’t go great, but they still decided to fly him out for in-person interviews. Those didn’t go well either. It wasn’t until he was sitting at a Mariners’ game with the lead pastor of the U-District church that Bolen told him that, whether Mars Hill offered him a job or not, he knew God was calling his family to Seattle and they’d be moving there regardless. The next night, the pastor offered Bolen the job of worship leader at the local church. The rest was history.

Looking back on it all, Bolen says he’s actually thankful the interviews went so badly, because, as he says, “It’s a constant reminder to me that I did nothing to put myself in this position—it’s solely the work of God and his providence.”

Citizens takes residence

Reconstructing the worship teams there, he began to build a band of his own, and together with Nate Garvey, Adam Skatula, Nathan Furtado, and Tom McConnell, the band Citizens was created. Born out of Ephesians 2:19, the name brings to mind all Christian’s shared allegiance to God.

“God made us citizens,” says Bolen. “And in that, he has chosen to abide in us. In song, we’re all led by the same Spirit. We’re singing as one body, one family—we’re all joined together by Christ.”

That conviction is seen visibly in the way the band worships with a crowd. Bolen explained that he wanted to write arrangements that demanded participation, where the congregation felt inspired to participate in worship. Take for instance, the wildly popular song “In Tenderness.” Bolen and Garvey re-wrote a new melody and this time, deliberately put the song in a key that had to be shouted in order to sing, so the crowd would have no choice but to join in shouting—and rejoicing.

On Citizens, indifference is not an option

The new self-titled album, a compilation of original songs and re-arranged hymns, adroitly marries lyrical truths with an intensity that demands that very participation. A dynamic sound showered in melodic nerve, Citizens is nothing short of spirited. Songs like “Jesus!” and “Made Alive” showcase their driving sound, while others such as “I Am Living in the Land of Death” and “Oh God” provide cheerfully courageous battle cries. The clean sound allows the listener to pay unadulterated tribute to God.

That’s done intentionally, Bolen says, to remind people of the battle that’s already been won. “We’re in this war, but Jesus has already won it for us,” he explains. “I tell my guys when we go out to play to think of being the soldiers who run back from the battlefield to the city, proclaiming victory over our enemies. We want to be the people pounding on your door proclaiming triumph.”

Just take a few of the lines from the song “Hail the King,” for example: “Praise the Savior / He has won / Our sin defeated through his blood / Now exalted Jesus reigns / Hail the King / Praise his name / We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”

Another song that keeps with the theme of triumph is “The Sweetness of Freedom,” a ballad that proclaims the joy of being renewed by God with the lyrics, “All my life I live to follow you alone /As you change my desires / Liberated by the blood of Jesus / I found life in the sweetness of freedom.”

Bolen is insistent on the point that everything come back to God. “We aren’t trying to get people to worship the music,” he says. “We’re trying to get them to worship the God who created the music. There’s something about music, if done in the right way . . . it makes us look at something bigger than us.”

The album’s aim, says Bolen, is to project enthusiastic worship, passion, and whole-hearted gladness—and it exceeds these goals triumphantly.

A new mission for worship through Mars Hill

As for his new position, Bolen feels at home working at Mars Hill, where he’s now a deacon. Founded in Seattle in 1996, Mars Hill Church is one of the largest and most-innovative churches in the U.S., with upward of 14,000 people meeting weekly across 14 locations in four states each week. Mars Hill has been recognized as the twenty-eighth-largest, third-fastest-growing, and second-most-innovative church in the country by Outreach magazine, as well as the church with the most locations of any in the country. Pastor Mark Driscoll’s sermons receive over 10 million downloads per year, consistently rank #1 on iTunes’ Religion & Spirituality chart, and he has over 450,000 combined followers on Facebook and Twitter.

Mars Hill Music, Citizens’ label, is made up of a variety of musicians and worship leaders who serve at the various Mars Hill locations’ Sunday services. From the beginning, Mars Hill has been committed to the philosophy that each local Mars Hill church would engage the culture in its local surroundings and point people to Jesus. Each Mars Hill band strives to do this with unique expressions of what God is doing in their respective cities.

In that same vision, the men of Citizens look forward to what God has in store for them in Seattle. Bolen may have never had plans to work in ministry, but we’re glad God did.

Citizens will be released on March 12. Get your copy of the LP on iTunes.

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