Chris McClarney is a rare blend of inspired talent, raw creativity and organic humility. His second album, Breakthrough, released June 2018, following his previous critically acclaimed album, Everything and Nothing Less, which he recorded as a part of Jesus Culture.
Despite penning such monumental songs as “My One My All” and “Your Love Never Fails,” Chris rarely, if ever, refers to or thinks about himself as an artist; his passion is in worship and leading people to a place of authenticity before the throne. Coupled with his love of community service in his own backyard and around the world, he is keenly aware of the deepest needs humanity can experience—needs that can only be met in Christ. His music bears witness to a faithful God greater than any circumstance and worthy of praise. He refers to the new project as, a collection of songs I hope people hear to help them overcome obstacles. Whatever is keeping them from finding joy and peace, I hope this album helps guide listeners to put their trust in God alone, that hope is in Him no matter the circumstance.”
CCMmagazine.com chatted with Chris about the new project, what it’s like to be a part of the Jesus Culture worship phenomenon and how, at the end of the day, while music might be the primary tool he uses to share the hope of Christ, his primary purpose isn’t to be a musician. Rather, it’s to testify the unlimited power and presence of the Savior.
CCM: I have been amazed at the seismic shift in the arena of worship brought about by groups like Jesus Culture. What is it like to be a part of that groundbreaking team and how did your partnership come about?
Chris: I’ve been doing stuff with Jesus Culture for about seventeen years back when they were just the youth group at church. We became friends, they recorded some songs I’d written and eventually we thought, “Hey, someday we should make music together. That was about three or four years ago. It was the same time I was making my last live record. They kept inviting me to go back out with them, so technically, I’ve been playing on tour with them for about three years.
CCM: Your new album, Breakthrough, follows the stellar performance of your debut project. How did you approach your sophomore effort?
Chris: I have never been a huge fan of the recording process because I really just enjoy leading worship. The last record was received really well and there was some pressure to make another record, but I was dragging my feet. Last year I think I wrote fifty songs or so. I narrowed that down to fifteen, recorded twelve and kept ten of them. Jesus Culture also recorded three of my songs for a new record in the works.
There are some people who are actually real songwriters. I go through these phases. I’ll write for about six weeks or two months, then take a big break. Somehow it all works out. Having the pressure of a record helps.
CCM: If memory serves, you had not really intended to pursue music earlier in life. How did you end up on stages and platforms around the world?
Chris: I feel like my story is about accidentally stumbling into things. A long time ago, people at church asked if anyone knew how to lead worship. I said, “Sure—how hard can it be?” I knew the songs. I could play them. Over time, I was helping to lead worship regularly with Travis Cottrell and eventually ended up taking over.
I fell in love with it, so I thought maybe I’d try to get a record deal. I’d just graduated high school and started trying to write songs. But after visiting Integrity Music, I thought this may not be what I wanted to do after all. The scripture, “Whatever you’ve done for the least of these, you’ve done for Me,” kept replaying in my mind.
CCM: What was so significant about that scripture in relation to your music?
Chris: I had been on a mission trip, moved to Nashville inner city and started serving at a ministry where we gave food and clothing to the homeless. It was called the Boundary. I actually met my wife down there. After we got married we decided to take six weeks off doing ministry then go plant a church in Florida. We wanted our lives to be about other people. We wanted to serve. Before we had headed for Florida, though, But a church in Franklin, Tennessee, asked me to lead worship one week. We were so poor at the time, I had just sold a guitar to pay bills. The guy I sold it to wrote a bad check. I told the pastor and that first Sunday, he opened my guitar case after church and took up an offering of $5600. They asked me to keep leading worship and ten years later I was still there.
CCM: How did the transition from worship leader to songwriter come about?
Chris: I was at the church in Franklin for about ten years. About halfway through that, I started writing songs for my church. We needed songs that spoke truth about God. “Your Love Never Fails” was one of those first songs. At that point, I felt God was telling me to record a project. I didn’t want the idea to be mine and not His, though. So I said, “God, if this is you, then provide the money.” Two days later, a guy emails me and said, “God told me to give you money. What do you need money for?”
I laughed and said, “If you give me $15,000 I’ll make a record.” He sent the check and I thought I’d better make a record.
Around the same song, Chris Quill (of Jesus Culture) was looking for a tune. He sent me an email and asked if he could record “Your Love Never Fails.” The song just blew up. That was at least ten years ago.
CCM: Considering your rather meteoric rise to notoriety as a songwriter and artist, did you ever have trouble balancing the art of ministry and authentic worship with the entertainment aspect?
Chris: It’s pretty easy for me because I’m not really an artist. I like to lead worship at church and with the band. I just like to see people worship. There’s not a part of me that necessarily wants to do something really artistic. I just try to meet people where they’re at. I do the only thing I know—worship.
CCM: Was there any particular inspiration for this latest album?
Chris: I’ve just been writing songs for my own church and the Jesus Culture girls. But you play out enough and meet people and you hear their stories. I’m a worship pastor at a church in Franklin. You meet people and you hear the same stories over and over. I’m worried about this or I’m struggling with this. I want to bring theology and scripture into their lives in a way that brings healing and hope and faith. If there was a theme, it would be anti-fear. It’s about choosing to not be afraid right now. God is able and faithful.
CCM: The country and our world seem to be in a tumultuous state at the moment. What do you think the church’s responsibility is in this climate?
Chris: I think there are things that the church is struggling with. They’re trying to find themselves, discover what we actually care about. What’s important to us as a church… A lot of what is happening right now is divisive. But you can always point to the simplicity of the Gospel—to love God and love each other. Whatever is done to the least of these is done to Him. We are in complicated times, but as a songwriter, I trying to keep everything pointing upwards.
CCM: How does your love of mission work and ministry continue to play a role in your life?
Chris: I used to do more traveling mission work where I’d go overseas—places like Pakistan, Romania and India. But I fell in love with Franklin. We lived on the “bad side” of Franklin and we fell in love with the community. Most of our efforts are in what our own church is doing, trying to reach the poor in our own community. They started giving away cars to single moms. People could bring their broken cars to church, other mechanics in the church would fix them up and then we’d give them away to moms who need them.
Lots of my energy lately has gone to planting a church in Antioch. It’s a Spanish-speaking church. There is a really large number of poor and needy people in the community. It’s shocking to realize how many people in Antioch don’t have food on a daily basis. God has really inclined our hearts to helping where we are, however we can.