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The Voice of Community: Christopher Williams on We Will Remember

Shortly after having completed his newest record Gather, at a time when his creative energy was depleted, Christopher Williams was asked by his friend Jaco Hamman to make another album to accompany his latest book. Jaco’s book, The Millennial Narrative, enters into a conversation about the distinct experience of the millennial generation by way of the commonly overlooked book of Joel—he wanted a corporate worship album to bring it to life.

Christopher needed help, so he turned to his friends and fellow songwriters to construct a musical journey through the book of Joel. The result is a deeply collaborative record called We Will Remember that gives song to grief with the collective voice of community. Read on to listen to a few songs and learn more about Joel, what the locusts can mean for us today, and the healing power of singing together.

Christopher: Starting where the book of Joel starts…oh man.

Drew: It’s just devastation, right?

Christopher: Oh yeah. I think it’s verse three when the locusts hit. And you’re like, “All right, here we go.”

Drew: You were saying you met with Osenga earlier today—he’s really made those locusts his own with his “Year of the Locust” song.

Christopher: Jaco, the author of the book that instigated my record, makes very clear that he wants people to know all the different kinds of locusts and use the word purposefully. And there were a few spots throughout the record where I removed that word, just because it was too much. But I think the word “locust” still shows up five times.

I mean the whole book of Joel is about that, so you have to talk about it.

But how do you talk about it in a corporate worship setting without it sounding abrasive and strange?

Drew: It’s not really what we suffer these days.

Christopher: Not literal locusts, at least. I think that’s why this book is so universally accessible, though. The locusts.

Drew: Yeah, just tell me about Joel. I want to read it now.

Christopher: It’ll take ten minutes to read.

Drew: And remind me your relationship to Jaco?

Christopher: He and I have done some conferences together. He’s a very loyal guy, and he told me, “As long as I’m doing this specific conference, you’ll be doing music.” And I said, “Yes, I will.” So we’ve spent lots of time together.

He has taught the book of Joel all over the world to different generations, and he’s convinced that it’s the one book anyone could jump into, regardless of where they are in knowing God or not knowing God—especially for millennials.

Drew: Wow! So what does he say about that?

Christopher: Well, we all experience loss. Especially in our culture right now. And the millennial generation knows loss more intimately than any other generation—in the sense of growing up in the shadow of 9/11, school shootings, the financial meltdown—this generation knows that something isn’t working.

Jaco’s argument is that the millennial generation is doing quite a lot in terms of social justice and is incredibly good at gathering. He lists all these organizations coming up around the country, begun by millennials, that are meeting the need that churches used to meet for previous generations.

So he would say that as a church, we need to adjust the way we do things to come alongside millennials instead of expecting them to step into existing systems. Does that make sense?

Drew: That makes lots of sense. And I appreciate it.

Christopher: One example Jaco mentions is a thing called Supper Club: dinners in people’s homes, but for people who are mourning or grieving a loss. It started in one small community, but is now popping up in cities all over the place.

So he and I have known each other through these conferences and he lives in Nashville. We’ve both done a lot of work with Young Life. He brought up this topic with me because he has always wanted to write this book, and he’s a huge lover of all kinds of music. His collection is vast! He’s passionate, wise, and unique.

Because of his love for music, he wanted to have a collection of songs that could accompany his book. So the lyrics are taken largely out of the book of Joel as well as Jaco’s book, which is called The Millennial Narrative: Sharing the Good Life with the Next Generation.

Drew: So how did you experience what Joel has to offer as you read it for the purpose of absorbing and singing it?

Christopher: I’ve never spent the amount of time as I did for Joel in one body of scripture. Months and months and months. Which was epic. And really, at the beginning, I didn’t get it. I couldn’t see the depth. But Jaco sent me his book as he was writing it, and through his eyes and teaching, Joel came alive for me.

Having experienced loss in my life—losing my dad, especially—it made it come alive in a different way. And there was a beauty to the Gather record before that, because one of the main themes of the book of Joel is to gather as a community—so I felt like I had already written these songs in some way. I went into the writing process pretty dry, which was where I needed to be. That’s the whole point of the book of Joel: I’ve got nothing. And the deadline was really fast, too.

So I wrote the first few songs, and then there was a dry period in the summer, and then I had two and a half months to write eight songs. Totally stressful.

Drew: I think my heart rate just went up sympathetically, imagining that.

Christopher: Yeah! But the beauty of the journey for me was inviting other people in.

Drew: There were a few songs where I noticed it would start with just you, then one or two other voices would come in, then by the end it was this chorus of people. Even though what is being sung is sad, you’re all singing it together and it conveys this encouraging sense of solidarity around loss.

Christopher: That was the hope. The book of Joel calls us to mourn and grieve together: call the elders, call the children, come together and grieve. It was important for me to invite my community into the process of both writing and singing. The dryness of it, too—this came closely enough after Gather that the writing well was dry, and the only way I could make this record happen would be if some folks came alongside me. That’s a beautiful picture of the gospel, and a great way for me to practice surrender.

And the process for it was amazing. Most of the folks had never read Jaco’s book, and maybe they had read Joel, but I went into each writing session with the Joel passage and a few pages of notes I took on each chapter of Jaco’s book. We would just sit down with that and throw out ideas. And I already had an outline of the order for the album, which I had never done before.

So it was less about each song individually and more about crafting a cohesive story that matched both the book of Joel and Jaco’s book. And we truly wrote one at a time, from start to finish. So I would make decisions song-by-song based on their order in a way that I hadn’t before. One of those decisions was simply to let the album start very quiet and sad, then slowly lift into a greater sense of energy and life.

Drew: Well I noticed that! And by the time I got to “The River”—man, what a beautiful song. It felt like the apex of jamming, just as a group of people who love each other.

Christopher: One of the calls of Jaco’s book is for the church not to get distracted trying to create “new” things for millennials to step into, but to join in what’s already happening and what God is already doing. Modern churches always feel like they need to do something new and hip and reinvent the wheel—no! See where the Lord is working. Step into it.

So the idea for “The River”—I wrote that mostly on a drive from Idaho to Portland and back in twenty-four hours. I was driving along the eastern Oregon desert. No one would think of Oregon as dry desert, but when you come along the Columbia River Gorge, it’s desert that all of a sudden turns green.

Drew: That’s an epic journey.

Christopher: There’s so much river imagery in scripture. Especially in the book of Joel, it begins with desolation and ends with mountains flowing with new wine. Very Revelation-esque.

Drew: So good. All those images are timeless.

Christopher: It’s super fun to sing live, too. And that was another great criteria for this project: Jaco wanted these songs to feel very congregational in nature, which is not something that I usually do.

There’s a south African phrase, ubuntu, which means “I am because you are.” I think that phrase really sums up that congregational spirit.

Drew: I love how succinct that is.

Christopher: Jaco’s South African—he and his wife taught me that phrase. As soon as I heard it, I knew I wanted to write a song around that phrase for congregations to be able to sing. And that specific song, “Because You Are,” is very repetitive, it’s almost hypnotic to hear a whole group of people singing together.

It never really resolves, either, so it’s fun to sing over and over. I got to lead that song for about a thousand folks at Young Life recently and it just knocked me over to hear that many people singing something like that.

There’s something so powerful about singing God’s words together, and creating new music with those words. There’s so much more power to it. I’ve done it in little chunks, but I’ve never done a whole album’s worth. I want to sit down with Sandra sometime and talk about it.

Drew: The thousand-year old songs. I also felt like the record has such a purposefully-chosen sonic palette that was very fitting. The sparseness—especially toward the beginning—the space and silences were so well-chosen.

I’ve never read Joel purposefully, but I could hear what it was about. I could feel the exile and desolation, the devastation and bareness moving back toward fullness. I could sense what Jaco was saying: the songs felt very inviting, but inviting out of a space of loss as something we all know. I got swept in pretty easily for that reason.

Christopher: The first song we wrote was “Cry Out To You,” and I loved the way it made me feel, but I quickly realized that the album needed another song to come before that one. You can’t start with “Cry Out To You”—you need a sort of call to worship to get everyone on the same page first. And then I looked in Joel and realized he had already done just that! And I had skipped over it.

So the first song became “Hear This,” taken straight from the first words of Joel. It essentially says, “Have any of you experienced loss? If so, tell your children, and let your children tell their children,” and so on.

Drew: That is so important. When you mention Jaco talking about how important the narrative of loss is—if there’s anything we are in need of right now, I think it’s preserving the stories of loss and grief that we’ve attempted to push past and shove aside. Our instinct is to keep going, but we need to remember and exercise that storytelling.

Christopher: Loss is so important to talk and sing about, and especially in our Christian culture right now, we have such a severe lack of songs that speak into this in an inviting sort of way.

One of my favorite lines from the album is from that first song: “Receive what sorrow gives.”

Drew: For me, entering into this record happened through that entry point. I mean, that’s a rhetorical question: have you experienced loss? Of course you have!

Christopher: There’s a beauty in that—when we can recognize and step into it, we are bound together. Jaco says, “It’s not if the locusts come, but when.” If they haven’t come already, they’ll come. Even in the last seventy-two hours of my life, there’s been a memorial service, I’ve been notified of two unexpected deaths, and a heart attack within my circle of friends.

It brings an awareness to me that I want to share these songs out of the sheer need to bring comfort. That’s all.

Drew: I’m struck by the language in the very beginning of Joel, the way he speaks of the locusts. He introduces them wave by wave, and says what the first wave doesn’t eat, the second one will, and what the second one doesn’t eat, the third one will, and so on.

So there’s this understanding that there’s a relentlessness to the forces of devastation and death, and if you feel like you’ve been spared, you’re wrong. You won’t ultimately be spared from that.

I imagine the proper response is, whatever you do, do together. Mourn together, sing together. That’s something I feel the need to learn—where’s the guidance for it? How do we sustain this loss together? Who will show us?

Is that something corporate worship can help with, at least to some degree?

Christopher: Yes. It’s all about coming together, gathering. And I didn’t want the book of Joel to just be for church—I want it to be for any kind of setting. Any situation in which you’re present with people.

Drew: I love that you cowrote so many of these songs with people, too. Through and through, every part of this album came out of gathering with others. I could feel that that’s where it came from.

Christopher: That felt necessary. I had absolutely nothing in terms of writing or ideas. Which is maybe where we’re supposed to begin most of the time.

Drew: I love this thought that you can engage in this corporate practice of people being present together, singing, and it doesn’t have to be church. When we did Hymnmoot last winter—that was an Advent hymn event. It was so enriching. I just thought, “Why don’t we do this all the time??” I want it to become more of a rhythm.

I was trying to think of how to ask you what your hope is for these songs, but I feel like you’ve already given me your answer: “Just sing these together.” Bring these songs to one another.

Christopher: Before we went into the studio, since most of these songs didn’t really have any legs yet, we hosted about twenty folks at our house: I took all the lyrics from this record and wrote them on big pieces of sticky paper, put them all on the wall and sat everyone in a semi-circle facing those notes. We played and sang the whole record together, interspersed with readings from the book of Joel and Jaco’s book.

Drew: And that’s where the songs got their legs, right?

Christopher: Yeah! Little short ones. It was a good start. My hope is to do more of that. It felt almost like Behold the Lamb of God: really intentional, from start to finish, here’s the journey.

Drew: That’s such a great way to develop a record. If you’re wanting the songs to serve a community, begin with a trusted group of people. Sing, talk, and see what surfaces.

Christopher: Yeah, and after we did that, we had a conversation about it and the biggest impression everyone had was that of having gone on a journey. And I thought, “Perfect. That was the goal. My job is done.”

It’s like liturgy. You enter in one place, you go on a journey, and you’re sent out with a new perspective on the Lord and where we’re going from here.

Drew: I’d love for more records to be made that way.


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