Why Tenth Avenue North Isn't Afraid to Tackle Taboo Subjects In Christian Music

Robby Klein
Tenth Avenue North 

It's not unusual for a Christian record label to call staff together and have a band play new music and share their thoughts and inspiration behind the songs. What is unusual is for that presentation to include topics such as porn, lust, abuse and homosexuality. But then again, Tenth Avenue North has never been your average Christian band. They continue to challenge perceptions and rock the status quo with their new EP The Things We've Been Afraid to Say.

"The main reason we decided to do this record and make it all about this was I was reading [the Bible] in Luke 6 and Jesus says to the Pharisees, the religious elite of the time, 'You thought your job was to be popular, but your job is to tell the truth,'" Tenth Avenue North's lead vocalist/principal songwriter Mike Donehey tells Billboard. "As a songwriter, I realize if I only release music that I know is going to be commercial successful -- and I know that has to be part of the deal, we've made record contracts and selling music is part of the equation -- but if that's all I do as a songwriter, then I don't think I'm really telling the truth anymore. I'm just selling the parts of the truth that I know people want to hear and I don't want to sell the truth. I want to tell the truth."

In doing so, the new EP touches on topics not usually addressed in Christian music such as sexual abuse, pornography and extra marital attraction. "Covenant" was inspired by a poem penned by A Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L'Engle. "She writes this poem to her husband saying basically, 'I felt this spark with this other guy at a writing conference and I almost went to bed with him, but right when I could have gone into his hotel room, we just said goodbye and walked the other way.' She said to her husband, 'I realized that feeling, that spark with that other guy, it doesn't mean what we have isn't real. In fact, by leaving that spark behind and by choosing you again, it actually makes what we have even stronger. It makes it even more beautiful,' and so I was like, 'Hey what if we wrote a song telling people it's okay if you feel attracted to other people other than your spouse?' and they [bandmates Jeff Owen, Ruben Juarez III and Brendon Shirley] were like, 'That's cool, but no one will ever listen to it.'"

So they started playing it in their shows and reaction has been interesting. "I've been sharing that every night on tour saying, 'I'm totally in love with my wife and still able to be attracted to other people,' and you could hear a pin drop," the married father of four daughters says. "But the first time we played it, two different couples told the pastor that they were in the middle of going through a divorce and they were going to retract their divorce and try to work on their marriage after listening to the song."

The band members have extensive experience juggling marriage, career, babies, expectations and public opinion. This year marks 10 years since Tenth Avenue North signed with Reunion Records and released the debut album Over and Underneath, which spawned several hits, including "By Your Side," which won the Dove Award for Song of the Year in 2010. Longtime members Donehey and Owen, the guitar impresario who produced the bulk of The Things We've Been Afraid to Say, recently launched a new imprint, Remade Records, and the new project is the first on the Remade label. They've also signed a new band, Land of Color, whose self-titled EP is out now.

With a decade of hits behind them, Tenth's members felt bolder about tackling tough subjects not generally found on Christian music albums, and challenging other believers to look at how they interact with the world. In an increasingly divisive climate, "Love Anyway" is a call for tolerance with a lyric that says "Race, guns, refugee wars/We're known for who we're against/Yeah, but who are we for?"

"We talk about secrets. We talk about hating people who vote differently than you. We talk about pornography and casual sex," he says. "I believe God's kindness is what changes us. Romans 2 says it's the kindness of God that actually leads to repentance. It's not the judgment and fear of God. It's the kindness of God that produces change in us, so instead of railing, 'You guys need to change this about yourselves,' I'm trying to look in my own heart and go, 'Well what do I need to let God change in me? And how can I be honest about those things in a way that brings people in and doesn't build more walls of keeping people out?'"

One of the things that inspired the plea for tolerance in "Love Anyway" is the way Donehey's gay brother has been bullied. "He told me, 'I've distance myself from you because I didn't want to hurt your Christian music career.' He said, 'Your followers have found me on Instagram and just railed against me because by looking at my pictures they say, "This sort of life that you lead, it's a tragedy that you are so far from God and you're brother is such a great example."' So for people who say that they are followers of Jesus to go out of their way to condemn my brother, who they don't even know, I can't think of anything more counter-gospel, counter-good news, counter-Jesus than seeking out people to condemn them. Jesus said 'I didn't come to the world to condemn them. I came down to save the world.' It's a really important thing for people to grasp that. The homosexual community, they know how the church feels about it. You don't need to reinforce it anymore."

Tenth Avenue North tackles the issue of pornography in the song "Counterfeits." The roots of the song started with a staple on the band's bus that Donehey uses to keep away temptation. "I wrote a blog a couple years ago called 'My Porn Clock,'" he says. "Basically instead of using the alarm on my cell phone in my bunk, I use a clock. On a tour bus, you have your own little bunk, with a little curtain. When you are married and you've got kids, the potential for looking at pornography when you are at home is greatly diminished just by circumstance, but when you are on the road, you have endless hours by yourself. You are in your own little bunk and I know a lot of dudes who got really addicted to pornography. It started because they were using their cell phone as their alarm clock and they'd bring their cell phone into their bunk and they'd start just scrolling late at night just endless hours looking at porn. So one way I try to keep myself from looking at pornography is instead of bringing my phone in my bunk, I bring a little alarm clock."

Donehey admits his initial blog about the porn clock wasn't well received. "Within minutes I probably had 15 comments of people saying, 'I'm burning all your music. I'm never listening to your band again. You obviously aren't a Christian for the fact that you even want to look at porn. You need to go meet Jesus,'" he recalls of the backlash. "I was like, 'Oh so that's why people don't talk about these things.' It's funny because in the blog, I didn't even say I wanted to look at porn. I didn't even admit to looking at pornography. I just said in case it ever did happen, I had this guardrail and I still got that blasted."

Tackling another taboo, the last song on the EP, "I'm Listening," deals with sexual abuse. "It's three different stories from three people I know in my life and I sort of generalized them as mother, sister, and brother, but I took three people's stories because I've never heard a song from CCM [contemporary Christian music] that even tries to talk about this," he says. "The song is called 'I'm Listening' because the most powerful thing you can say is, 'I'm going to listen to you.' I've had at least 10 personal messages and the record has only been out a couple of days. A girl said, 'I was sexually abused by my pastor and I'm not a Christian anymore because of it, but I wish this song was out eight years ago when I was dealing with this.' Another one girl wrote me and goes, 'I teach middle schoolers and I'm trying to undo the unjust that was done to me. And I do know that that pastor was not like who Jesus was, so I haven't given up on Jesus quite yet.' For me, man, I'd rather get that message than a gold record hanging on the wall any day of the week."

It's refreshing to hear a Christian band be so open with issues that many people struggle with. "I'm not afraid in my songwriting to bring the full force of my questions and confusion to God," says Donehey, who founded the band during his college days in West Palm Beach, Florida in 2000. "There's actually a strange peace that comes when I actually let God have it because he can take it. So 'the things we've been afraid to say' are not the things I've been afraid to say to God. It's the arguments with God I've been afraid to let other people hear."

Donehey knows they are charting a unique course with these new songs and he's ok with that. "In the Christian industry people want to hear about our struggles, as long as they are past tense because it's too complicated to say, 'Jesus doesn't always redeem us from our struggles, sometimes he redeems us through our struggles,'" Donehey says. "That's scary for some because a lot of people don't actually come to Jesus just to get Jesus. They come to Jesus to get Jesus to do something for them and so if I stand there and go, 'I get up and I sing about Jesus every night and my life still isn't perfect,' that can be unnerving for some people."

When asked why they only did a six-song EP, not a full album, Donehey laughs and says, "There's a sense of this is probably all that people can handle. I thought about doing a whole record and I thought it would be too much. To lead up to this record, I did a little teaching video on each song before the songs came out because people hear stuff and they just make assumptions of what you mean by it. Because of the content in our genre, this is really provocative stuff, so [I wanted to] expand a little bit on each thing so you can understand where I'm coming from."

Tenth Avenue North is currently on the Imagine Nation Tour with MercyMe and then will kick off their Decade the Halls Christmas trek on Nov. 29 in Joplin, MO.

Donehey is hopeful that fans and gatekeepers will embrace The Things We've Been Afraid to Say, but he's ok if they don't. "I was talking to a guy at the label and told him, 'It's the first time that I'm not scared if the art that we made isn't successful.' He said, 'No, you just redefined success,' and it's true," Donehey says. "I realized I want to get back to when I first started writing songs, and that was to help people get released from their burdens and shame and to find a deeper sense of truth. But in order to do that we've got to be honest about how messy it really is sometimes."

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