From the distorted guitar riff that kicks off “Say So,” the Dove Award-nominated lead track from Ancient Skies, the debut full-length from The Michael Gungor Band, it’s not hard to imagine a packed stadium of ardent fans, cheering the band’s arrival. In fact, it’s easy to lose track for a moment that these songs were written specifically for a church community. But that was all Gungor had in mind. At least, originally.
“I wrote the songs not so I could get a record deal, or even for ‘the church at large,’” the Denver-based songwriter and worship leader says. “I wrote them originally for my church.” In fact, having a community in mind was so important that as Michael and his wife Lisa were working to establish a new church after moving from Michigan, the songwriting temporarily slowed. Then, as Bloom, the couple’s house-based, community-oriented church attained momentum, new songs began taking shape.
“In doing church, we were trying to figure out how to live our lives together,” Michael Gungor notes. “And ever since we started that, songs have been coming more frequently again.”
The sounds on Ancient Skies, The Michael Gungor Band’s Brash Music debut (which follows a head-turning EP of the same name), range from the wide-angle atmospherics of a U2, Coldplay or—at it’s most ethereal—Sigur Rós, to the bluesy intimacy of a John Mayer. The contributions of all of the players loom large, in addition to the band leading, songwriting couple. (The band currently includes Brad Waller on bass, Brad Nyght on drums and Michael Rossback—who’s co-written many of the songs—on guitars.) And while created for the church, the lyrics range from openhearted, full-throated adoration to stinging reminders of the ways humanity tries to limit God.
That Michael Gungor grew up to become a worship leader is hardly surprising, considering that he grew up as a pastor’s son in Wisconsin and demonstrated an aptitude for music from an early age. And while still a student at Western Michigan University—following a stopover at the University of North Texas—he found himself leading worship at a sizable Michigan congregation. Music degree in hand, he continued to perform that role for another six years, eventually touring arenas as a worship leader before looking for a fresh start in Denver.
“Leading worship was getting to the point where it kind of felt like a job,” Gungor admits. “And I never want my music and my ministry to be a job, primarily. I want it to be my life.”
So in Colorado, while continuing to work on their music, Michael and Lisa threw their energies into establishing a grassroots church modeled on the 1st Century, with a small group meeting in their own home and, simultaneously, other homes as the movement grew. Eventually a worship gathering—dubbed “Bloom”—encompassing all of the home groups began. More music naturally followed suit. “If we were talking about something, but didn’t have something to sing about it, then I’d write something,” he recalls. This is how all the songs on Ancient Skies were born, with “White Man” and “Song For My Family” the most recent additions.
Prior to the new chapter, Michael Gungor had already experienced songwriting success, with several of his compositions becoming worship standards in churches from coast to coast. One co-written song even landed in CCLI’s (an organization that tracks which songs are sung most frequently in churches) Top 20.
While the band is passionate about its music, Gungor is equally passionate about connecting his sung declarations of faith to concrete action, throwing the band’s support behind The Mocha Club, which, for $8 a month (mocha money for many Americans) funds worthwhile relief projects in Africa. The band has made raising money to dig wells in the Sudan a priority, and it offers that opportunity to others at its shows.
“If our worship isn’t somehow connected with hurting people, if us singing about surrendering to God doesn’t result in people having clean water to drink, or if we disconnect our worship to become something disembodied, then we’ve missed the point,” Gungor states, noting that in many concerts and services, “you have all this surrender and people saying, ‘God I want to join you in what you’re doing in the world.’ Having an avenue right there for people to do that is a really good thing.”
That sense of reality and groundedness makes its way to the band’s songwriting. First single “Giving It All” was inspired by a conversation Michael had with a former addict, working at a homeless shelter. “I wanted to write a song for guys like him, a song for those of us who acknowledge that we can’t do it by ourselves,” he notes. “This song is a cry of surrender from desperate, broken humanity searching for just a drop of something real.”
“Ancient Skies” is a reworking of Psalm 68, keeping the sentiment and the wonder of the Biblical language while providing a rich sonic backdrop in keeping with the band’s myriad influences.
“White Man,” which may turn heads by its bluntness, is nothing more than an acknowledgement that God is bigger than whatever ill-fitting cultural box many may try to place Him in. “We’ve often lost focus on God by creating our own images of him,” Michael Gungor notes. “People have done that throughout history. Whether that’s through a golden cow or the images of God that we create in church, it’s just a song to remind us that we try to do that and try to break out of that.”
Lately Michael Gungor has broken out of his preferred habitat, his local church, in order to tour. “I love traveling and recording but it’s peripheral to real life,” he notes. “It’s just the fruits of what I’m passionate about.” But soon the band will be back in Denver, plugging deeply into the community it’s helped foster. “Every week we’re inspired by something else,” he observes. “And again, the music is coming out of the local context. It feels more real, like there’s flesh and blood associated with these songs.”