05 - John Mark McMillan

I spoke to Charlotte-based singer- and platinum selling songwriter John Mark McMillan just after releasing his 6thalbum and coming off a 35 City Tour in the USA to promote it. Many are familiar with his name especially after he wrote the song “How He Loves” and everyone from Kim Walker and Jesus Culture to the David Crowder Band, and Flyleaf covered the song. Years later churches around the globe are still singing that song week after week too.  

I was impacted by John Mark’s incredible depth and tenderness – his vulnerability and profound grasp on the humanity of Jesus. I loved his thoughts on friendship and seeking out relationships with people who aren’t like us… 

There’s a potent segment of this interview on vulnerability too. 

And if you’re a songwriter or a worship leader you will be challenged to hear him speak about his writing processes, honesty in worship music – and the song story behind ‘How He Loves”… 


Here are some of my highlights from our conversation: 

Speaking about friendship and leadership – specifically with regards to the guys he tours with

“I think growing up in church I had this idea that if I was leading a team – I had to be everyone’s spiritual guide. And honestly that kind of backfired. At a point it kind of gave me anxiety. I realised one day I don’t have to be their leader – I have to be their friend. Sure, I am their boss and certain stuff needs to get done, but things got way better for us when I decided these guys are my brothers and we are working together and I am not their leader.”


“I wonder where that comes from … I know Paul talks about 10,000 guides but only a handful of fathers. And what’s the difference between the guide and the dad: the dad has to wipe your butt. When you’re a baby. The dad can’t walk away from you when you become inconvenient. I feel like there is something to that. Being a friend. Part a part of somebody’s story. Without an agenda.”

Speaking about friendship in general

“A lot of my spiritual development comes through conversations with friends… 

I think it’s really important that we open up to people who are not like us. Opening yourself up to people who are different from you. The lord has a lot to offer you from people who are aren’t like you.  

I think this is also really important – and its never easy – actually its dangerous: You have to be wiling to open up yourself and expose yourself. There is only one way to do that – its dangerous because you can get hurt.”

Speaking about vulnerability: 

“What does vulnerable mean to me? I think it means being honest. Allowing myself to be in a compromising position and in a position to be hurt. Doesn’t sound great does it… but all adventures happen in that place… All adventures require an element of chaos. I think that’s what vulnerability does – it opens you up to the chaos. We need a certain amount of order and chaos to balance your life. If you have too much order you will go insane and if you have too much chaos you just die. Vulnerability is opening yourself up to that amount of chaos.”

Can you live a life of faith – of loving and following Jesus without vulnerability? 

“You cant. The very nature of the teaching of Jesus is ultimate vulnerability. Jesus says you know that you are children of God when you love your enemies. Matthew 5. That’s a sign that you are children of God. So loving your enemies by nature is the ultimate vulnerability – wishing them well. The great act that defined Jesus’s life – allowing himself to be tortured and murdered exemplified that for us. So Jesus’s life is the life of faith and that’s very scary right and that’s the life we are called to live. Not the closed off, shut down life – but the life of adventure and pain.

Pain is unavoidable but loneliness is avoidable. You can try and avoid pain and end up lonely – that’s the most beautiful thing about Jesus. All the other gods – even up until Jesus came – even the God of the old Testament – they sit up in their place and they watch people and they play with peoples lives and watch them live and die… but then they pull back and the people suffer but the gods don’t. 

… That’s the beauty of Jesus – He fellowshipped with our pain and suffering. He didn’t avoid it the way all the other gods. 

What is often lost in our American Christianity is an escape-hatch Christianity. You pull the lever and everything is OK. The most beautiful parts of the gospel are lost in that message… its not that you say the magic spell and you are teleported to the happy place. The real beauty is that Jesus is with you through the whole process. In your worst moments you …  

You don’t have a god who won’t sympathise with you. As a believer you can’t stand and shake your fists at God because he totally experienced what you are experiencing. But the Jesus God is the one who fellowship with you in your worst moments… 

That’s where friendships are made – you don’t make them on the mountaintops – you forge them in the darkness.”

 Speaking about pain: 

“You don’t get to decide if you are handed pain. You can get smart enough to avoid stupid pain. You can decide what your pain does to you. It can either make you hard and angry or soft and empathetic. I have had rough times – difficult times but wouldn’t trade those because I see people better. I think that is the most important work of transformation that Jesus does with you - he teaches you how to see people. How do you process pain well? You learn to allow your pain to teach you how you see people better.”

About writing: 

“It’s become the work of my life. I want to write all the songs I have before I die. I am driven. It’s processing but I’m not writing for the next record. It’s become my work. I have this dream that I write a song that would last the next 100 years. I don’t know why that matters. Thinking about sowing and cultivating songs for my great grandkids to process with – to see God and love better.” 

About his song, ‘How He Loves’

 “I wrote it after a friend died in a car accident. I was in Florida, 8 hours away when it happened. I got the call. I was devastated and couldn’t sleep. I was going through my journal that night. I keep massive amounts of notes. I think I found the first part of the first verse – just that part of the song. It was new and I had played it to him before he died. I wanted to write the rest of the song from his point of view – from the point of view of someone who is dying…but of course you don’t advertise that in the song – its way to heavy. 

It’s funny how many who have lost someone have gravitated towards that song not knowing. Its really amazing – around the world – meeting people who have been able to process their pain with my words. It’s a real honour.”

Honesty and worship

“I think in life there are things that keep you alive and then there are things that make staying alive worth doing… to me worship by nature is the second. It’s not keeping you alive – it’s the reason you stay alive. But it gets so turned around. Worship songs become a utility… We get in a dangerous place when we view worship as utility. For me – if I don’t hear something honest in a song I naturally tap out. My heart can’t listen cause I can’t be bothered. You can be totally accurate in all that but if I don’t feel like you mean it, I don’t care. The danger is that insincerity breads resentment. Being insincere is more dangerous than being incorrect. The church is way too interested in how correct they are in worship but not as interested in the sincerity of the worship.”

Honesty in songwriting

“It’s important to disagree – we find the truth through all that and we find the tension in all that. How do we grow in worship songs? We need tension and we need to be challenged. We stunt our own growth. We reinforce the way we see the world. We need challenging words in our lives.” 

What’s the beautiful pursuit to you? 

Is living life fully – living a life in pursuit of the things that give life meaning not just keep you alive. 

This episodes giveaway is sponsored by CUM Books. John Mark McMillan’s first live album, is a collection of well-known anthems such as “Future/Past” and “How He Loves” as well as  “Heart Won’t Stop” and “King of My Heart”. Live performances on the record include a cast of some of John Mark’s good friends including: Kim Walker-Smith, Bryan & Katie Torwalt and wife Sarah McMillan. Both electric and intimate, this album captures the essence that John Mark McMillan has become well-known for at his shows. We are giving away 5 copies of Live at The Knight – Deluxe CD/DVD. All you have to do is rate this episode on iTunes and like The Beautiful Pursuit on Facebook.  


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