Jon Thurlow is a worship leader at the International House of Prayer in Kansas City. Recently, after the release of his album, Stand In Awe, we had a conversation with Jon to hear his story, and learn how God has worked in his life. Our conversation was both challenging and encouraging as we discovered the cure to a musician’s writer’s block, the source of energy that fuels a passion for worship, and the power that prayer can make. Whether you’re a worship leader, pastor, volunteer, or just vaguely connected with faith and worship, we know you’ll find this to be a compelling and God-focusing interview.
Prayerful Praise: Interview with Jon Thurlow from IHOP
Sharefaith: Apparently, there was a point in your life where you felt that God wanted you to write songs, but your heart was too full of other things. There may be other potential songwriters and worship leaders who have this same experience — they have a desire to express their adoration in song, but find it difficult to create those lyrics and music. What was your experience in overcoming this difficulty?
That was a really significant time in my history with the Lord. It happened back in late 2005. I had been about a year at the House of Prayer here in Kansas City. When I first showed up at IHOP, I was backslidden and knew it. I had pulled back from the Lord, and I felt like I had let the Lord down. I had been pretty fiery in late high school, but it faded during college.
I knew, though, that when we stumble into sin, or make mistakes, or just have difficulties, we have to make a definite switch. We have to decide to run to the lord instead of just drifting away. Unfortunately, in my immaturity, I ran away. I pulled back from spending time with the Lord in His word and prayer.
Instead of seeking the Lord, I filled the void in my life with media. I’ve always gravitated towards the arts, so I filled my time with movies and music. In and of themselves, these weren’t negative, but for me, the amount was excessive. It didn’t matter if the content was good, bad, or ugly. I was just trying to numb the pain I was feeling.
In the midst of this, I showed up to the IHOP with a lot of compromise in my life. About a year into that time, I felt an impression from the Lord — that gentleness with a firm hand — just a comment, “Son if you stay on this road you’re on thin ice.” That night, I felt like the Holy Spirit was highlighting the film and music consumption that characterized my life. I felt like the Lord was saying, “If what you’re watching or listening to isn’t pushing you into me, or into the heart of God, then you need to let go of it.”
I knew it was kind of a divine moment. I knew that there was a window to break free from the rut I had been in. I decided to go for it. It was scary. It was hard, but I just felt like this was from the Lord. So I did.
Within three weeks from that point, I clearly remember sitting down at the piano one day. In a ten minute period, I got pretty much a complete song — melody, lyrics, chorus, everything. I had been trying to write songs for years, and all I could come up with were some melodies. I was having such a hard time with lyrics. But that night, the music and lyrics came together in a ten minute period.
Eventually, I recorded that song, and it ended up on an IHOP compilation. Then, in a six month time I had five or six songs, and went into the studio that summer to record. At that point, the weight of what was happening really hit me: “Wow. I’ve got these songs and I’m recording them!”
A year previous, I thought it would never happen. After this all took place, I was having a conversation with the Lord, and I felt Him saying, “Let’s look at the past six months. What’s been different in your life?” I connected the dots. When I got rid of that music and media, the songs started to come.
God said, “I’ve been trying to pour songs into you for a while, but your heart was full of the world and the spirit of the age from all the stuff you were watching and listening to.” When God helped me pull away from those things, he created space on the inside for pouring in those songs.
That’s an awesome testimony. God wants to empty us of junk before he can fill us with his power. And when he does, that blessing flows to others as it has in the case of your music ministry. Now that God has been using you to write more songs, how do these songs come to you? Tell us how a song is born.
Typically, it will happen in one of two ways. The first way would be during one of our worship sets at the prayer room at IHOP. Each worship set is about two hours. In that two hours, there’s room to linger and do instrumental parts — kind of improvise. So a lot of songs have come out of those reflective moments.
Often, a chorus will start to develop. Some of my most popular songs came out of those more spontaneous moments.
The second way would be just either at home or in the car. The way I do it is I intentionally try to come up with a melody. That’s just my approach. For me, starting with the melody is most natural. Once the melody is established, I develop words that fit.
I had a composition professor who changed the way I thought about writing music. He said, “If you really want to be creative, try to get away from your instrument.” That was whole new idea. I always thought that the way to write a song was to just pick up your guitar or piano, and start chording and playing around. But he explained that we should get away from our instruments, and try to hear melodies in our head. The problem with writing with your instrument is that you fingers are naturally going to patterns, familiar chords, etc. But when you listen to music in your head, it becomes more creative.
These days, I intentionally try to get alone, to get quiet, and to just listen for melodies
You spend many hours every week — leading worship with a team of singers and musicians. How do you sustain this level of work and worship without burning out or wearying of it?
That’s a really great question. The first and the most powerful reason is an intentional effort to simply connect with the Lord.
There is so much competing for my attention. I’m leading. I’m playing. I’m singing. I have a team to manage. I have to be aware of leading them. I’ve got people in the room or watching on the web stream.
But if I’m not internally coming with the eyes of my heart looking at the Lord and singing to the Lord, it’s empty. I try to picture that throne room scene described in Revelation when I’m leading. That’s a real place! That scene is real! What’s happening around that throne room is real! There’s non stop worship going on. The creatures are continually saying, “Holy, holy, holy!” There’s thunder, and lighting, and music.
I’m trying to tap into that prayer meeting up there. If my heart can connect with what’s happening up there, then I know my heart is engaged with reality. I’m not just singing to the air. I’m singing to Jesus.
Of course, this takes effort. Every day is a new day. There’s real life to deal with. I may be feeling happy, excited, sad, or discouraged. But whatever I’m feeling at the moment, I know that I must intentionally worship Christ, sitting at the right hand of the Father in the throne room. When that starts happening, the worship flows.
On a personal level, that’s what keeps it fresh. You can only sing “How Great Is Our God” so many times before you get to a point where that song in and of itself doesn’t keep you energized. You’ll get tired of it. But if I’m really singing it to God, it will never get old.
In October, you released your latest album Stand in Awe, featuring some of your songs like, “Have the Glory,” “Take Your Place,” “Simple Conversation” and others. It’s already garnering solid reviews and a great reception. Tell us the story of how this album came together.
This is the first time I’ve recorded with a record label. When I was talking about the idea of an album, I was assuming that I would do a studio project again. But someone suggested recording live. It made sense, because that’s mostly what I do in the prayer room. It’s live music. I’d never done a live album, even though the nature of what I do in my vocation is live.
That’s how it turned out that many of the songs were written in a live setting. I always do them in a live setting. It felt like a natural fit, and really came together.
Sharefaith: Through the ministry of Jon Thurlow and IHOP, millions of lives have been touched by the truth. Jon’s melodies and lyrics blend together with an obvious sound of worship, making them in essence singable prayers.