Worship leaders Aaron Luttenegger and Cody Jensen talk about the culture that has birthed a Midwest worship movement.
It's been more than 100 years since First Evangelical Free Church of La Crosse was founded, but in many ways, the church is behaving like a brand new movement.
Now known as First Free Church, the Wisconsin-based gathering of believers has exploded with new believers and the spiritually curious in recent years. And in the midst of the many stories and displays of God's presence there, a community of service-minded psalmists have risen up to put songs to their life in faith.
The result of that is the nationwide debut of First Free Music, titled Awake / / Alive, full of songs that are making connections at the global, local and individual levels. I asked the two main worship leaders, Aaron Luttenegger and Cody Jensen, to share a little bit about their community and the strong songs that have emerged from it.
Talk about how this collective got started.
Aaron: FFM began unofficially back in 2015, after First Free Church launched a satellite campus in Winona, Minn. I came on as the worship leader, and also a part of the build-out and first six months of services that were held. During that time, I recruited and searched for musicians to help pull it all off. God, in His crazy goodness, provided a motley crew of young adults that quickly turned into a family. Early in the following year, I returned to the main campus in Onalaska, WI, along with the team I assembled, and I assumed the role of Worship Arts Pastor.
June 2016 -- enter Cody Jensen. I met Cody out at a worship leader retreat in South Lake Tahoe, CA that previous Fall. Turns out he was also from WI, so a few months after the retreat, I asked if he wanted to move to the area and take the now open Worship Pastor position at our Winona campus. Cody and I started casting vision for what we wanted to do to cultivate the slowly burning worship culture in our area. We wanted to give a voice and a language to our church by writing our own songs, and just continuing to walk in boldness and authenticity with what the Lord had put in front of us.
To encourage, empower and equip our own team of 100+ worship arts volunteers, my wife Elizabeth (who serves alongside me as a worship leader and songwriter) and I have been opening our home every month for a team night we call "Worship Community." We have a feast, teaching, prayer, worship, and then break out sections for each instrument or volunteer group. This has erupted, and now is a foundational part of cultivating our worship culture at First Free Church. Our worship arts section leaders are also the people who played the parts on the record; together, we lead the break out sessions for each instrument, tech, and vocal group at Worship Community, where we continue to build upon our skills and artistry.
What is the worship culture like at your church?
Aaron: It's shifting and growing. We have a big group of new believers constantly coming through the doors, and a really big group of folks who have been very religious for their entire lives but have just recently truly experienced the freedom of Jesus, or are right on the brink of doing so. The first group has no idea how much freedom they truly have to worship. And the second group has seen the freedom, but might still be afraid to walk in it.
Our goal is to create an atmosphere that invites these groups, and all the others represented, to come together and encounter the one true Living God in absolute boldness and freedom. We want to foster, teach, and steward this authenticity. We believe that over time, the worship culture and freedom we are building in our own Worship Arts Community will continue to spill over and ignite First Free Church as a whole.
Cody: Worship Culture at First Free for me looks like awakening. We're seeing this new depth and intimacy with God like we haven't seen before and I think it's growing. I think people are just starting to taste and see, and when you get even just a glimpse of God, you just want more.
Your church is more than 100 years old; how does that heritage carry on today?
Aaron: It all started in a prayer tent about a hundred years ago with some really dedicated servants and prayer warriors. Since 1914, First Free has grown to more than 2,500 attendees, and we are still growing. The goal and vision remains the same: to reach lost and broken people in our community and introduce them to Jesus.
What are some things God is doing at your church, and how did those experiences find their way into your music?
Cody: The season I was in personally had a lot of weight and intensity to it, and Bobby McFerrin-esque "Don't Worry, Be Happy" type worship songs weren't cutting it for me--not to write or to sing. So what spilled out in a lot of writing was pointing out some aspect of life being touched by a fallen world and singing some kind of truth into it.
We have some brutally honest songs like "Trust," "Breathe," or "My Hope" that are pretty direct in setting up a very real human place and do a good job of injecting truth into them. I think overall it's refreshing to a lot of people to sing lines like "When my heart is overwhelmed / when all I know is fear and doubt" followed by biblical truth because it causes people to be verbally authentic before the Lord, and hear from Him how who He is and what He says impacts their lives. It's a very Davidic way of writing and worshipping. Not every Psalm is rainbows and candy. There is a lot of darkness, fear, and confusion, even. But if there is one constant in all of those Psalms, it's a confidence and assurance in the word and character of God.
Aaron: People are broken. I am broken and I'm a mess. If I don't tell you that, my wife certainly could! But the beauty of it all is that there is a God who is able to take brokenness and turn it into beautiful things for His redemptive purposes. With humanity comes real pain, loss, and struggle, so our music doesn't shy away from the reality of this. We want to acknowledge and wrestle with the questions we all face, and then shift the focus back to His character and redemptive purpose.
"Oh Taste and See (Psalm 34)" is an invitation to taste and see goodness of the Lord. The line in the bridge: "It's no longer I who live / but Christ who lives in me / to You I lift my praise / the One who sets us free" comes out of Galatians, and is also a corporate response from First Free. The simplicity of the song has become an anthem in this season of what God is doing here. His kids are simply shouting out His goodness, in response to whatever the world throws at us. There's so much power in that.
"Trust" came out of us singing and prophesying over ourselves and our situations. Like David told the Father that all he wanted was to dwell with Him, the line in the chorus says, "I will dwell in the house of the Lord / I will dwell in you / I will Trust you Lord / In my darkest hour / I will Trust you Lord / even in the fire / Oh my soul rejoice and know that the Lord is good." Cody could speak to it more in regards to what was going on in his life at the time, but we were all in a very similar season where we realized we needed to sing trust in the Father over ourselves, and even ask Him to teach us how to do that.
The concept and title for Awake / / Alive came from wrestling with the idea of what it really means to live freely out of our identity in Jesus. It took around six months to fully flesh the title song out, but what we're getting at is this: We're alive and breathing, but are we really awake to the movement of God in our midst and the guidance and the direction of the Holy Spirit?
We wanted to prompt the question "are we just 'halfing' it when it comes to walking out our lives with Him, or are we digging in and pressing deep?" That's where the chorus line--"Because of Your Love / You've broken every chain that was holding me / Because of Your love / no I can't stay the same I'm forever free"--comes from. We aren't the same creation when we say "yes" to Jesus, and like Jesus told His disciples, that "yes" comes with a mandate to go and do and experience powerful things in His name.
Who makes up this group?
Aaron: There is a core group of us that wrote and recorded "Awake / / Alive":
Aaron Luttenegger - Vocals, Guitars, Bass, BGVs, Writing
Cody Jensen - Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Writing
Elizabeth Luttenegger - Vocals, BGVs, Writing
Justin McGrath - Guitars, Bass, Writing
Peter Jantz - Bass
Cody Gasser - Piano, Synths, Arps
Carson Cox - Drums, Percussion
Jordan Swift - Drums
The record is only really a small piece of what FFM is. At the heart, it's a collective of more than 100 passionate musicians, songwriters, worship leaders, and creatives who are radically on fire for and seeking the heart of Jesus. There are too many names to list here, and we are so thankful for everyone who's a part of the collective and the worship movement in this area.
What is your songwriting process like? Do you all write, and if so, do you all write together?
Aaron: A major part of creating is gathering up what inspires you, and what's already inside of you and letting that overflow. I'm a firm believer that everyone has a story that only they can tell. The question is: what's that story? What's the thing that God put in you that you have to tell? The next thing to decide is: what is going to serve the song? Should this song have a guitar hook here, or a four on the floor kick there?
I don't want to just write a catchy tune, I want the song to be structurally sound, have a thematic progression, outstanding dynamics, and communicate a clear message.
From a technical songwriting standpoint we do mostly co-writes. For Awake / / Alive, they were all co-writes. We really value intentionality with our approach to creating songs. We meet weekly and workshop melodies and lyrics (of course each of us are writing outside of that time throughout the week), and we come together and to workshop and polish song ideas that each of us bring to the table. That approach might not work for everyone, but it seems to be working well for us in this season.
Myself and Justin McGrath had started working on a song called "Forever You Are God" early on, and then a few months later when Cody moved to our area, we all continued writing more songs and spent the rest of the year workshopping and polishing our writing. We cut several songs for the record that weren't quite there yet, and we ended up moving into the production phase in my home studio.
Cody: This is really the first time any of us had really written much, so the process ebbed and flowed, eventually finding its footing and rhythm. We discovered collaboration is an excellent tool, and I'd argue all of us would admit that all of our individual songs and ideas were only enhanced by other hands getting involved. Embracing humility is huge.
By releasing your music to a larger audience, what do you feel God is leading you to do outside your church?
Aaron: Anything is possible. We just want to steward and honor whatever God puts in front of us. If that's a usual weekend service at our home church, a worship night at a bible camp, or any other doors He opens, we just want to be good stewards and honor Him in it.
How would you describe your sound? What is unique about what FFM brings to the table?
Aaron: I'm actually not sure how to describe "our sound" yet. I think that's something we are still figuring out as we write more and develop what we're doing as a collective. I think the cool thing about music is the way it gets transmitted and built upon generation to generation. We want to be inspired and then continue push the boundaries we find sonically and lyrically.
I think the kinds of sounds that are being produced right now are amazing. I think of guys like Jeremy Riddle and John Mark McMillan, and I get super inspired by hearing what they are introducing and experimenting with. Our sound on Awake / / Alive is pretty heavily guitar-driven; there are lots of hooks and melodies there. But there's also a lot of synth and ambient pad textures doing some of the driving.
The unique thing FFM brings is the worship sound of the upper Midwest. There isn't really a lot out here happening in terms of a worship culture in our region, so FFM gives a voice to the beautiful things happening in our church and region and puts the midwest on the map in that way.
Cody: We're certainly a collective of inspirations and sounds, which makes for a beautiful flavor. I wouldn't say FFM has a "sound" yet, and maybe we never will. You're a bad creative when you settle. So I suspect our next project to sound different, because by then we'll be different people.
Most of our writers are guitar players, so it'd be safe to assume guitar-based tunes with be a standard, but we have enough influences and millennial hatred of definition to where our "sound" will be experimental and ever variable. Part of the idea behind FFM is to encourage creatives to speak with there voice that God gave them, and there are A LOT of different kinds of voices. That's the exciting part about music. All of it is worship, and all of it reaches a wide variety of people.
You have a tour section on your website. Is that something you've done a fair amount of, or are ramping up to do in the future?
Aaron: Recently we have been getting out of our region more, but we haven't done any full-on touring yet. It's something we would like to do to help spread the word about our release, and it also would be a great way to minister outside our region. So yes, we are considering it for the future. We're happy to go wherever and be a part of whatever God has for us. But really there is nothing more special and beautiful than loving and serving your local church.
What are some things God is showing you all as a collective in this new season?
Aaron: Love first, ask questions later. Vulnerability is necessary for unity. His heart values us and our faithfulness to Him over that of our impact. The goal is always encounter with Him; I want to be a part of creating on-ramps for others to be swept up into encounter with Him.
Cody: There's a line that sticks out to me that a character speaks in C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle. This group of people and creatures have reached this paradise. There is this eagle that flies high above them that constantly says the phrase, "Further up, and further in." That's the challenge and invitation I feel from God for this season.
We've seen great breakthrough, and seen the ground start to be broken up and become more fertile, but we can't stop. We can't abandon what's got us to this point. We got to keep diving deeper into Him. The best part is He has no end. We can just keep going deeper and deeper with Him.
What's next for you guys?
Aaron: Since the release of Awake / / Alive, we have been continuing to write new songs, and we are sticking with that original conversation and vision when all this started: "What is God saying to FirstFree Church and how can we partner with Him in it?"
Cody: I'd say next is more writing, discipling, and engaging with each other and the church. We're still growing and looking to grow more. We're excited about what's around the corner!
How can we be praying?
Aaron: Pray for our region. It truly is a region that can get tricked into believing a legalistic and religious mentality, or the concept that "I have to make myself presentable and worthy of God's love before He will accept me or desire relationship with me." That's a lie that the enemy has been whispering in our ears for a long time, but the truth is that Jesus said, "Come all who are weary... and I will give you rest." Jesus is the goal, He does the work in us, He does the repairing and restoration. That job isn't on us. There is an authority in that, an authority that we and many generations before us have been praying for for many years. It's the same thing that Paul is getting at in Ephesians 3:12, where he writes, "because of Christ and our faith in Him, we can now come boldly and confidently into His presence." So we covet your prayers for God to continue to break the chains of legalism in our region.