On the corner of Chestnut and Main in historic downtown Washington, Pa., Sean Feucht (pronounced “Foit”), founder and director of the Burn 24-7 movement, tries to fit music equipment, suitcases and product into the back of a Hyundai Santa Fe after a concert. His Trailblazer, roomier by a good foot, broke down on the way in; the Santa Fe, which manifested somehow out of the thin air of providence, is the new ride, but some of the band members are beginning to get pessimistic as the trunk fills up and the boxes keep coming. “I spent years living on the road. Room for days!” Feucht assures them as he stuffs five or six books into a crevice between a box and a wheel well.
Feucht is wearing Tom Sawyer rolled jean-shorts and flip flops on one of the first nice nights of spring in Southwestern Pennsylvania. He’s constantly pushing the ringlets of his trademark chest-length blonde hair out of the way as he fills the trunk as quickly as possible. Changing vehicles is a hassle, to be sure, but Feucht doesn’t seem to mind it: he’s jovial even though he’s got a long ride through the night and an early gig the next day. The band talks music in soft light of the church marquee, and spirits are high despite the setback.
This is Washington, Pa., and it’s just a stop on Feucht’s pre-release tour for his new album, Messengers (scheduled for release May 29), between Harrisburg, Pa., and Washington, D.C., two larger venues. In fact, Washington is not exactly on the way, but Feucht thought it an opportunity to touch base with a local Burn chapter, even though it meant a few more hours driving.
But the very essence of the Burn 24-7 movement is that worship will sprout up in the most out-of-the-way places. Sean travels to these places so frequently that his voicemail must update callers where in the world, very generally, he is: “Thanks so much for calling Sean’s phone, I am back in the country…” And while he has been to his fair share of tourist cities, Feucht’s real passion is to bring worship to the places where most people either can’t — or won’t — go.
Recently Feucht was in Slovakia leading worship in a town that borders crisis-riddled Ukraine. He flew from Denmark to Budapest, Hungary (the closest he could get by plane), and then took a four-hour car ride through the mountains. He arrived just in time for a sound check, lead worship for a few hours, slept for a few hours, then at 4 a.m. jumped back in the van that brought him for a return trip back through the mountains to catch his flight.
“Normal people don’t want to do that and I don’t blame them,” Feucht says. “But there are so many places like that around the world, man,” he tells me. “We’ve been to some pretty gnarly places, not as a feather in our cap, but just places as a frontier.” Feucht leads worship in large, well known venues, like Bethel in Redding, Ca. But he sees an element of hunger and sincerity in what he calls “frontier” places; this reminds him why he’s doing what he’s doing. Those places include Iraq during the height of the conflict, Afghanistan right after 9/11, and North Korea. “The brightness in their eyes pulls out love for Jesus again,” he says. “It reminds you how familiar you are. You should have seen these guys in Slovakia; they didn’t want to stop.”
Burn 24-7 as a movement is nearing its eighth year, and has grown to more than 120 cities worldwide, and countless thousands involved. Feucht mentions to me a recent Burn event somewhere in Northern India that had about 5,000 people in attendance, somewhere near Mumbai, he says. But it’s by far not the largest gathering, and the details evade him; he’s lead so many gatherings in so many places that it’s impossible to keep track. Tonight, he played in a church that used to be a theatre, which is fitting for Feucht. Transformation and reclamation are his wheelhouse themes, the stuff that he just can’t get enough of.
“Just last week in Geneva,” he tells the crowd in between songs, “the only place we could hire mid-week was a porn theatre.” After clarifying that porn wasn’t playing at the time, he begins explaining why it was more than just an unfortunate necessity. Where some believers might raise a few eyebrows at the idea of putting worship in a seedy lair of iniquity, for Feucht this is another critical exercise in reclamation and redemption, repurposing a profane altar for a pure offering through the simple power of the intent and heart of the worshipper combined with the indomitable grace of God. By this redemptive logic, no dark place is taboo, and no cathedral too sacrosanct. Everything and every place must bow and bend to what Feucht calls “the most important job in the world:” worship.
“We walked into this atmosphere where this stuff was happening, and immediately begin to worship with three hundred French Swiss,” Feucht says, telling the story to the significantly smaller crowd that has gathered in Washington. “A venue that is once used for perversion in a moment is transitioned into a place where the presence of God dwells.”
At another point in the night, Feucht lifts up his cherry red Deusenberg guitar as another object lesson in reclamation. Deusenberg approached Feucht two years ago when he was leading a Burn in Germany outside of Hanover and they decided to endorse him on their website.
“I think my face is still next to John Mayer,” Feucht tells me later, laughing at the irony of being juxtaposed with an artist who is making music so very opposite of what he’s trying to do. Feucht’s picture is still on the Deusenberg (German) artists page, now sandwiched between Ryan McGarvey and Chris Cornell. Either way, Feucht revels at the thought of taking one of the most recognizable symbols of rock-and-roll and repurposing it for worship.
“We are called as worshippers and musicians,” he tells the audience in Washington, “not just to do three fast and three slow [songs] on Sunday morning. But we are called to release the song of the Lord every place we go and in every situation we’re in.”
Feucht’s new album Messengers is the fruit of precisely that kind of lifestyle. It was written on the road and in airports, little melodies that grew into anthems. And even though a lot of his music develops this way, Messengers is different.
“From a musical and production side,” Feucht says, “[Messengers is] more cohesive thematically. It doesn’t have a lot of teeth to it; it’s more spacious, ambient and organic.” Feucht explains that some of the songs have a distinct bluesy feel, and that none of the tracks were over dubbed; he wanted to maintain a vast, spacious feel to the music. But that’s not to say that the recording came easy. Some songs, like “My Soul,” took a lot of work to keep them from sounding like other albums.
“We were trying to do something fresh on [“My Soul”], we didn’t want to do the big half time Jesus Culture beat — I love those guys, they’re great friends of mine — but on that song there’s hardly any cymbals; It’s just toms, rhythmic guitar, and it has almost an old school Phil Collins, big 80’s air. It’s not your classic standard worship song. And the guys that were with me were helping me a lot; we were keeping each other accountable to go after new.”
Accountability on that level doesn’t come cheap. Feucht surrounds himself with musicians and friends that he trusts with the very heart of his music and mission. “It’s like that Walk The Line movie, where [Sam Phillips says to Johnny Cash], That’s the same song we’ve heard all the time. If you were laying in a gutter dying, what’s the last song you’d sing. Like these guys can say to me, hey that bridge sounds like every other song.”
Feucht relies on a community of artists to deliver the best possible version of the songs, a posture that is incredibly humble. “I’m super loose with my music; I’m not bullheaded. If you’re vulnerable, you can stick it,” he says.
Last year Feucht travelled more than 300,000 miles and visited over 25 nations, and he had his family in tow for a huge part of that. “These are some of the songs we were singing. The last song was kind of a lullaby to my son. “Don’t Be Overwhelmed” was written to my wife and family.” The songs reflect the range of experiences and needs that come from both having two kids and travelling to multiple time zones, to the corporate anthems that get released to nations along the way. “It’s kind of heart-on-your-sleeve; it is what it is. Half are corporate worship songs, the other half are horizontal,” he says.
“Horizontal” is Feucht’s shorthand for songs to and about people. It’s how he frames up what he sees as a major challenge for young worship artists and musicians who want to make music for and about God. Some are in a position where there is pressure to write “vertical,” or God-ward worship songs; others are making “horizontal” music about real life and people and emotions and places. And where there is any internal conflict in an artist, Feucht understands this to be a false dichotomy. “I have a lot of friends in that place, and people write what they think people want to engage in,” he says. “I want to break down people’s boxes so they feel like they can do both and they can be anointed.”
Feucht is speaking into the struggles and successes that Christian artists have had for decades. He mentions Delerious — do we write corporate worship songs or do we tour with U2? “Artists are always in a perpetual battle of what they’re called to. And i feel like it’s a battle that our generation doesn’t have to wage.” Messengers, with its lullabies and anthems, is both the messenger and the message, a single album featuring songs that share cohesive theme yet divergent origins and purposes.
While on stage in Washington, Feucht references two, nearly identical appeals found in the New Testament to sing: Ephesians 5:19, and Colossians 3:16. Both verses include a call to sing to one another (horizontal) and sing to God (vertical). That’s all Feucht needs to simply walk away from the question of this-or-that. It’s both.
That’s the good word that Feucht is bringing to small churches and porn clubs and out-of-the-way highways and byways. Watching him joyfully pack the Santa Fe, I don’t get the impression that this is about grinding the machine, pushing his latest album to boost sales so that he can record the next one. In other words, these are not the trials and tribulations of a musical artist, but of an indie missionary, a man bringing the word of the Lord in due season to a grassroots mission field, wherever they gather. And if that seems like a conflict of interest or a contradiction in terms, well for Feuchts it isn’t — he doesn’t have to choose.