Working for Justice and Persistent Prayer Go Hand-in-Hand, Says Worship Leader Jon Thurlow
A lifestyle of worship and prayer inspires Kansas City songwriter Jon Thurlow and his wife in their stand for life — including advocating for orphans close to home.
Days ago, as millions gathered in the icy cold of New York City to ring in the new year, another group met 1,200 miles away to celebrate. They were also dancing with their hands raised as music blared, much like in Times Square. Rather than partying on alcohol, though, these young adults were gathered to worship the Lord.
More than 17,000 people came together in Kansas City for the 15th annual OneThing Conference on December 28-31, hosted by the International House of Prayer of Kansas City (IHOPKC) at the Kansas City Convention Center. They came to join in worship with believers nationwide and hear from Christian leaders who shared testimonies and taught from the Scriptures.
Event speakers included church planter Francis Chan, Bible teacher Mike Bickle, evangelist Todd White, seminary teacher and The Stream contributor Dr. Michael Brown and author Dana Candler. Worship artists Brian and Katie Torwalt with Jesus Culture in Sacramento, California led alongside several IHOPKC musicians.
One of those opening the sessions in song was Jon Thurlow, who had just released his latest worship album Different Story. He has served on full-time staff with the prayer ministry since 2004. In our interview, Thurlow shares about the recent large-scale event, how he sees worship and justice linked, and why adoption is a vital part of standing for life.
When Thousands Gather for One Purpose: Jon Thurlow Interview
The Stream: You and your team just wrapped up the OneThing Conference in Kansas City. What was unique about this year’s gathering?
Jon Thurlow: This year was really special. The worship team is where I lead within IHOPKC. Our prayer and worship leaders agreed upfront to be intentional to do what we do in the prayer room during the main stage sessions at OneThing.
Let me explain that a little. In our prayer room in south Kansas City, we do two-hour worship and prayer meetings back to back to back. Night and day, it never stops — it just keeps going. We’ve been doing that since 1999 here at the missions base. Oftentimes we take a Scripture passage and do a two-hour musical Bible study as a team. We dig into the passage and isolate phrases from it. We sing it. We repeat the phrases, paraphrase some and cross-reference with other verses. It’s coming together as musicians and connecting with the Lord through the Scriptures.
To incorporate that element into a larger corporate worship setting led to a real flow. We had our spiritual antennae, so to speak, raised up. We asked the Lord in the moment: God, what are you saying? What’s on Your heart right now? What’s the Word that You are wanting to emphasize?
We experienced a unity of team ministry during the sessions, both the worship and teaching. We just did what we do at the prayer room down at the conference. We’re about coming together, two or more, and touching the heart of the Lord. That really came through in Francis Chan’s message.
Chan was talking about how we come to church with our cultural expectations. These evaluations go through our heads sometimes: Is this worship going to be “good” this morning? Is the message? That is so normative in our culture. He debunked that by breaking it down. He said, “Wait a minute: this is really about coming together as believers to connect with Jesus. He is all we need.” If that’s happening, there’s not going to be anything greater or more powerful than that. It sent some shockwaves through the room when he was speaking.
I also love what Stuart Greaves taught. He carries so much in his heart about the revelation of the beauty of Jesus. Stuart shared how that relates to justice, even currently in our nation regarding the racial divides. I believe people were impacted.
The Heart of Worship — and Justice
The Stream: Your new album Different Story marks your first time recording with Nashville producer Brown Bannister. He’s known for his work with MercyMe and Mandisa, among others. Was it a change from your other records?
Thurlow: It was a big shift. My previous albums have been either live worship or a raw, unplugged vibe. I had explored that raw, acoustic sound over several albums, so I was ready to change it up.
Brown Bannister connected with our ministry a few years back and began to record some of our worship artists like Misty Edwards and Laura Hackett Park. I knew a project with Brown would be more polished and professional, and I was cool with that. I was ready to get into the studio and make it more pop, in a sense.
Sometimes in the worship world, we can have a negative spin on the term pop because of our culture. But when I think pop music, I think catchy and singable by a broad audience. Pop is short for popular. I love the pop music style, so I was excited to take worshipful content that connects the listener to the heart of Jesus and put it in a format that is more polished and catchy.
Worshiping the One Who Cares
The Stream: The album includes a new version of your worship chorus “Shout Your Name.” You sing an interesting refrain directed to God: “No one wants to make things right more than You.” How do you see worship linked to justice issues?
When we sing to the Lord, we should be declaring what He’s like — His name and His nature. We’re coming into agreement with who He is.
Thurlow: “Shout Your Name” originally came from a place of wrestling with a physical challenge that my wife was working through. She’s struggled with chronic pain over the last several years in a heightened way. When you contend in prayer for healing and don’t see results immediately, the disappointment is real. It’s a place of wrestling with the Lord.
Building that song, this truth struck me: “No one wants to make things right more than God.” It’s true of who the Lord is. Whatever the issue is — whether it’s physical pain or a justice issue like human trafficking or abortion — the Lord is very clear in the Scriptures how He feels about the oppressed, overlooked, marginalized and abused.
There’s no gray area for the Lord with those things. He cares about making wrong things right. He will make them right in time. Sometimes He breaks-in in the moment, but sometimes it happens over a process. That phrase is applicable in many different contexts. To be able to take His heart for justice and put it into song, that is worship.
When we sing to the Lord, we should be declaring what He’s like — His name and His nature. We’re coming into agreement with who He is. Lord, You care about this stuff more than we do. Justice and worship are not two disconnected realities. They go hand-in-hand. From the Lord’s perspective, it’s one thing and one idea.
Standing for Life and Adoption
The Stream: You and your wife are adoption advocates. Could you share about your ministry together and how your family has expanded lately?
Thurlow: I grew up in an adoptive family. I wasn’t adopted myself, but my parents began adopting when I was in my teens. I have two siblings who joined our family from the nation of Haiti. Then I have two siblings who were adopted from within the U.S., who are African American.
When my parents began that process, I recall being 14 years old. My mom and dad sat my sister and me down and said, “Hey guys, here’s the plan and what we’re going to be doing.” I remember thinking, This is going to be so much work! Why are we doing this? Diapers, bottles — so much work?! In my young, immature, unsanctified, little mind, that was all I could think about.
But I’ll never forget when my parents walked off the airplane carrying my little sister, who was six months old at the time. She was seeing a new nation for the first time after flying from Haiti. Even in my immaturity at that stage in my life, the idea hit me really hard. This is a person. This is a real life we’re talking about. You can’t put a price on a life.
The whole idea of the work and hassle just went out the window. It really did. That’s where my own heart for adoption began. As for my wife, in college she began to go overseas to Russia on her summer breaks with a missions organization. She would work among the fatherless in Russia for months at a time during the summer. The Lord really began to stir her heart for the fatherless in that season.
When she and I met and married, adoption was something that was in our hearts. My wife really carries a heart for the fatherless in America. In the evangelical church, when most people hear the words fatherless or orphan, the first thing that comes to our minds is orphans in Africa or in eastern Europe. That’s not a bad thing! That’s good, we should be thinking about those kids and those nations. We should be thinking about the babies in China that barely made it out of the womb. We should be adopting from those nations.
But if we limit our view of the fatherless to those environments, that’s not a complete picture. Most of us in any given U.S. city can actually take a five-minute drive and find what’s today called a residential treatment facility. You will find 50 to 100 kids living in these group homes. They’ve been pulled from their families because of abuse or drugs or whatever. They don’t have parents. They’re so close to home, right in our own backyards.
So we don’t have to get on an airplane and travel 5,000 miles to touch the fatherless. We can walk down the street and actually affect the lives of these kids who are right here in our own nation. Let’s not stop what we’re doing in those other nations, but add to that. We’ve worked to get that message out to the church in America for several years now.
As of about a year ago, my wife and I entered a whole new world because our daughter was born. This mom-and-dad life is totally new to us. Now we’re figuring out diapers and bottles and sleep — how to make it all work! In the process, we’ve fallen so in love with our little girl. We’re so blessed by her life and the joy that she brings. She loves hugs. She has lots of smiles and energy. She makes us laugh all the time. We’re having a blast with her.
We desire to adopt in the future. The Lord has put that in our hearts, and we’re trusting Him with the timing.
Prayer and Pro-Life
The Stream: You spoke earlier about pro-life prayer as a justice issue. As you may know, the 45th annual March for Life is coming up in Washington, D.C. Why is it that the prayer movement has been so involved in the pro-life cause?
Thurlow: One thing the prayer movement has taken hold of is the revelation of Jesus as a judge. In many circles in the Body of Christ — and I’ll include myself in that, for many years — that idea of Jesus as a judge has had negative connotations.
Scripture speaks about how the Lord is a father to the fatherless. He’s an advocate for the widow, orphan and oppressed.
We’ve so emphasized salvation by grace through faith, which we should because that’s biblical. But I feel we’ve swung all the way over to: It’s all about grace. Yes, it is all grace; I’m not minimizing that. Yet in our embrace of the God of grace and love, we forget what the Bible teaches. He is also a God of justice. He carries it all. He doesn’t suspend one attribute for another.
The church has sometimes overlooked the heart of Jesus as a judge. This judge isn’t a mean, angry God waiting to squash us. That’s not what the Bible talks about when it speaks of the Lord as a judge. Scripture speaks about how the Lord in His holy habitation is a father to the fatherless, as in Psalm 68. He’s an advocate for the widow, orphan and oppressed.
When you think about all the injustice in the earth right now — specifically, in this case, abortion — you have a people group who don’t even have the chance to speak for themselves. Their lives are just being taken away from them. The Lord sees them. He is a God of justice. He cares about these kids that we as a nation are discarding.
It gives us great sobriety when we see our nation has the blood of millions of babies crying out from the ground. The Scriptures are really clear: that’s a big deal to the Lord. When there are leaders in our nation who are not taking a stand for life, the Lord takes that seriously.
We want the Judge to come and bring justice, to actually save these lives. That’s what He longs to do also for human trafficking victims, for orphans — in the third world and here in America. We’re calling on Him to break in, intervene and spare the lives of these kids. That’s His heart. The Lord is always for life.
Jon Thurlow’s album Different Story is available online including iTunes and Amazon. As part of the March for Life, several faith-based groups are co-hosting a prayer gathering called OneVoiceDC on Thursday evening, January 18. Watch for part two of this interview coming soon.