From Local Churches to Massive Gatherings, United Pursuit Keeps It Real
Born from a tight-knit worship community, the songs of United Pursuit have been heard in churches worldwide. Now frontman Will Reagan shares their journey over the past decade.
They’ve never been signed to a record label. Yet the worship collective known as United Pursuit have had their songs broadcast on The Voice, recorded by several top artists — and even won a Grammy Award for “Break Every Chain” (as performed by Tasha Cobbs).
Will Reagan and his team were among several diverse music artists at OneRace Stone Mountain, a prayer gathering of over 20,000 people in Atlanta, Ga., centered on spiritual revival and racial unity. In an interview, he shares how they began, their discovery of racial divisions, why reconciliation matters and having ears to hear.
It’s been quite a journey for these friends based primarily in Knoxville, Tennessee. Reagan, his wife Andrea Marie, Brock Human, Michael Ketterer, Nathan Fray and other team members started making worship albums in 2008. Then the release Simple Gospel, ranked by Billboard as a top Christian album in 2015, spread their distinctly improvised, fluid style to a national audience.
“Most of us come from pretty conservative church environments,” frontman Will Reagan tells The Stream. “Then we started hearing this house of prayer spontaneous worship where it goes for hours. When you run out of worship songs to sing, it’s ok to actually make something up!”
Connecting with God and Each Other
The Stream: What was the impetus for United Pursuit?
Will Reagan: It’s funny because we’re here at Stone Mountain Park. A decade ago, a friend got us this little change-over 10-minute worship set at a Christian music festival here. At the time, we thought it was the biggest deal ever. There wasn’t a band name at the time, but we had started writing songs.
We first met each other spending a summer in Mozambique at the Iris Global missions training school. It wasn’t a band. We just worshipped with a bunch of 20 year-old African pastors who were learning how to lead their churches in the bush. The first songs we ever wrote were there in that experience.
During that time, we’d had some experiences in house churches and different faith communities. We began to see God was doing something in our generation all over the world. That’s where the name United Pursuit came from. We thought we were going to make like a social-media house church website. It was just me and like two other guys at that point.
We decided to call ourselves United Pursuit for that Stone Mountain event. A decade into this, the songs have become a rally cry. It encouraged people to see that you didn’t have to have lights or stages to meet God and for community to be the priesthood of believers. We all have something to bring to the table in worship.
The Stream: It seemed United Pursuit was everywhere after Simple Gospel released. What made that project so unique?
Reagan: Simple Gospel was a culmination of maturity in our community. We all hit a sweet spot of being able to bring our best to the table. A lot of our songs are created on the spot and we end up continuing to sing it. We have always celebrated the simplicity of that.
You [don’t] have to have lights or stages to meet God and for community to be the priesthood of believers. We all have something to bring to the table in worship.
For Simple Gospel, we got in a room together and were intentional in a really fun way — though not to the point that it felt over-rehearsed. It was putting pieces together and crafting something that felt really three-dimensional. We took some of those simple choruses and fleshed out some context with verses to make it deeper.
Relationally, we had a lot of history at that point. I feel like that really shined through.
The Stream: We’re here at OneRace Stone Mountain, focused on bridging racial divides. When did racial reconciliation get on your radar as a band?
Reagan: Our mentor is a South African man in his late fifties now. He grew up in apartheid. His band in South Africa wrote a lot of socially conscious songs during that era. They got a lot of kickback about it. Then shortly after that, he felt called to come to America and get involved in the Christian music scene.
God told him that he would be alive in a day in America that would be more racially intense than apartheid in the 80s. Twenty years ago, God told him that. He’s been telling us for years that the racial tension in this country is just as bad, but no one talks about it. Everybody ignores it and pretends like it doesn’t exist.
It was always really hard to believe, honestly, when he would say that to us. Now it feels like it’s way more apparent. People are starting to voice some of the challenges going on under the surface. We all know that the election and where we’ve been the past couple years has unearthed a lot — sometimes conversation and debate that have turned tragic or violent.
One pastor speaking right before we led worship said that a gospel of personal piety unaware of justice and disconnected from the struggle of others is no gospel at all. I absolutely 100 percent believe that.
The Stream: Why is it important to grapple with these issues of race and ethnicity?
Reagan: Personally, I’ve been growing in relationships with people who are not white. It’s being able to have real conversation and understand what it’s like to be them — on a relationship level, not on a panel or event level. We transition to becoming more conscious of others.
It’s what happens when we go overseas or step into something other than white American culture. Being the only one of your culture in a room is a powerful experience. It’s shocking to think that, as white people, we don’t have to experience that hardly ever if we don’t want to.
Music, Truth and Artistic Expression
The Stream: How can music be a tool against injustice?
Reagan: Music has been a very relevant and powerful tool of social consciousness for generations. Not just Christian music, but across the board whenever songwriters are honest. Sometimes secular writers don’t have some of those filters. They’re able to have visceral experiences in relationships and be on street corners at 2am, like many musicians do.
They see things, write about it without a filter and they tell a story. Sometimes that story makes a bigger impact than what we would do if we sat down and tried to “craft” something that’s going to change culture. There’s a process in creativity where you don’t rationally craft it. You allow yourself to be affected and allow what that does to you to flow back out of you.
As songwriters, when we do that, we’re able to be voices in the wilderness, so to speak. We critique culture by saying, I see something different. I feel something different. Music has a way of just spreading and enabling peoples’ eyes to be opened, if they have ears to hear it.