How do you pick a church at college?

BY TYLER FARR

I did not think that I would find a church that I would enjoy going to when I moved to small town Iowa. Little did I know, after two years of avoiding the Orange City church scene, I would stumble into a church that I could call home.  I have not been a church goer for long, but being insecure in my faith, being comfortable around other Christians is a must in order for me to open up and embrace the community.

Orange City, Iowa is a small town with many churches. I feel like this is a common theme in the area. Being in the Midwest it isn’t a surprise, but what is special about this small town is that the city population gains an additional 1200 college students between the months of August and May. The most encouraging fact for the local churches is that the local college is affiliated with the American Reformed Church. So the real question is how do churches make themselves desirable destinations for the college students?

Over the last three years I have seen the following promotions:

  • Sunday Breakfast
  • Bible Studies
  • Sunday Dinner
  • Free coffee
  • Nursery Positions
  • Ministry opportunities with children
  • Ministry opportunities around the church
  • Supporting our Spring Service Projects
  • Host Families

While each church has had their merits when I have given in to peer pressure and gone to church, nothing has ever really kept me at a church for long. Not until I found my current church. The thing that is so special about this church is that while they have Sunday dinner, free coffee, nursery positions, ministry opportunities and host families, it is the first time that I have felt like I belong and that I am a valued member of the community. I joke with the Pastor on a weekly basis, I go to my host family’s house frequently, I work in a ministry and I go to a weekly Bible study group. So for a college student that is new in her faith, I have to say they have plenty of bells and whistles.

At the end of the day however, it isn’t the attractions that keeps me going to my church. It’s the fact that… the pastors and people know who I am, and my absence is noted when I am gone. That we can joke about what mistakes I made during service when running the projectors. I am part of a loving and supportive community that values my commitment to them. So as much as I love the bribes that college town churches throw out there. It’s the people and the environment that truly matter. They need to make us feel like we aren’t temporary, and that our spiritual and communal growth is extremely important to them. It may seem like a lot, but when you find the right church is easy. You just have to dive in with an open mind and heart waiting for God to speak to you.

 

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A Pioneer’s Journey

The story of Jack Taylor’s faith as he went from new kid on campus to national storyline

BY MICHAEL SIMMELINK

Jack Taylor found out firsthand what it’s like to receive unexpected fame as a college student. He put on his on No. 24 jersey for the Grinnell Pioneers on November 20, 2012 and scored 138 points in a basketball game. And people lost their minds.

“Put Up a Number”

You haven’t seen a style of basketball like “The System.” And before you can understand what Taylor did, you need to understand the context in which he did it. The warm-up shirts for this year’s Pioneer squad read, “Put Up a Number.” That symbolizes the attitude Coach Dave Arseneault, Sr. has for the team. If the Pioneers can meet certain statistical benchmarks, including shots taken and turnovers forced, the statistics say they have an extremely high chance of winning.

It was developed by Arseneault, (you can call him Coach A) in the late 80s. He took over a Grinnell program that hadn’t had a winning season in 25 years. He took the run-and-gun style of Paul Westhead’s Loyola Marymount teams to a whole new level – one that has resulted in Grinnell leading all of college basketball in scoring 17 out of the last 19 seasons.

Arseneault’s system involves rotating a fresh five players approximately every minute. They employ a full-court press all game. The three-point attempt is the golden egg of the system; the more attempts the better. Offensive rebounding is vitally important, and any board grabbed is sent back out for another three-point attempt. Ideally that attempt would be from the player who just missed the previous shot. Because of course it is. There’s a lot more to it, and FOX Sports Live has a video that can enlighten you further.

The System has standards that are appealing to any young basketball player, especially one like Taylor, who thrives on the offensive end of the court. Coach A plays his full 15-man roster equal minutes and encourages players to shoot the ball as much as possible. What’s not to like? Who doesn’t want to try this? Why did I use my collegiate eligibility playing jayvee soccer?

It took a while for Taylor to warm up to Grinnell. He turned down a scholarship there once after high school and once after a year in prep school. After attending the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse for a year, Taylor looked to move on once again for school in 2012-2013. Coach A wasn’t interested in being led on again, so he let his son/assistant coach Dave Arseneault, Jr. deal with throwing the bait to Taylor another time. “The third time he made it known Grinnell would be a possibility for him, I told my son he could recruit him if he wanted to,” Coach A said. “But I would not. I guess my son is a better recruiter than I am.”

“Basketball wise, I knew I made the right decision,” Taylor said. “Being an offensive player, creating [scoring chances] off my dribble, I knew I could get fit in the System.”

The Night

Taylor did indeed fit into the system, and that was no more evident than the game two nights before Thanksgiving in 2012. The season was young, but Taylor was “shooting poorly” and in a scoring nose-dive. With an obviously outmatched opponent, Faith Baptist Bible College, next on the schedule, Taylor was given the green light to shoot out of his slump.

So Taylor put the ball up. Again, and again, and again, and again. By the end of the night, Taylor had scored 138 points on 52-for-108 shooting. He was 27-for-71 from three-point range alone. Eighty of those points came in the second half. He shot the ball every 20 seconds. He scored 28 consecutive points for the Pioneers. Do you even have the ability to contemplate what those numbers mean?

ESPN interviewed him that night. He made an appearance on Good Morning America, the Today Show, and Jimmy Kimmel Live! the following day. Taylor was no longer anonymous; he was the topic of discussion in every form of media. One day he was a transfer-happy guard living in obscurity in the cornfields of Iowa, the next LeBron James wants a copy of the game footage. How does someone move forward from that point? What else could possibly be accomplished on the hardwood?

Taylor gave his best attempt to remain humble in the face of newfound fame. He plugged his faith in interviews at every chance, but the national stations never aired those segments. Taylor still came off as a good kid, constantly thanking his teammates and coaches in the ESPN interview he gave that night. A Christian though? No one would have known it thanks to big network editing.
The sheer quantity and scale of the interviews could have been intimidating for Taylor, but he was ready, or at least as ready as a college student can be for national attention.

“I wasn’t scared,” Taylor said. “I had been praying and asking God that if I got that opportunity, that I would use that platform for his glory, and not my own.” He admitted it was “hard to remain humble,” but the way he deflected praise in interviews drew the eyes of fellow Christians around Grinnell’s campus.

“By the end of the night, Taylor had scored 138 points on 52-for-108 shooting. He was 27-for-71 from three-point range alone. Eighty of those points came in the second half. He shot the ball every 20 seconds. He scored 28 consecutive points for the Pioneers. Do you even have the ability to contemplate what those numbers mean?”

Long before Taylor was the one turning heads on campus, he had to have his eyes set a different direction.

Running in transition

Basketball was the easy part. From an academic and spiritual perspective, Taylor was unsure about what Grinnell held for him. According to U.S. News and World Report, the school is known to be one of the top liberal arts schools in the nation. Taylor would receive no special treatment as an athlete. As a member of NCAA Division III, athletic scholarships are not allowed to be awarded at Grinnell.

The school is also known for being noticeably liberal in comparison to the private colleges surrounding it. Many of the students are not religious in any sense, even fewer actively practice a faith at all. Taylor was a relatively new Christian when he arrived on Grinnell’s campus. He had only become a committed follower of Christ about a year earlier when a teammate at his prep school shared the Gospel in such a way that it clicked for Taylor. He had gone to church as a kid, but it hadn’t really taken root in his life.

“I was partying, cheating on my girlfriend, really just living for myself and the game of basketball,” Taylor said. “I realized basketball had become an idol for me.”

Taylor had a conversion in the radical sense that the old self had passed away. He chose to take the experience of his past with him, but the verve of parties and thrill of new girls no longer brings him the energy it used to. That girlfriend he cheated on? They worked through it together and are tying the knot this summer.

Spreading the floor and spreading the Gospel

It could be easy to expect Taylor to split Grinnell’s campus into two sides, an “us-versus-them” mentality. The Christians being pictured as the few who must remove themselves from the negative influence of secular higher education. It’s the fear of turning into “one of them.” He doesn’t fall victim for that imagery. Mission trips over breaks and the summer don’t interest him because he sees the need to “reach the lost” on campus.

“There’s a lot of people here looking for love and looking for acceptance,” Taylor said. “It’s really challenged me to share the Gospel in a loving and accurate way.”

Taylor believed that most of the Bible studies offered on Grinnell’s campus “weren’t biblical. They looked at it through their own lens, how they wanted to see it.” This meant that instead of looking at Scripture and adjusting their lives as the Spirit lead; they chose to adjust Scripture to how they had been living. So Taylor started his own Bible study. Today, about 30 men are involved in a group called “Legacy,” which has been a chance for connection and accountability amongst the Christian males on campus.

“Legacy is a place to gather and worship and meet people that you may otherwise not have known, or not have known they were Christian,” said Morgan Kinsinger, a member of Legacy. The senior was a captain on Grinnell’s football team the past two seasons and was asked by Taylor to be a part of the Bible study. “Going to a secular school it can be difficult finding like-minded individuals, and in a tough academic environment it’s easy to push my faith to the side,” Kinsinger said.

What Taylor has helped form is a place for Christian males to gather and deal with the specific problems that face them in their outnumbered position on Grinnell’s campus.

“There’s a lot of people here looking for love and looking for acceptance,” Taylor said. “It’s really challenged me to share the Gospel in a loving and accurate way.”

A career in basketball is still an option for Taylor after graduation. He’s hoping to play overseas for a few years before untying the sneakers and putting on scrubs at medical school. He can see himself returning to Black River Falls, Wisc., the place he calls home.

“I’d like to use my platform back home . . . because our society really values sports and that gives me an opportunity,” Taylor said. “I’d like to be able to work with youth who might be living like I was. I’ll use this platform as long as God allows me.”

It is anyone’s guess how long Taylor’s record will stand. All it takes is one coach finding an overmatched opponent and a player with a hot hand, and Taylor may find himself in second place. Will people still care about the message he is sharing? When will his name fall into the pot of forgotten facts used on Stump the Schwab? Should any of that matter? The refreshing vein in this story is that Taylor believes he can have significance for spreading the Gospel outside what he has done on the basketball court. But he’s certainly not rejecting the opportunities draining three-balls has provided, and isn’t looking for that to stop anytime soon.

And maybe that’s what the other 98 percent of college students who will never be famous need to take away from Jack Taylor. Whether it’s a corner 3 or a conversation on the Gospel, the most important thing you can do is take your shot.

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Why you shouldn’t count out accountability charts

BY TYLER FARR

I’ve heard a lot of negative opinions when it comes to accountability charts. You know, the little charts that parents use to make sure that their children brushes their teeth every day by having someone put a sticker on the corresponding day? To many, these charts are considered a way of guilt tripping others into doing certain things.

We started this little scheme earlier this semester on my wing, this time it was for reading your Bible. No one was forced to participate, and we bought a ton of fun stickers. These accountability charts are displayed on the wall right outside my dorm room. So every day I walk by and see who is being consistent and who isn’t.

I have never been very good at reading my Bible since discovering my faith 6 years ago, but I have always wanted to work at getting closer to God through His word. So when we put up the chart, I signed up hoping that peer pressure would remind me to at least read a few verses a day. I know this sounds like the accountability chart that I described above, but really it turned into more of an eye opening experience to me. It isn’t a shame chart, or at least I didn’t take it that way.

The accountability chart was an eye opening experience because I got to see how inconsistent I was, and also see how my wing mates were working on their commitment to read every day with me. I did not feel shammed into reading my Bible every day, I was inspired. I could see the girls who read diligently, giving me a benchmark of where I want to be. I could see the people who, like me, struggled with finding time in the day to commit to reading. I felt more human because I could remember that not everyone is perfect, and everyone that I know is at a different stage of her faith. So no, I would not call the accountability chart a shame chart. Today I would call it inspiration, and every day I hope to call it progress because the more time I spend in His word, the more I will understand and the more that I will grow. So don’t count out the accountability chart just yet, because it could represent a whole lot more than a little bit of shame.

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Why I dress up for church

Image

Photo cred: bendthelight.com

BY MICHAEL SIMMELINK

I was raised in a conservative Lutheran church in a Midwestern town. It was expected that my sister and I dressed up to attend church. It didn’t have to be suit and tie, but there were a few simple rules we had to follow. No tennis shoes with slacks. No jeans. No t-shirts. A collar was preferred. My sister wore dresses or skirts a fair amount. She wore earrings like my mom, and I had a couple clip-on ties to be like my dad.

Then we moved to another town. Our new church had less suits and more jeans. Some of my friends would show up to church in t-shirts and ragged shorts. My parents felt the pressure and let me get on the “causal-wear” bandwagon. I used all the well-worn excuses. “It’s about what’s on the inside, not the outside; I don’t want to be materialistic; I should be able to worship in what’s comfortable.”

I realized that as my dress for church got lazier, so did my attitude on worship. I stopped taking notes on sermons. I seemed to misplace my Bible more often. More casual dress was supposed to make my worship experience more intimate, but I was simply checking out.

I found there’s something sacred in the preparation of getting ready to go to church. Maybe nostalgia has more to do with that than anything. But when you spend a little more time in the shower, make sure you didn’t miss any spots shaving, and choose to wear the best clothes you got, it means something.

When I’ve visited Haiti and had the opportunity to worship there, it’s a far cry from our evangelical circles. People who feed families off ten dollars a week come dressed up in suit and tie, flowing dresses, polished shoes, and ornamental hats. Church is a big deal to them. They know they’re entering the presence of the Lord in his house, so you give your best effort as a result. A lot of kids take their only bath of the week on Sunday morning.

But when you spend a little more time in the shower, make sure you didn’t miss any spots shaving, and choose to wear the best clothes you got, it means something.

I think they’re onto something. What we wear to church isn’t about our comfort or what “works” for us. We’re entering into the house of the Lord. We could stand to have our worship services look a little more like the veneration before the throne of God in Revelation 7, or the reverence of Levite priests in Leviticus 16. Jewish rabbis often use the phrase, “know before whom you stand.” Dress is a part of that, and we could stand to remember that more often.

 

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What should we take away from #itooamharvard?

BY TYLER FARRharvard

#itooamharvard:

The story is told on a Tumblr feed where roughly 40 African American Harvard students posted a picture of themselves holding a racial comment or stereotype that has been spoken to them. The undergraduates generated the campaign as a way to stake their claim as a Harvard student, generate discussion with classmates, and bring attention to the racial tension present on campus. The students really felt, being at a Caucasian dominated school, that while they may be a part of the student body, they are not “Harvard.” The campaign has sparked questions across other college campuses about diversity, equality, identity, and stereotypes.

How is this present on our own campuses? Do you see or feel the racial tension on your own campus that is described by these college students. Do you not see the tension and the insensitivity because you don’t want to? Do you make offensive comments? Do you make assumptions? If we are part of the dominate white culture what should we be doing? What should we be doing as a Christians? These are questions we should be asking ourselves.

 “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” Zechariah 7: 9-10

We need to open our eyes to our neighbors. We need to look at our fellow classmates with respect and not judge them based on the stereotypes that are prevalent in popular culture. We may have been blind to things that have been said, we may have been content to never stand up against something said, and we may have been complacent in our position, but no more. Everyone deserves to feel loved and welcomed in the world, no matter where they come from or what they look like. It may be a simple idea, but it is a lot harder to stand up for others and fight the world. Love your neighbor as yourself, and make anywhere a place where we can all be.

 

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Four ways to get the most out of reading your Bible

By: Michael Simmelink

How many Christians have you met that are satisfied with the time they spend reading the Bible? My guess is a miniscule percentage. Perhaps it’s even zero. It’s a tough thing to get into the Word on a daily basis, but there aren’t enough excuses in the world to make us think it isn’t necessary to healthy spiritual growth. My goal here is not to suggest what plan to follow as you read through the Bible. There’s plenty of resources out there for that. You can follow the link here and also here to check out the various ways to explore all of God’s Word. That means even Numbers and Song of Songs for all you who think the Old Testament isn’t important – you best be checking yourself.

1. Print out a plan and follow it

“But I think God speaks to me better when I just open my Bible to a random page and start reading!” Yes, sometimes God chooses to speak to people by popping out certain parts of Scripture, i.e., Martin Luther and Saint Augustine. However, it’s much more likely that you’ll stick with something if it’s written out and planned ahead. It will let you know when you’re on schedule and inevitably fall behind. Most good plans have a grace days spaced out.

2. Get accountable

It seems like everyone wants you to have an accountability partner for everything. Someone to keep you accountable for working out. Someone to keep you accountable with lust. Homework, swearing, drinking in moderation, the list can grow and grow. But it’s entirely true that these things are easier when you’re not doing it alone, so don’t make it harder than it already is. Find a friend and start on the same reading plan. Text each other questions to see if the reading has been done.

3. Set a time

Saying you’ll find time to read the Bible will not last. It just doesn’t. Set aside time in your schedule to make sure you can open the Good Book. It doesn’t have to be daily at 5 a.m., but force yourself to make the time in your schedule. After practice on Monday. In between class and lunch on Thursday. Before work on Saturday. Let your accountability partner know so they can text you at the appropriate times.

4. Have a reason to think as you read

Give yourself some questions to think about as you read each day. Steve Addison writes in “What Jesus Started” about a friend who always asked four questions of any section of Scripture: What does this teach us about God? What does this teach us about humanity? Is there a command to obey? Is there an example to follow? Simple, general, but thought-provoking and action-based questions like these give you something to think about and take away.

What consistent Scripture reading comes down to is a commitment as an individual. No one can make you be disciplined, but hopefully these tips increase your eyes’ time between Genesis 1:1 and Revelation 22:21.

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Why do Christians go nuts for board games?

Photo Cred: tinysci.com

Photo Cred: tinysci.com

BY: DAVID VOGEL

If you’ve been part of a youth group, small group, or really any sort of Christian gathering for students you’ve probably heard of board games like The Settlers of Catan. Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the interest of strategic board games, and there seems to be a good portion of that interest coming from Christians, specifically Christian students. My question is, “why?” I, too, am a lover of board games, and I am probably responsible for introducing several friends to games like Settlers, Pandemic, Carcassonne, and Dominion. (If you haven’t heard of any of those, I would encourage you to look them up.) So, I definitely understand the appeal, and I would like to suggest an idea or two as to why games like these have gained so much traction in Christian circles.

 

I think the most obvious answer is that board games bring people together in a way that no other medium of entertainment does. Being a lover of the games myself, I have no problem with inviting friends over to my house over Christmas break or to my residence hall’s lounge during finals week to kill an hour or two enjoying each other’s’ company and stopping diseases from ravaging the planet. (Check out Pandemic) When we game, we make memories and inside jokes. Sometimes tension is created, but we keep it within the game, and I think that only bolsters our friendships. I feel safe saying that from a two year long losing streak in The Settlers of Catan, and I’m still friends with the guy who routinely beats me, so have no fear. It can be done! The friends I game with are probably the closest ones I have, and these games have provided greater opportunities to just talk and hang out together.

 
The recent increase in interest in board games has also produced games to appeal to almost any person. No longer are youth groups subjected to endlessly painful games of Monopoly, Sorry!, or The Game of Life” While these games can be fun, American and European game developers have learned a lot from each other, and now games come in almost every theme, style, and strategic type. Whether you and your friends want to be firefighters working together to extinguish a burning building and save the residents, (Check out Flash Point: Fire Rescue.) or you just want to build roads, cities, farms, and monasteries by placing tiles, ( Carcassonne in a nut shell) board games have you covered. Most games have abandoned the roll-and-move style and opted for more strategic and thought provoking styles. Board games have become more dynamic and interesting over the past 10 years, and this has piqued the interests of many people, including Christian students.

 
As a lover of games, myself, I hardly ever hesitate to invite others to play. It’s possible that others seem games as an opportunity for ministry or fellowship, and these are all viable uses for something of this nature, but that’s never been the main focus of the games for me. For me, I see board games as an opportunity to have fun with friends or strangers and bond over something everyone can enjoy.

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5 ways to Survive Finals

Photo cred: ninewaysofknowing.com

Photo cred: ninewaysofknowing.com

By: Tyler Farr

One of the best things about college is that there are so many different things that you can do over the course of a school year. There are campus wide games, dances, sporting events, and random acts of fun, all of which will help you create the memories that will last you a lifetime. So, I am going to take a minute and remind everyone that as the school year comes to a close—HAVE FUN. I know that this time of year is crazy, stressful, sleepless, and even insane, but I cannot stress enough that having a little bit of fun will make the hard times better. So, here are 5 tips for finishing off the semester.

1)      Take random adventures: Is it raining outside? Grab some friends and dance in the rain. Hungry? Make a meal with your friends. While you are studying for dead week and finals just remember that the random memories are the ones you remember most.

2)      Take little breaks: Our brains can only work so hard, so if it’s taking a 15 minute nap, or watching part of a show, make sure that you break up your studying blocks. You might even be able to get some packing in.

3)      Go outside: While you might not be the most productive, being outside lets you soak up some vitamin D and makes you happier. Giving yourself a little bit of time during your study grind to be outside will make it easier to buckle down later.

4)      Have an All-Nighter: I would not suggest this the night before a final, but staying up late with a few friends studying will spark the most random and fun conversations. It is a college staple, and you might end up doing something that you will never forget.

5)      Find your study spot: Make sure you know where to go if you really have to pull up your bootstraps and study. It varies for most people, but even spending an hour a day in this spot will make you more productive.

Remember, dead week and finals week do not have to be the end of our existence. Yes, it’s hard, but you also need a little time to remind yourself that you are sane. Good luck, don’t procrastinate, and study hard!

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Seven Ways to Survive an Overload Credit Semester

By: Tyler Farr

I may be insane for overloading, but if I want to graduate in May of next year, sacrifices have to be made. This would be my sanity and my free time for the next two semesters. Between my six classes, soccer activities/workouts, and two jobs, I have to balance a lot. Twenty credits into the semester, I’ve come up with some tips to help me get through the sleepless nights and panic attacks.

1)      Space it out: Have to read a novel in a week? Break it down and be diligent. Whether it be 20 pages a day or 50, if you are sure that you do your part every day the load won’t become daunting the day before class. Like the book I have to read tomorrow…

2)      Set realistic goals: I would love to get straight A’s, but I know that most likely it won’t happen. I am going to aim for the best that I think I can do, and then adjust my standards as the semester goes on. As much as I would love another boost to my GPA, this semester is not about perfection.

3)      Have fun: Whether this be reading a good book or going out with friends, this is the key to your sanity. You will not be productive if you are brain dead, and your friends will not love you for neglecting them for four months. Do not say no to every invitation to go out, and take a break every once in a while.

4)      Exercise: I get plenty of this from my soccer workouts, but take a break and get your blood flowing. The endorphins will make you happier, and you will feel better. Morning workouts or yoga are the best because it gets your metabolism running and wakes you up without caffeine. This could be just a walk around campus, weight lifting, or even a Zumba session. You can study on the elliptical too, if you are skilled enough.

5)      Keep your favorite snack food on hand: For me it’s cosmic brownies, and the chocolate indulgence has saved me more than once from a breakdown. Do yourself the favor and make sure you have a good stock. While it is not always the healthiest solution, it sure makes you feel better.

6)      Spend time with God: For me it’s my nightly Bible reading. He will provide comfort and support when you feel overwhelmed.

7)      Minimize distractions: I have sacrificed my Netflix account and try my best to stay off of Hulu. Yes, Pinterest, Facebook, Tumblr, etc., are there just waiting for me to log on. I just have to stay away and do my best to stop myself from the hour long Facebook breaks. If you have a huge paper due, have your friend change all of your passwords. It sucks, but it is necessary.

I often fail at these tips, but I am making progress. So if you have to make the commitment to a semester that will make you want to pull your hair out, this is my suggested best practice. Good luck and happy studying. Don’t worry, your hair will grow back.

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“Rivers” runs simpler for NEEDTOBREATHE

NEEDTOBREATHE

NEEDTOBREATHE

By: Michael Simmelink

With more anticipation than ever before, NEEDTOBREATHE has released “Rivers in the Wasteland,” their fifth studio album. The guys have spent the better part of the last three years touring almost nonstop, making appearances at Bonnaroo and opening for Taylor Swift on her North American tour. 2011’s “The Reckoning” put NEEDTORBEATHE on the radar as a unique mix of gospel, bluegrass, country, and rock-n-roll that mainstream radio, Christian or secular, hadn’t given ear to.

Such a fast moving ascension to nationwide fame did not come without a price for the South Carolina natives. Through interviews with Billboard and RELEVANT magazine, the band revealed that the growth in popularity became overwhelming. Long beloved for their down-to-earth, home-grown material, the group had lost sight of their roots. Therefore, “Rivers in the Wasteland” is an album about removal of stuff that had gotten in the way. The record as whole is just so much less than “The Reckoning.” The sound isn’t as big. The songs have less instrumentation. Eleven tracks are the smallest number put on an album since 2006’s opening release, “Daylight.”

Yet it might be the tightest album NEEDTOBREATHE has put together. All four of their other records had themes or motifs, but there wasn’t necessarily a flow or reason for why songs we put in a certain order. “Rivers” is best heard with the shuffle button off. It is a record that is reflective on what the band has gone through in the past year and a half, according to lead singer Bear Rinehart in the album’s commentary. One needs to start with the opening and track “Wasteland” to understand that band was in a place of darkness and aridness. There are hints of the arena-rock feel of “The Reckoning” within the track, but it is only meant to set the stage of what is to come.

The album is split almost in half with what could be considered the wasteland portion versus the river portion. “State I’m In” and “Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now” are solid southern rock jams that keep the wasteland from feeling depressing, but Rinehart’s lyrics foreshadow something better on the way. “Oh, Carolina” is an obvious ode to home that features some of the best harmonies on the album. It’s seems like a song you’d strum on the family six-string on a porch on a summer night. I don’t know if that’s something anybody actually does, but the song evokes a hope within that it happens somewhere.

Transition finds the record in the middle with “Difference Maker” and “Rise Again.” The former very well might go down as everyone’s favorite off the album. The lyrical make-up of the song makes it extremely personal for the listener. You may not be able to relate with many of the hardships of touring in a band, but you can definitely find a connection with the struggle to realize your purpose and value in the world. The instrumentation is quite repetitive and simple, but by the last verse, it becomes hard to plainly sing along with lyrics like, “We are all transgressors, we’re all sinners, we’re all astronauts / So if you’re beating death then raise your hand, but shut up if you’re not.” Those words don’t get sung except through gritted teeth.

As the river section begins to emerge, listeners find “The Heart.” It’s currently the most prominent single from the record. Classic NEEDTOBREATHE. A track full of swinging southern rock catalyzed by catchy chorus and Bear’s gritty vocals somehow reaching a full octave higher than it should. Instrumentally, it’s one of the more complex tracks on the album.

Near the end, a listener may be tempted to pass lightly over “Brother.” I have a reoccurring nightmare this song will be tragically overlooked on the album, one of the many similarities it shares with “Preacher” off OneRepublic’s 2013 release, “Natives.” Bear and Bo Rinehart very rarely make it obvious in their music that they are, in fact, brothers, but it doesn’t get more blatant than this. The usual route to take on songs like this is a simple guitar as the siblings’ duet. Thankfully, the Rinehart boys put a little more thought into it. A choir-backed chorus and piano-centered beat makes the song more like an Elton John classic than you’d ever guess. I give it the nod as my personal favorite on the album.

On the whole, NEEDTOBREATHE went simpler in almost every way on this– instrumentally, in quantity, theologically. But it’s what we needed from them. For them to make something bigger and continue expanding like “The Outsiders” and “The Reckoning” would have taken away what was likeable about them in the first place. This release is well-worth the money and time for fans who have been with NEEDTOBREATHE for a while, and could potentially garner new ones along the way.

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