By Isheka N. Harrison
When it comes to Jonathan McReynolds, the phrase ‘humble giant’ is an understatement. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to spend some time with the beloved gospel artist when he came to South Florida and he was everything I expected – in the best way.
After apologizing for making the time to grant me an exclusive interview earlier than discussed (as if he weren’t doing me a favor), McReynolds and I had an authentic and transparent dialogue that really revealed his heart for people and glorifying Christ in every aspect of his life.
Talking to him, I wouldn’t have known Kirk Franklin and Marvin Winans dubbed him “the future of gospel music,” nor that his latest project, “Life Music: Stage Two,” was nominated for multiple awards and opened at number one on the Billboard Gospel charts for four weeks straight.
In Miami to serve as a panelist for the Zo’s Winter Groove Youth Summit, McReynolds reminded me of a modern-day Solomon. Wise beyond his 27 years, with unmistakable gifts and talents, there was nothing pretentious or conceited about him.
In fact, later that evening after his ‘Life Room Tour’ – during which he invited 40 of his fans to spend an intimate evening of worship with him in the living room of a Ft. Lauderdale home – I watched him jump in to help his crew move furniture back into place and call his mom to get her advice about a proposed opportunity.
McReynolds may not live an ordinary life, but the self-proclaimed nerd has a niche for connecting with every day people. With a keen understanding that the Lord is charting his life’s path, the singer, songwriter and musician exudes modesty.
My time with McReynolds revealed he isn’t just a celebrated artist; he’s a special person. Read below to find out everything we discussed ranging from McReynolds being a college professor to how we can pray for him. Find out why my respect for him is even greater after our encounter and why I’m even more proud to call him my brother in Christ.
Left to right: Author and activist Kevin Powell, Gospel Artist Jonathan McReynolds, NBA Hall-of-Famer Alonzo Mourning, Singer Koryn Hawthorne and Dr. Rosalyn Artis, president of Florida Memorial University all served as panelists at the Zo’s Winter Groove Youth Summit, held Jan. 13 in Miami Gardens.
Q: Tell me about being a college professor. How is that? Do you find that people enroll in your class simply because you’re Jonathan McReynolds?
A: I’ve been teaching (music) for three and a half years at Columbia College in Chicago. It’s been awesome. It’s really one of my favorite parts of my life. It’s been giving me a renewed joy and interest in music. It’s been really fun being able to cover the gamut of different genres but also always being unified by gospel and the message, the feeling and the joy. … There are a lot of prerequisites to be in the class, but when students do get in the class, sometimes they give me that weird fan thing at the beginning, but I get them past that. I’m so regular and funny and mean and everything in class anyway so they get over that pretty quickly and they like me for different reasons. (Editor’s note: I can’t see him being mean! LOL!)
Q: It’s really good that you see yourself as regular, but I think a lot of the world would disagree. You’ve been able to attain a lot of success at an early age. How do you feel when you encounter people, even twice your age, that tell you how awesome they think your music and life’s work is.
A: It’s really been incredible. This is not something that I envisioned for myself necessarily; to be a singer traveling around. My mother didn’t envision it. I tell everybody I was a nerd growing up. I wanted to be a meteorologist. I wanted to be a computer engineer. I wanted to be everything that wasn’t in the spotlight. But God really had His own plans. That’s the amazing thing about Him. He knows how to turn the nuances of your personality, your own ambitions, and then do something absurd with it; something that’s ridiculous to you. It didn’t make sense to me. My sister has a way more charismatic personality. She’s a principal. Meanwhile me, the nerd, is out here singing. We should’ve switched. So every accomplishment, every accolade is still a surprise. It’s still amazing, it’s still fresh, it’s still new. It’s still significant and a little awkward.
Q: Tell me about Elihu (pronounced Ee-Lie-Who) Nation.
A: Elihu Nation is a non-profit that I launched early last year. I’m really excited about it. It’s all about wisdom. Elihu was this character in Job and he was young and he expressed wisdom. We realized that you don’t have to be old to know what’s right and what’s wrong. You don’t have to touch every fire to know that it’s hot. It’s all about promoting wisdom in our generation. Sometimes it’s overlooked. We’re kind of sensationalists. We like to turn up; we like to be hype. We like to cry. We like to laugh, but sometimes we can avoid some of the roller coasters of life if we just use some wisdom. When I was young I asked for wisdom because I saw that King Solomon did and I feel like God has rewarded me with that. Sometimes people think I’m older than I really am. Making wisdom a desire for my generation and an available commodity, a virtue they can actually get and pursue, is very important to me. There’s a lot of good to be done on the earth and I’m trying to do my part.
Q: I know from experience that non-profit work can be tough and require a lot of sacrifice. Have you had any challenges with launching Elihu?
A: Not really. First of all, I’m sure it’s because of God’s favor. Secondly, when I got into it, I wanted to be able to give out scholarships. I wanted to have events in which we talked about wisdom and things that worry or concern a Christian outside of church. I was going to do it with my own money and give out whatever I could. So when I realized, wait a second, other people would like to help, that was really amazing to me. The fact that we’ve raised enough already this year to give out more scholarships than we did last year is amazing. I was really blessed by the outpouring of all the support. We’re going to do the best we can to maximize what we have this year. I just hope at the end of the day, it blesses some young Elihus out there, some young seekers and pursuers of wisdom.
Q: What do you say to people who feel like it’s too late or they’re too old to live out their dreams or walk in their purpose?
A: Being 27, I know that most people are going to judge me, but I already am like ‘Dang, I think I’m running out of time. I feel old!’ I’m already going through that stuff and everybody does. We all have this weird love hate relationship with time. I think that is symptomatic of us being eternal beings. We’re always like it’s not enough time, but when it comes to what God does, He’s shown throughout the Bible and modern history that He can do things through 14-year olds and He can do things with 84-year-olds. God has always shown His ability to use the old and the young. Wherever you are, understand that God’s idea of time is not ours. He’s not rushed. He’s pretty confident in what He’s doing, He’s sure about His plans and He’s sure about His ability to make those plans come to pass. If we rely on our own confidence and sense of what time is and how much time we have left, we’re always going to be stressed. God put something in you. He invested something in you and He’s going to use it, period. As long as you continue to put your life in His hands, trust Him and what He’s doing, be a good steward of all that He’s given you and use it well, I believe God will bless it in His own time.
Q: Why do you think you have such a crossover appeal to an audience that wouldn’t normally listen to gospel music?
A: Particularly when you’re doing gospel, you can’t go in with the mindset of how to cross over. Everything is going to navigate itself in a very unpredictable way. As soon as you try to attach some formulas to it, it may not work. Just be you and maybe if you cross over then your music will. If you have a certain testimony, share it. Maybe that testimony will cross over. You just have to be really, really mindful to not be mindful of having a crossover appeal. Just be you and let God figure out the rest of who you’re called to talk to. I’ve been a church boy all my life so I was very sure about what to do in church. I knew church, but I didn’t know God and that only shows itself when you leave church.
When you’re in church everybody thinks that they know God. When I was in college and I was living a normal college life, which is not necessarily Godly, I started realizing my life was becoming very normal. I didn’t feel like an outcast. I started fitting in too well. There was something that messed me up when I started hearing my name in the same sentence with certain guys. These were good guys, but some of the stuff that they were doing I knew my mother didn’t want me to be doing; I knew God didn’t want me to do. I didn’t feel comfortable having that reputation and that’s what really made me start writing this music. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to release No Gray because I was like people might think I’m a heathen. Not only did God have a plan for that song, it almost created this place of purity that I really didn’t expect. God does His own thing; He really does and when you put in your mess with intentions for His glory for the edification of His people, He will give you the rest. He will give your grace. I don’t deserve even the reputation and image that I have. I know that I’ve done way more than anybody listening to my music thinks I’ve done, whether they listen to the lyrics or not. But God is forgiving. He saved me and then He thought enough of me to use me. Even with my flaws, with my mistakes and that is an amazing testimony. I’m just blessed to know that my pursuit for Him was way more important to Him than my acquisition of Him. My acquisition of holiness was not even as important as my pursuit because if you pursue Him you actually get it. If you feel like you’ve acquired Him, you don’t pursue Him.
Q: Tell me about the Life Room Tour.
A: I just wanted to have fun with music. I wanted to give something back to some of the fans I have in some of these cities. This is the fourth or fifth city we’ve been through where I just go to literally a living room and I invite 40 fans over and we just jam. They don’t have to pay because I cover everything. We really want it to be about the fans. It’s not about just having a room full of singers or musicians. It’s really about the fans who’ve been advocating for me. We laugh, we joke, we make up songs on the spot. We sing some of my songs. We worship. We talk, we preach, whatever. Because my music fits church and can attract people from another venue, I’m always trying to adapt to the crowd. In this opportunity, I’m just me. I don’t have to worry about any of those transitions. I just have fun being the churchy, ‘worshippy,’ from the South-side, ghetto, whatever I am, in the living room. It’s about moving from living to understanding Who gave us life in the first place. I hate to say that it’s mostly for my own enjoyment and fun, but it is. We just have fun, but it’s all to the glory of God. I’ve heard so many great testimonies about how the night has changed people. Sometimes its not about just having this emotional experience with God where He literally just knocks you down. That’s cool, but sometimes it’s about seeing God expressed in a different way. He’s not as small and definable as we try to make Him in church. He really expresses Himself and does His thing and penetrates hearts and changes minds in a lot of different forms and areas and ways, and I think this is one of those unique ways God has given me.
Q: You said you launched a blog, LifeRoomTalk.com. Tell me about that.
A: “I launched this blog to talk about the notion that there’s a human and there’s a Christian inside of everybody and they fight all day. Sometimes we feel like we have to deal with Christian issues and sometimes we feel like we have to deal with human issues. We don’t know how to deal with Christian issues without being human and we should deal with human issues while being Christian. I’m just trying to be completely me. I’ve noticed that the more me I am, the more successful I am, the more God blesses stuff, the more people trust me, the more people feel like its an authentic offering. I’m just trying to be the best person I can be and present that guy to the world and I’ve been having a good time doing it.
Q: How can we pray for you?
A: I realize that when gospel fans listen to singers sometimes they don’t attribute the song they’re singing as their actual testimony. We didn’t wonder if Smokey Norful really needed Him now. We didn’t wonder if Tamela Mann was actually tired and options were few. When you listen to my songs, pray for what I’m singing about and if you do that I think that you will hit everything. That’s ‘Limp,’ that’s ‘Pressure,’ Lord help me maintain, that is everything I write. Everything that you hear on my album, pray for that and I think you’ll hit everything including just normal physical strength.
This year, McReynolds will be visiting 18 cities on The Worship Tour with Travis Greene and Anthony Brown and group therAPy in February. He’ll also be releasing a new project and resume teaching at Columbia College in the Fall. Stay updated on his moves at www.jonathanmcreynolds.com or get his perspective on life’s issues at www.LifeRoomTalk.com.
PLEASE NOTE: This interview has been edited and condensed.