Every story has a hero, a main character, a protagonist. In a book, the hero is fairly easy to identify. In life, Todd Agnew found it a little harder. Agnew, the worship leader, musician and songwriter behind hits like “Grace Like Rain” and “My Jesus”, viewed Christianity as a life to be lived for God, with himself as the main character. God, however, held a different view. Being the author of the story, God began to write a new understanding for Todd as well.
God started a new chapter by introducing a loving wife and children into the equation. The gentle hand of God began to show Agnew that loving God and even loving his neighbor, while important and necessary, was not life’s central theme. This story is about God; He is the Prime Mover. Everything else is moving in relation to Him. So while Agnew already knew how to love, he now had to learn how to be loved. He had to learn to receive from the Giver, to be consoled by the Comforter, to be encouraged by the Hope. The act of receiving recognizes the worth of the One giving.
In chronicling this new understanding, Todd Agnew’s powerful new album, How To Be Loved, is a revelation of sorts. It reveals what happens when an artist who always writes solo decides to co-write with a handful of gifted, imaginative colleagues. It reveals what happens when he’s vulnerable enough to share his song ideas early in the process instead of holding them close until recording day. But most of all, it reveals what happens when a man gets his fundamental understanding of the way we relate to God rocked to the core.
Agnew puts it this way: “I have a deep love for Christ, and I wanted to do all these things for Him. But it’s been a huge journey to see that my perspective on this relationship is flipped. He is the active party. I’m the receiver, and sometimes even an instrument, but I’m not the center of the story. It’s growing into a role change.”
Much of this understanding started when Agnew bought his first house, moved back to Texas, and became husband, and stepfather all in the course of a weekend. “I came in wanting to do stuff for them, to take care of them,” Agnew recalls, “and my wife was asking me if I could receive from them, be loved by them. I really had to say, ‘I have no idea what you’re taking about.’ Then I finally translated that, and realized, ‘Oh, God, I see what You’re doing! I have to learn to receive that same love from You.’”
In song, the message is deep and healing. Witness these powerful lyrics and the story they tell:
“I can’t let you see me this way. How could you love me in my shame?
I fell, God. I’m filthy again. Still I hear you call my name.” (from “The One You Want”)
“I believe there must be healing for this hurting saint.
This I believe.” (from “There is Coming a Day”)
“You say You love me, You say You want me, You say my heart has found a home.
You overwhelm me each time that You tell me that I’m right where I belong.
Through all of the lonely years, the shame and fear, it’s so hard to believe
But You’re teaching me how to be loved.” (from “Loved”)
“Love your neighbor is a little about them,
Probably more about me,
But it’s a lot, a lot about You.
Love is a lot about You.” (from “Love Your Neighbor”)
Agnew is well-known for his voice, and the gravitas it brings to his music. This time around, though, he brings a remarkable vibrancy born from his desire to collaborate. “I think we have a much more cohesive record than I’ve done in a long time. My other records are kind of all over the map musically. I love music, all kinds of music, so I tend to just switch gears every 4½ minutes.” For this new album, on the advice of renowned producer Paul Ebersold (Third Day, 3 Doors Down), Agnew focused on his musical strengths, and the results are noticeable.
More importantly, Ebersold brought a new spiritual dimension to the project. Agnew notes, “This is the first time I’ve ever done a record where I felt like my producer (or really anybody) stepped in and pushed me spiritually, not just sonically. Paul started speaking into my life. That means more to me than anything he did with the music. The record was a great process of making music, but really the beginning of a very cherished friendship and a very valuable time in my life as well.”
Ironically, collaboration also produced one of the most personal songs Agnew has ever recorded. During a conversation about songwriting with Andrew Osenga (Chris Tomlin, Andrew Peterson), Agnew shared a story of a whirlwind weekend of relocation on the way to marriage. There was a particular part of the story – the moment when Agnew returned from tour to his old place after a good friend had packed up all his things for him – and Osenga couldn’t let the scene go. The result is the poignant song “House of Boxes.” “I told Andy, ‘I don’t really write songs like that’,” Agnew says. “He pulled that song out of me, and it’s turned out to be a favorite for my family.”
And then there’s the stirring anthem and lead single “God Undefeatable,” written by a gifted trio of two worship leaders and a pastor as an Easter song for Agnew’s church in Austin, Texas. “‘Undefeatable’ isn’t really even a word,” Agnew explains. “It isn’t a word because it’s never needed to be a word. Every empire, every dynasty, they all eventually lost. They faded. They were defeated. But God, His power, His might does not wane. It goes back to the idea we started with. God is the main player in the story. It’s not me fighting the battle, it’s Him.”
It is that undefeatable God to whom Agnew is so grateful, especially as he looks back on the lessons that are teaching him how to be loved. “The real story is that He is doing whatever He wants to, and I’m a side character, I’m the love interest. I’m somebody that He is passionate about, that He cares for, that He is doing good things for, and sometimes part of Him doing good for me is that I get to do something for His glory as well.” With the offering of his latest album, we can all be grateful that Todd Agnew gets to do much for God’s glory.