I was at the last show Five Iron Frenzy played outside Colorado. In 2004 they passed through Lincoln on their way back home for their final two shows, both played in their hometown of Denver. But before that they played a skating rink in Lincoln to a pretty packed crowd. I was there with a ton of kids from my youth group. And I still am not sure I’ve had many experiences quite like hearing them play through their final three songs that night.
So here’s the thing you need to know with Five Iron: They didn’t take themselves seriously. Many of their songs were goofy and carefree. But when they wanted to be serious, they talked about faith in a way far more gripping and powerful than almost any other CCM band I know. (The two classic CCM acts that have aged the best, IMO: Supertones and Five Iron. I don’t know why the Christian ska scene managed to actually have something real and pure and sweet about it, but it did. The Supertones Escape from Reason changed my life—that record is how I discovered both Francis Schaeffer and C. S. Lewis. And once I had those guys bouncing around in my head, I just couldn’t be a fundamentalist anymore.) Anyway. The last three songs.
They always ended their shows with the same songs. First, “A New Hope,” then “World Without End,” and finally “Every New Day.” If you’re a cynical person, you’ll probably struggle with them. But you’ve gotta understand, we were youth group kids. We had experienced very little and knew very little.
But we knew we loved Jesus, we knew we wanted to be good Christians, and we knew that that was hard. And I’m not sure there’s any song, book, or story that captures the earnest desire so many of us had along with the sense of difficulty and the desperate need for help quite like “Every New Day.” If you listen to the recording from Five Iron’s last show, that’s probably the closest you’ll get to understanding what being an evangelical youth group kid was like back then.
And I can remember being there as they played it in Lincoln. I’ve not been in many rooms that felt the way that one felt. I’ve been in other rooms that felt electric and deeply emotive. But there was also a simple purity about this that I find to be almost completely invisible or absent in 2022, not just amongst millennials but amongst the generation that came after us. This was before Hurricane Katrina, before the recession, before the disappointment and cynicism of the Obama administration, before Trump, before #ChurchToo, before all of that stuff. I’m not even sure I’ll be able to explain to my kids what it was like, to be honest, because for all except our oldest, they basically won’t remember the world before COVID.
It’s not necessarily that this earnestness and sincerity and innocence was all good. I think it was reflective of a brand of piety almost universal in evangelical youth groups that saw the Christian life as the experience of moving from emotional high to emotional high and relying on those feelings to sustain you in between the (mostly manufactured) emotional peaks afforded to you by youth ministry.
Most of us were horribly naive about what the Christian life would actually require of us, even if we would have been offended if you’d told us that back in ’04. And I think most of us didn’t actually know much of the historic faith. We knew our Bibles to varying degrees and we knew a bunch of CCM songs. But I doubt most of us at the show could have recited the Apostle’s Creed or Ten Commandments from memory. Some probably could’ve done the Lord’s Prayer.
But even so, there’s this part of me that thinks something is lost when the innocent sincerity you hear in that recording is wholly absent in our churches and in the culture more generally. I think one of the reasons Jesus is constantly commending children to us as a picture of faith is because they are utterly lacking in guile. And we have so much guile in the church today and so little of that childlike simplicity. But we need it so desperately.
And not just because there’s a certain joyfulness such simplicity can produce. We also need it, I think, because that kind of simplicity has a way of cutting through bullshit and helping you see things as they are. This is part of what I so adore about both Erasmus and Martin Bucer. The Christian life was radically simple to both of them. At a time when so many pastors and churches are being shown to be abusive and unhealthy, I long for that simplicity.
As I’ve been thinking more about dechurching and the failures of discipleship that were ubiquitous for so long in white evangelicalism, I’ve created a little playlist of songs that, in my head at least, relate to these themes. “Every New Day” is on the list. But the final song on it is a few years older, though it captures a similar ethos. It’s “Love Song for a Savior” by Jars of Clay. It probably feels unbearably sentimental if you’re not from an evangelical background, although the lyrics are not as sentimental as the title and chorus might suggest. Even so, I’m not sure that people from outside that era of evangelicalism will be able to get into it. But I still love it.
I put it last on the playlist for a few reasons. I think it’s where so many people my age started their Christian life, and so I want to remind myself that there was still some reality to us back then. But also, I pray, it can be what we return to at some point: a non-ironic, simple Christian piety grounded in a sincere love for people and desire to follow Jesus.
There have been so many things wrong with the church over the past 30 years. But it’s very hard for me to think that this childlike fervor was one of those things. And yet of all the relics of that age, I think it is the most difficult to find today as well as one of the few things from that era that we might actually need.