Young Life Gave Me a Voice

Jonah Werner is a thoughtful, joyful, transparent artist who brings these qualities to his music. A world traveler who often plays in theaters and churches, he spends most of his time playing for kids in Young Life. Since beginning his music career at Young Life’s Trail West in Colorado 15 years ago, he’s played 26 monthlong assignments (more than two years of his life) at Young Life camps, 25 work weeks and more than 150 weekend camps. For his passion, commitment, and faithfulness, Jonah Werner was honored with the Camp Musician Award at the Young Life Celebration in January. There, I sat down with him to hear more about his story, his ministry to kids and how he’s helping areas with their fund-raising needs.

Share about some of your Young Life history …
In high school, I went to club at the Buena Vista (Colorado) roller rink, where we played old school Young Life games like “chubby bunny.” My heart was stirred, because this was the first time I equated Jesus with fun! Even though I grew up hearing this message, when my leader, Dave Gibson, told the story of Jesus, I would listen as if for the first time. I went to Woodleaf as a freshman where Marty Caldwell was speaking and Kevin Delaney was playing music. When Kevin sang, it connected with my heart in a way nothing ever had, and as Marty spoke, the message of Jesus knocked me over like a ton of bricks and I wanted Jesus in my life for real! I also went to Frontier Ranch as much as I could. I think my friends and I probably hold the record for most weekend work crews at Young Life camp! We were there every weekend of high school. We wanted a different life than this world we were living in.

When I interned at Trail West (Young Life’s family camp in Colorado) in 1997, the camp musician got sick and I said, “I’ll do it!” Somehow, by God’s mercy and grace, they gave me a chance. So I can say, “Young Life gave me a voice.” I sang that week and the rest of the summer and it changed my life. Now I’m experiencing the good stuff of my family’s involvement in this beautiful thing. Young Life is now my wife Ruthie’s family as well. And to see my kids have Young Life people come alongside them is a dream come true. I still play ticketed shows and I tour after I release albums. I still play churches and I still lead worship, but ultimately I tell people my ministry and career is “playing music for high school kids.”

How do you earn the right to be heard with kids at camp unfamiliar with you or your music?
Musicians are placed upon pedestals, but also dissected and criticized. My strategy with kids is just like any Young Life leader: to break down walls. With guys, I try to impress them early on with my guitar skills. With girls, I try to speak about the heart. But, the goal is to be vulnerable and share myself. By the end of the week, I hope they no longer see the flashiness, but just a kid like them. Someone who’s been hurt but also redeemed, and hopefully they’ll want to know that redemption.

Are there certain songs that particularly resonatev with them?
It’s always the songs that ask the deep questions and rarely songs that have the answers, because kids want to find the answers on their own. I have a song, “Rescue Me,” which basically says we’re all in need of rescue — is there anyone or anything out there that can rescue me? “All We Want is Love” resonates with kids and adults because that’s what we all want; when kids hear a song like that, it helps usher in the question, “Where can I find this love?”

Some other themes in your music are joy, searching, nature, playfulness. Why these themes?
Those are all bullet points of my story. I care as much about being a storyteller as a technical guitar player, singer or lyricist, because we connect in story. Those themes are the part of my story I think also represent others’ stories and perhaps draw out Jesus. So for me, nature is a place where I see God and the evidence of God, which is why if you go to Malibu, all you have to do is sit there and you see God. It’s cool that you use the word “playfulness” because a lot of people don’t associate playfulness with God and the fact that Jesus wants me to be playful and have adventure. That makes me want to follow and know Him. I’m a little boy at heart. I was made to play. I want kids to know it’s OK to be a kid.

What’s involved in your upcoming service project in Thessaloniki, Greece?
Students in international schools are required to volunteer for a week every year and Young Life engages these kids by offering a service project which meets the requirement. So, we take about 200 kids into a community that’s broken, usually war torn, often lifeless and hopeless. And we restore schools with bright yellow, red, green and blue paint, and we hold children and play soccer with them. We bring restoration to orphanages by taking the dingy floors out and putting in new ones. Ultimately, what students get to see is a glimmer of hope brought into hopeless lives. Then we ask the teens, “Where do you see hopelessness in your lives?” I love that it’s a twofold approach to ministry, where we can care for a community and then do Young Life club at night for the teens. Here we all see Jesus lived out every day and then we connect the dots at night. At first, many students go just to meet the requirement, but by the end, even these kids say it was the best week of their lives.

Please share more about your availability to serve Young Life areas at their banquets and fundraisers.
Young Life is what drew me into God’s bigger story for my life. My goal is to see people drawn into God’s bigger story for their lives and realize their calling. I love to speak and sing at Young Life banquets, because I love adults. While they may have their career and family, I’m certain many have not found their place in God’s bigger story for their life. So God’s given me a heart to unabashedly and unapologetically champion people into that. I love to see walls come down and people inspired. My motto is, “Get people to do something.” If you want something that is a little out of the box and changes up the feel of your banquet, I come in as a professional musician and speaker saved through Young Life and I share my story, talk about the needs of the area and weave music in throughout. The change can be a shot in the arm for an area and the feedback is usually, “Wow, that was refreshing.”

To learn more about Jonah Werner’s music or to book him for your next banquet or fundraiser, you can go to his website, jonahwerner.com, or email him at jonahwerner@gmail.com.