Jovie had cancer, and she’d chosen to spend a day with Rend Collective. It’s not the most common Make-A-Wish pick, but for Christian kids who are fond of stringed instruments and fun accents, it’s a dream.
Celebration is the Northern Irish folk band’s reason for being. It delights crowds with giant panda heads and eclectic sounds like the incomparable Jingling Johnny; teaches people the shoulder-locking, jumping-from-side-to-side art of shindiggery; and its shows might just be single-handedly keeping the confetti business afloat. Rend Collective’s gospel anthems are well-crafted, the worship is heartfelt, and the group is relentlessly joyful. There’s nothing else quite like it in Christian music.
As the band’s lead singer, Chris Llewellyn, performed that night in October 2016, he could see Jovie dancing with her sister near the stage. They were having a ball. But when his attention turned to Jovie’s parents, they looked hollowed out. He recognized the songs he was singing—songs of joy, good news, victory, and freedom—didn’t meet the moment.
He was at the piano as soon as the concert was over, working on what would become “Weep With Me,” a worship song he hoped would ring true at the hospital bed and the graveside. It was an early turning point for the depth of Llewellyn’s music.
“I used to kind of think that whenever we played, for maybe 95 percent of the people, everything was going fine. And then there might be 5 percent who had a story,” Llewellyn, 38, tells The Dispatch. “It’s probably the opposite way around. I just treat everybody right now like they’re recovering from something.”
Rend Collective’s lyrics in recent years have increasingly dealt with suffering, doubt, and injustice. Now, Llewellyn’s solo album, Honest, offers a more personal reckoning. He openly questions the goodness of God, laments evil within the evangelical church, and bemoans political idolatry. It’s a bold move in an industry that usually avoids those topics. (Even the dice on the album’s cover may make some believers recoil. Gambling?)
Llwellyn says being with Jovie and her family was the first time he really saw grief up close. The experience, however, didn’t emotionally prepare him for his own grief. He wrote his album’s concluding song, “Can You Be Trusted?” in 2020, as he waited to find out if his son Danny had autism. A few years after the diagnosis, Llewellyn still struggles to fully believe the chorus’s message—that God is unwavering, “no fair-weather friend.”
“It represents how I feel about 70 percent of the time,” he says. “I’m not sure if in 2020 I was really ready to be that honest with myself. At times, I just don’t have that confidence, and that can be a part of the spiritual experience too.”
Danny’s diagnosis sent Llewellyn and his wife on an intense journey of pain and doubt, upending their expectations for their lives and how they would interact with their child. Llewellyn says they’ve since found moments of hope, and that Danny started school recently and is doing well. But it’s still hard. They essentially speak different languages: “I’ve never really heard his opinion about anything, even to this day. I don’t know what his favorite color is.”
That grief and its aftermath appear throughout Honest. So does Llewellyn’s desire to return to his former, childlike faith. “Naive,” “Can’t Quit You,” and “Still Believe in the Magic,” will resonate with Christians who have wrestled with doubt but can’t bring themselves to stop turning to God with questions and prayers.
Llewellyn defies the contemplative, subdued tone one might expect from a “doubt album.” Several songs are upbeat, and he trades Rend Collective’s iconic folk sound for more of a pop vibe. (It’s difficult to define, though—there’s an adventurous saxophone solo at one point.)
He also embraces the idea that doubt and worship can coexist. “Beautiful Mystery” praises God for everything we don’t know about him, and “Mother’s House” stands out for its gorgeous, intimate depictions of Christ’s love.
“Even in seasons of doubt, there’s something in that searching and that yearning that is worshipful and is hopeful in and of itself,” Llewellyn says. “I think the worst thing you can experience in a relationship with somebody actually isn’t a fierce wrestling or anger, or to experience their absence really painfully. The worst thing would be to experience nothing at all, to be totally apathetic.”
Llewellyn’s anger is clearest in “Toxic” and “New Wine.” Having grown up in Northern Ireland, with an Australian worship leader-turned-guitar teacher for a dad and an Irish animal shelter worker as a mom, he didn’t expect to become particularly invested in American politics. But Llewellyn has called Nashville home for several years now, and Rend Collective is often on the road, playing in churches across the United States.
In “Toxic,” he sings about refusing to bow beneath the flag, not being a part of the regime, and, just in case it wasn’t clear, he adds that Caesar is not his lord. Asked if he had evangelicals’ association with Donald Trump in mind, Llewellyn says listeners don’t “need to dig too hard underneath the surface of ‘Toxic’ to understand what it’s about.” But the song was mostly written in response to hidden sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention, which struck him “as just the most hypocritical and most sad thing that I’d heard in a long time.”
“Are we a kingdom or a wasteland?” the song laments. “Are we the balm of Gilead, or a poison to the world?”
“New Wine” is gentler musically, but its lyrics are more raw and heartbroken than almost anything else in Honest. Llewellyn wonders if the church is pushing away the people who need the gospel the most: “Am I screaming out the truth while I’m leaving out the love? Then I’m fake as the wine in my cheap plastic cup,” he sings, invoking communion. “Does my God love the world, or just hate who I hate? Then I’m stale as that styrofoam bread that we break.”
Llewellyn tells The Dispatch he was terrified while writing the entire album, but that feeling “was kind of a litmus test for whether or not I was writing something worthwhile.”
Feedback to Honest has been largely positive, which he partly attributes to having already driven away some of the people who would most dislike his lyrics. Last year, he posted an Instagram story in response to a Christian author who called transgender swimmer Lia Thomas a man. Llewellyn argued it’s hateful to not use a transgender person’s preferred pronouns. “Don’t participate in this kind of speech,” he wrote. “History won’t be kind to you.”
Some of Rend Collective’s listeners criticized his comments, worrying Llewellyn was drifting from orthodoxy. He says some churches pulled out of the band’s schedule afterward, and protesters have even picketed its events. Llewellyn thinks Christian radio stations are more hesitant to play the band’s music than they were before.
He remembers being “very surprised” by the backlash. “All I was really ever trying to say was the same thing that I would ever say, which is, well, whoever it is, whatever they’ve done, whoever they are, you know—it’s our job to first love them.”
Llewellyn describes himself as politically progressive by American standards, but theologically “quite conservative.” He isn’t upfront with his stances on hot-button issues, and instead believes conversations about sexual ethics should happen in close, loving relationship. That approach may strike Christian listeners as too unconcerned with sharing truth. But he doesn’t seem worried: “I’d rather make my errors on the side of too much grace,” Llewellyn sings in “Gamble on Your Goodness.”
Llewellyn’s solo album doesn’t mean he’s leaving Rend Collective. He says the band recently started working on new music, and it will tour over the next several months to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its popular early album Campfire.
“It is weird to recognize that you’re in an old band,” he says. “The good news is, I feel like in playing it and then rehearsing it, it kind of stands the test of time. There’s maybe a few things I would say slightly differently or even just stylistically, there’s stuff I would clean up all over the place. But apart from that, I have a lot of compassion for Chris 10 years ago. He’s very much like me now, in the sense that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing and he’s just trying his best.”