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Learning How to Feel

Jon Guerra writes devotional music for Monday, not Sunday

Written by Rachael Varnum | ~ 5-minute read


Making music during a global pandemic was never a challenge Jon Guerra ’08 expected to face. But 10 days into the March 2020 quarantine, he received a message from Taya Smith-Gaukrodger, a multi-platinum vocalist with Hillsong United and Hillsong Worship.

Moved after listening to Jon’s album Keeper of Days, Taya asked if he would produce and help write her debut solo music album. He agreed and, with the rest of her team, plunged into the challenge of collaborating remotely. Two years later, the self-titled album, Taya, is finished, and Jon is preparing to join Taya’s 10-city summer tour July 25–August 11.

Jon hopes his songs “broaden the horizons of people’s hope and faith,” consoling and challenging listeners. As a graduate of Moody’s Historical Theology program, a worship leader, and a producer of several solo albums, Jon believes that theologically rich art is essential. Just as Christ used stories and parables to teach His disciples how to live, artists also tell stories.

“The gifting isn’t necessarily with paint or sound or film or words,” Jon says. “The gift is with helping us frame and understand our experience as human beings.”

Jon Guerra collaborated on the first solo album of Taya Smith-Gaukrodger (left) that was released this spring.

Musical awakening

God changed Jon’s own life through music at the age of 12. It had been a lonely start to the summer—begun by a move from Texas to Illinois, where his father became Hispanic pastor of Wheaton Bible Church in suburban Chicago. After a month of hanging out alone with his skateboard, Jon left for a two-week mission trip with his new youth group. Jon was used to church life, but the enthusiasm and intimacy of the youth group’s worship sessions was new to him. As hands were raised and voices mingled, he listened with skepticism.

By the fourth day, something changed. Jon remembers, “Suddenly I was like, ‘I’m not alone, and God is real. He’s so close. And music is amazing.’ I thought it was the music, you know. Now I know it was God through the music.”

After one of the worship nights, Jon asked the pastor about the sheets of paper he was using. The pastor explained what chord charts were and gave him a few sheets. Jon went home, picked up his mom’s old guitar, bought a chord book, and started teaching himself to play.

“As soon as I learned my first three chords, I started writing songs,” Jon says. “It was a very sweet movement of my heart towards God through music right away.”

Through the mentorship of his high school choir teacher, Jon developed an interest in the classical music of composers like Claude Debussy and Ludwig van Beethoven. As he studied music theory, his ear for different sounds broadened.

“I liked weird chords. I liked music that was a little bit maybe left of center, a little bit jazzier,” he says.

Jon started an indie rock band with some friends from Wheaton Academy. “The lyrics were very Christian, but it sounded like a rip-off of Radiohead or Muse,” he says with a laugh.

After high school, Jon continued studying music theory at a nearby community college. During this time he began to read voraciously. He started pulling different books from his dad’s library shelves, pouring over pages about history and theology. As he learned, Jon’s curiosity about church history grew, with a hunger to discover more.

Jon Guerra prepares for a concert in Texas.

Historical theology and music

Jon started at Moody as a music major but soon switched to historical theology. Studying historical theology not only impacted his lyric writing but also his view of the church. Jon was introduced to faithful theologians and artists such as George Herbert, a 16th-century Anglican priest and poet.

“To know that there was somebody reaching out to God creatively through poetry 500 years ago in the same language, it was just like an inspiration to me,” he says.

Jon was inspired by the many stories of people who’d studied at Moody and gone on to become pastors and missionaries—people who served God faithfully throughout their life. “It didn’t have to be something flashy, didn’t have to be something important or famous, it just had to be faithful.”

Jon also remembers the impact of Dr. Andrew Schmutzer, professor of Bible and Theology. “There was a love for the story that just was absolutely contagious,” says Jon, who marveled at how openly Dr. Schmutzer talked about suffering, specifically the Old Testament story of Joseph. Listening to him describe the intensity of Joseph’s suffering and then apply it to himself and the students opened Jon’s eyes to view pain as a pathway for extending love to others.

“When a professor can communicate not only the truth of what the thing is but communicate experientially through their own lives . . . something else is taught and caught.

“I caught at Moody the belief that there’s really nothing we can experience that we can’t bring to God.”

Meeting Valerie and beginning a career

During a band rehearsal for one of Moody’s chapels, Jon met an outgoing, witty violinist named Valerie Strattan ’07, a communications major. “She was super, super cute and very intimidating, but I thought I could maybe use the music thing,” he says with a smile. “So I said, ‘Hey, I write some songs. Maybe we could get together and arrange some songs, and I can write some violin on them.’” Soon they started dating and eventually married.

The couple continues making music and touring together, and Valerie is featured in several of Jon’s songs and music videos. After they graduated, Jon and Valerie remained in Chicago. While Valerie worked with refugee children as a music therapist, Jon served as the worship leader for Harvest Bible Chapel in downtown Chicago.

They also worked on a team that created music for A Hidden Life, a 2019 film produced by famed director Terrence Malick. Valerie played violin, while Jon helped with score composition.

After seven years at Harvest Bible Chapel, Jon and Valerie moved to Austin, Texas. They continue helping with film work, writing music, and caring for their young daughter, Winslow. Jon is also the worship leader for Christ the King Presbyterian.

Jon and his wife, Valerie, have a daughter, Winslow

Monday morning music

While about half of Jon’s songwriting is intended for congregational singing, his passion lies in what he calls “devotional music.” He describes it as “more Monday morning contemplative music, less ecclesial and corporate, and more prayerful and personal.” Creating music for the congregation is important, he acknowledges, but Christian artists must not neglect the other six days of the week.

By creating devotional music, Jon encourages a constant abiding in Christ. “If I was ceaselessly turning my life towards God in prayer, what would that sound like?” he asks. His songwriting explores how music can train the imagination to reflect on truth. “Every time I write a song, I learn what one lyric can do and another sound can do, how the words and music and ideas dance together. What you can create between these things is endless.”

Through music, Jon wrestles with ideas and concepts, attempting to phrase his wrestling in ways that engender belief. In “Kingdom of God,” he writes,

“Blessed are the poor who have nothing to own.
Blessed are the mourners who are crying alone.
Blessed are the guilty who have nowhere to go.
For their hearts have a road to the kingdom of God.”

In contemplating Matthew 5, Jon leads listeners to ponder the complexity of Christ’s upside-down kingdom, to marvel at the ways our weaknesses propel us toward God’s strength.

Jon hopes that his work encourages other musicians to enrich the lives of listeners. “We need Christians to continue to frame our stories and continue to teach us how to feel,” he says, “to convince us in the space below our head why witness and truth and beauty and love are worth giving your lives for.”

Jon hopes that his work encourages other musicians to enrich the lives of listeners.

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