It was in a sacrament’s silence that Jon Niven found his sound. The young Massachusetts musician had married words and music before, but never to his liking.
“Mostly cheesy love songs that were just so bad you couldn’t stand them,” Niven recalled.
But as his faith deepened, so did his desire to make music for Christ. A chance to prove his skills came in 2006 when Niven was asked to write a retreat theme song for Life Teen, the international Catholic youth organization based in Arizona.
Despite desperate efforts, though, the song wouldn’t come.
“I had written four or five songs and was really unhappy with the way they were going,” said Niven. “They were decent songs, but really not what worked. I spent nights and nights in the studio and had been really let down. With two days left before the retreat, I had virtually given up.”
Niven headed for the chapel instead, sitting before the Blessed Sacrament. Within 20 minutes he had his song — “Quiet Enough.”
Now, he has a full-time co-writer.
“I just realized that I never took the song to God, the whole process to him, and had never asked what he wanted for this song,” said Niven. “It’s been a complete change in how I go about the process.”
Niven, 27, has used the grace to spread the Gospel beyond the East Coast.
“Jon has a gift to perform at the highest level of quality, leading people into a powerful experience of praise and worship of the Lord,” said Father Matt Williams, director of the Archdiocese of Boston’s Office for the New Evangelization of Youth and Young Adults. “I have had the privilege to listen and pray with some of the best contemporary Christian recording artists, and in my humble opinion, I believe Jon is good enough to be considered one of them in the years to come.”
Niven is more than a musician, though; he’s a lay minister, too. That includes roles as music minister for Life Teen at two Massachusetts parishes: St. Mary’s in Dedham and St. Mary’s of the Hills in Milton. He’s also co-founder with Heather Flynn of LIFT Ministries (LiftedHigher.com), a monthly youth worship gathering in metropolitan Boston.
Music had always been a passion in Niven’s life. Niven grew up surrounded by music in Randolph, Mass., about 10 minutes south of Boston. Both parents dabbled in the guitar, and his maternal grandmother played eight instruments professionally.
Niven took a few guitar lessons before the fourth grade, but otherwise has been self-taught. A cradle Catholic, he played in church starting at 9, then at Xaverian Brothers High School in nearby Westwood. He attended Assumption College in Worcester, got hurt playing football, and left after one year when he was hired by St. Mary’s Life Teen in Dedham in 2002.
That’s when he began taking his music seriously.
“I used to force myself to write songs, and really force lyrics,” he said. “The songs wouldn’t really be what I wanted them to be, and I never really knew why. Being a Catholic artist, I never took the time to pray about the lyrics and the music, to really let God work through me.
“I find my songs more stories than songs. It’s almost like a four-minute short story in a song. One of the things that drives me nuts in any genre of music is generic lyrics that don’t really say much. As a songwriter, trying to be clear and really trying to grab the listener is incredibly important. It’s more than just catchy hooks. I really hope that it’s sincere and truthful, and what God wants people to hear.”
LIFT co-founder Heather Flynn calls Niven’s work “reflective, personal and conveying struggles and joys to which all can relate.”
It’s a genre, though, that Niven says hasn’t caught on in the Northeast as well as it has in other areas of the country. Big Christian radio stations are few, he says, and it can be difficult generating excitement for contemporary Christian music.
Niven is doing his part, offering crisp, thoughtful songs driven by his acoustic guitar, a voice of yearning, and a sound that at times echoes one of his favorite secular artists, the Dave Matthews Band (see “With My Hands Up”). With a band named Crosspollen, Niven released “Sacred Rhythm,” a five-song extended play project, in 2006. More recent is the 13-song “Show the World,” Niven’s first solo release. He’s working on a sophomore follow-up.
Niven and his band also perform up to 200 times a year, mostly in and around New England at retreats, adoration services, healing Masses and larger events like Steubenville East, Proud 2B Catholic, National Catholic Youth Conference and SoulFest. In the past year, he has also taken LIFT on the road to parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston and beyond.
“We’re praying that God has plans for us,” he said. ”As a band, we are very lucky and blessed to be able to go out and minister to people and be the hands and feet of Christ.”
The professionally produced monthly LIFT performances in metropolitan Boston feature praise and worship music, inspirational speakers and Eucharistic adoration. About 500 to 700 people attend the Tuesday night gatherings.
Niven and Flynn formed LIFT in August 2006 after experiencing similar efforts in Arizona (XLT) and Louisiana (ADORE). Young adults were originally targeted. Niven sees something else in the audiences.
“God, in his infinite wisdom, just turned it upside down, and we not only get young adults, but middle and high schoolers, adults and couples with children,” he said. “And there are even some older folks that come and rock out every month. It’s amazing to see the diversity of people that God has placed there.”
Music is central to the events, and Niven delivers, according to Flynn and Father Williams.
“Jon is the most naturally talented musician I have ever met,” said Flynn. “He can hear a song for the first time and be able to play it. He can play other people’s songs easily and often sounds as good as, if not better than, the original artist. When Jon is leading worship, he is always attentive to the Spirit and adjusts the songs that are being played based on what he is feeling in his heart at that moment. ... It’s not about putting on a performance — but about helping others get closer to God.”
Father Williams echoed those sentiments: “He loves what he does. He is not in this for the money, but desires to lead people closer to Christ through his gift of music ministry.”
And a sound formed in silence.
Anthony Flott writes
from Papillion, Nebraska.
MORE INFORMATION To give Jon Niven a listen, go to JonNiven.com