Hope to Carry On
The scene is Youngstown, Ohio, at a Holiday Inn Convention facility that is being completely overtaken by teenagers for the weekenda frightening thought to be sure. It's the Ohio Baptist Youth Fellowship Convention (BYF), and this year they have chosen their theme from a song that not only hit the top of the CCM charts and received a Dove nomination for Song of the Year last year, but may well end up in your church hymnal soon. The theme (and the song) is "Our God is an Awesome God," and its author, Rich Mullins, is scheduled not only to provide a concert for the second night of this convention, but to be its primary teacher for the coarse of the weekend.
And at the opening Friday night session, to the strains of the aforementioned song, the man who opened for Amy Grant's Unguarded tour and wrote her mega-hit "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" takes the stagedressed in a bowling shirt, and a pair of seriously ripped jeans which will adorn him for the duration of the conference. "I like to travel light," he says to me later, with a sly grin that tips its hat to his Irish origins and lets me know this could be a tricky interview.
It was, of course. Not because of any purposeful evasiveness on his part, but due to his seemingly indirect way of answering my questions. The answers were always better than the questions anywayand different, in a way not dissimilar from the young Hebrew who dominates the New Testament, who answered His difficult queries with stories and ideas that had 'em thinking for days.
It was only fitting though, from a guy who made a conscious decision a couple of years ago to step off the big stages and move away from Nashville, to travel to Third World countries, and go back to school at a Quaker college in his new home base of Wichita, Kansas, all the while turning out some of the most creative and thought-provoking songs in contemporary Christian musicand ministering with a guy named Beaker under the banner of a religious order in the tradition of St. Francis of Assisiat youth retreats like this one.
And at the BYF Convention, it's positively unglamorous for Mullins, and just the way he wants it. Talk about de-mythologizing. "I don't want to be put up on a pedestal, 'cause I don't want to have to take the fall. I want people to listen to what I have to say because I'm real, not because I'm flashy. When Christ met the rich young ruler, the first thing he did was look at him, then he loved him, then he spoke to him. A lot of Christian musicians don't look at who they're singing to. That's an O.K. attitude if you're there to entertain, but I don't think ministry happens when the person you're ministering to is invisible.
"You know what? The world is full of musicians. What the world is starving for is Christ. If I wanna just go to a concert, I'll go see the Chieftains, or a symphony, or a jazz concert, or a rock concert. But if I go to a Christian concert, I want to be reminded that He is a loving God, and that He has forgiven me, and there is hope."
A Rich Mullins concert is full of hope. It's also full of a lot of other things you won't see at most "professional" rock concerts. Like the presence of "non-professionals" on the stage, instruments you might not have seen before, a lot of rough edges on a gem we're used to seeing buffed and polished. A lot of life.
When Mullins took the stage Saturday night for his official concert-part of the weekend, he looked virtually no different to the attending kids than he had to them that afternoon in his teaching session. Well, he had changed out of his bowling shirtinto a Friends University sweatshirt. And his hair was pulled back into a ponytail, which I suspect was more for convenience. But the ever-present jeans stayed on (barely), and the effect was pretty underwhelming. The concert got started in the same manner, with Beaker, a guy who has only played the guitar for ten months, leading the group in a simple praise chorus he wrote called "Step by Step," instead of kicking in with one of Mullin's many number one hits.
But by the time he pulled a hammer dulcimer on his lap to lead Avenue G (a local Wichita band Mullins has been touring with) through a series of songs that incorporated itthe recent #1 "My One Thing" among themthe room was alive with a spirit and energy equal to that at any U2 concert. Maybe it's something in his Irish blood, but Rich could have been Bono's brother leading this crowd in the dramatic closer, "I See You," which had us all singing a cappella, not unlike U2's "40." And the rafters shook when we sang "Awesome God" that night, followed by Rich's virtuoso performance of "Sing Your Praise to the Lord"his first song to be recorded on a major label by the major artistwhich presumably changed his life. Or did it?
"I had been singing that song for years. None of my peers were into Christian music, and a good many of us didn't even know who she [Amy Grant] was when she recorded it. I wrote it because I was practicing Bach's C Minor Fugue, and when I got to where I could play it decently, I just didn't want to quit, so I wrote the introduction, which led to the song. I hope Bach would like it. His music is way more important that the Christian music you hear now. I'm not saying today's Christian music has no value, I'm just afraid that we miss the real value of it, and use it for something it's no good at. It's value lies in its ability to point beyond itself to Christ."
Guess I shouldn't have been surprised at his reaction. After all, this was the guy who moved away from Nashville. "Hey, a career is only so important anyway. I remember in my senior year at high school thinking, 'If I am going to be resurrected some day and stand before God, and live forever with Him after only 90 years or so here on Earth, then my relationship with God has got to be my top priority.' That's when I decided to go to Bible college, and that type of thinking has led me to a lot of decisions since, because nothing else makes sense. I keep looking at people who have chosen other priorities, and maybe their life isn't necessarily more miserable than mine, but it's certainly no better. In many ways, I have a far better way of living."
And Mullins' "better way" has led him to be in Youngstown this weekend. He says the reason has something to do with incarnation. "People are naturally interested in people more than ideas. People want relationship, and are naturally interested in incarnation. They want to see someone who embodies ideas. These kids could have spent a lot less money on a book that would have given them more to think about, for a longer period of time, then it cost to come to this retreat. But it would not be incarnate to them. It's not good to be alone anyway, and libraries are lonely places."
But wait a minute. Isn't this guy singleand spending a lot of time in school librariesthe guy who wrote "Doubly Good to You," a song about the joys of spending your life with a help mate? "Yeah, somebody said to me, 'That is one of the most hurtful songs I've ever heard, because it implies that God hasn't been "doubly good" to single people.' And I said, 'You're right. But God doesn't have to be good to anybody. He doesn't owe us the breath we breathe. I figure if God has given us salvation, that's way more than we deserve, and I won't judge Him for not giving me something else.
"It's very dangerous to be alone though, and I'm very grateful I don't have to be anymore, 'cause I was alone when I was in Nashville. I made the mistake of not locking into a church body right away, 'cause I think we are not Christians alone, we are Christians in a body of Christ. I was attending a church, but I had not incorporated myself into a body of believers in such a way as made me accountable."
Rich had started doing retreats with a couple of guys, all over the country. Enter Beakerthe one-name wonder kid who originally saw Mullins in his first group Zion, when he was a kid at a youth retreat in Cincinnati. "But," says Beaker, "I was a weenie then." Beaker had been profoundly affected by a youth pastor in his ninth grade year, who he says showed him the love of Christ for the first time, in a way that got through.
"At the end of my tenth grade year, I asked God to break my heart, and He really gave me the desire to minister to kids, which at that time were my peers. I went to Cincinnati Bible College (where Mullins had also attended years before), and moved to Indiana to be a youth pastor, at a church located about 20 minutes from where Rich grew up. We formally met at a Christ in Youth conference in Adrian, Michigan, and hit it off really well. He asked me for my phone number, and called me when he came to Indiana. We talked about hiking the Appalachian Trail together. Anyway, I ended up being a roadie for him on the Winds of Heaven tour, and this retreat in Wichita, Kansas just kinda changed everything."
Rich says it's one of those things he can't explain. But when they did the retreat at Central Christian Church, he felt like he belonged there. "They were ordinary kids, but they knew the scriptures, which was cool. We were only there once, but those kids were constantly on my mind. Then we were in Oklahoma, and a couple of the youth sponsors from Wichita came down and joined us there. They just wanted to support us, and I had never had that kind of support before. I also had a tremendous amount of respect for one of the ministers, Morris Howard. Anyway, after a lot of prayer and thought, I decided to move to Wichita, because I wanted to be involved in this church. The ironic thing is that Morris died of a heart attack right after there. And people aren't terribly impressed with what I do, but they love me and support me and give me assignments and I'm accountable."
Doug Ingmire is a staff minister at Central Christian, who works with Rich and Beaker, and remembers when Rich approached the church elders. "He asked that he be put under the authority of the elders in three areas: to be accountable for his ministry and lifestyle, to be sent out officially by the church, and to be discipled by an elder, as a covering for him. This affords Rich more freedom, so he can be single-minded and focused in his ministry. We're not a hideout that he can run to every time he does something stupid, but we want to help him be responsible in public. It also gives him a structure for what he is doing. He also leads worship at the church here for us, and he and Beaker share often on Sundays. We want them to be at home here, and I think they feel that way."
Rich did feel at home there, but there was still something more he wanted, a deeper commitment. "I think I would like to be a monk. I really considered Catholicism a few years ago, but there were some things that I just couldn't reconcile. But I thought, 'Why can't we have a religious order just because we're not Catholic?' It's hard to recruit people to a religious order, though. But Beaker and I pooled our resources and have set a salary for ourselves, and whatever comes beyond that we give back to the kingdom of God. We have a lot in common, a lot of things we don't particularly like about ourselves, but we help each other stay in line and are a good support system for each other."
Beaker always agrees. "I've always hated authorityI hated Bible college. But Rich has really been a great influence for me because he really believes in the Church." Thus was born The Kid Brothers of St. Frankas in Francis, but more, uh, contemporary. It's the Kid Brothers who are ministering at the BYF Convention in Ohio, and it's all they do throughout the spring and fall. Summer will include more of a traditional artist-oriented tour. But it's all present reality, 'cause Rich Mullins wants to be a missionary, and his recent travels to Guatemala, Thailand, Japan, and Korea have led to his decision to go back to school to get his masters in music education.
"Yeah, I was one of those kids who loved the missionary who'd come to VBS and show slides. I loved the slides. Tony Campolo also had a big impact on me about missions. Anyone who's really interested in missions should go to the colleges, because there are so many foreign students who've never heard about Jesus, and they can take Him back to their country when they return.
"Your concern has to be for people, though, and if you're not doing something for other people right now where you're at, you're not going to become more interested because you go to another country." Beaker quoted Mother Teresa saying, "'There are no great things done. Only small things with a big love.' Don't try and do great things for God. You don't need a recording contractjust do it. Go to old folks homes, boys ranches, go hug the kid who smells bad. Just do it."
Beaker is also back at school, getting his master of arts at the University of Wichita. He wants to teach literature and writing. Rich wants to be "the best music teacher a Third World kid ever had, so he can start learning, and once you start learning, you never want to stop. I'm interested in learning how to deal with the limitations of teaching in those environments. A lot of Third World countries will want you if you have a degree from an American University, so I hope in six years to be in the mission field. I think that's where I'm being led, and I'm going to be ready in case that's the case."