Recently, I was listening to the Adam and Joe Breakfast programme on ill-fated radio station BBC 6Music. The two comedians aren’t cynical snipers or militant atheists, but I was still nervous when they began to talk about a hymn that had been sung during an assembly at Adam’s son’s school. I needn’t have worried. Adam was impressed by the joyfulness and up-tempo nature of the song. He soon revealed it was a hymn he’d not heard before called ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’. Adam joined thousands of others who have little or no experience of church but who’ve been taken aback slightly to learn that church doesn’t necessarily mean tuneless dirges coaxed out of a decrepit organ.
And for all those thousands, there are millions more who are aware of much more of Graham Kendrick’s back catalogue, sing many of his songs regularly, and count him as an inspiration in their contemporary living faith.
Since becoming part of the renewal movement in the 70s and 80s, Kendrick has made an enormously influential contribution to the Christian music scene. The big ‘hit’ songs like ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’, ‘Meekness and Majesty’ and ‘The Servant King’ are only part of his legacy.
Kendrick was a co-founder of the March for Jesus, which took faith onto the streets of Britain and became an important tool in letting the country know evangelical Christians still existed, and the church was far from moribund.
His relevance to the leading lights of the contemporary Christian music scene was highlighted when he was asked to be a part of Martin Smith’s CompassionArt project. Alongside the likes of younger names Israel Houghton and Matt Redman, Kendrick contributed to a unique project which saw the star names co-writing and recording together. There has been some criticism, with Daily Mail sketch writer Quentin Letts describing him as ‘the nation’s pre-eminent churner-outer of evangelical bilge’. Fellow Fleet Street hack Damian Thompson also got in on the act. And yet, in person he’s humble and self-deprecating. One gets the sense of a man really living out God’s calling. He’s been given talent as a songwriter, and he’s used that to great effect – still touring the country and bringing his music to people, who in turn use it to bring them closer to God.
Let’s talk about your faith journey. Where did it all begin for you?
I was six years old. My mother had been reading us a bedtime story that kind of explained the gospel in it. I remember she got to the end of the book, and I was there with my older brother and sister, and she said something to the effect of, ‘Well, do you want to invite Jesus to forgive your sins and to give your life to Jesus?’ and I decided that I did. I can’t remember what the prayer was, but I do remember feeling like something exploded inside my chest. I felt something, which was a total surprise, because there’d been no suggestion of that. I can’t remember hearing anybody talking about experiences.
I think the real test is when you go out into the world as a young adult, in my case particularly in secondary school. I went to a very big comprehensive school in south-west London and the only other Christian there I knew was my own brother in the next year up. It was the 60s and everything was being turned on its head and being questioned and there were lots of debates and discussions about what you believed, and your morality, and so I had to defend my faith or be mocked and somehow have a comeback to it. That was very good for me.
A lot of people have the experience you had at school where you were picked on for your faith and then you go, ‘OK, why? Why have I got this and why do I want to hang on to this?’ What persuaded you God was there and did care?
I don’t think that I would ever have been able to honestly deny that God was there and that this was real, but this search for more of God and for a God you could experience, a God of power and a God who did things, was really important and I started to study the scriptures. In those days a lot of people said, ‘Oh you need to be very careful about this Holy Spirit stuff,’ and I remember thinking, ‘Right I’ll do a Bible study’ and I satisfied myself that this is authentic Christian experience. I started to go to meetings where people would pray for you to be filled with the Holy Spirit and got prayed for and nothing happened. But eventually, after coming home from being prayed for one evening and just cleaning my teeth in a very un-religious situation, I just started to fill up from within and something started to happen. I began to be filled with the Holy Spirit and it was that that really opened me up. For the first time I was aware of, I felt the power of the Holy Spirit within me welling up to give praise and worship to God beyond my own will and determination. What I’d been used to was more of a cerebral thing, more of a thing of the will, which it still is, but now this other dimension of the spirit started to well up and it made me feel so different. And I then had to learn, ‘What do I do with this Holy Spirit within me?’ I’ve got to learn to worship. I was quite uptight and quite sort of closed, introverted, and so it was the beginning of a journey.
The worship industry today is a long way from that initial scene in the 70s - it’s now a multi-billion dollar industry. Is that the way it should be?
The Christian public drives it. It wouldn’t exist if you didn’t buy the CDs or download the mp3s or buy the DVDs or whatever, so it’s no good complaining about it. But I do think we should positively critique it and think about what we do. Our tendency is to copy what’s happening, and certainly that’s what I did for many years, and I was leading worship for years before I really studied the scriptures and I actually wrote a book about it. That was my way of saying, ‘This is going to make me study’. I was becoming known as a worship leader so I thought, ‘Right ok, I’m going to write a book about this. I’m going to study well enough so I can write about it.’ That started me on a path to try and understand what worship is about and I think we need that because that gives us the tools to weigh and test and assess the value of what we really have.
I’m part of it I know, but I do think one of the weaknesses isthat the secular culture is very much focused on celebrities and, guess what, in church we copy that! To some degree there’s no harm in it, but there often comes a point where we begin to treat that person as a kind of priest of worship; that this worship leader has got to bring me into the presence of God. And I’ve been introduced like that sometimes. ‘Ladies and gentleman would you please welcome a worship leader who will bring us right into the presence of God,’ and you think, ‘Oh right, ok.’
No pressure then!
Yeah! That’s right. You think, ‘No. This is a wrong understanding.’ And when I do stand up to worship, if it’s with a crowd of people that I haven’t led before, I’ll often say, ‘I’m here to help you give your worship to God. I’m not here to do it for you.’ Nobody can worship for you, you can only bring your own. Sometimes I think we need to reset the parameters, the understanding, otherwise we end up doing a worship performance on the stage which other people assess or evaluate or join in now and again when they feel like it.
You touch on theology in worship songs there. It has evolved somewhat hasn’t it? I wonder what your take is on how good we are at the moment in our theology?
My goodness. There are just millions of worship songs of all kinds and churches that have different emphases. There certainly has been a resurgence of traditional hymns, often written with new tunes. It’s people saying, ‘Well we do need more richness, more depth, richer language, broader themes.’ Because worshipis driven by the new and the fresh and the young, you’re much more likely to get testimony type songs and those songs of the early joy of knowing Christ and your sins forgiven and being loved by God and that’s fantastic. But of course not everyone in church is a new Christian. There’s a lot of people who are there in congregations thinking, ‘Yeah this is great, yeah I was saved 30 years ago, but please can we sing about God? Open up some mystery about God to me. Give me a song that opens my eyes to worship another aspect of God I’d never thought of before.’
I think the church needs to rediscover its multi-generationality. One of the Psalms says, ‘One generation shall declare your works to another’. It’s not just older people saying, ‘This is what God did or how God does it,’ but it’s younger people saying, ‘I’ve discovered something too,’ and the older people are thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s great, I want that too or I’ve lost that or I’d forgotten that or I never saw that.’
I was having a conversation recently about the lack of men in churches. One of the things that came up is men being uncomfortable coming into a church singing, ‘I love you, I love you,’ to what we perceive as a male God.
I think a lot of people are waking up to the fact that we need breadth and that worship is more than what we call ‘intimacy’. The Vineyard movement, John Wimber and so on, brought this wonderful discovery of intimacy with God and meetings where you just worshipped and God would do things. And we still need loads of that, but we need more than that. We need songs thatteach. We need songs that declare truth. We need songs that are all about God and not about us at all. We need songs to send people out at the end of meetings. We need songs for different occasions in the church. We need songs for baptism. We need songs for lament, for when something has gone horribly wrong and the church needs to gather and weep with those who weep.
The way copyright works in music means that people who write very successful songs end up financially benefiting. How have you adjusted to that?
Well, it was great to actually have some money coming in! After years of living hand to mouth that was the first reaction. To think, ‘Oh actually I can pay the bills!’ I think it was the biggest surprise to me that what I was doing, what I was writing, actually started to earn some money. There came a point where I decided to form a publishing company, to have some administration and employ some staff. I started paying myself a salary and then it’s a great privilege when you’re able to give to things as well.
It’s simply how the copyright laws work. It’s not something which worship leaders or Christian record companies have invented to line their pockets, it’s simply the laws of the land being applied, royalties rightfully being collected, and I think that’s fine. It’s down to what each of us do in our conscience before God with what we receive.
How do you feel about the growing professionalism of worship leaders?
I think it’s generally a good thing. People like things to be done well, so they tend to gravitate to the place that does it best. If you’re a church leader I think you’ve got to work through all of that and make sure it is genuinely facilitating the worship of the church and not just trying to attract people, because I think if that’s what it boils down to then something will eventually go wrong. I think all of us, if we are genuine worshippers, ought to be able (and I know how difficult it can be) to worship God in any type of church because that’s the overflow of our hearts and also the discipline that we apply to ourselves. It’s no good complaining and saying, ‘I couldn’t worship because blah, blah, blah.’ I think there is always a danger of creating a dependency culture instead of teaching people to be disciples and to be selfstarter worshippers 24/7. If we all need to be pumped up and pepped up in order to worship then there is something lacking in our discipleship. So I think the question to be asked is not so much are we putting on a really good professional show on a Sunday, but are we helping this congregation, this group of believers, to become 24/7 worshippers in every aspect of their life, whether they’re singing or not?
You are described as the father of modern worship music. You could say Hillsong wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, Soul Survivor wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, if you hadn’t taken the path that you did. How do you reflect on that?
First of all I wouldn’t want to over-emphasise my influence. I’m one among very many and all this was happening in different ways independently all around the world. There are so many different influences that you can trace and I’m just one of them. That’s not just to get me off the hook of being held responsible for all the current errors! How do I feel about it? I don’t know. Sometimes you get so used to it, you get so that’s how it is, other times you think, ‘Good grief, is that me?’
There are high and lows with a thing like that, aren’t there?
You can ride high for a period of time and then go out of fashion and feel that you’ve lost something or whatever, so I think it always boils down to obviously being grateful to God for whatever way he leads us, but also to honour God at work in other people who don’t have the platform. And this is the illusory thing about it isn’t it, that just because, and this may be also connected with our celebrity culture, and because we see people on platforms or in the public eye we think that somehowwhat they’re doing is more important and more significant than someone who just plugs on quietly unseen, unknown.
I think from God’s perspective, when it comes to the last day of the Lord when everything is revealed, it will be turned upside down. I think most of the heroes of heaven will never have been heard of on earth and some of us who’ve had a bit of profile, and I don’t want to over-estimate that because it’s a big world, but I think we’ll kind of be ‘never heard of him’.
Graham Kendrick was born into a Christian family in 1950. He began playing the guitar and writing songs as a young man and was soon involved in bands. After finishing his education, he toured the country with evangelist Clive Calver, leading worship. His solo songwriting career took off in the 1980s and many of that era’s best-known songs are used in churches around the world today. He was a founder of the March for Jesus, was heavily involved in a Christmas production Rumours of Angels, and a mentor to a new generation of musicians.
His new album, The very best of Graham Kendrick, collects together some of his best-loved songs, which have now been freshly recorded. Graham is married to Jill and they have four children. Kendrick’s faith journey has seen him as a member of Baptist, Anglican and independent churches. He’s well known for his association with Ichthus, but has been welcomed with open arms by those of many different traditions and styles. A regular favourite at Christian festivals, this year again sees him leading worship at Spring Harvest.