Interview: Graham Kendrick - THE PRAISE MAKER

Graham Kendrick is one of Britain's most successful songwriters. A day rarely goes by without one of his songs being sung somewhere on Earth. Never heard of him? Perhaps you should visit a church. Cole Moreton meets a man who's turned hymns into big business

Cole Moreton
Sunday 26 December 1999 01:02

YOU'VE PROBABLY heard "Shine Jesus Shine". It was sung at the memorial services after Dunblane and the Tasmanian massacre. The Pope swung his cane in time as 4 million people sang it at the largest ever open-air Mass, in Manila. In Britain, it has been the most popular modern hymn of the decade, and knocked "Jerusalem" out of a Top 10 voted for by the viewers of Songs of Praise.

You can hardly step into a British church without being asked to sing it, or some other hymn by a mild, bearded south Londoner called Graham Kendrick. Another chart, compiled by Christian Copyright Licensing International, lists songs according to the number of times they have been sung by congregations in the past six months. Graham Kendrick dominates the latest Top 25 with five entries, the highest of which is "Shine Jesus Shine", still ticking over nicely in second place more than a decade after it was first released. The song is also high in the same charts in Australia, South Africa, and North America, and it has been translated into 25 different languages. Barely a day goes by without a Kendrick song being sung by a group of Christians somewhere on the planet.

Millions of people - almost certainly more than actually go to church - would recognise "Shine Jesus Shine" if it were played to them, perhaps having picked up the tune - tame and predictable, but catchy - when Songs of Praise was burbling in the background after a long Sunday lunch. Some even respond to the name of the writer: "Oh, isn't he the hymn man?" His song has been a largely unremarked part of British life for more than a decade now, and it lives in a warm, fuzzy part of the collective memory.

Which is nice. But "Shine Jesus Shine" means something more to me. Meeting the man who wrote it, meant going to places in my own memory that I wasn't sure I wanted to revisit. It meant looking back to a time when everything was black and white, and God was my best friend. We were going to save the world - preferably before 2000 - so that He could come again in Glory. There are only a few days left now, and I can't help feeling nervous. What if my old self was right?

When Graham Kendrick published "Shine Jesus Shine" in 1987, I was a teenage fundamentalist, my mind on the Lord. I had just finished a three-month residential Discipleship Training Course in an old house in Sussex, where young people slept in bunks, 11 to a room (same sex, of course), and were taught how to be evangelists. We had all paid to be there, and would go on to work for nothing, living on the charity of fellow church members, for an organisation called Youth With A Mission. This was not a cult - there were Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists and others among us, if no Catholics - but it was at the more extreme end of evangelical, Bible-believing faith in Britain, and we were banned from forming "special relationships" with members of the opposite sex for the duration of the course. Instead we went out from that house in groups and slept on church floors, trying to convert everyone we met, doing things that seem curious now - such as holding a "praise march" through the Bogside in Derry, praying for peace. I recall with embarrassment, and awe at my naivety, standing by an IRA mural in that town with a guitar strung around my neck, leading the singing. Children stopped throwing stones at an army patrol for a moment and watched with astonished amusement as we sang: "Make Way, Make Way for Christ the King in splendour arrives..."

The song was by Graham Kendrick. (I didn't know him then; that came later, as I became involved in the Charismatic Evangelical community, in which he was prominent.) The theory in Derry was that the spiritual battle in the unseen realms between good and evil, which affected how humanity behaved, could in turn be influenced by the presence and worship of believers, reclaiming the ground for God. That year, the Apprentice Boys' march passed off with little trouble, and many in our group were sure that the sight of a dozen teenagers singing had caused the powers of darkness to flee. I was not convinced, which was to be my undoing. I left Youth With A Mission after two years.

Sometimes I get nostalgic for the certainty of those days. It wasn't the tantalising possibility of a personal relationship with God I found difficult, so much as the suffocating layers of conservative culture that surrounded it. Going to church now can be like hanging around old drinking haunts after a love affair has gone sour, hoping that the face in the crowd will turn out to be that of your beloved, and that the passion will return. It was like that in Southport a couple of weeks ago, when I went there to find Graham Kendrick, and came face to face with the past.

SEASIDE VENUES must do something to earn money during the winter months, so in the November days between a rock'n'roll nostalgia tour starring Marti Wilde, and a pantomime with Keith Harris and Orville, the Southport Theatre hosted Worship Together 99, a weekend conference for 2,000 men and women who were involved in leading the music at their home churches. A powerful sense of deja vu swept over me as I entered the auditorium. An old acquaintance was playing bar-room rhythm and blues with sanctified lyrics, and row after row of middle-class white people were singing along, jigging and swaying as if lulling invisible babies to sleep. Many had their hands raised, palms turned towards the ceiling (as though the Lord were about to fall on them) and their eyes closed in an apparent ecstasy that could not have been brought about by the music. Not sharing their rapture, although I recognised it, I did the shallow thing, and scrutinised their clothes. It was hard to tell whether the younger ones were dressing like their parents or vice versa. Beards appeared mandatory for men of a certain age.

As I listened to the compere enthusing about evangelism in Cuba ("There is a hunger and a desperation to hear the word of God in that nation at this time") and then urging us ("Whether you like it or not") to buy Sir Cliff Richard's version of the Lord's prayer, part of me felt like I had come home, but the greater part felt like I was suffocating. The band played a song called "Undignified", which started with the line. "I will dance, I will sing, to be mad for my King..." All around me bank managers, estate agents, housewives and headmistresses were slapping their thighs and leaping about in a manufactured frenzy. I left.

In contrast, when I met Graham Kendrick a few hours later, over a pizza, he seemed sane, just as he always had. He was trendier than I remembered, in a chocolate-coloured fleece and khakis, with oval spectacles and his sideburns trimmed to little points. We hadn't seen each other for years, but he met me with a smile, as if nothing had changed. Perhaps it hadn't, in his world. He has been a Christian from the age of six, when his mother read him a story and he responded with "a very simple child's prayer, giving my heart to Jesus. I had this powerful sense that something significant had happened. At that age you don't have the words to explain. You can't characterise it as a happy or sad emotion, it was just something deep in my chest, deep inside me, an excitement. That was a start. From then on I grew up surrounded by the goings-on of the church."

His father was a Baptist minister, first in Essex and then in south London, where Kendrick stayed. The teenagequestioned his faith, became cynical about the church, but then "watched what my friends were getting into, and decided that I wasn't going to take that path". Whatever were they doing, I asked? "Oh well, the usual sex and drugs and rock'n'roll. It was the late Sixties."

While the rest of his generation was smoking dope, hoping for an orgy or demonstrating on the streets, Graham Kendrick was an evangelist, travelling the country on his motorcycle to sing songs about God in coffee bars set up by churches to attract youngsters. "It's not an easy path," he protested, and as someone who spent the so-called Second Summer of Love, in 1987, doing almost exactly the same thing, I knew what he meant. "Some people imagine that you're some sort of a conformist, with no spirit or drive to you, but you're different. You stand out. You have to get used to not being included in a lot of things, because of your faith and the way you spend your time."

In the Seventies, a new Christian subculture grew up in imitation of the secular world, with its own publishing houses, record labels, and a magazine called Buzz that every young believer read. Graham Kendrick became one of the stars, releasing a series of solo albums and working the church circuit, but also performing in increasingly sizeable venues. Reluctantly at first, he also started to write songs for groups of believers to sing together. These were picked up and passed around via the Spring Harvest festival, which still attracts tens of thousands of Evangelicals to holiday camps every year for a week of teaching and worship. Kendrick wrote for them, and his songs were spread through the new technologies of cheap, easily produced cassettes and the overhead projector that in some congregations replaced the hymn book completely. He was one of the founders of the March for Jesus, which set out to do for London what we had done for the Bogside. I was there on the day in 1988 when 60,000 Evangelicals marched along Embankment and stopped traffic. Next year's March for Jesus 2000 event is expected to involve millions of people, in cities all around the world.

There have long been rumours that Graham Kendrick is a millionaire, but when I put it to him he laughed off the suggestion. He looked more like a moderately successful financial adviser in his Saturday clothes than a star performer whose most successful album, also called Shine Jesus Shine, has sold in excess of 80,000 copies and is still in production. A normal worship album, by one of the dozen or so British men who make their living in that way, would normally sell around 15,000. More money comes from the royalties paid by the churches every time a song is used. His company, Make Way Music, has an annual turnover of around pounds 300,000, but there is a mortgage to pay on the East Croydon office, which has recently been refurbished in stripped pine (the decor designed by his wife Jill, who acts as company administrator). The Kendricks live with their four daughters in a five-bedroom detached house nearby, in an attractive suburb close to woodland. They both draw a salary from the company, and pay two other members of staff. At least 10 per cent of the profits go to charity, and Kendrick (who was recently given an honorary doctorate in divinity by Brunel University) insisted to me that he was in business to serve the church.

"In the past, the vicar or minister would always lead the worship with a pianist or organist," he said, "but in the last 20 years we have developed this new role, which is almost a reflection of the culture, involving the singer and his band. The job is to help people express their worship by guiding them through, providing the music, choosing the songs that will be appropriate at that time, and trying to communicate some of your own energy and enthusiasm to them so that they respond. It's a corporate act, so it needs leadership, otherwise it would be a free-for-all. You're coming to God together, and your aim is to help them express worship."

His original purpose in writing his hymns was to provide a bridge between the culture of the church and that of the world (which Evangelicals think of as in opposition; they see themselves as "in the world but not of it"). But "worship" has developed into its own genre, with boundaries that reflect its status as a pursuit of the white middle classes. The music usually has its roots in soft rock or country - change the lyrics to some of Kendrick's songs and they might be the work of Mary Chapin Carpenter. The delivery is triumphant on songs such as "Make Way" or "Shine Jesus Shine", which have major chords and militaristic undertones to support their simple, hopeful words ("Shine, Jesus, Shine, Fill this World with the Father's glory"); but a more tender, reverential approach is required on the ones in minor keys, which are essentially love songs to the divine being, such as Kendrick's latest, "I Kneel Down" ("On the bloodstained ground/ Where the shadow falls/ Of a cross and a crown of thorns/ I kneel down, I kneel down./ I lift my eyes to a tear-stained face/ Who is this dying in my place?/ I kneel down, I kneel down...")

"If you want to take everyone with you, you've got to hit the middle," said Kendrick, defending the need to produce melodies and arrangements that make Radio 2 seem threatening. Temperamentally, and artistically, he seemed well-suited to the challenge. "If the songs are too edgy for a Sunday morning congregation they won't get used so broadly. In the end you're serving an all-age crowd. You've got the kids, the grannies ... you've got to serve them all."

But a song that brings out feelings of faith can also be anything but safe, because the music and words can act as an emotional trigger. Having borrowed his presentational style from rock, the worship leader has to be careful not to manipulate the crowd. The Reverend John Leach, an Anglican, warned the Southport congregation that manipulation occurred when people felt pressured into behaving in a certain way. It was a danger familiar to me; and yet there was at least one moment, late at night, when my defences dropped. I sang along to an old hymn called "Be Thou My Vision", and I remembered what it was like to feel deeply emotional in church. The hairs on back of my neck stood up, and I felt vaguely weepy.

The mystery at the heart of what took place that weekend was the elusive idea of "entering into the presence of God". What did that mean to Kendrick? "It is a subjective thing. Sometimes, as a worship leader, you can feel dry, untouched and unmoved, and then afterwards discover people who have been deeply touched. Although you can sing songs that say `Come Holy Spirit', you can't make the Holy Spirit turn up if he doesn't want to. I don't doubt that sometimes what we call a great time in God's presence was just a fine time with your friends or a good old sing-song."

"What's wrong with that?" I asked, thinking of the millions who sing his songs who would either not know what he was talking about or be very wary of it. "It's a healthy thing," he conceded. "Good for the lungs. Just to be in a roomful of people singing, whatever it is about, is one of the great gifts of life."

He sounded half-hearted. For him, there had to be more to it than that. "Well, all true worship has to be with the help of the Holy Spirit, starting with regeneration, being born again, so that you're in communion with God, you're talking to someone you know. We are creatures created only to be complete when we are in friendship with God. When you're worshipping God, you ought to have moments when you feel, `This is it. This is who I am. This is where I understand my being.'"

AS WELL as God, Graham Kendrick now has the support of Michael Crawford. The former Frank Spencer, who became an international musical star with his performance in The Phantom of the Opera, is one of the performers on Kendrick's latest project, the Millennium Chorus. This is a concept album - or, as Kendrick says, "a song cycle that takes you on a conceptual journey" through the life of Jesus and the last 2,000 years. Recorded in the US with the backing of a rich English Christian businessman, it has been made into a television special that is due to be broadcast on four major networks in the US around New Year's Eve. A British channel is hoping to show it here at Easter. The royalties from each track will raise money for a different charity, and, as usual, Evangelical churches will be urged to support the project as a "witness to the nations". There is some awful sentimental nonsense on it involving children, and the usual clutch of lyrics about the "King Eternal" but the Millennium Chorus also features stunning vocal performances, and a level of musical sophistication that is way beyond Kendrick's previous productions. "I hope and I am sure," he said, "that it will reach an audience beyond the small and rather limited world in which I usually work."

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