CHRIS CHRISTENSEN has a new album out for Hosanna! Music and a ministry which has taken him around the globe. He spoke to Pat Herridge.
Such songs as "Song For The Nations" and "I Am Doing A New Thing" have established American Chris Christensen as one of the finest new worship songwriters. Now with his album 'Shout From The Mountain' out on Hosanna! Music, Chris seems set to expand what is already an international ministry.
At the age of two Chris Christensen moved with his missionary parents from the US to South Africa and lived in Johannesburg for the next fourteen years. He was aware of the political situation and sensitive to it as he had close links with black people. Christensen's interest in music started when he was fairly young, around 7/8 years old. He remembers that his brother had a friend who played a ukulele and had one sitting on his chest of drawers which Chris looked at longingly. In the end Chris persuaded his brother's friend to teach him and he remembers learning "Jesus Loves Me" - he even took the instrument to Sunday School. Humble beginnings!
The family moved back to the States in 1968 and as his parents went round on deputation work, Chris would take part in the meetings by singing. At the age of 12 his father unexpectedly bought him a guitar. This gift was a turning point for Chris as without it, he feels the direction of his life could have gone on a completely different course. Chris sang and practised hard on his guitar and during that period was very influenced by Cat Stevens and Simon And Garfunkel.
Whilst at University in Chicago where he studied Psychology, Chris began to play in folk bars. He then had his first professional opportunity with a Christian rock band on the campus. At this time he was searching spiritually to reconcile his Christian upbringing with his lack of understanding about the various dimensions of knowing God.
In 1978 out of a number of choices he could have made, Christensen chose to go Holland to do a study programme. He cried out to God to show himself. The Lord met with him and a verse from Ezekiel 36:26 spoke to him, "I will put a new heart and spirit within you and remove your heart of stone." Life began to change and the music and songwriting took on a new dimension in his life.
Chris met Laura, his wife, shortly after 1978 when he was back in the States. He did a couple of jobs because he knew that he should show some responsibility towards life but really didn't know quite what direction he should go in life. He had a desire to do something with music but couldn't find his niche. Again he cried out to God, "What am I going to do with my life?" God said, "What do you want to do?" He felt God encouraging him to talk with people around him to get clarity. Either he was crazy or it was faith, because he knew he wanted to spend his life singing for God. How could he do this? He opened up the yellow pages and started calling pastors and telling them about his music ministry. He was almost "blown out of the water" when the second call he made, a pastor said he didn't believe in instruments in the church according to his New Testament theology!! Chris wondered how to get things started.
Over the coming months Chris's ministry grew and he went everywhere and anywhere to all kinds of churches and youth meetings. He went to several Methodist churches which had never been in his experience before. He then was invited to Pentecostals and other denominational churches. All of this gave him a much broader perspective of the body of Christ. He didn't know much about worship and began to see that it served as a bridge across the denominations. He was received just as well in a Baptist Church as in a Methodist Church.
He then married Laura and they began to sing together. However,
churches were slow to come round to couples singing together, plus
Laura had a classical training background and Chris was used to
screaming in a rock band!
Chris and Laura recorded their first album in 1981/2 called The Gift Of Gladness'. During this album he came to know Phil Keaggy and this led to an opportunity to tour with him. Shortly after this period God led them to a church where people worshipped in a new way that they had not seen or experienced before. They were supposed to be 'professionals' but somehow the people 'knew how to worship' and the Christensens learned to worship in a new way.
I asked Chris how he came to be living in Brussels in Europe and what events had led them to be in a seemingly very different situation to the US. It was when Chris and Laura went to South Africa for a tour that on their way back they came through Europe and there God spoke to them in a very clear way about working there.
Whilst in England in 1985 they didn't have a lot of concerts and found
themselves staying in London. Their thoughts began to focus on what it
was like during the war in Europe. They saw movies and reflected and
on some of the things that had happened in Europe with the war and
previous wars. They saw the ruin and devastation of Europe.
"After being in Europe for a while we went back to the States and attended an AIMS conference," continued Chris. "It was whilst driving early one morning from Portland to Seattle, I wrote the song 'Song For The Nations'. Amazingly I did not labour too much over this and was given the opportunity at the conference to sing it. A very Godly old man came up to me afterwards and said, 'God is going to use that song'! And He has!"
Following this, they went to Holland and whilst there Chris had a dream one night. "1 felt myself flying around a ruined city, something like Berlin. I remember I was weeping in the dream and crying to God, help me, help me. The feeling was that I was flying around this ruined city, almost like a tourist, looking but not landing. There was a cry to go down and help and when I woke my pillow was drenched with tears. God, I felt, was allowing me to feel his heart regarding the spiritual scars on his heart. God was crying because his spiritual dwelling place in Europe was ruined and he did not have a place to rest. In Isaiah 58 it says 'Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins, they will be repairers of broken walls and the restorers of streets with dwellings'. This scripture which God gave, challenged me to come back and to be a part of the rebuilding of God's habitation in Europe.
"We went back to the States just for a few months and then came back to Europe with three other families to Brussels in 1987, where we were involved in setting up an International Christian Fellowship. The church plant went well and whilst we met initially in the living room where I led worship, it has now grown to 150/200 people. Worship is the key for getting things going and people just began to come and worship together.
Things were very exciting for the first two or three years in Brussels but then they became extremely difficult and Chris and Laura became weary. "During this time we recorded an album entitled 'Lord Of The Journey', remembered Chris. "The album was to help express our desire to be encouragers during a time when we were feeling very weary and worn out with 'well doing'. It conveyed in different songs that we need to seek for a peace which the Lord gives at the same time as persevering with what God has called us to. Finally we took a break and went to South Africa for seven months last year (1994) and went back to our roots, not as a worship leader, but as worshippers.
"Nothing in the flesh wanted to go back to Brussels but we felt it was right, although difficult. God had not finished and leaving would leave a bad taste, so we went back there.
"Since that period of going back to Brussels we have been concentrating on the French language. Previously we had not been ready to record in this language but four years ago we met up with Thierrry Ostrini who has been a very great inspiration and help. Together we have translated many songs into French. At present we are working on our first French speaking album which is all praise and worship songs and we are actually originating the songs in French. Thierry is an incredibly good lyricist and we have been working together. We are also hoping to record the album in English.
"Finally, in May of last year whilst I was out in Kenya and quite honestly feeling in the 'pits' emotionally, in an amazing way God encouraged me and I was asked to do a recording on the Hosanna series called 'Shout From The Mountain'.
"Alongside all of this, we have four children, three boys and a girl from the ages of 2 to 8 years. Laura and I and Thierry are now also ministering together in a group, EXO and the great thing is that it is a privilege to be a songwriter, because as a worship leader, you can only be in one place at a time but as a songwriter, your song can be spreading out all over the world at one time!"
Pat Herridge is one of the seminal behind-the-scenes figures in the development of Christian music in Britain. She currently runs a translation and copyright service from Hailsham.