Keith Green: Gospel Roots - Remembering the Jesus Music pioneer

Wednesday 1st May 2002

In our series acknowledging the giants of Christian music, this issue we look at the life and influence of Jesus music pioneer Keith Green.

Keith Green
Keith Green

Out of a hippie movement of the mid-'70s came a ground breaking music ministry calling both sinners and lukewarm Christians to the Saviour. The radical and controversial ministry of Keith Green was short lived, flourishing for a mere six years. But it continues to have a profound effect on the CCM scene with the March release of 'Your Love Broke Thru: The Worship Songs Of Keith Green' featuring artists like Martin Smith, Michael W Smith and Rebecca St James being no less than the third multi-artist tribute since Keith's tragic plane crash death in 1982. Keith was born in 1953 in Sheep's Head Bay, New York, into a showbiz family. Keith was appearing in TV commercials at age two, by eight was getting rave reviews for his theatre appearances, and at age 11 landed a five year record contract with the industry giant Decca Records. However, it was Donnie Osmond not Keith Green who was to win the teenybop dollar and Keith's Decca singles flopped. By the age of 15 the singer/pianist was, seemingly, a music has-been. Depressed and confused Keith ran away from home. It was the first of several stints on the road in search of girls, psychedelics and the promise of universal love preached by the hippie movement. Keith began to devour the writing of the Eastern religion gurus. Eventually by 1973 the frustrated young hippy began to explore the teachings of Jesus. One day in 1973 he bought a cross and put it on. Alone, and through tears, he prayed in desperation, "Jesus, if you're there, show yourself to me." As Keith later wrote, very simply, "He did." Keith met a young singer and songwriter, Melody Steiner, who was also on a spiritual journey. The two married at Christmas 1973. Keith and Melody began performing in Californian nightclubs. True conversion for Keith and Melody came in the spring of 1975 while attending Bible studies led by Pastor Ken Gulliksen of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. Keith quickly showed himself to be an impassioned communicator of the Gospel, not only on stage where his mini rock opera "Prodigal Son Suite" met with tumultuous audience response, but offstage where he and Melody would minister to people from broken homes and those caught up in the drug world. Keith entered the growing circle of Californian Jesus music musicians like Chuck Girard, Randy Stonehill, Paul Clark and Phil Keaggy. In 1976 Keith recorded the song "Walk And Talk", a duet with Barry McGuire, for a multi-artist album 'Firewind' and soon after recorded his album debut for the newish Christian record company Sparrow Records, formed by Billy Ray Hearn. Let Him Who Has Ears To Hear' was eventually to sell more than 300,000 copies in a fledgling Christian marketplace where 30,000 sales was a hit. Keith and Melody used the money to invest in the ministry they had started in their own home. In 1977 they officially founded Last Days Ministries and within a year had 70 new converts and street people living in seven homes they had rented or bought for them.

Another successful album, 'No Compromise', was released in 1978. But Keith struggled with the inner tensions created by an open platform for ministry across America and other parts of the world, and the trappings of money and popularity that came with it. As he traveled he was disheartened by the luke-warmness he saw among Christians and their apparent lack of motivation either for evangelism or holiness. Keith received a powerful personal revival in 1979 after reading books by the revivalist preacher Charles Finney which led to a new move of God under Keith's ministry. In a meeting at the Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, as Green ministered to 4,000 young people, the singer denounced the sin and hypocrisy that was making so many Christian lives a sham. When he finished, the Spirit so moved on the crowd that many came forward to publicly confess luke-warmness, drug abuse and homosexuality. Unfortunately, the move of God was quenched when a well-meaning staff member took the microphone to suggest that confessions of this nature should be made in private. Keith was devastated.

A few months later Keith, Melody and their budding community of young Christians moved Last Days Ministries to a ranch in East Texas. Last Days Ministries started training courses for Christians and published hard hitting tracts and magazine. Then Keith and Melody took a giant leap of faith when they decided Keith's next album 'So You Wanna Go Back To Egypt' shouldn't be retailed in the normal way but offered to people "for whatever they could afford." Keith's last classic album 'Songs For The Shepherd' was also distributed in this radical way before the copyright of all Keith's recordings reverted back to Sparrow Records who, through EMI Christian Music, have been steadily compiling and reissuing Green's catalogue ever since.

In 1982 Keith and Melody traveled to Europe and came home with a fresh burden for mission. In a concert to raise money for the Christian mercy ship M/V Anastasis, Keith challenged the crowd, "This generation of Christians is responsible for this generation of souls on earth." The powerful ministry was videotaped and later became part of the Keith Green Memorial Concert.

Keith had written a song, "I Can't Wait To Get To Heaven". On July 28th 1982 the hugely talented prophet musician got his wish. Keith was taking a family over his ranch when the plane they were in crashed, killing all on board, including Keith and two of his children. He left behind a legacy of classic songs like "Love Broke Thru", "Create In Me A Clean Heart" and "Oh Lord You're Beautiful". But much more than that, Keith Green demonstrated that Christian music was meant to be much more than the shallow entertainment of evangelical consumers, but prophetically powerful art able to divide between flesh and spirit to wrench us out of our lethargic comfort zones. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.

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