Roger Jones: The most widely acclaimed composer of Christian musicals in Britain

Friday 1st October 1993

Birmingham's ROGER JONES composes Christian musicals. Now with a new one, 'Angel Voices', about to go on the road, Tony Cummings went to Birmingham to meet the master of the musical.

Roger Jones
Roger Jones

For a large swathe of Britain's religious community Roger Jones is one of Christian music's leading figures. This is in itself an enigma. Roger currently has no major Christian record label, while his woolly jumpers and everybody's-favourite-uncle looks are far from the image-driven world of CCM. Yet Roger's songs, and particularly his musicals have made an impact across the widest possible sweep of British churches - Anglican and Non Conformist, traditional and evangelical; charismatic and non-charismatic. Now with a major new musical 'Angel Voices' about to tour Britain, Roger's popularity will expand even further. I met up with the 45-year-old pianist/composer at his home in a leafy suburb of Birmingham. The house next door to Roger and his family now houses Christian Music Ministries, the trust which co-ordinates all the multi-various activities of this gently spoken ex-school teacher. Roger took me round there to a store room-cum-office piled high with cassettes, CDs and songbooks. "The helpers who come in send all the products out from here," explains Roger. "The CMM catalogue is getting bigger all the time. As well as all my books and records we sell resources to churches who, having had one of my worship weekends, want to buy these 'new' songs. You'd be amazed how many churches there are who are still completely unexposed to things like Songs Of Fellowship!"

Born in Birmingham, Roger Jones studied at the Birmingham School Of Music then, after teacher training taught at a multi-racial school in Aston, central Birmingham for 16 years.

"It was very, very tough," he remembers. "But once you'd learnt to teach and relate to those kids it was the best place to be. I became the Head of Music automatically. The Lord opened this door - a brand new school, I was the only music teacher. I had a very good Head who gave me enough rope to, well, to hang myself with really. He said, 'Well here you are. Set up the department'. I went for a large involvement of kids. I wanted to have as many kids as possible singing. I didn't want an elitist Elizabethan madrigal group, I wanted a big event. We went through the usual cantatas, around the seventies, of 'Joseph' and 'Captain Noah' and 'Daniel Jazz' and 'Journeyman Jazz'.

"Being a committed Christian, Easter wasn't very far from my mind. I eventually started writing songs about Easter that came into a cantata. Although this was a multi-racial, almost multi-faith school, we had the Head's backing to go for a real Christian musical. It was only after Marshalls, and indeed the BBC 'Sunday Half-Hour' and 'Songs Of Praise', took it on board that it began to dawn on me that things I composed might be heard outside of my school."

The musical in question was 'Jerusalem Joy'. In fact its original title was 'Jerusalem Jazz'. His school had a BBC Midlands radio producer to come and see the show. Remembers Roger, "He liked it. He said, 'Well, I've got this slot on 'Sunday Half-Hour'. It's very traditional, and I'll have a lot of flak, but I'll put it on in August when not many people listen.' In actual fact he didn't get much flak but we had a phenomenal amount of letters, because it was kids singing an Easter story. It was the same time as 'Jesus Christ Superstar', and in my own style but influenced by 'Superstar'. I decided, 'Why don't we stick to the Bible, and see what we can do with it?' That's how it came about; it went on 'Sunday Half-Hour' and people were writing to me asking for the music. So I was photocopying music. I couldn't get any publishers interested, because they won't look at a new writer. Once it was due to go on the telly, Marshalls approached me and said, 'We want to issue it, publish it, record it.' It was a very primitive recording, which is still selling today, recorded in two-track stereo at Pebble Mill. That was it, we just did it; no multi-tracking in those days, just a couple of mikes in front and sing it."

Roger followed up his unexpected elevation to a composer of Christian musicals with another one, this time on the theme of Christmas, 'The Stargazers'. In 1978 Roger was approached by the National Christian Education Council and asked to compose a musical for them. "They asked me to write this musical on Robert Raikes, whom I'd never heard of. Raikes was the guy who'd formed the Sunday Schools movement. It was his centenary in 1979. NCEC's thing was Sunday Schools though not from a particularly evangelical standpoint. I did my next four works with them; 'A Grain Of Mustard Seed', 'Saints Alive' (which is still perhaps my number one seller, as a Pentecost work), 'Greater Than Gold' and 'From Pharaoh To Freedom' which was my Jewish links coming out from my many trips to Israel. But then I remember Debbie Thorpe from Marshalls tried to woo me back to their company, and she said, 'Oh. We always thought you weren't evangelical because you went with NCEC I said, 'Hang on, that's not true. NCEC are doing a very good job, but my first priority is very much an evangelical route.' I became a Christian three months before I went to music college, which transformed my whole view of music. I'd been a church organist for several years before then, but I got to know Jesus and it transformed my whole view of music. I began to discover ministry in music."

Writing musicals that could teach spiritual truth to school children or Sunday school kids was one thing, but by the 80s there were other strings to Roger's musical bow. "People were asking me to go and talk about music in worship. T was only learning myself at the time, but we then moved church, going to a mildly charismatic, evangelical Anglican church to help with their music. At the same time 'Come Together' was around, j just caught that whole experience and vision for a music ministry; to do with worship, to do with evangelism - 'Come Together' plus an Anglican liturgical basis. The two things just went from there. Following that, the group that I was with, the East Birmingham Renewal Group, felt that the Lord may be calling me to go full time and give up what was a very well paid teaching job. By then, I was Head of Lower School in this very big comprehensive. I felt the Lord was saying, 'Yes. It's right to make the big jump.'"

Roger got a year's unpaid leave of absence from his school after which it was obvious he had made the right move. "At that point I resigned, and never did go back to teaching, and that's nearly ten years ago now. I don't fit into any denominational slot; I'm not paid by any church or denomination. The East Birmingham Renewal Group have set up a charitable trust; people donate, covenant, and we get ministry gifts. Royalties, such as they are, help and the Lord's met all our needs for the last ten years. It's been amazing. Today we have a ministry team that I work with. Although I'm the only full time person we have a team of thirteen people who pastor the ministry. We also have associates all around the country who we can call on for various skills; music skills, leading worship skills, electronic skills, dance skills, whatever. Our bread and butter, to be honest, isn't musicals. Our bread and butter is to go into a church for a weekend. It's a renewal weekend, renewal and worship; start Friday night and by Sunday we'll be doing things in the services and giving them teaching."

Roger's team ministry is truly multi-denominational. "Last week we were in a Baptist church and we spend a lot of our time in Methodist and Anglican churches. Music often opens the door, particularly in some of the more traditional denominations. I go in trying to say to the leadership, 'Look. I'm a member of the Evangelical Alliance. We're thoroughly committed to Charismatic Renewal.' As far as I'm concerned I'm a Wimber man. Yet music enables us to gently take people into a deeper experience of God without generally frightening them off. I actually believe worship and healing go very closely together, and it's actually a chicken and egg situation. If you're not secure and need emotional healing you can't worship, but often worship will be the way to get people into a deeper experience of God.

"I've also had a connection with Wholeness Through Christ, a prayer/counselling ministry. Although I'll write a musical, maybe a big one every two or three years, and we'll take it on tour all around the country, with huge choirs - that's only part of it. That's almost the publicity front to the whole ministry. I feel that mainly we're called to bring people into a deeper experience of God, to encourage renewal in the Spirit using music in worship. And dance in worship, too, although I don't do it myself. That's why every musical involves dance, and we're more and more moving into prophetic worship. I think there's a very thin line between creativity, which I did in the classroom with kids, banging glockenspiels that had been doctored so the only thing they hit is going to be the right note - being related to getting people to improvise worship melodies and phrases, moving into singing in the Spirit. You don't have to say tongues; it'll happen as the Lord leads people and prophetic worship is just the next stage, to sing out what you think God's saying. That's the kind of philosophy behind the ministry."

Two years ago Roger was approached by the Birmingham Region of the Girls Brigade and asked whether he would write them a musical for the Girls Brigade's centenary in 1993. "They didn't give me the topic; it was up to me. I said to them, 'Not just for the Birmingham Region, but if you get the National Headquarters interested and the organisation will take it on board then we'll see.' Well they did, they said, 'Yes, we'll go for this.' And then I had to look through the Scriptures and decide, 'What's the right musical for the Girl's Brigade to launch?' I thought first of all of the miracles of Jesus, and decided after a while that a musical about that was going to be a bit big! But then I read the Jairus story; and in the same chapter in the three synoptic Gospels you've got the sick woman who interrupts the story, you've got a girl and a sick woman, and I thought, 'This is it for the Girl's Brigade.' So I wrote a musical which I conceived - which I think I do with most of my works - as a cantata, an oratorio almost with choir and soloist telling a Biblical story with the aim of getting people to experience it. So that's how the musical 'Jairus' Daughter' came about. To be honest, I thought it was going to be a very short, little musical between our last big one which was 'Mary Magdalene' and the next big one which was to be 'Angel Voices'. But in fact 'Jairus' has really surprised me. The way it's been taken up by the Girls Brigade and other people, it's become probably the most evangelistic tour we've ever had. Every performance of 'Jairus' we've ever done, youngsters have been committing themselves to the Lord. This amazes me; I mean it's easy! The musical is basically a demonstration of Jesus coming into somebody's life and meeting their need. At the end I've been able to stand up, as I often like to do, and just appropriate it; this is why I wrote it, I explain 'this is what you have to do to get to know Jesus.' I've never seen myself with an evangelist's calling. Yet more and more that seems to be how the Lord is leading us. And of course, 'Jairus' was our first attempt at publishing ourselves."

Now a much bigger project, 'Angel Voices', is about to begin a tour of Britain. Roger explains how he came to compose this, possibly his biggest and most ambitious musical so far.

"About two or three years ago I felt the Lord saying, 'Revelation is the one to look at.' It's got worship, spiritual warfare, wholeness, healing, the New Jerusalem, all that God is doing. The more I looked into Revelation; I see it summing up the whole Bible. It's the Gospel encapsulated in what God has done throughout history. I know you can get wrapped up in all sorts of theories of interpretation of the images in Revelation. We tried not to with 'Angel Voices'. I basically missed out some of the bits that we can get totally up a gum-tree over, and leave that to the theologians. But I've tried to basically say that the musical, as does God's Creation, starts in Heaven and finishes in Heaven; with all the pain of human sin, Satan's downfall and the Cross, right at the heart of the musical. We've even got 'Behold The Lamb' at the middle of the musical, and then 'Worthy Is The Lamb', which points you to Revelation, 'Pictures Of Heaven' and then towards 'A Place Of No More Dying And No More Tears' back in Heaven where it started; this time with redeemed mankind there with the angels."

Roger Jones may be the creative spearhead but his ministry would be impossible without a huge number of volunteers who, having caught the vision for Roger's musicals, mount them in their locales.

"It's all done on a growth principle, as we've grown contacts throughout the country. We have many people all around the country who've experienced the musicals, and maybe have done them before. So when we do a tour, or we feel that it's right to do a tour, we'll just write to all our key people and say, 'Are you interested in coming in on it? You'll need to organise a choir, book a hall, look after all the publicity.' In a sense the tour that we do is not geographically representative, it's more that those are the doors that the Lord has opened. We've never yet done Ipswich, but we're going to Colchester and Norwich and Kidderminster because that's where the doors of our ministry has opened; Manchester, Sheffield, Hull, but not yet has it opened in Leeds. When I'm working with a part time team we recognise there's a limit to how many musical productions we can do. I think there could be something like 30,000 people watching 'Angel Voices' and about 2,000 choir members. We're planning to ask them all to Birmingham in June '94 to Aston Villa Leisure Centre, and have a massive 2,000 strong choir singing it. The one thing that makes it easier is that we use a backing track. When all the choirs are learning it, they're all going to learn the same styles and interpretation, which makes it a lot easier when you're taking it around. I think if you weren't using a backing track you'd have enormous problems, having to spend a lot longer at each venue. I go to each venue once in advance and check if they're all right. Previously, we've already had our meeting with all the local reps. They came to Birmingham, to my own church, and I got my soloists ready to make the recording and we sang the music through to them as they sight-read the choral parts. Next time I see these folk is going to be on my pre-visits before the tour.

"I take a couple of soloists with me and I have an evening of rehearsal with them. It won't just be music notes. One of the things we try to do is give them some Bible teaching and ministry, prayer ministry, about the musical. We've also recorded eleven ten-minute talks based on themes from the musical and the Book of Revelation, to be played at each rehearsal. Either that, or they listen to the talks and a leader does it themselves. So the choir won't just be learning a musical. They're going to be experiencing what's behind it. I've said to them, 'What I want up there on the platform; I don't want performers, I want worshippers.' More so than ever with 'Angel Voices'. We're going to dress these mass choirs in white and they have got to be the worshipping host around the Throne; I don't want them performing a musical. They'll do it from memory, and I'll give them permission, as far as charismatic hands raised or not, I'll give them permission to do their own thing. Some wouldn't dream of that. Some would, and I'll say, 'Well, you just worship the Lord and let Him lead you', and before each presentation I'll ask the Spirit to come on them and anoint them for ministry. Often the way that we will do an evening is that we will ask the Lord for words of knowledge before we go on the platform. That's by praying with the team and the choirs; get words of knowledge and then towards the end of the musical you just slip it in. You say, 'I feel the Lord's saying this tonight.' By the end of the musical we have a team of counsellors there, so if anyone wants to respond, evangelistically or any other way, if the Lord's spoken to them we've got the machinery there to do it. That's what excites me, much more than writing a musical. They come to Jesus, get healed, delivered, their lives are changed and that also has impact back in their churches, where worship begins to get alive. That's what it's all about." 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.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


 

Reader Comments

Posted by S Evans in Bingley @ 16:15 on Aug 18 2014

I'm really interested in buying your hymns book with music and with CD backing tracks. From the web site there is no means to contact you to ask a question hence this here. Do I need all three cds of backing tracks to go with the one music book og 60 hymns? ie do Vol 1 and Vol 2 and Vol 3 all relate tot he one hymn book?



Posted by Ivan John in India @ 09:17 on Mar 23 2014

The Methodist church choir here in mumbai, has sung several of Roger Jones' cantatas in the past decade. I have always enjoyed his arrangements. Thank you.


Reply by Roger Jones in Bromsgrove, worcs, UK @ 17:23 on Apr 26 2014

Hi there! Great to hear from you. We are still very active in music ministry. You can see our web site at: www.cmm.org.uk
We have just launched WORSHIP WORKS, HYMN COLLECTION and APOSTLE recently, and have a new musical BARNABAS that will come out next year.
Keep in touch!
Roger Jones

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Posted by Andy in Stafford @ 00:42 on Jul 3 2013

Please could you tell me which of Roger's musicals includes "There were ninety nine sheep . . . "
And let me know if I can still purchase the music for this. Thank you for your help.
Andy



Posted by Sam Richards in Croydon Surrey @ 19:54 on Jul 15 2012

Hi Tony can you plz pass on my regards to Roger jones I was on his early recordings at Aston Manor I often tell my kids about my exploits as well as appearing on songs of praise as well as record breakers I would love to purchase a copy of those recordings
You can pass on my email details to him God bless . Sam


Reply by valentino burnett in stoney creek, ontario, Canada @ 16:33 on Mar 6 2017

I was blessed to have Mr. Jones while I was at Aston Manor.
His enthusiasm left an indelible mark on my life,and at 56 years old I still remember "Jerusalem Jazz" like it was yesterday!

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The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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