With two best selling praise and worship albums and a popular weekly TV programme, Bradford's mega church the ABUNDANT LIFE is receiving unprecedented exposure for a British local church. Mike Rimmer reports.
I am visiting Abundant Life Ministries in Bradford and it's been six years since I last went along. Things have changed. a lot! Firstly the church now meets in a swish 2000 seater auditorium with TV studios at the back, a waitress service coffee bar upstairs and a huge sound system and video screens to make sure you don't miss anything. People mill around, a few old friends greet me and the church's PR officer gives me the guided tour. Contrary to rumour, there are no lifesize cardboard cut out images of Paul Scanlon in the foyer.
Soon I am settled in my seat very near the front taking in everything that is happening. The band strike up the opening chords of their first song, Lara Martin and Mark Stevens lead us and everybody is up on their feet. There's half an hour of worship, Lara teaches us a song she has just written and the church notices are given as a short TV clip on the screens. And then Paul Scanlon speaks for around an hour. If you're used to watching this on TV, it'll all be familiar. For me, I was taking it all in, the swaying choir, the upbeat songs and the TV cameras zooming about capturing every moment.
After coffee in the coffee bar, I am taken to a plush lounge room, lit by scented candles, a place of luxury and peace, and I wait for Lara and Mark to arrive. Evidently this is the inner sanctum. I idly wonder whether this is the place where Darlene Zschech, Brian Houston and other high profile speakers relax after speaking here. It is all thoroughly impressive. Eventually I am sitting in the board room with Lara and Mark to chat about the Abundant Life Ministries' newest album 'God Is Here'.
Mark Stevens is originally from Australia, used to work in London where he got saved and returned to Australia to go to the Hillsong worship school. Moving to Bradford he says is like moving to the Promised Land. "I'm in my bullseye and living my dream. I love it here. It's an awesome church. I learnt a lot at Hillsong. There's great leadership and when you're working close with someone like Darlene, you learn a heap about life and how to lead. You learn how to flow in God. I think you don't realise sometimes how much you do learn until you come away and you just find yourself doing stuff."
Famously Lara Martin began her time in Abundant Life as the receptionist. She remembers, "I started on the phones and just got involved in the worship team. It was a natural progression. I'd always wanted to sing. I got my first guitar when I was six years old and wrote my first song when I was six. I'd always had that in me and that desire to sing." About four years ago, Paul Scanlon asked Lara if she fancied having a go at leading worship. She confesses, "I was scared to death, but I just remember him saying to me, 'Do it scared! There's nothing wrong with being scared.' So I just got up and did it."
Lara Martin seemingly has no pretensions. She speaks with her right broad Yorkshire accent and her receptionist to worship leader story is the stuff of legend. However, it is at this point that I ask whether Lara is willing to confess that she has created for herself a showbiz name! She is taken aback that firstly I know this and secondly that I am asking her about it! "I think it's very cheeky! You're asking some very cheeky questions!" she exclaims. "My maiden name is Lara Hughes. When I was dating my husband-to-be, I loved him to bits, but the one thing that I absolutely hated was his surname. I remember talking to his mother about that, and she said to me, 'If my son is good enough for you then so is his name!' To which I thought, 'Okay, well I'm going to have to live with this.'" Still she is reluctant to confess this terrible surname! She pauses and then says, "I'm the artist formerly known as Lara Mudd!" She describes the cruelty of people who made jokes about her name until "One day I said to my husband, 'Sweetheart, how would you feel if I changed my name?' and he was like 'Hallelujah! I want to do exactly the same!'" Martin is her husband's middle name and she adds, "People changed their names all the time in the Bible days. God changed people's names. That's what I say anyway!" It seems to be a bit of a trend at Abundant Life. Paul Scanlon's daughter Charlotte married and became Charlotte Gambil but these days goes under the name Charlotte Scanlon-Gambil. There is no mistaking who her daddy is.
During the Sunday evening service, they show a clip from the new 'God Is Here' DVD and it feels no different to the worship I've just experienced in the meeting. Lara shares about the title song, "It really is the expression that our church has towards the community, towards the world. I remember one morning, we were in a meeting and it was as if God himself had just walked into the room. All Paul could say during that moment was, 'God is here.' People were on their knees, there was just a stillness in the room that unless you were there, it is so hard to explain. But I remember when he said that.'God is here'. I just thought, 'I'm going to write this. I'm going to put this into song because that very statement is so powerful. That God is not just here for us as a church, we're not here to play church, we're here to reach people and to bring that Good News to people'. So the words say, 'God is here, let the broken-hearted rejoice. If you're sad, if there are things not going right in your life, don't worry because God is here. He's not coming soon, he's already here! When Jesus came, he came to heal the broken-hearted, to heal people of their sicknesses, but WE are the 'arms' and 'legs' of Christ on the earth. That is the Good News, that God IS here. So that song is what we would say is the heartbeat of all we're doing as a church."
One of the commonest criticisms of the worship recordings to come out of Abundant Life Ministries is that they sound just like Australia's Hillsong. Mark responds, "I've just got to write whatever comes out of my heart. I've grown up around the same kind of styles that maybe Darlene, or Reuben, or certain writers there have. But I don't really go after trying to emulate that or copy that. I just write whatever comes into my heart. I know the sound I like and the sound I want to write and create, so I go after that." Lara adds, "When I first ever saw Darlene Zschech, it was probably going back about five or six years. I remember someone handed me a video, I think it was 'Shout To The Lord' and when I put it on there was something in my own heart that just leaped. I felt like I was seeing something that I desired. It felt so familiar, is the only way I can describe it."
She continues, "When people say that we sound like Hillsong, I take that as a huge compliment. People have said that to me to try to be negative and they get shocked then when I say, 'Thank you very much'. I think people are quite narrow-minded to be honest in the music industry. They always want to compare you to somebody. For example Matt Redman is always compared to Martin Smith or vice versa, because that's their kind of sound. When people compare me to Darlene, I take it as a huge compliment. She has been a huge inspiration to me. I just think she's done an incredible job with her team. I think that is something we can all learn from, her style of leadership. To have good role models is so important in life. So I think you will find similarities because it is a God sound and a God thing. People can't often describe it so they'll put you in a box because that's the easiest thing to do. So I am totally being myself, totally myself. In my style of writing I'm totally myself. I think as long as you are true to that, then that's what counts."
One of my observations of the Sunday evening service was the more performance based worship which happens in the church. It's high energy, it's doubtlessly inspiring and the band and choir rock out with a passion. My discussion with Lara and Mark moves into questions about the tensions between worship and performance. Lara shares, "I believe that any worship team should be inspirational. We've always said that our platform is our shop window. When people see it, do they see the life of Christ, or do they see a group of miserable people? God's given us life in all its fullness and so we just want to express that. So we just have a time of freedom, relaxation and enjoyment and we just have a great time basically." Mark adds, "You can tell the difference between performance and when it's real. I can pick it up in a second, in a heartbeat! I can see when someone has just switched it on and it's like a familiarity thing. But if it's real, you know that as well." Lara continues, "And the cool thing is, being a worship leader, you get to look out. It's such an awesome privilege. You see people and I think that is just one of the most amazing things. Sometimes I think, 'I wish our whole church could stand up here and look out and see what we're seeing.'"
I suggest that this approach is totally the opposite to what Matt Redman teaches which is that the role of the worship leader is to be invisible. Lara responds, "I have to disagree with that. Can you imagine if Moses had said to God, 'Okay God I'll lead, but I want to be invisible.' God had given him an incredible responsibility and with your calling, there is a responsibility to carry out that calling. It's like a preacher, if you're going to preach you can't be invisible." I suggest that there's the idea of making sure that all the glory goes to God and making sure that the focus is not on you. Lara comments, "Yeah but that's a heart issue and only God can see into your heart, people can't. They can see what they want to see, because some people can say, 'Wow, the worship was fantastic today.' Others will say, 'Oh well it wasn't for me.' So you're always going to get people's opinions on everything. The most important thing to me is that Heaven is our audience."
And whether or not you like the way that Abundant Life Ministries does church, one thing cannot be doubted. There's plenty of fruit to be seen. The church has a vast number of ministries reaching into the local community from feeding the poor to counseling those who need help. The church enjoys good favour from the people of Bradford and there is no doubt that their brand of high energy worship captured on their live albums is enjoyed by those who are part of the church and many outside its walls. Paul Scanlon's preaching is a popular part of the God Channel and judging from the atmosphere in the 2000 seater auditorium the night I visited, 'God Is Here'.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.