Agents Of Future: The radical worship collective from Portland, Oregon

Friday 27th August 2010

Mike Rimmer reports on the "Jesus-loving, jalopy-gospel way-backers" AGENTS OF FUTURE

Agents Of Future
Agents Of Future

Trying to make an adequate description of Agents Of Future is a bit like trying to communicate the concept of colour to a blind man. Their MySpace page describes them as "a bunch of Jesus-loving, jalopy-gospel way-backers get together and do creative things: Shrieking, speaking, flailing, failing, storytelling, fear-quelling. In the process, songs and stories are smithed and written, friendships and families are stretched and shaken, stirred and strengthened. Genre-gender-class-past-death-defiers and town-crying demystifiers of mystery history lead these pacifistic, full-frontally ballistic missives."

In Britain Greenbelters will already be aware of this shambolic worship collective from a radical church in Portland, Oregon. Last year they contributed to Greenbelt's Mainstage communion service while this year they seem to have almost taken over Greenbelt playing at the Underground, Performance Café and even the Children's tent. Recordings of Agents Of Future are rare. 'Your Life In My Lungs' was released in 2001 and it wasn't until 2009 that 'Sneek Peaks At Magic Moments' brought forth a review from an intrigued Cross Rhythms reviewer: "The magnitude of chaos within 'Sneek Peeks At Magic Moments' guarantees it not be an all round people pleaser, and admittedly there are moments where the entropy exceeds the effective quota, but if you're the indie type fed up with cookie-cutter rock worship, give the disc a spin and you may be proclaiming it your gem of the year."

Agents Of Future are led by Todd and Angie Fadel. A year before they jumped on a plane to attend the launch of the new album 'Landskapes' by London's alternative worship collective Grace (which contains a drum and bass remix of Agent Of Future's "Nothing In The Way") they spoke to both Tony Cummings and myself about their music and ministry.

Before Agents Of Future, Todd had been part of an alternative Christian band called Sappo in the '90s who had released the wonderfully titled 'Kindred Spearmint' album for the Portland-based Organic record label. That release came out of the bigger context of what was going on in community there. Todd recalls, "In the '90s in Portland there was a whole lot of us that were meeting together in houses doing loud singing to worship songs that we wrote. Some friends from about three hours north in Seattle came down and decided they wanted to start a community in Portland, and kind of rally all the people that were outcasts, people that were kind of overlooked by the rest of society. They really did a great job at allowing us to explore what it meant for us to be believers in the context of our own culture."

The collective's approach to worship was sealed in those earliest times, as Angie recalls, "They basically said to us, you can do anything you want." Todd interjects, "I'd been doing music for a really long time in the Church and nobody had ever said that." Angie continues, "We were given that basic permission in our church that started in 1998. During one of the prayers before our service began one of our friends, one of the Pastors of the church, Ken Lloyd, said, 'Lord just bless these Agents of Future as they guide us into this next step of our faith and our walk together'. I looked over at Angela and said, 'That's it, that's the name'. These leaders were affirming, 'No one can steal your future from you'. That [principle] was such a big deal to us to share out, because so many of us had been cast off by so many people in society that we just couldn't bear to be thrown aside again. There was something about this unswerving hope that was saying 'we're not only going to grasp hold of their future but we're going to introduce it when it's not there."

Agents Of Future: The radical worship collective from Portland, Oregon

Agents Of Future are what some people would understand as prophetic because they have worked to see how things should be in the future Church and tugged it into the present. They are living out how things should be in the future but doing it right now, so that a broad range of people can see what God is like and what God wants to do. In this era of modern worship, the Church, despite the wholesale move way from hymnody to the Britpop sounds of Hillsong United, Redman et al, still has a very narrow idea of what worship music should sound like. Agents Of Future seem determined to break the mould.

Angela explains, "I'd been a missionary for six years and had just done the music that I was told was okay to do, I didn't even know there was a possibility for anything else. Todd and I had faced closed doors and so many 'no's'. Suddenly it felt like somebody was handing us the keys and asking, 'If you could do anything, what would you do?' And we responded, 'Something that we would want to listen to."

What makes Agents Of Future light years from the current crop of popular worship bands is their approach. Aside from making music that doesn't sound like the stylised "worship music" of Eastbourne, Nashville and Sydney, they are also trying to break down the gap between worship band and congregation. Where a lot of modern worship services have begun to feel like gigs with the congregation the audience, AOF aim to become at one with those who attend their worship gatherings. They are leading worship for a collective of people but using that collective to be part of the sound of the worship, so it's not a matter of standing up on a stage and singing worship songs and encouraging people at a distance to join in. Instead they are committed to the concept of the congregation being part of the music-making process.

The couple describe themselves as "head facilitators" of Agents Of Future.
Angie explains, "The way that we look at facilitator is it's our job to not only do music, but also to try to find other ways to include the congregation in the act of worship. So that means we're going to build something while we're singing. What I like to say is if we can get 70 per cent involved that's better than a small amount of people. That's our goal. So we're facilitating that to happen in a group situation, on a Sunday morning."

Are they suggesting then that the existing praise and worship leader template that we've got isn't quite good enough? "We don't mean to be that critical," Todd explains. "Our community is made up of a lot of people that are giving God one last try. There's a sense that they want to see what it means to commune with the living God. We are trying to make more room for more ways for people to immediately participate. It's just kind of a broader approach, not a better one necessarily."

Agents Of Future: The radical worship collective from Portland, Oregon

Isn't there a logistical problem to this broader approach? Doesn't confusion reign at an Agents Of Future worship time? "People are used to our chaos," Angie laughs. Todd shares his thoughts, "The way other people do worship is to have one person dispersing it out to a crowd of people and everybody goes home happy. There's no mess. But nowhere in my reading of the Gospels do I get a sense that Jesus was after tidiness. How do you get 5000 people food, with 12 people on it? It didn't happen quickly and there were some crumbs here and there, spillage happening. He didn't seem to be miffed at all by that process. I feel like that is the heart of the Gospel, that we are not clean and tidy. I am a father and if my child draws me a drawing, I'm not going to look at it and then look at a Picasso and say, 'Well, you still have a long ways to go, son'. I'm going to embrace him and say, 'Thank you for this'."

To join such a community is going to be a challenge to people because it demands participation, activity, relationship and all those kinds of things. A lot of people don't like that, they just want to go to church and stand at the back. They want to have some worship performance with songs they recognise and a good, smart preacher preaching some really straight things. Then they want to go home again with little or no encounter with the divine. "Well, that's why I think we attract who we attract," says Angie, "as we attract the children that have grown up in that and are filled with remorse. It's a miracle that they even step inside a church. We say that all the time that people are still showing up on a Sunday to do this. It's a miracle, that is a miracle, the Church. It isn't for everybody but I think if people could get past this fear, 'cause I think it is fear related, they would see that there are all of these young people that are desperate for somebody to love them, and you could immediately be needed. Be valued - a lot of older people don't feel valued any more. The people that we have that are older find that young people gravitate towards them. Because they're safe for one, 'cause they've made it through the hurdles of being a part of that community. But also, people from our generation and younger have nobody that they can trust, because they look different, or they have tattoos, or they have dirty mouths or whatever."

I have this idea that when the church meets, they start worshipping and then people just join in and can join the band in a collective setting. Angie enlightens me, "Well it's not exactly true, they can but we do sort of practise and there are people that are part, like every single Sunday, they join in. We also don't want just anybody to get up on the mic 'cause a lot of us grew up in the Church and were abused in that way that people just use Church as a way to slam people, so we're careful." Todd jumps in, "You can have an open jam, or a drum jam. . . I guess what is different about what we're doing is that community has more to do with looking out for each other and including one another. If somebody comes up from off the street and decides they're gonna grab the microphone, there's no sense that this person has any regard for any of us. And I think that that's the difference between us and like a 'free for all'. It's really important to us that people aren't ravaged again like they have been before in churches and so we're giving people permission to express the way they express but not at the mercy of somebody else getting ravaged again. There is a fine line in a lot of people. I have been in many churches where you hear people like, 'Well our oldest member in the back finds this music very loud so keep the volume down'. That's a little different to me, than somebody just having absolutely no regard."

A closer listen to the music of Agents Of Future reveals that a lot of the time the songs talk about brokenness and that they were talking about their church community reaching out to or consisting of people who have been broken either by church life or by life in general. It may not be a complete surprise to discover that Todd and Angie have experienced their own share of brokenness. Angie admits, "My journey is very broken and in my 30s I found out that I'm a survivor of sexual abuse and I went through a lot of pain, surrounding that. I pretty much lost my entire family, and my sister that's 10 years younger than me, 'cause she also came out with it. Our church ended up being made up of a lot of survivors, women mainly, and there was a freedom to be able to talk about it and not be silenced."

Like many people who grew up in church, Todd's experiences turned out to be as much a curse as a blessing. For him, there were difficulties in conforming to the standard church behaviours and experiences. He recalls, "I found it hard not being true to how you're actually feeling or having to sing words that you don't believe. It was like having to put on something. I just felt like we were being robbed. As I got older and more courageous to voice those sort of viewpoints I would be singled out as the sort of person that's trying to 'rock the boat', somebody that was not toeing the line."

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