Ben Gilligan and Tony Cummings report on Canadian-born worship leader and songwriter BEN CANTELON
As any church historian will tell you, the youth culture event Soul Survivor is changing the face of the Church in Britain. Every year more and more churches are adapting, at least in part, the styles of contemporary worship music with their integration of rock and pop rhythms into their services. But, of course, Soul Survivor represents much more than organs and choirs being replaced by electronic guitars and drum kits. At the centre of modern worship is what could be called a holy expectation, a belief that genuine worship is much more then the singing of songs but rather an engagement with the divine, where God communes with his people. Soul Survivor has been instrumental in popularising this viewpoint and, as a by-product to that, the movement has sent the songs of worship leaders like Matt Redman and Tim Hughes circulating around the world's churches.
Now another young musician, Canadian-born singer, songwriter and worship leader Ben Cantelon stands at the cusp of international popularity. Already his songs "Love Came Down" and "You Are" have become much-sung items in many British churches while Ben's co-write with Tim Hughes, "Happy Day", is an international success. Now with the release of his debut full length album 'Running After You' this charmingly unassuming 25 year old seems certain to achieve massive UK Christian retail sales.
'Running After You' was produced in the USA by Dwayne Larring (SonicFlood, Tim Hughes) and, as well as Ben's acoustic guitar and keyboard, features the powerful rock guitar contributions of Michael Guy Chislet (Hillsong United). On a visit to the Cross Rhythms HQ, the day after he'd led a Soul Survivor event at Staffordshire University, Ben, the director of worship at Soul Survivor, spoke to Tony Cummings about his life and ministry. Didn't, asked Tony, the song "Running After You" have the potential to speak to non-Christians as well as believers?
Replied Ben, "I think that music really has the power to change people. If you're listening to a song about who God is and someone who doesn't know God walks into the room, if there's something in the song that relates to them they could really experience something of God. I think we need to see more of this happen, where people experience God through music. We need it to get beyond the church".
Talking about his album, Ben continued, "There's a song on there called 'Jericho'. Everyone knows the story of those walls falling down. The song reflects how in many people's lives there are walls which need to fall so they can live in the destiny God wants them to live in."
Ben actually has quite a Christian heritage. His grandfather pastored the Pentecostal Christian Life Assembly and was an early pioneer in broadcasting the Gospel in Canada. Ben grew up in Langley, near Vancouver, in an environment that was both spiritual and musical. "I was involved in music from a young age. My parents were very musical, my dad, before he became a pastor, taking over the church from my grandfather, was in a band called Eleven Fifty Nine and my mum, who is originally Swedish, used to travel round, with her sister, singing in different churches under the name the Johansson Sisters. So, I came from a very musical background. I started playing drums when I was three years old, just hitting pots and pans and stuff."
Ben's spiritual awakening came early too. He said, "Being born and raised in a Christian family and in the church I decided to follow Christ when I was about four or five. I had the 'talk' from my dad, he said a prayer and I said one back and that was it. But when I was younger I would keep asking God to come back because I felt like I was doing wrong. But yeah, it was a young age and I've never felt like going back."
When Ben was nine or 10 years old he had a profound experience at a summer camp he was attending. "The guy that was doing the camp said God has given the Church the gift of tongues, and encouraged us to start speaking it out. At first I didn't know what I was doing and it felt really bizarre. But then I spoke to my dad about it. I said, 'Dad, we were praying and all of a sudden this weird language came.' That was it, I knew I was being baptised in the spirit."
What would Ben say to those sections of the church who don't agree with the doctrine of receiving spiritual gifts? "There are still groups that don't necessarily feel comfortable with it, but I think we need to see more of the gifts. When Jesus left the earth after being raised from the dead he said he would send his Spirit. I think his Spirit is what we need for today, to get us through hard times, but also just to walk with us. I think the things of the Spirit are very important in today's times and we need to be open to them. I've just come back from Soul Survivor in Stafford and we saw God do amazing things and people were open to it. Some people at first might not know what's going on but as they start to see what's happening they begin to adjust to it and know that it's okay."
He continued, "Actually I think if you speak to many people who've had a real experience of God they'll truly say 'I don't know what happened to me there'. It's something that happens inside of them that they can't help but experience God, in many different ways. I think that's the great thing, God relates to different people in different ways. Some people might shake, fall or just stand there and receive from God. Some people speak in tongues or prophesy. There are different ways in which God ministers with the spirit."
Returning to his account of his early years, Ben explained how, by the age of 14, he was playing keyboards in a worship band. "We were initially called Flood but it was around the time of SonicFlood so everyone kept confusing us with them! So we eventually changed it from Flood to Surreal. We did a bit of recording. The first one we did I was about 14. It was with Langley Vineyard. It was a live recording called 'Live And In The Spirit'. We then did a full studio album called 'Everything' and an EP called 'Surreal'. We did those over about five or six years."
The lead singer of Flood/Surreal was Michael Larson who went on to become a popular worship leader with albums on ION. Commented Ben, "Michael is a good friend, I grew up with him. He lived in my house. We wrote the song 'Freedom Reigns' and it's just pretty cool to see how that song's just taken off."
In 2003 an event happened which was to permanently change the direction of Ben's life. Mike Pilavachi and Tim Hughes came to Vancouver and were ministering at a youth conference that I had been involved in the previous few years. They asked me to play keyboard for Tim. I got on really well with Tim and Mike and felt there was a good connection there. At the end of the conference they took me aside and said, 'Ben, we really enjoyed hanging out and we would love it if you would be a part of our Soul Survivor festival this year.' I said 'Yes' right off. There was just something about the worship in the UK that had really struck me. I always wanted to come to the UK, when I was 16 years old I was thinking of every way possible to get over here. I think there was a real sort of heart of worship, an intimacy and rawness about the songs. Something was really attractive about that and I wanted to come over. I heard about this Soul Survivor church in Watford and that's where Matt (Redman) and Mike were. I thought maybe I should just do a university course just to hang out over there, not to do anything but just to get experience of what it was like and take it all in. Then I thought it just wasn't me, it was just too much of a farfetched idea. But it's amazing how God brings things around and it was just incredible. I found myself right in the middle of it!"
Ben was blown away by the first Soul Survivor conference he attended
at Shepton Mallet. His eyes gleamed as he said, "It was such an
amazing thing to be brought over. I didn't have to do anything, they
just took care of everything. It was the first time that had ever
happened to me. It was the whole experience of being able to come and
just play music and be part of the worship times. Also to see the
effect that worship had on the young people here, there was just such
a desperation and longing to meet with God. It wasn't about the hype
or being excited, God was just doing real heart stuff."
The next pivotal stage in Ben's ministry was 2004, when he relocated to the UK. Said Ben, "I moved over to the UK right before Soul In The City in 2004. From an early age I really felt something for the UK, so when the invitation came to work with Tim, travel and do the stuff I love, I gladly took it. I was the music director for Tim Hughes. I would basically just travel around with Tim, play and develop the bands that we would play with. I would also do a bit of production in the studio; we also have a website called Passion For Your Name and we would do demos in the studio for it."
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