Their CD 'To Know You' is in the Christian bookstores. But who are BROWN BEAR MUSIC and why the weird name? Susan Lumsden finds out.
In Deptford, South London, the words, "I'm going to meet some friends in the Brown Bear" doesn't mean what you would expect. The Brown Bear is a pub, yes, but it's also a church.
Bought four years ago by Ichthus Fellowship when it was a run-down shell given over to squatters, the pub known locally as The Bear is now the venue for a vibrant youth church. It has seen Brown Bear Music (known as BBM) grow from a worship team to a band now poised to make its debut on the London club scene.
Andy Pressdee (guitars and vocals) and Ian Mizen (keyboards and vocals) were recruited to provide the worship in the early days of The Bear when "you had to shout down the PA just to be heard." They soon found that the standard breed of evangelical worship "went right over people's heads." "So we started writing our own stuff," says Andy, "with simple lyrics which an unchurched person could understand, so that they could worship more easily."
The Bear provided the testing ground for the development of BBM, who have since swelled to a maximum line-up of eight, with a saxophone player and two percussionists. All have some experience in secular music, and Kev Frost (percussion) is a professional session musician who has toured with artists like Boy George. Members are still involved regularly in worship at The Bear and its younger colleague, The Barn, and have played at youth clubs and missions.
In 1992 they recorded "My Soul Thirsts For You" to raise money to help refurbish The Bear and "for a bit of fun." "We had 300 copies run off and we thought we'd have boxes of them in the loft for ever," says Andy. In fact, the cassettes went like hot cakes and over 1,000 have now been sold. Kingsway are distributing their second album, "To Know You" (1994) and a third is planned.
BBM has been gradually adapting for a new purpose. Their aim is to produce songs which are essentially worshipful, but can be used in a performance setting. Not so profound that they lose the audience, and not so simple that people get bored; songs which are good enough to stand alongside secular counterparts. Andy says, "We feel we are ready now musically not just to do church stuff but perform as a normal band."
They have their eye on certain London clubs, such as The Borderline and The Mean Fiddler. What they will play there is what Vineyard's Kevin Prosch has called 'evangelical worship'. "We would like what we do to affect people who are not Christians, not just because we've gone somewhere and played as a band, but because we've sung worship songs to God in those venues."
Andy excitedly tells the story of when Prosche felt led to join a karaoke night in a seedy back street bar. "He waited all evening for his turn and then sang 'Lean On Me'. The Spirit just came, people fell on their knees praying to God. That was just a normal song and he didn't expect it at all. Maybe if God wanted, he could start using what we do in that way." Ambitious? "But we're not under any illusions about thousands getting saved at gigs, because only 25 come anyway!" jokes Andy.
BBM are attempting to bridge the gap between the technical quality of rock music and the attitude of worship. There is a strong dance influence, although the band is moving towards a guitar base. "Slightly grungier, without being really grungy," says Ian. "A guitar base, but you can still dance to it."
However, despite their increasing desire to hit the club scene, their vision for church growth remains. "There's a lot of talk at the moment of a new generation of churches coming through, of young people picking up on what God is doing in this country," says Ian. When I spoke to them the pair were about to go to a conference for youth church leaders to hear a 28-year-old Argentinean speaker who has already planted 150 youth churches.
They agree that a separate church for young people does not provide the ideal balance of all ages, but with young people leaving the established churches in droves something has to be done. Even the most high tech missions are of limited use if the young people reached then choke on a diet of Hymns Ancient and Modern or Graham Kendrick's Greatest Hits. "It's vitally important for them to have a church where they can feel happy and relate to," says Ian.
A common problem which youth churches anticipate is that members will outgrow their culture, but feel unable to adapt to a more traditional church atmosphere. It is less easy for a youth church to become isolated in a larger structure like Ichthus, where members can attend Sunday evening celebrations with those from other congregations.
But what will actually happen when the members of a youth church get older? "Do you have to change your culture completely when you get to a certain age, go along to an ordinary church and start going on rambles?" questions Ian. The Bear, in its fourth year of operation, is one of the oldest in Britain. Andy has seen it become "more balanced and better organised" as its members matured, but the long-term future is still unclear.
Aged "17 and upwards", Brown Bear are still young themselves. They have already achieved their early ambition "to create a style of worship music people our age could really relate to, not just put up with." Now they are casting their net wider, beyond the Christian circuit, to impact the unchurched and consider making music full time. As Ian, who has a "very exciting job in the housing benefits department", says, "I'd like to leave work."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.