Tony Cummings quizzed CHRIS ROE about his 30-odd years in music ministry
Modern worship isn't modern anymore. Emerging in the '60s with pioneering movements such as America's Calvary Chapel-sourced 'Praise' albums and New Zealand's 'Scripture In Song' albums, by the '70s Brits like Graham Kendrick were leading the way in persuading more and more churches to use Scripture-based songs with folk and pop rhythms and melody as the vehicle to commune with God. Since then, of course, the floodgates have opened. Australia's Hillsong Worship, Britain's Martin Smith and Delirious? and America's Bethel Music have ensured that more and more churches are bringing modern worship songs alongside the best of the ancient hymns to aid congregations connect with the living God.
But the story of modern worship is incomplete if one concentrates entirely on the few songwriters/worship leaders whom God has blessed with vast church congregations and huge recording and promotion budgets. For every Hillsong songwriter, there are thousands more content to serve their local churches and, alongside singing a Phil Wickham or a Brooke Ligertwood song, sing their own songs targeted at the congregations they serve.
Croydon's Chris Roe is such a singer/songwriter. For 30-odd years he has ministered in music, occasionally making low budget recordings of his songs. He has seen great highs and crushing lows in his ministry life. Now Chris, completely unexpectedly, finds himself with a Cross Rhythms radio hit, his "Awaken (Single Version)", with its appealing vocal and infectious synth riff a clear demonstration that you don't always need youth or a multi-national recording budget to make something that sounds good in church and on radio.
Chris was born in 1959 in Beckenham, Kent. He remembered, "My brother William, who is eight years older than me, saturated me in '60s music from when I was about five years old. So from a really young age I was immersed in the Beatles, Stones, the Who, Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, Motown, etc. The first record I ever bought was 'See Emily Play' by Pink Floyd. When I was about 13 or 14 I bought myself a guitar and taught myself to play. I quickly found that I had a gift for writing songs. I had the drive and vision to form a band at age 16 that performed mostly my own material and was gigging and recording regularly from the age of 16 to about 22. We often used to play venues like the Rock Garden, Upstairs at Ronnie Scott's, the 100 Club and the like. The band was called White Rabbit and, as this was back in the '70s, we were kind of energetic power pop/new wave style. It was great fun! We recorded a couple of singles and almost got a publishing deal at one point. Eventually the band gradually faded out and I concentrated on writing and recording. I bought myself a Tascam Porta studio, an old cassette four-track recording studio! I must have recorded at least 15 C-90s cassettes worth of material. Actually recording songs was and is my most favourite thing to do."
Chris had always had a strong interest in spiritual things. In 1985 he read the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of John. Then one of his friends at work fancied a new girl who had moved down from Scotland and who was a Christian. As Chris explained, "He ended up, over a period of time, getting saved and marrying her! The huge change in him hadn't gone unnoticed by me. One evening they said they were taking us to a concert by some guy called Bryn Haworth at a local school in Mitcham. Bryn was very entertaining and in between songs, told stories about God. At the end of the evening he started to worship and the people in the hall joined in. The Spirit of God fell on both me and [my wife] Karen very powerfully, and then someone gave an invitation for folks to go to the front and give their lives to Christ. Karen went forward but I was literally hanging on to my chair even though my heart was beating out of my chest! My head was saying 'hang on, let's think about this!' So I didn't go forward. Anyway, the next day I was driving in my car and said to God, 'I know you're real and I want you to come in'. The Holy Spirit came in like a flood, it felt like electricity going through my body and this very strange language came out of my mouth - which I later found out was called speaking in tongues. Subsequently we started going to this church called Folly's End. This was late October 1986. As we'd only really ever experienced church at funerals and weddings, we had no idea what to expect!"
Folly's End was initially in the home of one-time bass player with Eric Clapton, Dave Markee. As well as being a consummate musician, Dave was an anointed preacher and a powerful worship leader. Modern worship was very much part of Folly's End and, with Dave and his wife Zee overseeing the church, Dave being asked to contribute to such events as Spring Harvest and Kingsway Music releasing the Markee album 'To The Chief Musician', things continued to grow for Markee and Folly's End. The Roes' role in the church had begun rather humbly. "We started off doing the washing up, then after a little while I started leading worship and in the end we pretty much did everything we could to serve the congregation."
In 1991, the national Church was giving birth to what could be described as a sub-group of modern worship. Alternative worship, as it was dubbed, sought to take worship music away from the increasingly stylised congregational songs of guitar strummers and to experiment with different rhythms and sounds. The alternative worship scene was sadly to fragment into more and more sub-groups, including those who wished to abandon congregational singing completely and even groups like Sheffield's subsequently notorious Nine O'Clock Service, abandoning orthodox theology. However, in 1991, alternative worship seemed to some adventurous, charismatic fellowships a great opportunity to make worship music more youth-relevant.
Markee had a recording studio in his garage and it was there that Chris recorded a single, dubbed "House On The Rock". Said Chris about the initiative, "One of the ways that God has wired and created me is that I have an inherent drive and desire to constantly seek the 'more' of God (Ephesians 3:20). I'm always wanting the body of Christ to be pioneering and entrepreneurial and creative - bringing the Kingdom of God to earth from Heaven, and for the Church to be distinctive and known for his presence and blessing (like it says in Deuteronomy 28). So the concept behind the single was to try and push boundaries and move praise and worship forward a little bit, hence the 'house' feel and some rapping on the track. The context of this was, a couple of years previously I'd experienced some of the rave scene that was exploding in youth culture and felt like God was doing something new, particularly with the younger generation. This led me to pioneer an alternative worship service, which were still pretty rare at the time, called the 'H' Service. In fact Cross Rhythms did an interview and a review round about the service at the time. The 'H' Service was kind of a worship experiment/adventure and of course was fairly misunderstood by many at the time. The only other alternative worship services that I was aware of were the Nine O'Clock Service in St Thomas, Crookes in Sheffield and the Late, Late Service in Glasgow. So, the single was recorded in that context of experimental worship and following my instinctive, creative God-flow of wanting to do something new and different. In hindsight, it's somewhat dated but is still a catchy song! In fact the B-side, another song I wrote called 'Never Let My Heart Grow Cold', was picked up and published by Kingsway's Thank You Music which was great."
The same year that the humble cassette "House On The Rock" was released, Chris and Karen had their first daughter, Emily, and two years later in '93, their second, Holly. Explained Chris, "I was working full time for a phone company until I started working for Folly's End part time in April 1999 as the youth pastor. Then, by January 2000, Karen and I both came out full time working for Folly's running the school of ministry which was a model that was copied from Toronto. In the early '90s Karen and I led a church plant of Folly's End in Addiscombe where we live; I was still working full-time for the phone company, Emily had just been born and we had the PA equipment in our small two bedroom flat! Somehow, by the grace of God and despite our inexperience, the congregation grew and we even saw Toronto-like outpourings of the Holy Spirit before Toronto! After a few years a decision was made to finish with church plants and bring all the congregations (there were three at the time) back into one main congregation. After that, Karen and I became the youth pastors for several years and went out to the Toronto church lots of times."
In 1999, the hugely busy Chris managed to find the time to record and release an EP, 'In-toxicated'. He said, "It was recorded at the studio at Folly's End (it had moved from the garage to the church building at Surrey Street in Croydon), and also at a studio in Brighton. I'd been asked to lead worship at Fresh Wind, the youth conference at Toronto in Easter 1999 so that was a good nudge to get something recorded. It was all done fairly quickly and in fact the title song 'Intoxicated' was used quite a lot at Toronto. Another song on the EP, 'With Just One Glance', was on Jeremy Sinnott's 'Intimate Bride' CD. So in hindsight it was a decent first recording. The following year, 2000, Karen and I pioneered The Revolution, the first youth conference at Folly's End (we'd met Judah Smith and Nolan Clark at Fresh Wind the previous year and brought them both over to preach at it). Around this time I recorded a second album, 'Drench', with a 19 year old DJ/producer, again following my instinctive God-wiring to try and do something that's not the same old status quo. With the benefit of hindsight and a bit more experience, there are some good tracks and some that didn't really work. I really liked the artwork though!"
In 2005, God had something of a surprise for the musician and Bible teacher. Chris explained, "I was in a bit of a church bubble; by that I mean that I had no real context of interacting with non-Christians. My youngest daughter, Holly, who was about eight or nine, started playing football for Crystal Palace Ladies and actually won a few trophies in her first season. Taking her to training and matches put me in an environment with all the other players' non-Christian parents which I absolutely loved. On the back of this, me, Holly and Emily and another friend and her kids all got season tickets to Palace, which was a literal breath of fresh air and a great way to de-stress! Then, completely out of the blue, I got a phone call from a guy called John Boyers who was the chaplain at Manchester United FC. John also ran an organisation called SCORE which was a UK network of sports chaplains. John told me that the current Palace chaplain, a wonderful man called Rev Nigel Sands, was planning to retire and I had been recommended to take over by someone in our congregation, and was I interested?!
"So bearing in mind that I had been a Palace fan since the age of eight, and that Holly was playing for the ladies team, and that we all had season tickets, but, most importantly, an overwhelming sense of God's favour, it didn't really take me long to say 'yes'. And, of course, to marvel at God's amazing and wonderful ways that he works in us and through us. After a while, I met with Rev Sands and the plan was for him to phase out and for me to phase in during the 2005/06 season. He did such a wonderful job of mentoring me that I was actually in post by December 2005. So, one match I was in my usual seat behind the goal and then the next match I was in the changing room with the players before the game! It really is a wonderful and unique ministry and I've experienced unbelievable favour so many times. I know without a doubt that God has called me to do this.
"We've had at least three amazing Croydon inter-church gatherings at Selhurst Park, the football club's stadium, called In It Together where the Church in Croydon has partnered with the football club to bless the community. Leading worship in a huge marquee on the pitch with 1000 worshippers plus lots of non-Christians was a highlight of recent years for me. We also did a Christmas carol service commemorating 100 years after WW1 where the Palace manager at the time participated in the service, reading out a huge chunk of one of the Gospels! So it's now been around 14 years of being the chaplain for Crystal Palace FC with fantastic and amazing things that God has done and is still doing. I was also really blessed to be given the chance to do a Master's degree in Pastoral Care in Sport at the University of Gloucester where we were taught by a wonderful man called Professor Andy Parker. The degree was done in conjunction with Sports Chaplaincy UK (SCUK) which is a network that I'm part of, and I graduated in 2015. It was also published academically and apparently has sometimes been quoted at Premier League meetings!"
Although his long Crystal Palace association brought Chris continual blessing, musically there were some disappointments. He explained, "I recorded an album between 2006 and 2008 with another immensely gifted friend of mine, Michael Wray, who is a wonderfully anointed keyboard player. He's also an absolutely genius music producer! Michael produced the album, which was called 'Glimmer' which I would describe as a kind of '60s- vibe electronica pop feel. Unfortunately, it ended up not actually being released, though some of the tracks did eventually emerge on an EP, 'Lovesick', released in 2018, which Michael also produced."
Over the years the attendances at Folly's End began to seriously decline. Chris and Karen were ordained as the local pastors of Folly's End around 2003, but after 22 years there, they felt God prompting them to seek a fresh direction. They left in May 2008 to join Croydon Jubilee. Tragically, Folly's End, which had been such an apostolic resource church, eventually closed its doors in January 2019.
Said Chris, "In the 22 years we were at Folly's End, we learnt so much. We were blessed and privileged to receive teaching and input from so many incredibly gifted and anointed people, like John and Carol Arnott, John and Paula Sandford and a whole host of others. And of course, Folly's was renowned for its amazing worship ministry. When we heard that the church had closed down earlier this year, it was very sad."
In May 2008, Chris and Karen joined Croydon Jubilee Church. He
explained, "Jubilee was led by a fantastic man of God called Paul
Barratt. At the time we joined, in May 2008, Paul was also leading the
Croydon Church unity movement which I was a part of, and I'd built a
great friendship with him.
Paul invited Karen and I to be part of Jubilee. In the time we've been there, I've been part of the core leadership team and as well as the ministry at Palace I pioneered chaplaincy to the Whitgift shopping centre in Croydon (which is due to be redeveloped by Westfield) and also to Croydon council. I lead worship and preach itinerantly and am still integrally involved in church unity in Croydon. Two years ago I helped pioneer Croydon BURN 24/7 which is a monthly evening of uninterrupted worship, which is wonderful. Last year I also trained to be a qualified Destiny Life Coach, specialising in helping people get in touch with their dreams and visions and getting these dreams activated. I'm also very blessed to lead a monthly meeting at Jubilee called Downpour which is basically an evening of worship adventure and experimentation where I just get to curate what the Holy Spirit is doing; it's kind of a smaller version of a similar meeting I led at Folly's End which was called Flourish. It's basically an expression of church where we can take things wherever they go, and also incorporate lots of other creative aspects of worship besides music."
2018 and into this year have, despite all of Chris' numerous other activities, been hugely productive for the veteran. As well as the 'Lovesick' EP, he's released the singles "Hopelessly Ruined (Electronica Version)" and "Bliss" as well as the album 'Separation. . .Is Just Illusion'. Chris spoke about the latter. "This album was recorded with my very close friend Ken Smith who is probably the nicest guy on the face of the earth and also a brilliant sound engineer. Ken runs Westfield Studio, and we started off just recording a few new songs I'd written. It became apparent very quickly that we had enough good material to put out a complete album. So it was recorded over the best part of last year, and for me, one of the most interesting parts was inviting other musicians in to contribute their creative energy and flow to the songs; this actually caused the tracks to take on a different shape and personality to what I'd originally envisaged. I found this, creatively, very interesting indeed. It was also really fantastic to connect with some new singers/musicians. For example, Sarah Clarke, who runs South London BURN 24/7, ended up doing backing vocals on several of the tracks after we found that her voice blended particularly nicely with mine. A lot of the songs have lyrics that have either been taken from or inspired by new translations or paraphrases of the Bible, such as The Passion Translation. I found this was like entering another dimension from a lyrical perspective."
It was a song on the album, the mid-tempo "Awaken", which was finally to lead to Chris landing a radio hit. Said Chris, "'Awaken' is a call to awaken our slumbering consciousness to the reality of the fullness of who we are in Christ. For a single we wanted a kind of '60s psychedelic vibe and with Francis Gorini doing a remix I think that is what we've achieved. Francis is a music producer who lives locally to me. I met him when I went to his house one day to see a guitar he'd listed on Gumtree (yet another God connection). He showed me his very impressive studio and we got talking about music in general. To cut a long story short, Francis did the remix version of 'Awaken'. I'm currently in the process of recording another new batch of songs with Ken, focusing on what I hope will be the next single, a song called 'Un-Unrequited Love'.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.