Tony Cummings met March For Jesus initiator, praise and worship leader and songwriter GRAHAM KENDRICK.
Tens of thousands marching the streets across Europe, banners in hands a song of praise on their collective lips. For many...nay, for most...evangelical Christians this is the Church Militant in its finest hour.
But for some Make Way, now known as March For Jesus has already become something of an embarrassment, the church at its most culturally irrelevant. And for a few March For Jesus is another depressing example of the Graham Kendrick Personality Cult. Graham Kendrick, the most successful worship songwriter in post-war years, began March For Jesus in 1986 when, with a couple of hundred of others from London's Ichthus church, he marched through the streets of Soho. When on 23rd May March For Jesus Europe took to the streets of many of Europe's major cities, hundreds of thousands of Christians were making a bodily proclamation of their Christian faith. The songs they sang were from the prolific pen of the one-time folk rocker. Graham squeezed an hour out of his bursting-at-the-seams schedule to talk to Cross Rhythms at a Leaders Conference in Birmingham.
Graham, there have been various marches down the years. This proliferation has led to a little confusion in people's minds. What stage are we at in March For Jesus?
"We're at the European stage. A couple of years back we recognised that people were actually coming over from other European nations to attend the British Marches For Jesus particularly in London where 55,000 people marched. Europe began to take interest. One or two film crews came over. With 1992 being the switch to the single market economy, we began to think that for a change, the church should respond now rather than ten years later in recognising something is happening in Europe. Otherwise 1992 will be a totally materialistic expression of European unity. We felt we should initiate something with more of a vision for Europe beyond the material. So we began a consultative process with European church leaders, and networking contacts we already had. We pulled together a consultation at DeBron, Holland and in Munich some months later. Out of that we received a mandate from them to work together towards a day when Marches For Jesus would happen simultaneously across Europe. Hence 23rd May. 38 marches took place in over 20 nations, mostly capital cities and some second cities varying in size. Albania perhaps was the smallest with 20-25 people marching but Berlin had 100,000 people marching - and everything in between. There were marches from Reykjavik to Moscow. It has moved right out of hand. I often say the organisers don't run March For Jesus, we run after it, trying to catch it up. Things are now happening in the USA and in about mid 1991 an office was set up with a co-ordinator, a guy called Tom Peton out of Austin, Texas who had already done several Marches culminating in a big march on 23rd March 1991 with 15,000 people. What grew out of that was a national co-ordinating office, and when they heard we were going to have a European March on 23rd May their eyes lit up and they began to say that 'maybe we could march on the same day'. We began to dream of as many as 10 American cities marching together with Europe. Conscious that they were part of an event that had become more and more international. About 95 American cities marched. Quite unexpectedly the whole vision spread across the US in a remarkable way. It's been picked up by major magazines as being front page news on three major interstate Christian magazines and Network TV has featured it. While we were planning a European march we ended up with what's going to be a prototype for a global march we're planning for 25th June 1994. Nation after nation are picking up the vision. I've just spoken to a woman just a few moments ago who does a lot of work encouraging churches in Zimbabwe. After her experience of March For Jesus in St. Albans she shared the vision in Zimbabwe. And now they're marching in Zimbabwe. There have been marches in South Africa. And so it goes on."
Is it a bit scary the way that it really has grown at such a rapid rate? Presumably, it has become much, much bigger than you could have imagined when you first took the idea to your church and said, 'let's march around Soho.'
"Yes, I never saw it on this scale. When I put the first Make Way March out in Easter 1986, I really didn't know if anyone would do it! I just felt I was being obedient to a vision the Lord had given me. When I heard that people had started to do it I was actually a little bit scared, I thought, oh no, people are doing it, will it really work?! It hadn't really been road-tested. Today's March For Jesus is way, way beyond the dream of all of us. I think the encouraging part of it is that it's a very simple vision that people catch. So it's not as if we're controlling some enormous growing empire. It actually flows through relationships between church leaders around the world. It's very much a networking thing. March For Jesus doesn't have some massive central office. If you came to the March For Jesus office you'd probably be very unimpressed at the small scale of the thing. It only works because people grab the vision and own it in a particular town, city or nation."
Are you worried that the spectacular growth of March For Jesus is interpreted by your critics as some piece of empire building?
"I think people will always put their own construction on things, particularly if they don't like it. When something reaches a certain size you have to find an excuse not to join in. When it's small people can ignore it, when it's really big people will ask 'why aren't you going?' and people have got to find a reason. Obviously people have their own convictions and legitimate reasons and I really accept that. But I don't think we met anybody who has actually been on a March, actually participated with a good heart, who hasn't been convinced of the value of it, whereas a lot of people who have never been on one, but watch from a distance, find reason to criticize it. I think a lot of the criticism is based on certain myths about March For Jesus which have grown up."
There does seem to have been a change of emphasis in terms of the theology behind the Marches.
"Well, in a sense, there never was a definite theology behind March For Jesus. It was a course of action which many folk felt we should do - go onto the streets and praise, pray and proclaim Christ. As we have done it we have begun to fill out a little of the theology, I don't think that there's anything wrong with that. I think that's the way the apostles, as reported in the New Testament did things, they were obeying the Holy Spirit and discovering the theology afterwards. I was recently studying the story of Palm Sunday - the Triumphant Entry of Jesus. If there's any one biblical example to do marching - that's it. John reports in his Gospel that the disciples didn't understand many things at first. But after, when Jesus was glorified, they began to understand. I really identified with that. I think that's just like us. We've really no idea what's going on. So I still don't have a full theology of March For Jesus. But we're trying to walk in obedience and we're gaining a little more understanding along the way."
Could it be true to say that the initial emphasis in terms of a spiritual welfare dynamic - taking captive the dominions and strongholds within our cities - has much less emphasis today and that March For Jesus as a demonstration of Christian unity has taken its place?
"There are many benefits of the marches. I can list many of them, one is unity, another is they create a great climate for evangelism, another is they bring boldness to the people of God, another is they encourage people to pray on location in the cities therefore making prayer a whole lot more real, they build faith, and so the list goes on. But all these things are held together by one thing, and that's an act of extravagant praise and adoration for Jesus. All those other benefits flow out of that, including the spiritual warfare benefits. My concern is that if we emphasise any one of those benefits we will lose something. Concerning spiritual warfare, the last thing I want is people crowding onto the streets with a kind of 'down with Satan' mentality. We all want to see Satan's downfall. But actually, if you're going to be accurate about it doctrinally, Satan has fallen already because Jesus has been exalted. So I would rather that we celebrate the victory of Christ through his death and resurrection and his ascension to the right hand of the Father as King of the nations. I'd rather we celebrate that. Because implied in that is that he's defeated the principalities and powers, and disarmed the Enemy. While we celebrate Jesus, I think lots of things happen in the' unseen realm. But in a sense I'd rather be innocent of that. I'd rather have my vision full of Jesus and let him deal with the principalities and powers. I'm here for Jesus - -: and I think most people who march, if you ask them why they're marching, the answer you'll get is, 'I'm here for Jesus, I love Jesus, and I'm giving him my praise and I don't care who sees it because He's worth it.' People are there for Jesus all these other things flow out of that but that is the one thing that holds it together."
Some who have critiqued March For Jesus have said its support is a kind of unthinking cultural response - that evangelicals are not encouraged to think through but simply to get out there.
"I think that gets very close to insulting the intelligence of ordinary people. I'm not one to say turn your brains off. I very much respect those with excellent scholarship and theological training and look to those sort of people. But there is a heart level where we simply want to worship Jesus because we think He's worth it. When I was studying the Scriptures around the Triumphant Entry of Jesus I noted that on the very eve of Jesus' triumphant entry, when Jesus was meeting with a lot of people, Pharisees and so on, Mary anointed Jesus feet with perfume. A year's wages worth she blew in that one moment and poured it on Jesus. In fact she got criticised for it by Judas who said 'this money should have been spent on the poor'. But Jesus defended Mary and said 'she's done a beautiful thing for me. The poor you have with you always. Don't forget the poor but, she's done a beautiful thing to prepare me for my burial' and so on. I think there's a sense as we March For Jesus we're extravagantly pouring out our love for Him not unintelligently but from the heart. I think that's the highest motive there is for marching. But at the same time we need to think it through. I believe we have thought it through. One of the criticisms that has been levelled at us is that this is not the way to advance the Kingdom Of God. Our critics say we should be serving the poor and getting involved in the nitty gritty of society and social action and so on. Our answer to that is, 'amen, absolutely'. All three main sponsors for March For Jesus, Icthus, YWAM, and Pioneer are all doing that 364 days of the year. I think this gives us the integrity to take one day of the year to say 'today, against the background of all that we are doing with AIDS sufferers, adult literacy campaigns, putting laundrettes in Peckam housing estates, against that background, we're now going to show the world why we do those things. It's because we love Jesus. So here's an extravagant, expensive if you like, act of worship. I think it is totally legitimate."
Moving away from the March For Jesus, I've heard a number of people say that in the British church your music and ministry have been greatly overexposed.
"It's very difficult for me to respond to that. Certainly there is no Graham Kendrick promotional machine. You won't find it. You won't find the kind of publicity machine that you would find in the world of secular promotion of artists and records working for me. We don't have a budget for it, we don't do it. The support my ministry has received is simply the way things have happened. It's simply that people use the songs, they respond to concepts like marching, and that's just the way it is. What should I do? Should I go and lock myself in a closet, and stop writing songs, and stop marching, just in case of the danger that I get over-exposure?"
What about the Graham Kendrick Personality Cult?
"I don't really know about that. I certainly meet a lot of people who tell me they've appreciated my songs. At certain times in their lives a certain song has helped them tremendously, or encouraged them, or maybe they have become Christians in the middle of singing 'Shine Jesus Shine' - just testimonies basically. Now, when I hear that, it just encourages me. But people will always try and make heroes. Whenever I meet somebody who I think is in danger of doing that with me I go out of my way to try and tell them I'm just a nobody from nowhere and not to put me on a pedestal or one day they'll be disillusioned. It's just an occupational hazard of anybody who ends up in the public eye. Jesus was in the public eye, Paul was in the public eye, I'm not trying to align myself up with them of course. But God works through people, and when he does that some of the people become visible, a lot of them don't. I think the big sort-out will occur when we come before the Judgement Throne of Christ when things are turned on their head. A lot of unsung heroes will get their reward, and a lot of people who maybe look like heroes will turn out to have been not so wonderful after all. Personally, I've always resisted the tendency towards hype and artificial promotion."
When the "Let The Flame Burn Brighter" single was released there were accusations that there was a certain degree of hype involved.
"People's feelings run high with that sort of thing. I think some folk misunderstood it because a lot of people have tried to crossover from the Christian world to the secular world. Some people thought that was what I was trying to do, when I had no ambitions for that at all. Perhaps I had ambitions for crossover 15 years that was when I was performing as an artist doing concerts and so on, before I got into the worship thing. But I laid down any ambition to become an artist a long, long time ago. But what was behind producing the theme song for March For Jesus as a single was a conviction, which I still have, that praise and worship will, bit by bit, reach the ears of the masses on the back of revival. When so many people are worshipping God, and using songs from many songwriters, not just me, then praise and worship won't be able to escape notice. There will come a time, when simply because so many people are giving expression to the love of God that the world will have to take notice. March For Jesus is basically a grassroots movement of people who love Jesus so for them to sing a song about that, was a kind of Communication tool. If people just see a load of people marching down the street, they can draw all sorts of conclusions about it which might be totally erroneous. If they listen to a song which picks up the spirit of that movement they think, 'oh, right, so this is what they're about'. They're not shouting 'down with this' or 'down with that', they're singing praises of Jesus; and they are wanting the light of Jesus to shine more."
But on the march I attended I heard a well known church leader make a pretty crass plug: 'go and buy this record, and put praise in the charts'.
"You can't control the way in which people do things. It's hard to comment without having heard that particular thing that you heard. I think people should only buy a record if they really want to. We shouldn't put people under pressure to buy it. But we should tell them that it's available, and encourage them that if they like it to buy it, as they would any other record. It's funny that we accept, without blinking, the most incredible hype to go and buy all sorts of totally useless things. But with the slightest, you needn't call it hype; exhortation to go and buy a Christian product suddenly everyone's up in arms. It's a kind of double-think."
Some people say that your huge song-writing success has made you a millionaire.
(Laughs) "Really? That might be something to do with a rather hyped article in The Independent' a year or so ago which said: 'The Christian Hymnwriter Most Likely To Become A Millionaire' or something like that. Of course, once the headline comes out in a newspaper people take it as if something has already happened. But no, I'm definitely not a millionaire! All the money that comes in through royalties goes into the organisation, Make Way Music. Basically, once I pay myself a salary to live on, it all goes back into the ministry and things for which you have to invest in. Things like translation of songs into other languages which you don't see any money back from, but which is worth doing. I am responsible for quite large amounts of money, but the image of this somebody becoming a millionaire praise and worship songwriter, sitting back in a Jacuzzi with servants and a Rolls Royce in the garage, is quite a long way from the truth."
What are your new recording plans?
"I'm working towards three projects. One is to adapt the 'Crown Him' album into a sort of participatorial musical. I want to take some of the songs, unpack some of the themes within them of World mission, unity and prayer to create an event that Christians can come to catch a little bit more of some of those visions. Another recording project is to put together some of the best of the street songs into a new format. There's a particular need for this in the States where they don't have the five-year history of the Marches. There's a need there for some follow up resources, and the previous Make Way albums are not available over there. So we are going to take some of the best ones and re-record them, putting together a new march with that in mind. I am also working towards a collection of songs which, would you believe, have nothing to do with going onto the streets! It is literally years since I made a series of albums of songs which are simply meant to be resources for regular Church life."
You've surprised some by showing a definite black gospel influence on recent albums.
"I've always tried to be eclectic in my songwriting. I've always enjoyed black gospel music, and in recent years have begun to work with more and more people from that tradition and that background. For getting on for three years now I've been working very closely with Steve Thompson who's a black keyboards player, a multi-instrumentalist. He's my regular keyboard player in the band, and we work together on song arrangements and so on. So there's bound to be an influence. The more traditional and classical you get, I suppose some people might hang, draw and quarter me for this, but you can tend to get a little bit cerebral. I think white English people tend to speak out of their heads rather than their hearts. They are not really equipped to show their emotions. I think we need an injection of soul from part of Christ's body, which is our body, the black churches who've got so much soul and emotion in their music. At the same time, people like Steve and friends of mine from black churches, tell me that the black churches really need some of the depth of doctrine and theology that are in the songs that are coming from the white churches, and in the hymns. You really need both. You need enthusiasm and content together. One of my fondest hopes and dreams is that there'll be an increasing common ground built between the black and white churches. I think this is slowly happening. It'll take time, but there is a traffic in songs in both directions, creating bit by bit a bigger and bigger area of overlap between the two cultures. We need to worship together because we are part of the same body -the church."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.