Mike Rimmer flew to Belfast to talk to the passionate and thought-provoking leader of the JOHNNY PARKS BAND
I'm driving through Belfast with Johnny Parks and recognise a street name. Cyprus Avenue is the street where Van Morrison once lived and was immortalised into a song. It's a reminder that Belfast has always been a rich place for music and the Christian music scene is no different. It has to be said that some of the most exciting British Christian music is coming from this city and when it comes to worship music, Johnny Parks has always created some of the most passionate and adventurous albums and 'Break The Silence, the most recent album, is credited to the Johnny Parks Band, a move we'll discuss later.
For now, we're back at Johnny's house and we settle down in his work room to have a chat. I observe that he became a believer relatively late on. "Yeah," he agrees, "I didn't become a Christian until I was about 22. I'd gone through a whole journey of pursuing different things trying to find some sort of substance and meaning in life, and then had quite a journey of about three months where God was speaking to me and I was praying. I didn't really know what was going on to be honest. But one night God kind of turned up and I surrendered, and it was a big turning for me. It was great."
So was it a "road to Damascus" dramatic experience? "I suppose it was. I sometimes feel uncomfortable saying that because you know, there can be a pressure on people that they feel they have to have a dramatic conversion otherwise it's less valuable or valid. That's rubbish really. But for me it was because I think I got to a point in life where I felt desperate and was really searching for meaning and couldn't find it. I had literally spent the guts of three months, every morning, the only thing I knew to do was to pray at the side of my bed. I'd seen it on a postcard; a wee girl kneeling down praying on her bed, and I did the same and started praying. My prayers were consistently about, 'God, if you're there, do something. Turn up.'"
He continues, "I was dating a girl at the time and she said to me, 'Why don't you go to church? There's a church in Belfast I think you might like. Just go there and see what it's like.' I drove up on a Friday night and funnily enough they were having some sort of meeting; I don't know what it was. I walked in through the door and saw a guy who I knew. He automatically came over to me with another guy and said, 'Hey Johnny! What are you doing here?' I just said, 'I don't know.' And he said, 'Come on over.' They were singing a song when I walked in and the words were: 'I will change your name/You shall no longer be called 'wounded', 'lonely', 'outcast', 'afraid'/I will change your name/You shall be, Son of God, One who knows my name." And I just broke into tears. It was like God kind of turned up. Then the two guys prayed with me and it was the first time I'd experienced anything like prophecy or anything and they prayed over me prophetically. So it was a fairly important experience. I drove home in the car and just said, 'Okay God, you win.' And I surrendered."
Parks had been singing since primary school and had been involved in music for some time with local bands. Music seems to flow through Belfast like the river and Parks is part of a music community that includes Iain Archer, Duke Special, Brian Houston and others. "It's funny," he reminisces, "because I grew up with a lot of those guys. I went to school with Iain Archer and I knew him from when I was 11 years old. I knew Pete Wilson (Duke Special) from when I was about 14. I remember meeting Brian Houston years ago at a Battle Of The Bands competition in Bangor when he was playing with The Mighty Fall, which is where I met Johnny Quinn, who's the drummer from Snow Patrol. So there was like a whole bunch of guys around the place who were into songwriting and music and knew each other; and it feels really special to be a part of that because there was something that was birthed I think then that is coming into fruition now and has been over the last number of years. It's weird that, isn't it? That there was like a little moment that happened. And to be honest, I think it's just about time because it seems significant that Northern Ireland has gone through all this rubbish and we're maybe coming out the other end of that and at this stage there's something great that comes out of the country in terms of music and arts and creativity. I think it's in the airwaves and you just can't stop it. There's something about transition and change in a country where the music and the arts start to emerge in a more powerful way and that feels really significant."
Northern Ireland has gone through so many changes in the last decade
and just driving around the city there is still plenty of evidence in
the physical landscape of its recent history. There's been the Peace
Process and the end of hostilities so, I ask, is there a huge sigh of
relief in the country? "Yes, I think there is a huge sigh of relief.
Coming from the dark days, looking back and knowing what the place has
been like in the past and what you used to hear on a daily basis on
the news and the kind of environment that we lived in, which always
seemed dark and gloomy and uncertain, now it feels that there's a
completely different atmosphere. It feels a lot safer first of all but
there just seems to be a bit more hope and stability about the place
and a bit more vision, which is fantastic. But it's not all over. It's
like the now and the not yet, like the Kingdom of God; the Kingdom is
here but it's not quite here. The job is done but it's not finished
yet. We still live in a society which is immensely segregated. There
are 14 miles of walls that run through Belfast that stand 25 feet high
that are called 'Peace Walls' to keep Catholics and Protestants apart,
and if they weren't there we would hurt each other. That's not God's
plan for our city and it never was and never will be, so I suppose
there's a part of us that really wants another Jericho; we want walls
to tumble down."
He continues, "It feels like, whilst there's some sense of stability and some movement, there's not been a deep healing in the country yet and I personally really want that. I want communities to go through a process where there's healing and that can only come when people are going to take a risk; when we are at the stage where we feel safe enough to take a risk. Healing only comes through confession and forgiveness and all that stuff, and that will only come when people feel safe enough to be able to do that. So that says to me that we don't feel that safe yet. So there's a big sense of relief but I feel there's still a little bit to go in terms of how we operate living side by side."
The new album features a song that takes up this theme. "Walls" is one of the rockiest songs on the album. "You know the funny thing is," Parks jumps in, "we as a band are loving this song at the moment because when we play it live we talk about the city and about the walls in the city. For us it feels so important and I can't reinforce this enough. I wish I could do something to reinforce it more. But for us it feels so important that worship music and that worship writers HAVE to engage socially and HAVE to engage politically. You can't write songs that aren't birthed out of a local context and I think there's too much of an agenda at the moment to write songs for the globe. You know, 'Let's write a song that travels around the world!' Which means that generally speaking, things get watered down and you find the lowest common denominator statements that don't really have much relevance in people's communities. They may say some truths in your life individually but they don't have relevance in your community and I think that is a shame, it's a crying shame, because there are truths that get lost about what God is doing in nations; what he is doing in local communities. And that's where God operates! It comes from local church, from local communities and local nations and grows from there. So for us it felt really important that we connected into, 'What has God done in our country? What has God done in our community? What is he continuing to do?' We're really passionate about that. So this song actually is really important for us when we play it live and on the CD. We dug our heels in to make sure songs like this were included on the album because it felt really important to us that we connected with a local context of what God's doing here."
Obviously to understand the work of Parks and his band, it's important to put the whole thing into a local church context. Parks is part of Belfast's Christian Fellowship Church. The church is rich in terms of great musicians and writers and Robin Mark, Bluetree, Brian Houston and Duke Special's Pete Wilson are all in the same fellowship. I wondered how important that local church was for Parks since we now have the idea of worship leader as someone who travels around playing at conferences and doing concert tours. It's obvious that Parks is a worship leader who believes in being in the local community. "Yeah I am and for some reason I feel slightly hesitant about that, which I'll talk about in a minute. But I think yes; I mean it's my family. Since I became a Christian I've been going to this church and so I feel like I belong there, I feel like my family are there, I feel very supported and I feel like I really believe in the place. I really value going there and being a part of that community, and it really DOES feel like a community to me. It feels like we all live locally and it's like five minutes to the church from our house so it feels really local to me."
Continues Johnny, "I'm hesitant about it because I feel like there's also a job that the local church needs to do to release people and our church has been fortunately quite good at that, in terms of trying to facilitate what's our purpose to our community around us, to the city around us, to the nation around us and beyond that. I think if it comes from there that's fine; I don't have a problem with that at all. I think if people write songs because, 'I want to get on a tour bus and tour the world and be a worship celeb,' in some ways then there's something about that that's not right. I've met, unfortunately, in the past a lot of young guys who've talked to me and said things like, 'I want to be Chris Tomlin.' 'I want to be David Crowder.' And I found that sad, deeply sad. My response is, 'Why don't you want to be yourself?! What's God called YOU to do?! What's YOUR part of this whole thing that we're involved in here in terms of building the Kingdom? That's not your calling.' And so I feel it's very important that people get clarity around their sense of purpose and what they're called to, and then put their energy behind that."
One of the things I've observed about Parks' work is that his songs are not often taken up by church congregations. Yfriday seem to have a similar situation where their songs work best when they play them. Has Parks any idea why that happens? "I don't know why," he laughs. "I think we just keep getting it wrong! Yesterday, to give you an example, we were playing at church and we led worship at all three services. We did a lot of our own songs but we also did a version of "Be Thou My Vision", but we did it in our own way. I hate just copying stuff. We always want to put our own interpretation on others' songs. We did a version of "You Are Good (And Your Love Endures)" but again we did it in our own way, which had a really slow groove to the whole thing and I loved it. And then we did a version of "He Is Lord, He Is Lord!" and again we put our own sort of spin on that. But we also did a version of a song by Steve Earle called "Revolution". Steve Earle, for anybody who knows him, isn't a Christian guy, he's a socialist writer and songwriter from the States; very sort of left-of-centre and has a lot of comments; writes a lot of songs that comment on the state of politics in America and the world. He's written a song called "Revolution" but it's phenomenal! There are three verses in it which are phenomenal in terms of basically talking about the Kingdom of God and so we did that in our set last night as well."
He continues, "There's a lot of pressure on us as writers and as a band to write songs that travel in churches, because if they don't travel in churches they don't make money and so there's pressure to write songs that travel in churches. It's not just about money but that seems to be a lot of the agenda because there's CCLI charts and people want to be at the top of the CCLI charts because if your song is at the top of the CCLI charts it keeps the record company happy and it keeps the writer happy. And that to me is not the Spirit of Christ. I don't think it's the Spirit of Christ because that's the sort of stuff, when that's the ONLY agenda, which is where I think the tables get turned over. It isn't the only agenda all the time I have to say. But when that becomes the only agenda there's something deeply disrespectful to the character of God which needs to be challenged and upset somehow."
Sitting on a sofa in Parks' comfortable home office, I explain that when I listen to what he's trying to do it reminds me of Kevin Prosch. Perhaps not musically, but certainly spiritually. "It's funny you say that," Johnny responds, "because when I became a Christian the first album that someone gave me was a live Vineyard thing, which I loved. And the next one was Kevin Prosch's first one. There was a song on that I can't even remember its name but it broke my heart. A brilliant song! I can remember I didn't know about leading worship. I didn't understand that at all but someone knew I played guitar and sang so said, 'Could you sing some songs at this meeting we're having?' And I can remember playing that song and I'm not joking, I'm not telling you a word of a lie, I must have played that one song for about 35 minutes! I sang it on repeat and on repeat and just cried my heart out because it was just a deeply moving song about how God chooses the people who are the weak and who are the broken and who are the fragile and who have nothing to offer, and uses them to build his Kingdom. And I found it really moving; that whole concept about how fragile people can be used to do great things. So Kevin Prosch I think in those early days really did something for me not just lyrically but musically. He was very, very good musically. He was a very talented musician and I think people underestimate how talented he is; but he did something musically that really caught me."
Johnny continues, "We brought Kevin over here to do some stuff when I was just a new Christian; I think it was before he was really known that much. I can remember being blown away. He did that song 'God Is Speaking Through The Music' and I can remember just thinking, 'God IS speaking through the music! GOD IS SPEAKING THROUGH THE MUSIC!' And it was fantastic. I think there's sometimes too much of a balance in our writing towards lyrical content and getting all the lyrical content perfect and the i's dotted and the t's crossed and not concentrating on, 'What's the music doing?' Because music doesn't get you up the CCLI charts, the lyrics do. And so sometimes I think we need to get the music speaking; let God speak through the music as well."
If you're reading this and you're not familiar with Kevin Prosch, he does seem to have become the forgotten man of modern worship but there are more similarities between Prosch and Parks. Apart from a couple of popular songs like "Banqueting Table" and "Show Your Power", not many of Prosch songs were sung in congregations and his songs were very much tied into his own live presentation. Parks responds, "I can remember chatting with a writer recently who said to me, 'If you write 12 songs on an album 11 of them need to be sung by the Church. They need to be congregational songs.' That opinion to a degree is not what I personally feel called to. I've gone through a process just recently where I've really struggled with this because the pressure can be really on you as a writer to conform to other agendas, like 'Make sure your songs are accessible to the Church.' And the argument that I often hear is that if the songs aren't accessible to the Church, ie, if they're not three or four chords and a very simple melody and a very simple lyrical content then the Church doesn't hear them and then they don't bless the Church. That's the argument that I hear a lot of the time. And I just don't buy that because then you lose out on this whole spectrum of the character of God in trying to communicate that through music and words. And I suppose for me, my kind of deal around writing is to collect all the stuff to do with the character of God and try and communicate it musically and lyrically, so that people can encounter the vastness of this immensely, immensely, immensely creative being and can engage with him. And there's mystery in that and there's wonder in it and there's beauty in it and I think it draws people's souls in. It's not to say that when people go to church and sing other songs that their souls don't get drawn in because they do and that's happened with me on many, many occasions, but I sometimes feel like at the moment, there's a danger that I feel a caution around which is about tipping the balance too much around making everything accessible to everyone, which we just can't do."
Showing page 1 of 2