Mike Rimmer quizzed Ireland's radical rock worship man JOHNNY PARKS.

Johnny Parks
Johnny Parks

It's the summer of 1999 and I am in Belfast to meet up with a number of musicians. Johnny Parks is on his lunch break from the YMCA and we're sitting eating massive sandwiches in a Baskin Robbins cafe. He's just been offered the role of worship leader at the Belfast YFC event Mannafest and he's bubbling with enthusiasm about it and staring excitedly into the future.

Fast forward two years and the event has grown significantly and it now attracts around 1200 people every month who come along, worship God together and receive Bible teaching from a variety of speakers. Musically Johnny has come a long way too. Back in 1999 I'd known him for being part of The Maroons whose one album had been a favourite of mine. Now the release of his album 'Nomads Welcome' shows how his music and ministry have been developing. However he's quick to point out, "I think that there isn't a huge difference in the heart of what I'm doing. We formed The Maroons to meet a need in corporate worship - a need for energetic, creative, passionate worship music. With this recording, my heart is pretty similar. It's an expression of my love and search for God."

So after two years, how does he feel about his role in Mannafest? "I still feel the enthusiasm I felt right at the start." He continues, "We have a really good team of people involved in the organising of the event which is really supportive and reassuring for me. I suppose the reason that I feel so committed to what Mannafest is doing is because the whole focus is on what happens when the event is over. Yes, we all get hyped up and carried away with what happens on the night but we're constantly trying to think of how we support these young people when they head back home. That's the challenge and I think we're doing the best we can with the time and resources we have."

At first glance it might be tempting to think that the songs on 'Nomads Welcome' were purposefully written for his work with Mannafest but Parks admits," Some of them were written with that crowd in mind but that only amounts to about 4 or 5 of the tracks. Most of the songs were just born out of me sitting in my bedroom trying to write something that I connected with. That's where it starts for me. And those bedroom songs are the ones I usually savour the most."

One of outstanding "bedroom songs" on the album is "Breathe On Me". Johnny says, "I just love the whole sentiment of this song. We recorded it in candle light, all playing live and facing each other and we just decided to pump it out. It's a very honest song which expresses my deep deep longing for more of the Kingdom. I think for me it feels like a rebel song because it's saying even though all circumstances are begging for me to cave in and give up, I'm just not going to. So there! One of the most amazing moments on the album is at the end of the song where Johnny let's loose with an incredible shout. I suggest it's a reflection of his passion "I suppose it's a shout of defiance." He explains, "It's as if I'm reminding God that I'm still here and no matter what has happened, I'm not letting go. There's a hunger in it too though. Like a cry out for something more. It wasn't something premeditated. We recorded 90% of that track live in the studio and those shouts are the first take. We just wanted to belt it out as if we wanted everyone to hear it."

That passion is something that makes the Mannafest event special. He explains what goes on. "In terms of what we see happen, generally speaking it's just a regular event. We don't have any magic formulas. We never really change things too dramatically and that's something that I've learned can be a good thing! The encouraging thing for me is that in this country, where people are so divided and sensitive around religion and denominations, you get this mass of young people in one huge hall every month and they are all just going for it. Most of them. Just singing their hearts out and not worrying about denominations and who's standing beside them. That's special." Johnny also admits that he is frequently motivated and inspired by the crowd who come along bursting to worship. "I've felt really supported by the young people who go. They're great. They've really boosted me and allowed me and the band to let it rip. That's been really special for me."

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.