Composer of the "Seek Ye First" worship classic, singer/songwriter KAREN LAFFERTY was quizzed by Tony Cummings
A UK tour in March brings to these shores an American singer/songwriter who in decades past was a seminal figure in both the development of Jesus music (the forerunner of CCM) and contemporary worship song. Karen Lafferty has done a huge amount in her four decades of music ministry though it's one song in particular, the praise and worship classic "Seek Ye First", which will be forever associated with this pure-voiced songsmith.
Karen was born in Alamogordo, New Mexico on February 29th, 1948, "real cowboy and Indian country," as she says. "I was the youngest of four. My parents were both Christians and wonderful loving people. My father was killed in a car accident when I was 12 which made my teenage years a bit tough. My father owned three pharmacies in our town all of which had the 'old time soda fountain'. My first job was being a 'soda jerk' at our family drug stores. My mom remarried when I was 14 to a man I really didn't like. God showing me how to love my step-father was one of the major breakthroughs in my life. My mom developed a disease called Pics disease in her 70s. She really needed me to help take care of her, which was one of the main reasons I came home from the mission field in 1996. She went to be with the Lord in 1998. My step-father moved in with me and died in my house in 2003."
Because of her Christian upbringing, even in her teens Karen had developed a strong passion to know God and to see his truth lived out in society. She remembers, "I was vocal about the need for civil rights, especially in my university days, the way many in my generation were. I struggled to live the life I knew the Lord wanted for me though. Although I graduated from university with a degree in choir directing to be a school teacher, I decided to pursue being an entertainer. I ended up singing in bars in New Orleans. My life was not 'looking' very Christian at that point and I was feeling pretty guilty and frustrated about it. Then a childhood friend of mine came to visit me and we talked about what it means to 'walk in the Spirit of God'. She had been learning much through Campus Crusade For Christ and I got very hungry for what she had. It was through a simple prayer of dedication and asking the Lord to empower me with his Holy Spirit that began to change my life, my music and my whole approach to my career. The first people I led to the Lord were people I met in the bars where I worked."
In late 1970 Karen relocated to California. She admits, "I thought I would have quite a spiritual battle in California since many of the things I knew about it were bad. Things were coming out of California like LSD, very liberal thinking and wild immoral living. I had no idea that God was really moving there. The second day I was there my California cousins took me to Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa. As I saw long haired hippies with their arms around conservative looking business men singing 'Love Love Love Love Christians this is your call,' I knew that God was really up to something there. I began attending Bible studies at Calvary and going to the Maranatha Music Musicians Fellowship (it wasn't really a record company yet). I also began to have opportunities to share my new songs of faith. This became my first steps into my calling to music ministry."
With a well paying job singing in a restaurant in Costa Mesa and lots of rich spiritual food from Calvary Chapel's Chuck Smith, things were going very well for Karen. But then came an encounter with God which she still recalls vividly. "I remember the very night that I knew God was calling me to be a 'full-time Jesus musician'. I didn't know exactly what that meant, since there weren't too many role models of that yet. I would have kept singing in the bar if they would have let me sing the songs I wanted to. I gave my notice to my boss. He said, 'Aren't we paying you enough?' I said, 'Oh, this is the best paying job I've ever had.' Then he asked, 'Did someone offer you a better job?' I replied with a little smile on my face, 'I guess you could put it that way.' When he found out my new boss would be God, he wasn't really surprised since he and I had discussed our beliefs before. When I called my mom to tell her I was going full-time in music ministry, she said, 'So, now you're on salary with the church there, right?' I had to honestly reply, 'Well. . .no, they call it "living by faith".' She was silent. Then she said, 'Do you remember I'm the co-signer on the loan for your car?' I shared with her how I had been learning how God will provide for us as we are obedient to him. I knew I couldn't call home for money."
She continues, "I lived in a very cheap flat and my furniture was simple - a mattress on the floor, boards and bricks for a book case, a blow up couch, which probably belonged in a swimming pool. But I knew God was with me and guiding me! I began to give guitar lessons to support myself and would occasionally get an offering when I ministered somewhere; but my money ran out. I couldn't pay my $90 rent and $50 car payment. I was confused and thought I had missed the Lord's guidance. But I had learned that you don't run FROM God but rather run TO Him. I decided to go to a Bible study at church that night. They were studying the book of Matthew and were in chapter 6. There Jesus said to the people (and me), 'Consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. They don't sow or reap but the Lord takes care of them. How much more does he care for you. So seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you." God put that there for ME. I went home still thinking about that verse. . . Matthew 6:33. I picked up my guitar, as I often did, and began playing a little tune. I soon discovered that verse fit with the melody I had written on my guitar. The next week I shared it at church and everyone was able to remember it right away. I had put a little descant 'Alleluia' to it too."
Calvary Chapel's Maranatha Music released one of the first ever albums of contemporary Christian music and the opening track was "Seek Ye First" sung by Karen. The album became an international best seller and kick started the whole praise and worship movement. "Seek Ye First" made its way into prayer groups all over the world. In 1973 Karen made a missionary trip to Holland, opening for the early Jesus music group Children Of The Day. As the royalties for "Seek Ye First" began to trickle in to Karen, it began to dawn on the singer/songwriter that the message of the song was being actualized in her life. She says, "The Lord knew that he was calling me to go into missions where I would have to pay for many of my own trips. 'Seek Ye First' is about 70 per cent of my total income. I have personal supporters and receive honorariums for singing and speaking for the rest. Also, many times people have never heard of me, but they know that song and that opens up the doors for ministry. I am VERY humbled and grateful for how God has used that song in my life. Both for the truth of it and the provision it brings."
In 1975 Maranatha released Karen's 'Bird In A Golden Sky' album. The project's songs were arranged by Children Of The Day's Peter Jacobs who tastefully applied horns and strings to Karen's clear, beautiful voice. The title song was also featured on Maranatha Music's best selling compilation 'Maranatha Four'. Karen explains how she came to write "Bird In A Golden Sky". "I actually wrote that song for a woman who I new had a lot of personal problems, but she was not open to the Lord at all. That's why I have lines in it like 'Tell me why it is you're crying, and I'm singing of my liberty.' It was one of the first songs that I was known for. For a musician, it's always exciting to finally get to record your songs, and that was one of my first." Karen's debut also featured "Grandma Stout", a tribute to Lafferty's pious grandmother, and "The Girl", a compassionate song about an adolescent who wants love but finds partners only interested in sex.
In 1978 Karen's second album 'Sweet Communion' was released. Produced by Jonathan David Brown it had more of a country feel. The album is still Karen's favourite of the recordings she has made. She explains, "It actually came out of a very difficult time. There were four people in my life that I was close to that all died within about a two year period. One was the baby of a friend who was living with me, one was a suicide of a close relative, one was one of our Jesus Movement musicians, Bill Sprouse Jr, and an aunt of mine who was very special to me. Most of those songs came out of the emotions of that period. God was with me and ministering to me deeply in that period. Some of the people who worked on the album with me were very special to me like the producer Jonathan David Brown, Kelly Willard who did backing vocals and most of the keyboards and arranger James Gabrial."
A year after the release of 'Sweet Communion' Karen relocated to the Netherlands. She explains, "I moved to the Netherlands in 1979 to do a Disciplship Training School (DTS) with Youth With A Mission. What led up to this move was a three month tour of Western Europe that Maranatha Music sent me on in 1978. Although that was a difficult tour because I was travelling by myself and staying in many homes of people who did not speak English, God began to show me some incredible possibilities for ministry. I was amazed that many places I went that my concert was the first contemporary Christian music concert they had held. I thought of our situation back in California where musicians were lining up for their turn to play the Saturday night concert at Calvary. I felt a bit insecure and wondered how effective I was being with one acoustic guitar and singing songs in English. I saw how interested young people were in my music and what I had to say. I began to have a vision form in my heart that would be using musicians in missions. Right before I went on the tour of Europe, I was booked to sing at a small church in California just a few blocks from where I lived. Floyd McClung, the YWAM leader in Holland, was the speaker that night. When I told him I would be doing concerts in Holland the next month he invited me to visit their YWAM base. By the time I reached Heidebeek I had already begun to write down my vision I called Musicians For Missions. When I shared it with Floyd he went away and prayed about it. Then he came and told me, 'I believe this is from the Lord and if you want us in YWAM to help you start it, we will.' I have always worked best as part of a ministry where we could be a community and work in teams. I could see that YWAM had a real 'grassroots' approach, which I loved. I've been with YWAM now for 30 years."
Karen continued, "The purpose of Musicians For Missions International from the beginning has been to facilitate the ministry of musicians who felt called to missions. I have found that most of us are a lot more effective if we have a supportive team and leaders to relate to on a regular basis. We function like a kind of 'management' agency to help musicians learn to book themselves, form a band, record and grow spiritually. While in Amsterdam from 1980-1995, we were a home base for many musician who ministered both with YWAM Amsterdam as well as with many other ministries all over the world."
More albums followed for Karen: 'Life Pages' in 1989, 'Country To Country' in 1983 and 'Land Of No Goodbyes' in 1989. As well as those there was an album, 'Heart Cry', featuring other MRMI musicians based in Amsterdam. Says Karen, "Most of those musicians went on to make their own recordings later."
In 1996 Karen moved MFMI back to New Mexico. She explains, "My elderly parents needed me closer to them. By that time we had become involved with YWAM's University Of The Nations and developed a School Of Music In Missions to help develop 'musicianaries'. This led to a natural network of musicians from many different nations who attended our school. Today, MFMI is a network of musicians who are ministering in many nations around the world. We now mostly concentrate on having retreats for these musicians to help support and encourage them. Our MFMI network is currently working in India, Romania, Latvia, Kenya and Australia. There are many more musicians who we are in relationship with, but these are the closest."
In 2003 Karen released 'Hymns From The Heart' (which like her early Maranatha classics is available from her website www.karenlafferty.com) but it was her 2005 album 'Multitudes: The Sound Of Many Nations' the recording of which she describes as "one of the most inspiring and fruitful recording experiences I've ever had." Remembers the singer/songwriter, "I got the idea for it when I was working on an arrangement of a song for a missions conference with a South African choir called Impulse. They did such an outstanding job and it was such a joy working with them that I thought, I really need to record this song. But I also thought, What should I put with this song? That's when I got the idea to work with the musicians I knew in many parts of the world and create a sort of fusion between pop and indigenous sounds. I often used a known Christian song in their culture and wrote a song around it. [The album] took five years to complete and we recorded on four continents, using about 12 different studios and around 400 musicians and engineers. What a wonderful experience. I love doing those songs and honour the unique creativity in each culture."
Despite being in her 60s, Karen shows no sign of retiring from ministry and a visit to the UK on 5th-7th March will demonstrate this. She says, "I've always been very flexible in my presentation. I love coffee house settings where I can just sit on a stool and share heart to heart with people. I'm also comfortable in most church settings, whether they be more formal and liturgical, very casual, traditional or very contemporary. I have learned that one of my main gifts is 'encouragement'. I love to 'sing the hearts of others' and help them find a connection with God through a song. I've sung for thousands with bands and choirs and for just one in a hospital bed. I love it all. I love to teach too."
Today one of Karen's main callings is to mentor and coach young musicians. She enthuses, "I am so grateful for people who spent time to help me grow through the years and I want to be there to help raise up the next generation too. As long as I'm able to travel, I will; although the Lord's been giving me a burden and vision for my local community of Santa Fe, New Mexico in the US. I'm currently developing a vision and plan to develop a kind of arts centre/cafe where people can discover the joy of creating with God and sharing it in fellowship with each other. I'm getting simpler in my 'old age'. I think I'm learning a bit more of what Jesus called 'the abundant life'. It's a good thing to share with others. I watched my Grandma Stout do that till the day God took her home. I'd like to go out that way."
The days when Karen Lafferty's albums were found in Christian bookshops all over the world may have passed but her signature song "Seek Ye First" continues to connect with people. I asked Karen about the superb version of the song performed by Britain's progressive heavy metal band Fire Fly. Karen continues to be blessed how even today the song connects with people, young and old. She says, "Over the years I've collected quite a few different versions of it. There are a couple of very nice classical versions where they merged it with something by Bach. I also have hip-hop, jazz, waltz, country, children and hymn versions of it. It's a blessing to see all the creative ways people have used it. I always say, 'If you find a good lyric writer you can write a good song.' You don't get any better than Jesus."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.