One of the most respected worship songwriters and leaders is MARK ALTROGGE. Mike Rimmer spoke to the gifted American about his years in ministry.

If you're a connoisseur of worship music, then there's a chance that you may have already come across the name Mark Altrogge at the bottom of an OHP or through Stoneleigh using his song "This I Know" during last year's Bible Week. Otherwise, it's likely that you haven't yet discovered his well crafted, anointed songs of worship and you should rectify that immediately!

A whistle stop week in Britain working with fellow worship writer David Hadden sees Mark hosting a songwriting workshop and leading worship in a number of ministry evenings. In a busy schedule they find time to pop into my house for a chat. Mark is clearly enjoying his time in this country. "Every single meeting Dave and I have done together has been different. I just keep praying, 'Lord, help me to serve these people.' Last night in Southend was a great meeting. Dave sang a prophetic song which launched the whole meeting into a time of ministry and I was down praying for people and just enjoying the whole thing." The burden of travelling, ministering and taking care of driving duties has caught up with Dave Hadden who falls not too quietly to sleep as we talk and I discover something of Mark's background.

American, Mark Altrogge was raised a Catholic, as a child served as an altar boy and was planning on going to seminary to train as a priest until a change of job meant that his father moved the whole family to the other end of America. Although he continued going to church, it was music that became Mark's deepest passion.

Like many Americans of his generation, it was seeing the Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan Show that proved to be a defining moment of Mark's life. He remembers it well: "I was with my family and as they played, everyone was screaming! Then I saw Hard Day's Night and saw all the girls chasing them down the street. I said to myself, 'That's the life for me, that's what I want!'"

So the 14-year-old Altrogge started to learn electric guitar. "My second guitar was a Fender Mustang. I'll never forget it! Red!" Mark laughs at the memory and continues, "Back in those days everyone in town was in a band. If you couldn't play an instrument you were the singer. I got in a little band and we got three songs to play at a party and did the same three songs all night long! That was the beginning."

Altrogge continued to play in a number of bands until he was in his 20s. In the early 70s Mark found himself in Philadelphia having left home to try and make it as a music artist. He describes his life, "I wasn't doing very well and I was dating a girl who was working for an airline and she called me on the phone and told me she'd met this guy on the plane who was wearing a picture of Jesus on his T shirt. He had started telling her all about Jesus. I told her it was alright for her, I knew all about it because I'd been going to church all my life."

Shortly afterwards, disappointed, Mark moved home a failure in music and about a month later his girlfriend was visiting and opened the paper and saw an advert for a meeting where the speaker was the man with the Jesus T shirt. Altrogge takes up the story: "So we went to this little country church to hear him and this guy spoke about the Lord like nobody I've ever heard. He spoke as if God was alive and real and after the meeting, my girlfriend asked if I wanted to meet him and I reluctantly talked to him. Almost immediately he asked whether I'd ever given my life to the Lord. I said, 'Well, I think so, I go to church,' and he said, 'No! Personally! Have you ever asked him in?' He led me in a prayer and all my family were there and my girlfriend so I reluctantly said it but I did mean it. I knew I was saying something serious and I asked God to come into my life and forgive me."

The man in question who made such an impact on Mark Altrogge's life was Larry Tomczak, then in his early 20s and beginning his ministry, now one of the leaders of the People Of Destiny group of churches in America, heard in this country mainly as a speaker at Stoneleigh and Restoration Bible Weeks. It is the worship albums that spring out of this church ministry that best capture the passion and intimacy of Mark's songs alongside writers like Steve and Vikki Cook and Bob Kauflin.

In the beginning, Mark's attempts at songwriting were not quite so accomplished. Newly saved, he began writing complicated esoteric Christian rock songs and pictured himself a star at Jesus festivals. Thankfully God intervened and challenged Mark to write worship songs that people would understand. He has never become that star, instead God chose to use Mark as a writer rather than performer.

Mark now laughs at the thought of being a performer and recognises there are a number of factors in his life that keep him humble. Firstly, he confesses to not having a very good voice. Secondly, the worship group in his home church tease him about his new songs. The influence of the Fab Four hasn't waned since that moment on the Ed Sullivan Show as Mark says, "According to my worship team, every time I present a new song they always accuse me, 'Hey Mark, that sounds just like the Beatles.' They do this to provoke me." He laughs heartily and continues thoughtfully, "They have been a big influence. They had obvious gifts that God had given them of songwriting, music, lyrics and I wish they had used them more for his glory but them and Billy Joel are a couple of my favourites."

The live recording of the recent release 'Passion For His Presence' has an excellent selection of Altrogge's songs. Was he involved in the recording? "I was out in the crowd enjoying it," Mark responds. I wondered if it ever felt strange to hear his songs being sung by a congregation. "I never get used to it," says Mark modestly. "It's a real honour, it's a thrill, it's hard to believe...sometimes it's a distraction."

Often the inspiration for his songs comes when he's studying or preparing to preach. "Sometimes I come across a phrase or a concept or something that really strikes me and then I attempt to put it into worship. Sometimes if I'm working on a message or a series, I'll try to put that into a worship song and then force it upon the church." He laughs and then continues, "I do owe so much to People Of Destiny and the leadership there, CJ Mahaney and Larry Tomczak, who have imparted to me a love of doctrine, a love of content and a passion for God. They have affected me and if I can capture those things in a song, I'm very happy."

Because of the lower key nature of the People Of Destiny series compared to Integrity, Vineyard or Hosanna, Altrogge is able to balance writing with other activities. "I do like to write on a regular basis," Mark says. "But having four kids and being a pastor, there are meetings during the week at nights and I want to spend time with my family so sometimes after the kids have gone to bed if I'm not too beat, I'll go down to my little studio in the basement and just play. The more regularly I do it, it sort of primes the pump and I'll see maybe four or five songs come out at a time and then go for a while without writing any."

Ultimately, its' worth checking out Altrogge's songs because they are borne from a heart which genuinely beats with strong desire to worship God. "I love leading worship," enthuses Mark. "I have a passion that people worship God with doctrinal content and emotional passion and expression. My aim is to bring people face to face with God if I can, just to help them meditate on God and express their heart passionately to him." CR

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.