Britain's popular worship leader NOEL RICHARDS spoke at length to Mike Rimmer about his vision to take worship to the biggest stadia in the world.
The road to Berlin has been a long one for Britain's popular worship leader and composer Noel Richards. A decade ago the ponytailed Richards was watching a film of a Queen concert recorded at Wembley stadium in 1986 and God dropped deep into his soul the vision for a worship event in the same venue. The 'Warrior' album was the first fruits of that vision with a new sound for Noel - stadium rock praise with anthems that could be sung in large gatherings anywhere. Memorably in 1997 Wembley hosted the day long Champion Of The World.
Recently Noel looked at that concert again. "My good friend Wayne Drain visited me from the US and we sat down and looked at a little bit of that Queen concert. We just sat there, kind of gobsmacked! I think without a doubt, they were one of the finest stadium bands around. Just the amount of energy from four guys on the stage. I think U2 have kind of taken up that mantle. To me, U2 are probably the ultimate band of the moment. I was watching their gig from Slane Castle and when you watch those things you think, 'Man, this is what we were created to do! We were created to worship. We were created to make music to the creator. We need to gather in large crowds and worship the true champion of the world who is Jesus Christ because, that's what these venues are for!' So I've been carrying this passion to see large crowds gather for worship and prayer."
The day before Wembley's Champion Of The World event, friends of Noel began to challenge him that London was only the start. Steve Chalke encouraged him that it was just the beginning. Noel remembers wondering where to go after Wembley. Some friends wrote him a letter which he read at the stadium on that Friday. They wrote that these events should happen across Europe and suggested three stadiums, one of which was the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. At the end of the Wembley event, Noel jokingly spoke to Mick Spratt, the head of Wigwam who supplied the sound at Wembley, and suggested Berlin as the next stop. The next morning in a hotel next door to Wembley Stadium, where they had all stayed overnight, Mick Spratt sat down with Noel at breakfast and said, "Noel, the trucks are loaded. We can be anywhere in Europe in 48 hours, ready to go!" Noel remembers his reaction, "I thought, 'Wow!' So how about Berlin?! and there was like a resounding 'Yes!' from Mick. I shared it with the team that had put Wembley together, and the guy that produced the Wembley Stadium event for us just broke down and wept when I said we were going to do something in Berlin."
Noel began to wonder whether there was something significant going on. Then a friend gave him a book The Football Grounds Of Europe. Noel shares, "I read about this bell that was used to signal the start of the Olympic Games in 1936 and on that bell, which now still stands in the grounds of the stadium, are the words 'I summon the youth of the world'. When I read that I thought, 'That's what we need to do! Summon the youth of the world and the young-at-heart!' I don't want to exclude people on the basis of age. For anyone that wants to come, we will worship in that stadium."
It could be argued that 'The Road To Berlin' began there. Noel's new album is packed with more guitar-driven stadium rock ready to blast out of the sound system in Berlin when he finally walks on stage there next summer. In the last seven years he has travelled extensively in Europe playing at a myriad of worship events. Although he hasn't toured the UK much in recent years, he confesses, "I think I've been to about 30 different nations since 1997. So, it's been very busy. In November last year, we were in a different country every weekend! But then it beats driving up the M1 in a Ford Transit!"
Even so it must take its toll physically and spiritually! Noel laughs, "Yeah. It gets a little tiring towards the end. My guys who are younger than me are going, 'Oh, we can't do this every weekend!' and I'm saying, 'Come on you wusses!' We used to go and do these drives up the motorway. Now we just drive to Heathrow, get on a plane, get off the other end and play and come home again! It's a very bizarre kind of thing. It just disorientates you a little bit because you're in an entirely different culture for about 24 hours, and then you're back home! And people say, 'Oh, what did you think of the city?' You go to Prague and it's like.you never see it! You go from the airport to the venue, do the event and then go to the hotel, get on the plane and come home. So it's a very bizarre thing."
His passport is stamped with the stamps of many nations and in these days of tightened security it can cause Noel some problems with the American Homeland Security. He says, "When you go into the US they say, 'So, when was the last time you were here Mr Richards?' and I go 'Hang on.I can't remember!' And then they think you're really someone from Al Qaeda because it's like, 'Oh, he was here a lot last year!' They're looking at all the entry stamps for the US and I go, 'Oh, I dunno...I think it was...hang on...' And suddenly they're saying, 'Okay, if you could just wait over there for half an hour and the immigration officer will come and see you.' I've been in the back room many times! I've graduated to that little waiting room where they decide whether they're going to put you on the next plane home or let you in to the 'land of the free'."
The Berlin stadium is significant historically and memorable for the 1936 Olympics and the rise of Hitler and Nazi rallies but Noel plays down any sense of spiritual significance in that. "One of the things I don't do is major too much on what happened 60 years ago. I think for my friends in Germany, that's a period they would choose to put behind them and move on to what God has got for them as a nation now. So I'm sensitive to all of that. But there's no doubt that it was a significant place in the whole propaganda of what was going on there at the time. It was strange being in the stadium a few years ago before they started renovating it and praying; standing in the same place where just a few short years previously, Adolf Hitler and all his men had stood. We've been in the royal box at Wembley where the Queen had stood and sat on numerous occasions but you thought, 'Wow! Something terrible came out of this place.'"
He continues, "But I think that something wonderful is going to happen as England and Germany and America work together over these coming years. All three nations were great missionary-sending nations. I've spent so much time in Germany over the last few years and I just love being there, I just love the people and am excited about what wonderful things can come out of that nation. Who knows what might happen as a result of what we do in the stadium? We're calling the youth of the world, but on 25th June 2005 at the Global Gathering, we're calling the youth of the world to commission them, to go back to their nations with the Good News of Jesus. So it's wanting to see such a wonderful light go out from that stadium, that will affect so many people everywhere."
Noel's new album is packed with some excellent rock worship with remakes of some previous material like "Dreamers Of Your Dreams", "Calling All Nations" and the song which could be Noel's theme, "Dreamers Of Impossible Dreams". As usual he has picked excellent songs from other British writers like Gareth Robinson's "Good & Gracious" and Stuart Barbour's brilliant "There Is Only One God". With all this stadium rock praise under his belt, Noel confesses, "I keep promising myself to do an acoustic album one of these days because I like the mellow stuff as well. I think sometimes it confuses the audience because if they've listened to 'Thunder In The Skies' or 'By Your Side', they're a lot gentler. So sometimes I look at the praise concerts and there's all age groups there and I'm thinking, 'What am I going to do?! We can't really turn the volume up to a high level because they're some of the ones who have probably come tonight because they like "By Your Side" or "Come Lord Jesus" or "All Heaven Declares" and "You Laid Aside Your Majesty"!' Now equally, there may be some people there who like the full-on version of 'Calling All Nations'. So sometimes it's a bit of a dilemma. But I feel that one of these days I'd love to do something just acoustically. A lot of these songs, even though they've got all the band on them, they can work acoustically as well and just sound completely different. But maybe that's for another time."
Throughout the journey to Berlin, Noel Richards has faced his fair share of trials and challenges. There have been times when he has lived his life walking on water waiting for God to come through and help him. There have been times when he has been discouraged by circumstances and people. But then there are always supporters spurring him on. He confesses, "Sometimes I'll sit down with my wife and go moan, moan, moan and she'll say, 'Well let's lay all this out.' I remember maybe about six months ago saying, 'I feel like nothing's happening! I'm struggling here' .just having a bad day really. Then she began to list, 'Look at all these people who are getting behind you in Germany!' The fact that a whole bunch of senior leaders in Germany came together in January, just to chat with me, to support me in what I'm doing. The fact that people distribute for us in Germany and Holland and say 'Noel, anything we can do to help you.' You suddenly think, 'Oh yeah! All these people are catching it.'"
He continues, "So when you have discouraging days, or days when you just feel like, 'Is it really worth it?,' it's good to have people like my best friend, who is my wife, and other friends around me saying, 'Noel, this is what's happening.' You feel a sense of responsibility because everybody is going, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah; this is great!' And you think, 'Yeah but I'm at the sharp end! I'm the arrowhead here!' It's a bit cold out front! So I'm glad God's given me some really good friends back home that stand with me, encourage me, help me not to take things too seriously. Because what matters at the end of the day is my relationship with God and my relationship with my friends. Everything else.it's all good stuff but there are important things that matter. I'm not living and dying to fill stadiums but I feel that it's something that God has put inside me and it won't go away. So we'll push it as far as God will take it and as long as God keeps opening the doors and doesn't shut it down, then we'll just keep pushing on."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.