Currently packing them in on his mammoth 21-town UK tour, praise and worship leader, singer and composer NOEL RICHARDS spoke to Tony Cummings.
If there's one man whose music and ministry pulls together many of the disparate threads of today's contemporary worship ministry it is Noel Richards. Although coming to prominence in the era which saw Graham Kendrick elevated to some kind of evangelical icon, and like Kendrick being aided tremendously by huge exposure during the Spring Harvest Bible weeks, Noel has nevertheless made music with a freshness and contemporary edge. Revered by both the young lions of the new Matt Redman-style of contemporary praise and by the prophet musicians like Kevin Prosch and Stephen Bennett, Noel Richards has managed to write and record music radical enough to connect with youth yet broad-based enough to win him the Album Of The Year award by the Christian Booksellers Association. I spoke to Noel backstage at Plymouth Methodist Central Hall a couple of hours before he was due to minister to a packed auditorium.
Is the band essentially the band which were featured on the live video?
"This band that we're playing with tonight, yes this is the band that were on the live video. We have personnel changes because I have a broad team that I draw on, so for instance we'll be using Caroline Bonnett to play keyboards on six of the dates and Doug Horley, who wrote the song "I Wanna See Jesus Lifted High", he also plays guitar for me as well."
Were you surprised that 'Thunder In The Skies' was voted Album Of The Year by the Christian Booksellers?
"Yes. In one sense it is a fulfilment of the dream that got placed on my heart, to use music to touch people's lives. I just kind of feel really privileged that I can be doing what I'm doing and that people buy the albums and turn out to the events that we do. I suppose one of the things that I always remember is the times when as a band we sometimes outnumbered the audience! I've been doing this for so long and it's really a tremendous encouragement to see the songs touching people's hearts."
Do you think we've arrived yet at really discovering what worship is?
"It's a little like peeling an onion, the more you peel off it the more there is to peel away. I think when it comes to God and the character of God and the nature of worship, we're going to take a whole eternity to enjoy God; and maybe to discover things about worship that we haven't even dreamt of yet. I think God always has a way of surprising us just as we think we've got this worship thing tied up, then God comes in and does something entirely different. If there is a journey it's an ever-unfolding journey and there are times when God's emphasising one thing and there are times when he's emphasising something else and our worship takes on a new dimension to accommodate that. I think our worship grows as we grow in our understanding of God and our understanding of what God's doing right now shakes up the way that we worship and the things that we do."
You seem to have pioneered better production values and a more contemporary approach in your albums than what used to be associated with the phrase "a praise and worship album."
"I think because I started in the performance end of things when I was working for Youth For Christ and doing evangelistic concerts, I wanted to take the kind of music I was listening to and enjoying and use that style with songs of praise and adoration. I think also that the vision that I have had for a number of years of wanting to see large arenas full of people praising God, I feel it needs a much more punchy style of music. Interestingly, my musical approach seems to have struck a chord with all ages. We get all sorts of ages turning out, teenagers and pre-teens right through to people who could be in their 60s and 70s. Part of that is I suppose rock and roll has been around for a long time and the people in their 70s now when they first started to listen to rock and roll they were like me! So we sometimes forget that this kind of music appeals to such a broad range. I'm hoping that as we pioneer in a certain area it makes it easier for the next generation to come through with an even more contemporary sound for the church to sing."
When you're playing with a band how much room can you allow for real Holy Spirit-inspired improvisation?
"It depends on the kind of event that we're doing. If it's a celebration it just tends to be what happens at the time it happens. With the current concert tour that we're doing we've built certain points in within the concert where we have the freedom to worship. If people in the congregation or the audience - it's very difficult to know what phrase to use for a praise concert -but if people out there are responding to God, then we just extend a musical passage. But you need sensitivity to read it so it doesn't become four bars too much. Sometimes I feel, 'We'll hold it there', we'll pull it back and maybe move on, because there are times when there could be a third of the congregation that could be really going for it and the rest could be standing up saying we'd like a change now. It's a fine balance between just becoming musically indulgent or worshipping in an indulgent way and being sensitive to others who are feeling the Spirit."
Performing the song, leading the band AND listening to God must make leading worship quite a complex process.
"It can be and that's why I think relationships between those who are playing is very important. It's great that I've got musicians that I'm working with. I've been working with some of them for 10 years and so we have a sensitivity to one another that we know how to hold things together without necessarily dotting every i and crossing ever t. We can listen to each other and flow together so although we can have a structure we can sway from that structure but still hold it together musically because we're so used to playing together."
What are your views on the function of the prophet musician?
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