Pop Connection: Pop hymns in a revolutionary initiative for primary school children

Wednesday 8th April 2009

Tony Cummings met up with the people behind pioneering children's ministry POP CONNECTION

Pop Connection
Pop Connection

The launch at Spring Harvest of the 'Pop Connection' album is the culmination of a grassroots initiative with the potential to be the biggest thing to hit children's ministry for decades. The winning combination of children's choir, quality guest singers like Shell Perris, TBC and Lucy West and hugely catchy pop ditties from the prolific pens of hitmakers Zarc Porter and Mark Pennells will certainly ensure that the album 'Pop Connection: Pop Hymns For Kids' is a big seller in Christian retail. But Pop Connection is much more than an album. It is the flagship for an innovative ministry which has already seen tens of thousands of primary school children exposed to the Gospel. Through the scheme pupils from nearly 100 schools have already recorded their own version of the Pop Connection album in an initiative MP Hazel Blears described as "a highly imaginative project bringing together schools and communities" and Jason Orange of Take That enthused was "a great project giving so many kids an opportunity to sing on their own album."

In a hotel restaurant on the outskirts of Manchester I met up with Andy Silver, the founder and coordinator of Pop Connection, Mark Pennells, the lyricist of all the songs bar one on the 'Pop Connection' album, and Zarc Porter whose production skills have brought pop dance immediacy to the whole concept. I began by asking Andy to give me a potted history of Pop Connection. "Pop Connection originated when I was a youth worker in a church. As a musician I was always responsible for music at the Elmer Church in Salford as well. I came up with this idea of going to the local primary school and approaching the Head saying, 'Would you like us to bring in some new songs?' Schools are always wanting new songs. So I asked if we could teach the children the songs, record them, make a CD with the children and then launch the CD at a local church. She thought it was a great idea. As I was involved with the staff of the church I decided to get together a team of people because we'd always wanted to launch a children's club at the church. So at the launch we invited all the children and all the parents and the next day launched the children's club. It was really exciting because the next evening, after the concert, we had a hundred kids turn up to the club. It was the CD that had drawn people."

After this heartening success Andy did similar initiatives in four or five other schools. But he was becoming aware that the pre-recorded backing tracks he was going into schools with weren't up to the punchy pop standards of today's children fixated on Saturday Morning TV popdom. As he said, "I needed the project to have the spice, the real punch in the music which I couldn't give. I approached Marc Pennells and Zarc Porter at Innervation Trust. They had the talent and the facilities to give the project an enormous boost that I could never give. And that's how the partnership started really." Mark took up the story. "Initially in 2006 we were just resourcing Andy with music and he was still running the Pop Connection project outside of Innervation. Then, about a year ago, it officially became part of Innervation."

Initially it was songs that the famed Pennells and Porter team had written that remained unreleased by other acts that made up the initial Pop Connection repertoire. They proved wildly popular in the schools Andy was visiting with his trusty laptop. Enthused Andy, "All I had to do was play one of the songs and the kids instantly responded in a way that my songs would never create within a child. At the end of the day, let's face it, primary school kids love cheesy pop. They love dancing to it, they love singing to it. So basically we tapped into that desire that a primary school child has. And it was electric, it really was. We go into any school now, especially with these new songs, which I think are brilliant, and the kids come alive. They have nothing else in their repertoire like it. They can sing songs from Junior Praise or Children's Praise which are nice, twee children's songs. But what Pop Connection bring are proper pop songs that they can get involved with. All we have to do is play it once and they're there. So the work is really done because of the tracks, the way the tracks have been produced."

Producer Zarc Porter in the studio with some of the Pop Connection children
Producer Zarc Porter in the studio with some of the Pop Connection children

I asked Andy whether, in these multi-faith times, he encountered resistance from schools to his batch of in-your-face Christian songs. He responded, "Every Head knows it's a Christian project so right at that point, if they don't like it they don't have it. I mean we don't compromise in any shape or form in terms of what we believe. Usually what happens is either I get a call from a church that wants the project or I get a call from the Head saying they want to connect with a local church or connect with community groups - bearing in mind that the Government are actually requiring schools now to show evidence of 'community cohesion,' as they say. So, then I explain the project to them and they know that the concert is always going to be in a church and the church knows that their church will be packed to the doors with people who don't usually come to church and therefore they can profile whatever they want to profile, so they can launch Alpha courses or parenting courses and it works an absolute treat."

I asked Andy to talk me through how a week's access to a school results in an album. "Well, 9 o'clock Monday morning I have an hour with Year 6 then 10 o'clock an hour with Year 5 and by the end of play on Wednesday all Year groups will have been taught seven songs. On Thursday we bring in our mobile studio and we record the children - that's an intensive day. The album then goes off, we mix it, master it, edit it, produce the CDs and print the sleeves all ready for the concert the following week. We bring in our big PA system for the concert in the church."

It's the second batch of Pop Connection songs, featured on the album, that show the sheer invention and thought that has gone into their selection. Said Andy, "The songs do three things which are absolutely crucial that every child is taught. Those three things are God loves them, God has a purpose for their lives, and God wants to forgive them for the things they've done wrong. Those three things come through the songs constantly. Before we teach a song I always explain what it's about and they get it. So, in one sentence, we can explain to them something about the character of God. Not only that, the songs have been incredibly powerful in people's lives. We really need to understand that. In the last batch of songs 'Every Day, Every Night' is all about bereavement. We have been contacted by an enormous number of people, children, parents, even teachers, who have been touched by the power of that song."

With its memorable lines "Something you said/It stayed in my mind/Knowing that God has a plan," the song has, in its simple eloquence, touched the spirits of many children who've lost a pet, a family member or a loved one. Explained Mark, "We actually wrote it a long time ago. We did it as a demo to pitch in America. The lyric just came out of thinking through that whole experience of losing someone and it transferred into the song. Then, shortly after Zarc and I wrote it and had done the demo somebody at church, a young child, died and the mother chose the song to be played at the funeral."

Pop Connection: Pop hymns in a revolutionary initiative for primary school children

On the album there are memorable new songs about creation - "Why?" ("When will we learn/There's a rhyme and there's a reason/For the rain and the snow/And the changing of the seasons yes I know/I will always believe/All the air that I can breathe is You"), songs about our need of God - "I Will Reach For You" ("I will reach for You/To show You how I feel/I will live for You/I know our love is real"), and, for a change-of-pace and the one non-God song, a hilarious "Dancing Like My Dad" which will strike a chord with every father who's embarrassed their kids trying to dance at parties. The one non-Pennells/Porter composition, the Edwin Hawkins Singers hit of 1967 "Oh Happy Day" is probably the most surprising considering the lyrics, from 19th century hymn writer Philip Doddridge ("Oh happy day/When Jesus washed my sins away") couldn't be a more specific declaration of Christian faith. How were they able to get approval from kids and school Heads for a lyric like that? Explained Andy, "'Oh Happy Day' has been in Sister Act, it's been in Big Mother's House, it's been in The Nutty Professor. So when I mention these films to the kids they say, 'Oh yeah, it was on East Enders the other day.' So it's a wonderful song to use. I think it was Zarc who suggested it, so the credit goes to him."

National TV got behind the Pop Connection project after Andy had been asked to assemble a special children's choir to perform a song, "Meaning Of Life", at a Commonwealth Games-themed Songs Of Praise programme. A while after that a choir was needed for a memorial service held at Old Trafford. So Andy, Mark and Zarc held an audition for a choir to do occasional concerts like Spring Harvest and to record the Christian retail album. Remembered Mark, "We put them through a pretty tough audition process and we got the best we could and that choir has been working in various forms since then. It's just a great way of giving the project profile and it'll be a way of promoting the album once we've released it at Spring Harvest this year."

For the recording of the album producer Zarc Porter brought in a batch of pro lead singers, including tweeny pop evangelists TBC, singer/songwriter Shell Perris, one time Psalmistry, V*enna and BlushUK singer Lucy West (formerly Lucy Britten) and critically acclaimed independent artist Hannah Atkins. Explained Mark, "It gave the album a kind of professional edge, sort of lightened the load for the kids a little bit." Said Porter, "The kids love being involved in something where there are some pro singers. It's not like we're pushing them out. It's better for them to experience working with someone like Shell. Even at the concerts now we've started having Shell or some of these young people who we are currently training to go into schools getting involved in singing with the kids at concerts."

However successful the 'Pop Connection' album is, and all the signs are that it will be a major Christian retail best seller, it is the fruit currently being harvested at grassroots schools level which is causing Andy the most excitement. He told me about a Pop Connection concert which had taken place the previous night in Luton. "We paired the school with the Salvation Army who have got lovely brand new premises down there. It was fantastic because although the Salvation Army is a Christian place of worship and the majority of children were of other faiths, particularly the Muslim faith, there was an issue as to how they would they feel about walking into a Christian place of worship. But the Head contacted every parent and said 'we're going to do this concert in the Salvation Army.' Now, because the children had worked so hard with the album and they loved the songs, they went home and 'worked' on their parents saying, 'You've got to come along.' Well, the place was packed. It was just fantastic. I have to say I have never been at a concert where Muslim mothers wearing burkas are standing up, clapping, enjoying the songs like 'Oh Happy Day' and just applauding." 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.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


Reader Comments

Posted by bill connor in penrhyn bay llandudno @ 22:32 on Sep 1 2010

Dear Andy, I'm amazed and thrilled by what I am reading here about your success. All Gods strength, love and power to you in your calling mate! I would so enjoy it if I could still drive you and chat like we did old times - some of my greater revelations and understandings came courtesy of you via those open, honest and frank discussions. Let His light shine. Love you man. God bless. Bill Connor

Posted by Becky Steele in Scotland @ 21:45 on Jun 5 2009

Hello. Wen i was in p5, sometimes known as fifth year, I done the pop connections with himself, Mr Andy Silver! It was an amazing experience nd i wood luv 2 dae it again. X

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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