Tony Cummings met up with Californian worship leader SCOTT CUNNINGHAM
The release of 'Til The Whole World Hears' by Californian worship leader Scott Cunningham brings into the spotlight one of the most talented, anointed yet little known worship leaders/songwriters on the whole international church scene. A regular visitor to the UK through his ministry at Devon's Creation Fest, this charming, sun-tanned father of five has worked tirelessly in worship ministry for many years without the support of big record companies or industry movers and shakers. Hopefully, just as his first independent album 'Grace Amazing' produced a hit song when Dove Award winner Jeremy Camp recorded a version of the album's "I Wait For The Lord", Scott's new set will again reach out beyond the confines of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa's School Of Worship where Scott serves as director.
In a crowded hospitality tent at Creation Fest, I sat and talked to Scott. I asked him when was it that he first visited Britain? "We came here when we were first married about 11 years ago. My wife was pregnant with our firstborn. We felt like maybe God was calling us to move here but it never worked out. But the Lord has been sending us here every year. It's been a lot of fun. As well as the festival, I do the road shows as well. This year we came a little bit earlier to catch a little bit more of the road shows but we typically centre our year around preparing for the summer, preparing for Creation Fest. We have a hundred people who come from Costa Mesa, it helps support the support staff for the event along with hundreds of British volunteers, and we kind of all get together and work together. I'm always blessed by the leadership of Creation Fest. It's a bunch of churches that come together and a lot of unity in the churches and a lot of unity in the staff and it's really exciting and humbling to see the Lord put it all together."
I asked the songsmith to fill me in on his background. "My Mom got saved at a young age and my parents got married and the Lord brought them to Calvary Chapel in the early '70's. They were going there probably at the height of the Jesus revival, or towards the end of it. My brother and I went to school there, my Mom worked at the church part time doing secretarial stuff. It's kind of where we grew up. Mom and Dad taught us the Word, we memorised Scriptures since we were kids and kind of were around Calvary Chapel most of our lives."
Music was always a part of Brian's upbringing. He remembered, "My Mom was a singer and would always play guitar and sing and she used to sing to us when we were kids. Back in those days there was a group called Kids Praise. They would have trials in Costa Mesa with 300 kids trying out for 15 parts. Mom was always wanting us to try out for them and encouraging us to do it. My brother was musical as well and I tried out a couple of years and the second year I made it. So we started singing with Kids Praise and travelling with them. And I got to sing on the Kids Praise 5 album and on some Kids Praise videos."
The Kids Praise albums and videos featuring the famed talking blue songbook Psalty were the brainchild of husband and wife Ernie and Debbie Rettino. Commented Scott, "They got saved in the Jesus movement and they were actually singing with other groups. Then they started doing kids stuff and it just hit across the churches worldwide. There was nothing like that. Now we have Veggie Tales and all this children's ministry stuff out there but back then Psalty and Kids Praise was about the only thing going on with kids and it exploded. A lot of kids, including us, were impacted by those songs Ernie and Debbie put to Scripture. They stuck in your head, you'd be singing Psalty songs all the time. Ernie and Debbie started touring the local churches in California and then later on would go on to tour with Franklin Graham - a huge crusade, they would travel with him and go all over. They would do a kids section of the crusade and Psalty would come out. Eventually they were doing less and less Kids Praise projects - just the dynamics of it all - I don't know how they recorded 12 or 15 kids back in the day of analogue tape and actually got them to sing harmonies and all this stuff. They did an incredible job. In fact they won a bunch of awards for what they got kids to actually sing and do, and the quality of it."
Scott is only too aware that being in the Kids Praise team hardly exudes rock'n'roll credibility. "It's so funny, a couple of years ago the band Four Kornerz were here [at Creation Fest] and I was with another friend and I was teasing him about his age and he just teased me about being in Kids Praise and the guys from Four Kornerz just fell out of their chairs laughing so hard because they grew up on Kids Praise in London. Their manager started laughing saying if Psalty had come to Trinidad there would have been revival. He grew up on Kids Praise in Trinidad. We joke about it and I look back and laugh but the Lord really used it in our lives. It really grabbed hold of us at a young age."
Scott even got to sing a solo with Psalty and the Praise kids, "This Little Light Of Mine". Over the next few years though, things got tougher for Scott. In his teenage years there was a relationship with a girl which was going nowhere. Even his musical activities with an evangelistic band was covering a lack of spiritual commitment. Scott explained, "I grew up playing drums and singing - I didn't really play guitar until Bible College. I was hanging onto this band, Reconcile, I was in for about three or four years in high school, after the Psalty years. A couple of the other guys in the band were in leadership and were pretty solid. We were playing to high school age guys. We were Christians but we were still pretty carnal. I would say for most of us we really weren't at the place where we were totally surrendered to the Lord. I think there was some idolatry in our lives - for me, the girl and the dream of being a touring musician."
Reconcile made a little cassette album. But after three or four years, things came to an end for the band when their lead singer John Randle (today a Calvary Chapel pastor) announced he was leaving to follow the Lord's leading him into ministry. Remembered Scott, "He became a janitor at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa. He met his wife, got married at a young age and started teaching high school kids Bible studies. We were all watching his life because we were Christians but we weren't really sold out Christians. We weren't really following the Lord, we were following our dreams, what we wanted to do. I was going through some relationship problems and I remember John looking at me one day and saying, 'Scott, what are you going to do? Are you going to follow the Lord or are you going to follow your dreams? You have a choice.' And the Lord used that to really wake me up. I needed to let go of that relationship, let go of the dreams and just follow him. Matthew chapter six verse 33 says, 'Seek first the kingdom of heaven and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.'
"The very moment I let it go and said, 'Okay, I'm tired of doing my own thing. Lord just take my life and use it for whatever it is.' Everything became clear again. The fog kind of lifted and I felt the Lord was speaking to me and the one thing he was speaking to me was, 'I want you to know my Word.' He was speaking to me go to Bible College. Bible College at the time was up in the San Bernardino mountains. I saved up and had one semester's worth of tuition and the Lord provided for the rest of them as they went by. And I met my wife up there, Megan from Washington State. We became friends and the Lord began to lay a real foundation of his Word in my life. It became a foundational time for me."
Spiritually awakened, Scott became a passionate disciple of Jesus.
"All of a sudden grace - the whole message of grace - became this
beautiful diamond that was on the black backdrop of my sin. That's
where the Lord hit me: I needed just as much grace as the guy who'd
never heard about Jesus did."
Scott left Bible College in 1996 and the following summer married Megan, who was already on the staff at the College. Scott's music, worship music, was beginning to flourish. He explained, "I started learning guitar at Bible College and started playing and singing and leading a bit of worship and the Lord opened a door down at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa where Brian Brodersen was pastoring."
At Costa Mesa Scott busied himself editing Brian Brodersen's radio messages. "We were taking it from old reel to reel to the brand new editing software that was just out, this Beta software that we were testing. So we were getting these old archived things and I got a chance to continue Bible college with Brian: I had to listen to the message and flag any coughs, any long pauses, edit them out. And then I would help out with junior high ministry - I was leading worship for that. Kids would throw stuff at you while you were leading worship and that was a good learning experience for me. I became a high school pastor there at the church for about three of the five years I was there. When the Lord called Brian back to Costa Mesa there was a worship leader who was moving on and Brian asked me to pray about coming in and leading worship there with him. That was about eight years ago."
I asked Scott how the 'Grace Amazing' came into being. As he recounted, it was a long birthing process. "I started writing some songs back at Vista Bible College and started having a real desire to record. I felt like the Lord was speaking to me in my devotions that he would make a way for me to do that. I never really had the money to do it decently - I could do it kind of cheesy but you don't really want to do it that way so I was kind of waiting on the Lord. I remember one time reading my devotions and the Lord spoke to me, saying that he'll take the little that we have, he'll break it and bless it and multiply it. And I was like, 'Okay.' The next day I went to church and this lady walked up to me and said, 'I think the Lord wanted me to encourage you, that he'll take the little that you have, he's going to break it, bless it and multiply it.' I felt like, 'Oh, right! Praise the Lord! We're going to record an album!' Well, it wasn't until five or six years later that actually happened."
'Grace Amazing' was recorded in 2005. Explained the worship leader, "I had written some songs and one of them was called 'I Will Wait For The Lord'. It was a real simple song. A buddy of mine, Jeremy Camp, was serving on staff at Calvary Chapel with me for a little bit. Years later a record company got hold of him and he had some big Christian music hits. Then his record company said they wanted to do a worship project with him. So he put his worship project together. They recorded 'I Will Wait For The Lord' for the project. The first cheque that came through for 'I Will Wait For The Lord' paid for my entire album to be recorded! It was like the Lord took the little that we had, he broke it, he blessed it and he multiplied it."
In January this year Scott was at a missions conference with Calvary Chapel founder Chuck Smith and Brian Brodersen in California. Scott remembered, "Pastor Chuck ended his message with the words 'til the whole world hears' and that phrase really stuck in my head. The Lord gave me a song called 'Til The Whole World Hears' and we ended up singing it in the conference. I felt like the Lord said at that point it's time to do another project. Again, we didn't have the money for it. I felt the Lord say, 'I want you to step out in faith and as you move forward I'll provide for you as you go.' We had a little bit of money in savings and crazy things started happening, like our tax return from the government was supposed to be like 900 dollars. It ended up coming back saying they'd made a mistake, it's 25 hundred dollars and I'm like, when does the government ever do that? They definitely take more but they don't usually give it back! And then we had a couple of guys walk up out of the blue and say, 'You're recording something, I want to help support that.' They gave me cheques for it. I was just blown away how the Lord provided for us."
Like the 'Grace Amazing' album, 'Til The Whole World Hears' was recorded in north California, in a studio called The Barn. Said Scott, "The Lord moved my good friend Danny Donnelly from Los Angeles to Colfax, north California. His house was a barn and he turned it into a studio. He's a great producer. Because I work full time at the School Of Worship and [lead] worship at Calvary Chapel I didn't know how I was going to get the time to record. But I asked to take four or five days out of the month to go up to record. So we did pre-production, tracking and mixing in chunks of time."
'Til The Whole World Hears' is crammed with top rate worship songs crisply produced in guitar driven rock style using most of the musicians who gig with Scott. Whether it contains another song waiting to be covered by a big worship "name" Scott seems totally unconcerned. Indeed, he has some interesting insights into the subject of the commercialisation of worship music. "Worship has become big money. It's become very marketable and there's a good side to it and there's a down side. The good side is there are all these people who are singing, like Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, songs that are just pointing people to the Lord. It's a beautiful thing. The other side of it is there is money to be made and so people see that potential and it becomes a more of a marketing thing as opposed to something that the Lord does and the Lord builds and the Lord puts together. I think that's a real challenge for every worship leader because when you write songs if you're not careful you can write for a perceived marketplace. You wrestle with that. I have to write to the Lord, I have to write for the Lord, I have to write what the Lord gives me because if it's anything else it's not going to be authentic. These are challenging issues. The minute money is involved in composing worship songs it becomes challenging."
I'm sure that this powerful worship songsmith is facing that challenge with integrity.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.