Continuing our survey of the international development of Christian music, Jan Willem Vink reports from Lithuania.
Geographic location: The southern most of the three
Peoples: Indo-European 99.2%. Baltic 79.7%; Slav 19.3%; Other 0.2%
Official language: Lithuanian
Economy: Agricultural and industrial, suffering severe decline
Religion:The Catholic Church is seeking to regain pre-eminence after years of persecution. Some fear that non-Catholics will suffer discrimination and restrictions.
This summer I joined Piet Aalders, a colleague and sales manager for Alliance Music, whose responsibilities include the Eastern European market, on a trip to the East. We visited several Eastern European distributors in the Czech Republic, Poland and Lithuania. This small Baltic State is the focus of this feature in our Song For All Nations series.
When visiting Lithuania, you can sense change in the air. It's only since the 11th March 1990 when the Lithuanians declared Independence Day and were able to free itself from decades of Soviet government. It's been a tough period for the inhabitants of this country, during which 400 thousand people have been deported to Siberia, which is over 10 per cent of Lithuania's current population.
But change has come to this Baltic State and all the changes are remarkable when visiting the country. A lot of money has been invested in the road system and the infrastructure of the country. Lots of new houses have been built. The overall mentality is one of a strong national identity, which also came through in the church service. But God is blessing His church in this country, as more and more Lithuanian praise songs are written and this year the first copy of the whole Bible in Lithuanian was presented!
"It's a miracle," comments Eladijus Kirijanovas as he shows the Lithuanian Bible to us. Eladijus' personal story can at least be called remarkable as well. About two years ago, Eladijus started Gospel Vilnius, a small company that distributes contemporary Christian music in Lithuania.
Eladijus became a Christian five years ago. I asked him how this happened. "I was born in 1972 in the city of Radvilishkis. I was a good schoolboy and had fine marks. When I was 15,1 became a DJ. I first started deejaying in school and later on in other clubs in my city." Being a popular guy led Eladijus on a downward spiral. He soon developed a drinking problem and had relationships with different girls. After moving to Vilnius to study economy at the Technical University in Vilnius and being away from home, Eladijus became even more involved in his sinful lifestyle. "I thought I was free," comments the young Lithuanian.
Eladijus had to face the hard questions of life: Why am I here? What is my future? What will happen to me when I die? It wasn't easy for Eladijus, until one day he saw a poster in the street. "It said, 'Jesus Is The Meaning Of Life'. It was an invitation for a meeting in a small Pentecostal church. It was the 15th September 1991. It became a crucial day in my life. I went to this meeting and put my life in Jesus' hands. I confessed Jesus as Lord."
Later on, Eladijus joined the Word Of Faith Church in Vilnius, where he still is an active member and worships every Sunday. "Here I was delivered from alcohol and debauchery. Here I was baptised by water and by the Holy Spirit and started my ministry. The Word Of Faith Church is my second home."
A month before Eladijus became a Christian; he was offered a radio programme on the national State Radio in Lithuania. About half a year after his powerful conversion, Eladijus felt empty after leaving the studio. He asked God why. God told Eladijus to exchange the music in his programme. "At the time I wasn't aware of any contemporary Christian music, except for the worship music sung in church. But soon, a friend from church gave me copies of several Christian albums. The quality was terrible, but it was the first Christian radio programme on the air in Lithuania."
Eladijus' church supported him in his radio endeavours. Says Eladijus, "God gave the promise that it is His will to establish a Christian radio station in Lithuania. I became the broadcasting coordinator of our Bible Centre. I started writing to Christian record companies around the world to receive Christian albums of good quality."
Eladijus received no answers to his letters, until he received a package with some samples and a letter from GMI Music Partners in the Netherlands. Piet Aalders wrote him and asked Eladijus if he could find someone who could distribute their product in Lithuania. "I thought, prayed and decided that it could be me," continues Eladijus. "So I established Gospel Vilnius, whose purpose is to distribute CCM, to show people that there is music without violence, pornography or swearwords and these are artists who live out what they sing. I believe Christian music is a perfect way of sharing the Gospel. I do everything I can to achieve that through trade in the Christian and secular market, through radio programmes and hopefully it will be possible in the future to organise concerts as well."
I ask Eladijus what Christian artist would be most popular in Lithuania. Surprisingly enough, the World Wide Message Tribe is the most popular band over there, followed by Carman, DC Talk, Glenn Kaiser/the Resurrection Band and Darrell Mansfield. Blues is very popular. Eladijus distributes his music through a few secular music stores, through tables in churches and stands at conferences. There are currently no Christian bookstores in Lithuania.
Other than Revival Music, Eladijus' programme on national radio, there are currently no other Christian programmes. Though there is change on the way. Eladijus has just recently been offered a two-hour programme on a commercial radio station. "But my biggest desire is to have a Christian radio station in our country," says Eladijus.
There are very few Lithuanian Christian music artists. Eladijus mentions Gintautas Tautkus. "He was one of the leaders of the first Lithuanian pop group Rondo. After he became a Christian, he left his guitar and only after a couple of years, when God spoke to him began to play again. But now his music is of new quality. Another artist would be Oaze, a pop band with a ministry to preach the Gospel in the smaller cities of Lithuania. Finally, Eladijus mentions Gintas Abarius, who leads worship in the Word Of Faith church.
We got a chance to speak with Gintas, and sat back in awe as we listened to the story of his life. "Since my childhood I had been preparing for a professional career in music," says Gintas. "I have received the highest training in piano and composition." After finishing the music academy, Gintas started the Abarios Jazz Trio, which won the grand prix at the Lithuanian Jazz Festival. This launched a worldwide career for the trio, including touring in Germany and the Netherlands. And yet, Gintas was not happy. "Like many musicians playing bebop, my physical life was destroyed," reflects Gintas. "I had a strong addiction to alcohol. In fact, my wife and sister were already talking about my funeral."
Gintas claims he was possessed by a spirit of death. "I was in Hell twice. One time I was drunk, celebrating our new record. Suddenly my spirit left my body. It fell down a very deep darkness. I was filled with unbelievable fear, what you see in horror movies doesn't even come close. I knew my life was finished. I didn't know at the time Jesus could be my personal Saviour. I can't remember very well how my spirit came back to my body. But the people around me were praying for me and thought I was dead.
"I knew death as a person," continues Gintas. "During the three months before my conversion I couldn't sleep at night and drank all the time. It was like in the movie about Amadeus Mozart when he wrote his Requiem, but did not finish it because he died. Two days before my salvation I was in a bar in the old town of Vilnius. I was in a situation of utter darkness, without hope, love and life. All of a sudden I saw a sharp light in my spirit. A very clear voice spoke to me. I heard lots of voices in my head, but this one was different. It said, 'Gintas, go home. After a few days your life will change.'
"In the meantime my wife, who was from an atheist background, and daughter had become Christians and had started to pray for me. They were in this job for two and a half years. I accepted Jesus at Pentecost. God changed our family - He restored all the Devil had destroyed. God gave us a second child; our family has been changed. We pray together and go to church."
After having been a Christian for a couple of months, Gintas approached the worship leader in his church and asked him if he could join his band. After prayer the worship leader accepted his offer. It became a process of hard learning for the professional musician, as he had to accept the leadership of an amateur musician. "I was so self-righteous and had a big ego," comments Gintas. "For two years I was under his rule. He was the best teacher. He knew the Word of God. This time laid a foundation in my life."
Gintas realised he wanted to know more about God. While he was touring in France and the USA, he decided to go to Bible School. "It was not easy," remembers Gintas. "But God restored everything."
Eventually, the whole jazz trio was saved and together they wanted to play for the Lord. They recorded 'The Tree Of Life', an instrumental jazz album as a result of that. But God had more in store for Gintas.
Gintas started to work on a product of Russian jailhouse music. Comments Gintas, "We prepared this album for prisoners. It's like 'Jewish Mafia Music'. It has spread all over the USSR and I have even received letters from the USA. It is a very particular style of folk music. The title of the album is 'All Is Paid'."
Gintas started to pray for worshippers in Lithuania. Eventually Gintas himself became worship leader in his church. But he became bored with the music. "All praise and worship looked the same to me," says Gintas. "All we see are the Swedish worship leaders and Ron Kenoly. That's when I started an evangelistic project, named The 1000 Year Kingdom. We use the music of different nations according to the Word of God in Revelation 2:24-27, where it speaks about the Glory of the nations. We used music from all nations, including China, Russia, Germany, the USA, Yiddish music and performed this at a big conference."
Currently Gintas is very impressed with Kirk Franklin. "That's something I want to do as a worship leader as well. The usual model is that there is one worship leader, who carries all the weight on his shoulder. My vision is a band of prophets. I pray to God to raise up young people. Currently we're beginning to see this movement. I'm starting to feel more free with all the band."
Another big example for Gintas is Phil Driscoll. "He was the first professional musician I came to know after my conversion. He is an example as a preacher/worshipper and musician. He is totally obedient to the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit says preach, he preaches. That is my example. He is not bound by style."
Being active as a full time worship leader, Gintas writes quite a few of his own songs. Currently about 90 per cent of the repertoire in the Word Of Faith church is original Lithuanian material.
Back to Eladijus. I ask him what the potential for contemporary Christian music in his country is. Responds Eladijus: "People wonder about these artists. They have never heard about them. When the doors to the West opened, the young people accepted almost everything that came from there. Therefore I think it is very important to give them the right things.
I conclude by asking Eladijus if there are things we can pray for. He responds, "That the Lord would give such wisdom and grace to continue this work being concentrated, not on business, but on Him. And that Christian musicians will understand that Christian music is not another music style, but another lifestyle.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.