Moving from being the frontman of big selling, world touring rock band Anberlin to being the worship leader of a church in Albuquerque, New Mexico has been a gigantic change for STEPHEN CHRISTIAN. Tony Cummings reports.
Prior to the release of their fifth studio album 'Dark Is The Way, Light Is A Place' by Anberlin, the alternative rock band from Winter Haven, Florida, it was reported that they had sold over one million albums. As that album went on to make number nine in Billboard's album chart and the subsequent release, 2012's 'Vital', reached number 16 it seemed likely that the band would continue on their successful way for years to come. But then in January 2014 it was announced that Anberlin would be disbanding after releasing their final album 'Lowborn'. It was what happened next that really shocked Anberlin's legion of fans. The group's lead singer and songwriter Stephen Christian announced that he was becoming a worship leader for a church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Stephen subsequently released his first solo project with BEC Recordings, the worshipful 'Wildfires'.
In February 2016 New Noise Magazine asked the rock star-turned-worship leader whether he was missing his days with Anberlin. He was adamant in his response. "I haven't. First off, that sounds really sad. For me, I really don't. I'm not saying we were The Beatles or Bono, but by personal standards of success, we had accomplished what we set out to accomplish maybe five years before we ended. We got a chance to travel the world and create records with great producers. We got the chance to experience record labels and a tour bus, etc. I think that was one of the sole contributing factors, that there wasn't the next moment, the next 'what if?' For us, we were so thankful to have the chance to succeed, there wasn't much left to do. The simple fact is I have two beautiful toddlers and I get the chance to come home and sleep two doors down from them. I have a wife who I'm in love with who I get to sleep next to every night. For me, that's the new standard of not only normal, but of success."
Christian expanded on the delights of family life and the changes from being in a rock 'n' roll band in an interview he gave to Jesus Freak Hideout. "It was rough, 12 years on the road, seven of that married, and a couple of those years with kids. It takes a toll on the soul, and I think that's the number one change. But other than that, God still opened the doors for me to write music and play music and record music. What an amazing outlet, and I'm so happy to still be surrounded in the creative world."
Christian was asked what's been his favourite part in adjusting to this new season of life where he is a husband, father and worship leader. He responded, "I think if I'm completely frank and honest, it's being able to run my own life. I know that sounds sarcastic, but for me, I had to succumb to the opinions of many other families and many other people who dictated where life took me, whether that's physically or spiritually. If you're part of a company, I don't care if it's a band or you're part of, like, Apple. . . When you work for Apple, they kind of dictate your life, where you go and the projects you work on. And it's just liberating to be able to do what I want to do and go where I want to go. I think that's the biggest. . . I don't want to say 'adjustment' because that sounds negative, but it's one of those freeing, relieving things. And as you said, I definitely dealt with anxiety. I was ready years before Anberlin ended. I was ready in 2011 or 2012 to be done, but I just didn't feel a release from God. I didn't feel like it was time.
"So, finally, when it came in October 2013, I was sitting at the O2 Arena in London, and I just kind of got that overwhelming, what you know the Bible calls 'the peace that surpasses all understanding.' I just sat there and I was like 'that's it. I feel it. I know it. I know it now.' God works all things together for good. So I don't know if I would have this job if I had quit earlier. I don't know what would have happened. I feel like I would have been out of the plan God had. And everything just kind of fell into place. But it was just perfect timing. If it had been up to me, it would have happened earlier, but I made some incredible memories with some incredible people, and I don't regret a single moment of it."
Throughout their existence Anberlin did everything they could to avoid the "Christian band" label other than occasionally playing a Christian festival. Now with the release of 'Wildfires', Steven has very much joined the world of Christian ministry. What surprised him most about making this transition? "There's a multitude of factors, and it's not just being a worship director. These songs are basically the cultivation of a lot of stuff that I was writing between December 2014 and December 2015, the year after Anberlin stopped. There's an underlying tone of why Anberlin chose never to be in the Christian market. The first year that we were asked to attend the GMAs and the whole Dove Awards thing, we got a whole horrific taste in our mouths, as far as what the Christian music world was. Being that we were backwoods, Polk County Florida [boys] next door to Orlando, we had no exposure to the Christian scene. The closest we ever got was that we may have gone to a dc Talk show at one time. And that's all we knew."
He continued, "When Tooth & Nail pushed us originally as a Christian band, we wanted nothing to do with the Christian market. For me, I love Jesus Christ with all of my heart, and I felt called to this mission field, and we are the body of Christ and we are the feet that are treading where many Christians wouldn't, but I also had to come to the logical conclusion that not everyone in Anberlin was Christian and no one in our crew was Christian. So, for us to call ourselves a 'Christian band', where we would play mostly churches, it would be fake. Everyone was fine with playing a Christian festival here and there. But at the end of the day, I felt transparent. I felt that, at any moment, someone was going to try to see through our band and ask 'what are you guys even doing here?' But everyone was very respectful, and nobody trashed Christianity, and nobody wore some crazy T-shirt at a Christian festival. It wasn't like that. They knew the roots of the band, and the roots of my life and the direction I felt called to. I just wanted to be completely honest."
Steven gave his views on the changing modern worship scene. "To be frank with you, if we're not singing it on the weekends, it's probably not what I'm listening to. Hillsong, to me, is incredible. I love the fact that 10 years ago, you could flip through the dial and I could tell which radio stations were Christian. Christian music back then had a 'sound' to it. I tried it one time I was in the car with a friend and I was like, 'I'm going to play three radio stations for you and I want you to tell me which one's Christian.' It's like, 'which one had the '90's keyboard?' Somebody's got to scientifically analyse this. It's like, you just know. The people pushing the envelope, like Hillsong and Jesus Culture, all these other bands, they're so phenomenal.
"For me, I was most influenced by the people I was writing songs with for Word Publishing in Nashville. For instance, I did a song with Mike Donehey. A lot of those songs were just a give-and-take with whoever I was in the room with. That was a lot of fun. Without Mike Donehey, this record would not exist. When I first moved to Nashville, he was one of the first people who demonstrated the antithesis of what I experienced at the GMA years before in the fact that the words he was saying on the stage were the same words he was living in real life behind closed doors. It's very real. And I met a series of people like that. That feels legit. That was the aversion of what I had in the early years of Anberlin; it just felt like Christian music was fake. I hear what this one band has to say, and I'd see their actions after they got off the stage, and it's like, 'What's different between you and the rest of the world right now?' It was an almost creepy feeling. What were these people here for? Fame, notoriety, and money. That's the same thing with these other bands I've toured with. Just because of use the word 'Jesus' instead of the word 'baby' doesn't make your band Christian."
Christian spoke about how his interaction with his church's congregation in Albuquerque has had a profound effect on his songwriting. He said, "Before I got to Calvary, I would have looked out on a sea of people, I would have seen faces and I would have known a few names, but I would have never had a chance to really hear stories. And now, since I'm also a pastor here, I hear the most insane stories. There's people I thought had it all figured out, and I realize now, no one does. Everyone is struggling and everyone is hurting. And I say that based on circumstantial facts. I had a woman come into my office recently who basically said, 'I'm struggling with homosexuality.' And this lady was the quintessential soccer mom with a minivan, kids and a husband. She has it all figured out on the outside. Or I'll have somebody tell me they're addicted to pornography or to gambling. Or 'I'm struggling with this,' or 'I'm homeless.' And so it's all these stories. So now, when I see a sea of people, I don't see faces or names, I see stories. And that's what this record says to me. I want to meet the needs of these people. I want to talk about real hurt, I want to talk about real life. Not only does their story count and matter, but there is hope at the end of the day. I think that's what sets 'Wildfires' apart from any other record I've written."
Stephen was asked of all the songs on 'Wildfires' which one contained the truth which day by day is hardest to believe. "I think right off the top of my head, 'Gloria'. The song is about how intimate God is. If he wanted to, he could be a 'Thor-like' God from afar, and watch from a distance, and not care. And yet, he chooses to be a part of our everyday life. And he chooses to be involved in the most intricate details of our lives. That, to me, is profound. He knows us better than our wives or husbands; he is closer to us than our own children. And he takes the time to count the hairs on our head. That is beyond words. That's crazy."
Some hardcore Anberlin fans have expressed disappointment that 'Wildfires' sounds very little like the band's alternative rock anthems. Stephen responded, "Two things. One, I think vocally I'll never be able to get away from my voice. That's who I am, so that's obviously going to carry over. Second, I'm a massive fan of super poetic verses, really getting deep into a personal experience, while making the chorus broad and accessible. And I think that hasn't changed. When you look at love, The Beatles did it all. There is no topic from holding your hand, to a song in the dead of night. They touched everything. But still, pop stars find a way to reinvent the word. They're taking the same concept and flipping it upside down. That's the same thing that Christians have to do when they're singing about God. I kind of use a chair as an analogy. We're all singing about the same chair, but we have to flip it upside down and look at it from a different angle.
"The best worship songs were written in Psalms thousands of years ago. The Bible has said it all. There's nothing in the Bible that has not been said about God. I didn't want to be stereotypical, but I want it to reach a wide array of people. I want people to give it a chance before they know it's a worship project. First, obviously it's a niche genre, but secondly, I want fans that are not Christian (and I'd say 65% of Anberlin fans were not Christians), I want them to buy it and for them to ask what this is even about. I want them to dig deep in the music before they think about it being a Christian record. I don't want it to sound sneaky, but I wanted to sound like what Paul said, 'Become all things to all men.' And I'm sure there's people out there who will never listen to Anberlin the same way again. And they may not like Anberlin anymore, but that's a sacrifice I'm willing to take for the Kingdom of God."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.