The Northern Irish folk-worship band Rend Collective is in the midst of an international tour following the success of its latest album Good News. Long-time band member Chris Llewellyn spoke to Christian Today about struggling with success, angry evangelicals, and preaching hope in a cynical world.
I've had the pleasure of seeing the exuberant Bangor-bred Rend Collective live. One such occasion at a summer festival saw the band, who prefer to be known as a 'family', invite the audience to join arms with the strangers beside them and dance for joy.
It was an ambitious commission for a largely English, awkward audience in a field in Somerset (dancing, talking to strangers, and being told what to do are not really our thing) but somehow it worked. But if that, and Rend's latest hit album Good News, has you imagining the band as an oppressively jolly gang of revellers, incapable of emotional or spiritual depth, then you'd be deeply wrong.
Chris Llewellyn, who has been a prominent member of the family since its inception in the early noughties, says they've all been on a journey of discovery.
'When we began we had quite a small view of what the church could be,' he says. 'Having grown up in Northern Ireland and only experienced church culture in one place, no matter how much you read about or try to expand your horizon you still are kind of cloistered.'
But an international tour, with Chris speaking yesterday from Houston, Texas, has shaken things up. 'We've discovered such a wealth of beautiful expression...I'm sitting in a megachurch now, and I had such negative preconceptions of what that term could mean, I know its very loaded for most of us.
'I have discovered that the size of a church, small or big, really isn't an indicator of whether the Holy Spirit is doing something there. I've seen good in all of it, and that's been very humbling, just seeing all my assumptions come crashing down around me and seeing God's Kingdom being built in places I would never expect.'
The band's focus on Good News might seem jarring in seemingly cynical, pessimistic culture, but Llewellyn says that's exactly what prompted its latest project.
'For us the journey began with the fact that every morning we would wake up and the phone would be littered with all these notifications of just horrible things happening in the world.
'We realised there's just so much bad news being broadcast all the time. One of those terms that maybe had lost its life a bit suddenly comes back to life: the idea that the gospel is "good news". In a world like this that actually means something again, it's not just a Sunday school expression but something the church desperately needs to recover.'
But the problem, Rend found, was not just in 'the world' but in the church.
'The other thing that was making us sad, if we're honest, was that "evangelicals" – that word is supposed to mean "bringer of good news" – are actually tied up in the middle of this "bad news". It seems so counter to the message of Jesus that his people are actually bringing the bad news sometimes.'
Indeed there was an online backlash when the band announced its Good News project. 'One of our most contentious tweets was "there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus", which enraged Christian 'folks on the internet' who were unaware it was a quote from Scripture.
'I think that tells you something about what's going on in church culture right now, that we have in the middle of this darkness, really lost sight of what the gospel is. We need to become a more positive people.'
So, he says: 'We wanted to go back: what is the simple gospel? If Jesus was speaking to the world through worship music what kind of music would he make?'
So the band focused on two themes it felt had been forgotten by evangelicals: the embrace of supposed 'outsiders' through the love of God, and the possibility of celebration amidst darkness.
And despite the initial detractors, the album has been its biggest success to date. But of course, preaching 'good news' to a despondent age can seem insensitive or glib. Can it be done with depth?
'I think that's a difficult challenge. It's certainly something we were certainly very aware of, going into this, was that we were cementing our reputation as a happy-clappy Irish band. But that really isn't who we are as a people.'
There are two sides to 'good news', Llewellyn says. 'There's the straight line that says Jesus saved me, he's my rescuer, now I'm going to celebrate. Potentially in a concert filled with Irish people.
'But there's a deeper, more difficult side to good news: "though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, because he goes with us' – it's a form of good news, but its deeper, harder, it's certainly bittersweet.'
The album has drawn on both sides, with celebratory, anthemic hits like 'Rescuer' alongside the slower, honest tune of lament: 'Weep with Me'. They've sought a 'balance' between these poles: 'it's not a 100 per cent ticket to Disneyland'.
Llewellyn asks: 'If we can't spill our hearts to God, if we can't wrestle with him, who can we bring it to? The beautiful news is that God invites that wrestling. There's a form of intimacy in that.'
The band have come along way since they began. Has global, commercial success been a challenge to the collective? Llewellyn's response is to talk not of fame, but a sense of failure.
'We discovered our first knock to our success a couple of albums ago: for the first time we received some criticism, the reviews weren't that great, the sales were a bit mediocre. It was by no means a disaster, but it was the first time the graph was not steadily climbing.
'And actually, I'm really disappointed to say this but it really threw us for a loop.'
Amidst disappointment, he says the family found themselves getting 'jealous' of others' apparent success. 'I'm embarrassed to say that but it's the truth. Instagram sometimes is an instant set of windows into other people's fake lives, and it doesn't help us. Comparison is the thief of joy. We found ourselves chasing that gain.'
It's a startling, refreshingly honest admission. It prompted another song on the album, centred on gratitude over striving: 'Counting Every Blessing'.
'We were looking for God to do very specific things for us [albums, tickets, radio success] and they weren't happening, and that's okay.'
Waiting for God to 'show up' with these particular 'markers of success', they were 'not noticing the really good things God doing for us, in a season when he was doing really good things for us'.
'We realised as part of this journey, that what we needed to do was recover our joy in the gospel. It's so important to call that out. And be grateful. When we live in that gratitude we find ourselves caring a lot less about success.'
In an age of despair then, how would Llewellyn want to encourage the discontented believer?
'My encouragement would be that everyone of us called to share this good news...I don't think that was "news" [he apologises for the pun] to the generation before us. As millennials...we need to make sure we don't leave it behind. We do need to tell people, we need to speak out the good news or its not gonna mean anything.'
He adds: 'If you're ever having a crisis of calling, it's good to go back and think "I'm trying to chase Jesus, so what was his calling?" He thought his calling was, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and has anointed me to proclaim good news." If you're ever wondering what you're calling is, just go back to that.
'This good news is far too good for us to keep to ourselves and hide away in the church. We've got to share it far and wide.'
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