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NewSong - In Focus On Ministry

  • 1999 30 Nov
NewSong - In Focus On Ministry

My first professional writing assignment, in 1994, was a concert review. On the bill that night: {{Michael O'Brien}}, of whom I had never heard; {{Sierra}}, who was just starting to make waves in the industry; and headlining - {{NewSong}}, a band that had already been around the block for a dozen years,. I was not excited. I was into rock 'n' roll, and my recollection of NewSong was that of a nice, radio-ready, pop -gospel quartet. They were okay, I supposed, but nothing to get excited about. Unbeknownst to me, the band had recently undergone a transformation of sorts. Half of the original quartet had recently left the group, and been replaced by four new members. This concert unveiled the "new" NewSong. And I admit I was not prepared for the aural assault on my senses. To say I was blown away would be a gross understatement. That night I became a fan for life.

Apparently the transformed NewSong struck a chord with more than just me, because since that night they have scored 13 of their 15 #1 radio singles, and received 4 of their 5 Dove nominations. They accentuated their emphasis on youth and developed their "Xtreme" youth conferences, which drew more than 15,000 kids to the events in Branson, MO and Gatlinburg, TN in 1998. The last two years have seen lead singers {{Charles Billingsley}} and Russ Lee spin off into solo ministries, while still keeping close contact with NewSong. And appropriately enough, {{Michael O'Brien}}, the young singer who opened for them five years before, has now become the newest member of the band.

With the momentum building, NewSong recently pioneered a new way to share the Gospel through music - get a lot of your musical friends together, hold a big (I mean BIG) event, and don't sell tickets. They call it, "Jam." I recently hooked up with founding member, Eddie Carswell, on the phone. The band had just spent a frustrating night attempting to get a broken-down truck from Florida to Georgia, where they were scheduled to perform at a revival meeting. NewSong arrived. The truck didn't. The revival went on. But then, it seems that revival is what The Jam is all about.

Carswell explains. "We found that by having concerts with multiple artists in a bigger venue, doing a big media push, and not selling tickets, we had great crowds. People came that never could have come before, because there was no pressure to pay $10 to $20 just to come in. And they could even bring a friend! We always have an altar call at our concerts, and because many of these people were hearing the Gospel for the first time, the response has just been amazing."

Carswell says the whole Jam idea came up a few years ago when they were trying to do an event in Greenville, S.C. Premier Productions promoter, Gary Gentry, wanted to work with NewSong, but confessed that the only time he didn't already have a ticketed event going on was in January. And nobody did concerts in January.

Suddenly inspiration struck. "We didn't want to do a ticketed event anyway," Carswell says. "And we realized that January was a great time for concerts, because people hadn't been to one in a while. There hadn't been any since before Thanksgiving, and traditionally most tours don't start going out until February. So we started a thing called 'January Jam' in Greenville, S.C., and it became a real win-win situation. This year we started doing 'Summer Jam' in about 21 cities, and God really used that in a major way again. And this fall we did 'Fall Jam' in 30+ cities. It has really been awesome. We have to do some things to make it work. We have to get multiple artists to buy into the idea that there won't be a ticket sold, and we may have to use a common band. But just the whole idea that the crowd will be able to come, and the ministry time that will happen as a result, makes it all worth while."

The ministry time makes it all worthwhile. What a concept! It is the force that has driven NewSong for nearly twenty years. From their humble beginnings at Morningstar Baptist Church in tiny Valdosta, GA, to the massive Xtreme youth conference in Gatlinburg, TN; from the Ukraine to El Salvador, it is an unchanging statement of faith.

When I interviewed the band two years ago, I asked then lead singer, Russ Lee, to define the focus of the band.

"Ministry," he answered simply. "That never changes."

This year I posed a similar question to Eddie Carswell. "What is the heart of {{NewSong}}?"

"We want to try to do, and say, is live our lives as a ministry," he replies. "To have eternal significance. Our new goal, and we have underlined this, is we really want to make sure that what we are writing, and singing, and saying, has eternal significance in people lives. We don't want to write songs just for the sake of writing songs, or to have hit records just for the sake of having a hit. We want to write songs that move people, and help people, and that will mean something to people, eternally."

NewSong continues to focus its energy on ministry. But like the music, and the band itself, the ministry is manifested in ever-changing ways. From massive youth conferences, to tiny huts in El Salvador, NewSong continues to find ways to have an eternal significance on the lives of the people they encounter. For the past several years they have used their enormous popularity to raise awareness of the issues of world hunger and poverty. Partnering with relief organization World Vision, Carswell takes 10 or 15 minutes each night to talk to the audience about that organization's 30-hour famine. Carswell says their personal short-term mission trip to Central America allowed them to "see with our own eyes what is going on there. It has given us a real fire for missions. We want to encourage and challenge people to be a part of what we are doing, and to join with us in making a difference in these kids' lives."

As the band prepares to enter the 21st century, they insist they still don't have a five-year plan. "We could try to do that," Carswell muses, "but God has changed this thing so much - He has done things with us that none of us, four years ago, would have said, 'this is what we will be doing'." Instead they are taking one step at a time, as the opportunities unfold. Their immediate goal is to continue touring in support of their latest project, ==Arise My Love==: The Very Best of NewSong, while they finish writing and recording their next album, which is due for release in late summer of 2000.

"{{Michael O'Brien}} and I were talking about the new project today," Eddie says. "We want to make sure everything that we write and sing really has some significance. Hopefully, Jesus will speak to our hearts and give us something to say in these songs that will reach out and mean something in other people's hearts. That's the real goal."

Click here to read about "Jesus To The World" -- a song the band recorded with many of their friends as a tribute to the late Bob Briner.