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Christian music industry creates album to accompany Experiencing God study

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–When God speaks, people should listen and respond, according to one of seven precepts of the popular Experiencing God study.
And that’s what John Mays did when he began developing the Experiencing God CD due out Nov. 17.
“You don’t pray for God to bless what you’re doing. You look for what God is blessing and you do that,” said Mays, senior vice president of artists and repertoire for Star Song Records, a division of EMI Christian Music Group.
Based on the popular Christian study, “Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God,” the 11- song compact disc delivers through music the seven biblical principles authors Henry Blackaby and Claude King write about in their discipleship course.
“I prayed and asked God if this is something he wanted to affirm. I didn’t want to push it because I had this holiness attached to Mr. Blackaby and his work. I didn’t want to demean that and make a piece of product,” said Mays, who has completed Experiencing God twice, once on his own and once with a group. (The Experiencing God study is produced by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, formerly the Sunday School Board).
The story of “Experiencing God: Music for Knowing and Doing the Will of God” is biblical in length, but its basic premise, Mays said, is a melodious offering for churches — “one that is backed by a study that has touched so many lives.”
Mays said he developed a concern that “in trying to be relevant to the culture and speak the language that youth can identify with, we [the Christian music business] have left out the church.”
That concern only grew, Mays said, during a conversation he had with a music leader following a Christian youth concert.
“The guy said, ‘This isn’t the kind of music I can sing in my church. Where can I go to get that kind of music?’ And I just didn’t have a very good answer for him.”
That conversation took place five years ago, and the idea of making a relevant album for churches has haunted him since, Mays said.
“God used that conversation to kick up some dirt in my life. I was a guy who was pretty guilty of following the Christian music track, which is to make hits that sound pretty much like the current trend, get on the radio and sell records,” Mays said.
“Part of what we should be about in this industry is being relevant to the culture and compelling the youth of this country toward the gospel,” he said. “But I don’t think we should do that to the exclusion of the church.”
Eventually, Mays met John Kramp, who was then second in command of the discipleship division at LifeWay.
“John and I began to talk about this whole church and music issue and how our industry seems to have forsaken its relationship with the church.”
Kramp, now director of LifeWay’s operations division, said several people had approached him about producing an Experiencing God album, but none seemed quite right until he met Mays.
“We had hesitated to do anything for fear that it would be simply an exploitation of the Experiencing God name and idea,” Kramp said. “I can’t really explain what made John Mays so different in how he approached this, other than to say, ‘He got it.’
“He had done Experiencing God as a course and was passionate about the message. He also had a heart for the church and a concern that the music industry had drifted away from the church.”
Mays and Kramp decided to convene a conference, hosted by LifeWay, and invite Blackaby to speak to writers, executives and artists from the Christian music industry.
“In that meeting, Henry spoke to the group about experiencing God — not the product — and then we simply issued a challenge that if God laid some music on people’s hearts, we wanted to hear about it,” Kramp said.
Mays noted, “I was on a spiritual high after that conference, and everybody was coming up to me and they were so encouraging. But the dust settled and I never heard from anybody. Nobody called. I told John, ‘I guess that was it,’ and he said, ‘Not so fast. Let’s see what happens.'”
A half-year after the conference for musicians in Nashville, Tenn., Tony Wood, a good friend of Mays and a respected songwriter, asked for a meeting with him.
“I’ve known Tony five or six years, and I’ve cut a lot of his songs, but he’s never wanted a meeting. He came to my office, and he sat right there,” Mays said, pointing to a tan couch in his contemporary-furnished office. “He opened his notebook, and he must have had 50 songs in there. Then he said, ‘These are all songs about Experiencing God.’
“For me, that was the first shoe to drop. It took longer than I thought it would, and it didn’t happen the way I thought it would, but Tony was a guy the Lord just wouldn’t let rest. He had the Experiencing God thumb on him.”
Eventually, two other Nashville-based writers — Lowell Alexander and Dave Clark — joined the writing team, and those three spent one night a week for a year putting together the 11 original songs on the Experiencing God album, Mays said.
“This was an enormous commitment for them,” said Mays, who had asked for songs to be written within the framework of Experiencing God’s seven realities.
When the songs were completed, Mays said, they then had to come up with the artists to sing them.
“Getting our artists was a huge Experiencing God moment,” he said. “We took our 11 songs and matched them with an all-star line up.”
Mays said he sent out 11 letters to artists and their managers inviting them to sing on the album. In a process that took about three months, he received one positive response.
“That’s when we stepped back and said, ‘Why did we do that?’ From the beginning this thing has been so bathed in prayer. Picking our artists was the first time we sat down and said, ‘This is what we want to do.’ We decided God probably had some artists he wanted on the album.”
Mays said not long after that decision to give God continued control of the project, Christian artist Susan Ashton called him and said she had heard one of the songs (“Unrelenting Love”) and would like to sing it for the Experiencing God album.
“I had to hold the phone away from my mouth because I was just babbling when she asked if she could sing for the album.”
Mays said the recording process started without a complete list of artists. Eventually, everything fell into place, and the album was completed around the first of September 1998.
“When I listened to it with my family — when I finally heard the music coming out of the speakers at my home, I just bawled,” said Mays, who hopes the album will serve at least two purposes.
First, he said he hopes churches will use the Experiencing God songs during worship services.
In fact, LifeWay’s music department is releasing a vocal solo book for the album in December. By Easter 1999, the music department will have completed an adult choral musical presentation, which will include a choral book, listening cassette and CD, accompaniment cassette and CD, rehearsal tracks and orchestration.
Second, Mays said he hopes the CD will enhance the Bible study for those taking the course or entice those who aren’t to do so.
“I’d love that if this album would drive someone toward the study,” he said. “When people read the lyrics, they are going to see some very powerful words.”
The Experiencing God: Music for Knowing and Doing the Will of God CD and cassette can be purchased in LifeWay Christian Stores and other Christian bookstores.

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  • Terri Lackey