Newsboys: [r]evolution

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“Oh man, look at us! What were we thinking?” Newsboys’ keyboardist Jeff Frankenstein says, grinning.

Bassist Phil Joel also stares at the band’s 1999 promotional photo for the Love Liberty Disco album. He shakes his head. “I was on drugs,” he says, with a chuckle. Then in mock horror, quickly adds: “That’s just a saying, OK?!”

Flipping his long blonde locks out of his eyes, Joel explains. The band members had sat down for a pre-photo-shoot make-up session — but didn’t look in a mirror before the photographer started snapping shots. “We had all this crazy make-up on and we didn’t really know it. We looked pretty girlie,” he says, as Frankenstein snickers in agreement. “Some people liked it, but a lot of people hated it,” Joel says, adding that Christian book stores were reluctant to put up the promotional posters.

The conversation of the playful and engaging Joel and the more serious, but dry Frankenstein alternate between light-hearted banter and engrossment as they thumb through many years of band pictures from promo shoots and music-video stills, and reminisce about the past.

Joel recalls a video that took rigorous hours of work, but says the experience was still better than posing for still photos. “We play music. We’re not models,” he says.

“Well, at least you’re not, but I am,” Frankenstein says with a wry smile.

Frankenstein eyes a few more pictures and pauses at one from the mid-’90s. “Mannnnn, look at this — it seems like so long ago.”

In many ways, it indeed was a long time ago.

With more than 20 No. 1 hits and three million albums under their belts, the Newsboys have become one of Christian music’s most popular and recognizable bands. Over the years, even fans who preferred other musical styles to the Newsboys’ catchy, rhythmic pop couldn’t help but be caught up in their elaborate showmanship. With contagious, abundant energy, they’ve wowed crowds with flashy costumes, multiple video screens, space ships and their most notorious frequent stunt: the rising platform that spun and tilted drummer Duncan Phillips in all directions.

It’s been quite a journey since lead singer Peter Furler co-founded the group in Australia in 1986. For one, he’s the only original member left. Much also has changed in the 10 years since the breakthrough 1994 Going Public album rocketed band to stardom.

The most recent change was the departure about a year ago of long-time guitarist Jody Davis, known for his animated strumming style and dark, moppy hair. He felt called by God to leave the band so he could be home to help his wife care for their severely disabled little girl, who suffered brain damage after she mysteriously stopped breathing as an infant. Despite leaving behind a life some would call glamorous, Davis, now living in Yuma, Ariz., seems happier now than he’s ever been because. According to his former bandmates, who are still his close friends, Davis is now where he knows he should be — at home with his family.

Davis was replaced by Bryan Olesen of Casting Pearls, who started out as a Newsboys fill-in during last year’s “Festival Con Dios” tour.

But the Newsboys have weathered far more significant changes. Fans noticed a dramatic difference between last spring’s worship-oriented “Adoration” tour and earlier concerts. People say the “Adoration tour” — sans the illustrious glitzy stage presence — has been their most powerful to date. Furler says it has been a new experience for him, as well. Looking back on the early days, he can understand why fans have noticed a change in the band.

“We probably couldn’t blow the fuzz off a peanut back then, so we needed a silver suit,” Furler says, leaning forward with excitement in his eyes. “Now we’ve got thousands of people praying for us every night. We’ve got churches behind us. We’ve got the power of God in a show. We don’t need a drum riser anymore. We’re looking for people to have lasting fruit instead of just being touched or getting an emotional high.”

Surprisingly. the Newsboys’ unabashed worshipful tone has been warmly received even among secular audiences. After playing several mainstream festivals with bands such as Counting Crows, Smashmouth and Judas Priest, Furler has noticed how much people are searching for answers.

“I think if you’ve got a light and you shine it in a dark place, people take notice,” he explains. “The key is making sure you’ve got that light in your life. I find that the more that I’m in the Word, the more I run into people who need to hear it.”

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What the public doesn’t know is what was going on behind the scenes to lead Furler — the band founder, lead singer, primary songwriter and producer — to that conclusion.

The evolution began a few years ago, when Furler found himself in a place of utter despair, his life crumbling around him. He was leading one of the industry’s most popular and successful bands, but he felt lost. His dispair reached a point where he no longer wanted to live. Self-indulged, he felt his marriage and friendships falling apart and knew something was missing. While Christ was his savior, he was far from living the abundant life meant for believers.

“Every time there was a storm in my life, I’d be blown over,” he says. “I’d hear people’s opinions to my left and right and I didn’t know what to believe because I had no foundation. I had no knowledge of God’s Word.”

Things began to change when he began to ask God for a love for His Word. Once he began digging in to his Bible, his life began to change. But he still felt lost. Then about three years ago, he realized what was missing.

“It became clear to me through God’s Word that it is not good for a man to walk alone. I had nothing against church; I just didn’t go to church. I realized I had no spiritual family.”

While Furler acknowledges church attendance is difficult while on the road, he admits it’s just an excuse. So, he got plugged into a Nashville congregation and asked God to bring men into his life to walk with him in his spiritual journey. His life took a dramatic turnaround when he found friends with whom he could be open and authentic.

Furler isn’t the only band member who stresses the need for Christian companionship. Frankenstein believes the church at large should take note. “There’s such a lack of realism in the church — a lack of real openness among Christians,” he says. “I think the enemy wants us to feel like we can’t talk to each other and share our problems and shortcomings, because we would grow stronger in our cause if we could communicate better.”

Christians who work in the public eye are kept grounded by the church, Joel points out. If the only other Christians he interacted with were autograph seekers, he might believe he was something special. “And that’s messed up,” he says. “You go to church and you stand there with your friends who are plumbers and you worship with your family and you realize you are nowhere near anything different than anyone there.”

A native of New Zealand, Joel has lived in the United States for the past 10 years, witnessing the American Christian culture. “We have a lot of Christians in this county who know an awful lot about God — but they don’t necessarily know Him,” he says. “I notice so many people who have problems in their lives and I say, ?Well, what’s the Lord saying to you in your intimate times with Him?’ and they say, ?Oh, my life is so busy I don’t have time for quiet time.'”

“We need to get up early and seek God every day,” is Joel’s one message to the audience. “The old-school quiet time is something that’s been lost in the midst of all these church activities. Our No. 1 priority is to spend time with our Creator.”

Joel learned that lesson himself — about three years ago — the same time Furler’s life was at a turning point.

“Now we’re starting to see what God’s purpose is on the earth,” Furler says. “The Christian life is not about just packing our bags and waiting on the rooftops for Jesus to come back. It’s about raising up great leaders, men and women of integrity. That’s what we’re here for. It’s about making disciples and being a disciple. It’s building a church that reaches every nation, because the church is the only hope for the earth. It’s the only way that racism will be eradicated. It’s the only way that we’ll see the AIDS virus conquered.”

“These are the things that are changing our music and our show,” he adds. “I think when you start to figure out what God’s purpose is, you start to write better music, you start to have more of an impact.”

This spirit will likely show through in the Newsboys’ new album, Devotion, releasing Nov. 2. However, the band no longer is concerned about the reception of albums or concerts.

“Our focus right now is to get to know God better through His Word and to walk with His spiritual family closer together,” Furler says. “We put that first, and all the music will come. The concerts will come. When we’re there, we’ll have way more authority, more conviction and substance. We’ll have something to give because we’ve been filled up ourselves. I’m expecting great things. In fact, you haven’t seen nothin’ yet. I want to see the spirit of God move more than it has in rock ?n’ roll history.”

Copyright © 2005 Christian Music Planet, used with permission.

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