When the music changed

Electric guitars, drums, and music with a beat are commonplace elements of modern Christian worship, but such things were unknown just a generation ago. How and why did it change? The ‘why’ question is easy to answer. We’ve moved on a generation or two, and tastes in music, whether religious or secular, have changed. The ‘how’ question takes us on a historical search.

We can be precise about the point where rock music made its first appearance in a church service, though it had already been used in other Christian settings. The date and place will surprise those Christian rock music enthusiasts who believed that it started in America with Larry Norman in 1969. But, by that time, Christian rock was a familiar feature in Great Britain. The birth of Christian rock wasn’t a cynical move by church leaders to entice young people into church. It came from the teenagers themselves. In almost every town in England during the early 1960s, people were forming rock bands, so it was inevitable that Christian teenagers would be drawn into the trend.

The point where Christian music changed in the 20th century is not rooted in worship and congregational singing, but in evangelism. A naïve bunch of recently converted rock music enthusiasts decided to use their music to preach the gospel. The story of their conversion makes interesting reading and occurred in the summer of 1961.  Initially, they played their music in youth clubs and coffee bars, but their first appearance in a church service can be traced precisely to 27th May 1962, at a Congregational church in South East London.

We can be certain of that date, because the event was so novel that it attracted popular press attention. But I don’t need printed proof of those events, because I was there. I was a member of the group that unwittingly made that first breakthrough. I say “unwittingly” because we didn’t fully realise the significance of what we were doing. We liked rock music, we were passionate about preaching the Gospel, and it seemed natural to put these passions together.

Our group was called The Pilgrims – and our story could easily have slipped out of sight as one more unmarked change in the history of Christian music. But one member of the group told some of the stories to his lodger, and the lodger created a small website, and the website was spotted by an American retro-music enthusiast, and the American decided to revive The Pilgrims’ music by creating a CD. And all this happened 40 years after the group stopped playing. The story took off after that. We were featured in magazines and radio programmes, and our music was being played in countries we’d never been to. Meanwhile, people were coming forward with stories about their experiences of the group and the lasting effects of its seven-year mission.

All this attention, and the wealth of inspiring and amusing anecdotes that came to light, prompted me to tell the story in full.  The book is out now, and it’s available internationally through Amazon as a paperback or as a Kindle eBook. Search for: “Pilgrims Rock! The true story of the first Christian rock group”.

We were not alone for long. Within a couple of years many other Christian groups came onto the scene.  Some of them were directly inspired by The Pilgrims. Many more bands formed independently – prompted by the same musical tastes and love for the Gospel that drove us in the beginning. Some of the bands and musicians who came later to this scene advanced much further in fame and inspiration until what was almost unthinkable at the beginning of the sixties became the new normal for Christian worship – as it is to this day.


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