By Clayton Hensley
PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. (Jan. 31, 2017) -- Church is a community built on a promise made more than 2,000 years ago. Today, that community looks very different than it did in the beginning. In the 21st century we often debate what the church community is supposed to look like and how to respond to the people who are leaving it.
On a rainy January weekend in the Smoky Mountains, a group of folk-inspired rockers, who might have been mistaken for 1960s church camp counselors, took the stage at the annual Resurrection youth weekend hosted by Holston Conference. While the event had featured artists like Chris Tomlin, the David Crowder Band and the City Harmonic in the past, this group probably came the greatest distance and most likely earned the honor of having played the most instruments in one set.
Rend Collective hails from the coastal town of Bangor, Northern Ireland, not far from Belfast. Over the past few years, they have skyrocketed to success in the contemporary Christian music world mainly by shattering the stereotypes of the genre. Their music is shaped with the intent to build the Christian community in untraditional ways, to build God’s kingdom wherever they are, and to create a sense of family as they go.
Back in 2002, at the age of 19, Gareth Gilkeson and Chris Llewellyn realized a lot of their friends were leaving church and they weren’t exactly sure why. That year, they started a special religious gathering for people in their 20s. It wasn’t church in the traditional sense, but church the way they believe God intended.
“We couldn’t bring them to church, and we couldn’t connect with what was going on there,” Gilekson said. “Our friends who had grown up in church were leaving so we started a thing called Rend.”
And that’s how Rend Collective’s wild journey began, one that focuses on the art of celebration and the spirit of the campfire.
After about eight years, this experiment of building the Rend Community led Gareth, Chris and other band members Ali Gilkeson, Patrick Thompson, and Stephen Mitchell to develop a unique sound and message rooted in the folk traditions of their native Northern Ireland. Eventually that journey would lead them to perform at packed venues around the world as well as to the stage at LeConte Event Center in Pigeon Forge where they led worship for the nearly 10,000 youth gathered for Resurrection 2017.
“For us, the emphasis on community and people wasn’t as strong in the church,” Gilekson explained when asked about how he defined church. “People were going to the pubs and finding they were having more community, more relationships, and making better friendships hanging out at the pub than when they were in church, and that’s obviously a major problem. We were meant to be the body of Christ and meant to be a community that trumps all communities.”
Gilekson and his bandmates took that philosophy to heart. Their welcoming spirit almost immediately grabs the attention of the people in their audiences, whether they see them live, watch one of their videos, or hear them on the radio.
“So we just need to make it feel like home for people, work harder to develop relationships,” said Gilekson. “Churches shouldn’t necessarily focus on programs and performances. Focus on relationships first.”
Gilekson believes while programming and the professionalism of a church setting can all be good, he believes it is kind of like the eye candy you would find in a shop window. “There’s no point in having a great shop window and not having anything inside that is as good as is in the window,” he explained. “Community is the substance.”
On stage, Rend Collective brings an eclectic collection of instruments into the mix of the usual electric and bass guitars, drums and piano. “We play at least 15 instruments each,” said Gilekson in regard to he and his wife Ali’s musical talents. “We can play them all to acceptable standards, but we are not virtuosos.”
One of the most interesting instruments on stage (and prominently featured in the “Build Your Kingdom Here” video) is an old European folk percussion instrument Gareth said dates back to the 1600s. It’s called the Jingling Johnny, and it could be described as the coming together of a pogo stick, some old metal campfire plates and a bell.
“There was a man who went to my church who my dad told me had one 50 years ago,” said Gilekson. “He had one with bottle caps on it, things like that. We decided we would resurrect it.”
Eventually people started asking the band about this strange instrument, and Gilekson and Ali started making their own and selling them online. There’s even a mini “Jingling Junior” available.
During the performances at Resurrection, Ali Gilkeson also showed off an instrument called a Hurdy Gurdy which dates back to medieval times. It’s a stringed, pyramid-shaped-like object that looks like a guitar with a crank on the side. Gilekson explained that when you turn the crank, there is a stone inside that rubs against the strings like a bow would on a violin.
Rend Collective’s appearance at Resurrection may also have been the first time at that event where the band performed while wearing panda heads, a reference to their video for the song, “You Will Never Run.” By the end of the weekend, the people at Resurrection were definitely singing along with the band and feeling the Holy Spirit at work. But what lasting impact will be there in the effort to build God’s kingdom?
“There’s always that thing at a youth festival when you leave on a high, and a week later you realize you are actually a terrible Christian again,” said Gilekson. “My encouragement would be that you actually move forward following Jesus. It’s important to give yourself a break. Because Jesus gave us a break, that’s what grace is. If we’re always treating ourselves with that perfection, we’re never going to reach that perfection.”
The weekend was all about learning to follow Jesus and at least for Rend Collective, that means taking the message to the people, not just waiting for them to come to you.
“We always say that when you come to worship don’t think about your imperfections, start thinking about his perfection,” Gilekson added. “You’re not there to go hard on yourself, you’re there to focus on Jesus. I think to be a good disciple you need to realize grace is a real thing. Grace is an important aspect of who we are. It doesn’t mean we stay unchanged. Grace is that thing that forgives, but also gives us the courage to change when we just see our failures.”
Clayton Hensley is a freelance writer and communications director at First United Methodist Church of Maryville, Tenn. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @knoxdaytripper as well as on Facebook at www.facebook.com/knoxdaytripper