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Professional Christian music tour

by Jordan Green

Young women in sweatshirts shiver on the ramp leading to the main entrance of Pleasant Garden Baptist Church. An eager seminarian wears a beaming smile as he converses with friends. After shelling out $45, a mother with two teenage charges in tow grouses at the admission table that she was unable get online to purchase tickets in advance.

So begins a recent Friday night of contemporary Christian entertainment and worship in the North Carolina Piedmont, where a delicate negotiation of commerce, evangelization, social gospel and fellowship plays out at one stop in a string of dozens across North America over the next several months.

They’re a somewhat odd grouping as a traveling revival show: a teenaged Ohio folk singer named Bethany Dillon, two Texans named Shane Barnard and Shane Everett, and a stylishly coifed band of western Canadians who call themselves Starfield. Through the next few months they’ll be playing churches and university auditoriums across the South, a high school in Fairfield, Texas, halls like the Victory Worship Center in Sulphur, La., and then on to the Midwest – Haskell Indian Nation University in Lawrence, Kan. is one stop – and on to more churches and colleges dotted across the Canadian prairie.

The pews are mostly filled and the concert begins promptly at 7 p.m. Daniel Ritchie, a 23-year-old associate youth pastor, barefoot and wearing khaki shorts and a backwards cap, welcomes the audience with the suggestion that they “look past this as a concert to a time when we can enjoy God together” before introducing Dillon.

The pretty songstress, dressed modestly in T-shirt and blue jeans, remarks on her satisfaction at leaving behind snow in Pennsylvania and mentions the two forthcoming acts before offering a prayerful testimony that echoes the publicity material for her most recent album, Waking Up.

“I confess that I feel so many shadows in my heart, God, so many unresolved things in my heart,” she says. “I stand in front of part of your church and I am empty without your Jesus, without our Jesus.” She speaks of a need for a quiet place for contemplation, while acknowledging the inevitable clamor of an event such as this. “I pray that you would quiet our inner man and inner woman,” she says, strumming a spare, simple accompaniment. “Say big things, but be a comforter and a healer too.”

Her voice soars in a honeyed inflection and passion that suggests Sheryl Crow without invoking the secular singer’s exploration of worldly desire and willingness to bruise hearts, her own and other ones, in the emotionally messy transactions of corporeal love. Many of Dillon’s songs begin with a spoken confession of human weakness and then resolve themselves with lyrically tidy declarations of assurance in Christian faith. After a couple songs, some of the people in the pews hold their arms raised in praise while others position digital cameras to capture mementos of the evening.

For the last song, Shane Barnard joins Dillon onstage with the bass player and electric guitar player from his band. After the song, Barnard smiles and waves to the audience, as Dillon turns her back and lifts the strap of her guitar over her head. “Hi, how are y’all,” Barnard says. “My name is Shane. This person is my fiancée.” She blushes. “I’m really proud of that,” Barnard says. He pumps his fist like a kid who can’t contain his delight at a new train set discovered under the Christmas tree.

As the four young men from Starfield plug in their instruments, Barnard deftly engages the audience, using humor and sincerity to nudge them towards the “Vision of You” tour’s spiritual and social action agenda. He shares this ability with Tim Neufeld, the primary vocalist and songwriter of Starfield, and the two men make an effective tag team.

“There’s never been a heart changed through song,” Barnard says. “There’s been hearts changed by the Holy Spirit through song.”

Then he gets out of the way, and Neufeld greets the audience: “It’s awesome to be on the road with what feels like a praise-and-worship circus.”

The first song begins with an atmospheric, Coldplay-like wash of stinging lead guitar processed through effects pedals and set off by bass and drums pounding at the opposite end of the sonic spectrum. Three overhead video screens display a mutating display of exploding stars and highway lights, along with lyrics to encourage audience participation. At Neufeld’s request the audience is on its feet and clapping in time.

At the end of Starfield’s set, Dillon, Barnard and Everett join the band onstage.

“We feel like the worship like we’ve been doing for the last hour is all well and good,” Neufeld says, “but we have to take our worship out of the church.” He says worship has to be evangelism, but with a twist – a Christian practice of outward social action, not just saving souls. He mentions the “haves in North America” and stunning poverty in Africa and other parts of the Third World, poverty deepened and aggravated by the un-stemmed spread of the HIV virus.

“How many of you all are sponsoring a child?” he asks. “One percent? That’s good…. There are thirty thousand children that die of diseases related to malnutrition every day. That’s September eleventh six times over every day. Think about that.”

Everett announces that Dillon is going to sing as staffers with World Vision, the tour sponsor, pass out packets with information about poor children in India. Everett asks the audience to pray for the children and consider signing up as sponsors – a commitment of a dollar a day. Photographs of frail Indian children from Calcutta reportedly taken by Dillon and her mother flash across the video screen as Dillon sings, “The orphan clings to your hand, singing of how he was found.”

Barnard tells the audience he currently sponsors three children.

“Ten years ago I had never written a song,” he says. “I had never played a guitar. I was just a construction worker-janitor at Texas A&M University. All I really knew was ramen noodles, Mountain Dew, caffeine and lattes. I loved lattes.” A speaker at concert told him “that for the price of a couple lattes a week, I could sponsor a child. That meant something to me.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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