Bob Hartman never choked on his own vomit. John Schlitt’s lifeless body was never found in a hotel room with a needle stuck in his arm. Too many rock stars die like that. But Bob Hartman and John Schlitt were never rock stars.
They were theologians with amplifiers.
I was in the seventh grade when I first heard Petra, Bob and John’s band. I didn’t know it at the time but the message I was hearing from them is one that I would carry with me, over 20 years later, every time I preached. And it is one that I would share with my sons too.
It’s always interesting to grow up and learn a few things only to look back and see that some of the teachers you had as a kid actually knew what they were talking about. I did that with a preacher named Sam Cathey. It seemed like he came to my church every year when I was a kid. All I remember is being captivated by his stories.
Several years later I found a few cassette tapes of his sermons. I started listening to him when I drove to my seminary classes on Monday mornings. In a lot of ways, I got all the seminary I needed from those cassette tapes. Sam knew what he was talking about.
And so did Petra.
They weren’t content with songs about giving Satan a bloody nose or songs that replaced “she” from a love song with “Jesus” and made it a Christian song. Instead they took classes. Theology classes. It payed off.
Petra sang a lot of songs about spiritual warfare. Most of their albums had at least a slight battle theme. By the early 90s when arena rock gave way to grunge and modern rock, their music started to wear thin on a lot of listeners. I was one of them. I once had almost every one of their albums in cassette form. I have no idea where those cassettes are today.
I miss them.
I few months ago I sat in front of my computer with a card in one hand and a blank stare on my face. I spend most of my days wishing that I had a $500 iTunes gift card. When I get one for $20, I have no idea what to do with it.
For old time’s sake, I made the digital purchase of an album I owned over 20 years ago. It was Petra’s This Means War! As I listened to it, I had that same feeling that I had when I was listening to those old Sam Cathey tapes. These guys really knew what they were talking about.
“This means war – and the battle’s still raging.
This means war – and though both sides are waging.
The Victor is sure and the victory’s secure.
But ’til judgement we all must endure.
This means war.”
Like I said, I think about those lyrics almost every time I get up to preach. Or before I start a counseling session. In a lot of ways, those old cassette tapes made me the man that I am today.
I played those albums for my sons a few weeks back. They were hooked. Just like I was back in the seventh grade. There’s something funny about seeing your five-year-old listening to Petra on his mom’s iPhone.
The boys I’m raising know all about Duane Allman. He introduced them to the guitar solo. John Mayer and Jack Johnson taught them what a love song is. Rick Allen, and a host of others, taught them that the rock and roll lifestyle comes with a price. Sometimes you pay with your arm. Sometimes, like in the case of Duane Allman, you pay with your life.
But I’m glad that my boys also know about Bob Hartman and John Schlitt. Two guys who were okay with not being rock stars. Two guys who took the time to mix a good lyric with a good melody and drum solo. Two guys who had a message that kicked off my theological education way back in the seventh grade. Two guys who are giving that same theological education to my sons.
Petra doesn’t tour or record albums anymore. They never won an MTV Video Music Award. They aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Once, I saw a guitar from the band hanging on the wall at the Atlanta Hard Rock Cafe. That’s about it when it comes to public adoration for Petra.
And I don’t think that Sam Cathey preaches as much as he used to. He never started a movement. I never heard him described with words like entrepreneur or visionary. He was just a preacher. But he was a preacher who took the time to get it right, just like Petra did.
It’s easy to confuse our following with our faithfulness. The two don’t always go together. If it’s a following that you want, you have to always be on the move, ahead of the cultural curve. Faithfulness is different. When faithfulness is your primary concern you have to be okay with never really saying anything new. Just the same old gospel message. And you have to keep on saying it, even if you never really gain that great of a following.
Our aim is too low if all we care about are Twitter followers and bigger crowds. One way or another, those things will go away. If you don’t believe me, just ask M.C. Hammer. But faithfulness leaves a lasting impact, even 30 years later when you’re all grown up and trying to get it right yourself.
Some of God’s people will have their names in lights. Most of us will not. But whether we win a Grammy or just preach to a few dozen people every week, it’s our faithfulness that really matters.
And it keeps on mattering.
Long after our job is done.