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Still Means Rock
By Zik Jackson
After thirty years, pioneer Christian rock group Petra still has two of its original members, founder and guitarist Bob Hartman, and drummer Louie Weaver. Lead singer John Schlitt has been with Petra for over fifteen years, longer than any other lead singer. The original trailblazer in the modern worship movement, Petra recently released Revival, a new praise and worship album that reveals that these rockers can still lift up praise like the youthful bands that followed in their footsteps. These guys were rocking for God before some of you were even born. For many of us, Petra was our first experience with Christian rock. How many reading this right now were led to Christ at a Petra concert?
The Phantom Tollbooth had a chance to interview John and Bob, two industry veterans who talk about their struggles and triumphs, their joys and frustrations, and what wisdom they have gained over the past three decades.
Interview with John Schlitt
What is Petra up to right now?
There’s been a battle for Petra in the music industry of whether we should exist or not… In the scheme of things in the music business right now, we just didn’t fit the stereotype of what’s happening at this moment, and there was a good possibility that we weren’t going to exist much longer. So for this record actually to exist we praise God for because there were people at Inpop that realized that Petra’s very viable - has a future - and they put their trust behind our ministry and got things together and we’re excited about it.What can we look forward to on the new album, Revival?
I really like the record a lot. I think it’s going to be very useful. It’s both exciting and relaxing at the same time. It does that almost live concert momentum type of thing. I think it’s a full package.It seems there is a Revival happening in our country since September 11th.
I think there’s an awakening in this country with everything happening. We have to make a choice. We can’t just drift around. The answer is not being a lone soldier. We do have a God that cares, and we better decide to either choose Him or be totally defenseless. I think it’s a great time to be a Christian.The song “Revival” is very apropos for the times we are in right now.
I actually sang that song about seven months ago. If you had seen how it came together, you would have said, ‘What a bunch of neat coincidences.’ And of course there’s no such thing as a coincidence. It’s just like, ‘God, You’re so cool.’How is Revival different from previous Petra albums?
Because there are so many new pieces to the formula, it’s totally different. It’s totally different as far as the production sound. When you change producers, you’re going to notice it, but because it is Louie, Bob, and myself there still is that absolute core of what Petra is about. I mean anyone who is a staunch Petra fan will recognize Petra big time, but I think the freshness is in the way the producers handled it.What was it like to be the first and only rock band inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame?
I am still in shock with that. I don’t know what to tell you about that. That night of the awards, we were with other people also… When they started giving the presentations, they had video documentaries of each of these people or groups, and they always would start, ‘Back in 1942, when so-and-so started this, they didn’t know…’ ‘42!? I mean, you know, most of these groups were happening before *I* was born, you know? So I looked at Bob and said, ‘Oh man, we don’t belong here.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘apparently somebody thinks we should because they voted us in.’ So it was that kind of thing, it was just absolute shock to me when I heard it. In fact, when I first heard I thought somebody was just kidding us. But you’ve got to understand, it’s truly an honor. It was just… it’s been a strange year for us. We got that [and] we got a Grammy for a record that the industry basically ignored. It’s been either fantastic or very, very disappointing. There hasn’t been any in between. So I guess if you level it all out, it’s been a pretty average year.What was the songwriting process like on this album?
This was a very different album, because again we’re using a new company, so the process was different. They absolutely had a plan before they ever signed the contract. Basically they said, ‘We want this to be praise and worship material that’s especially out of England and Australia. We feel there’s a music revival happening in both those countries,’ and we [Petra] weren’t going to argue with that because we agree. So that was really the core of the idea from the beginning, you know, to pretty much use this material that we actually didn’t write, but is really happening in that revival-toned area, those two areas as far as music is concerned. Then as time went on, we did find a couple of more original tunes that have been either traditional songs rewritten or a couple finds as we went on. They were just part of about fifty songs we had to choose from. That was tough. That was the hardest part, just choosing. Bringing it down to the twenty, then bringing it down to the eleven, and then thinking we were going to make it ten, but we just couldn’t do it. We had to have eleven. That was funny. That last choice, you know, trying to pick one to take off the record after you’ve finished the record… finally somebody goes, ‘Why do we have to take one off?’ and the president [of Inpop] goes, ‘Well, uh, I guess we don’t.’ So that was the final decision.What is the message on the new album?
The message that Petra’s always been a part of is two-fold: It’s that Jesus Christ is Lord and that He has a plan for your life, you need to give Him a chance, *and* that [you can] be encouraged, He’s not dead, He’s alive, He has a plan for each one of us, and just stand strong. We’ve always been evangelistic and evangelical. We’ve always searched to bring that message to the unsaved. But we’ve always felt that encouragement of the body was very, very important too, because if the foundation isn’t strong, the building’s not going to stand. Our messages have never changed, they never will change. We may have used different songs to bring them across. And granted, I think with those two foundation stones as far as those messages, you can cover a lot of things, including where are you at, what are you doing, how are you standing for the Lord, are you helping the poor, are you putting your money where your mouth is, this kind of thing. But it all stems on those two messages: To the unsaved, Jesus is alive, He’s not dead, and He has a plan for your life. And to the saved, be encouraged, our Lord is not dead, He is in control, and we just have to have faith.How do you keep the spark alive after thirty years?
Just remembering where I was at before. That’s all it takes. And the fact that I really believe God’s not a God of waste, and for some reason He gave me a voice - a strange voice, I think - that can be used. He’s given me a heart to do what I do - I love doing what I do. And I think that combination just tells me to go for it. I’ll tell you the last two years, there were a couple times where I basically said, ‘You know what, I’ve had it. This is stupid. Apparently it ain’t supposed to happen any more, and I’m done.’ And about that time I’d have somebody e-mail me, or write me, or call me up, or just tap me on the shoulder somewhere out of the blue and say, ‘Listen, I really feel like God wants you to know that you aren’t supposed to quit.’ And it’s been that way for like two years. Every time something happens that’s very disappointing or something, someone will come and say, ‘You know what? God told me that it’s not always going to be easy.’ It’s just a very specific type of message and it’s just like, ‘Wow. Alright God, I’m hearin’ ya.’It’s been thirty years and counting. Will Petra be around forever?
You know what? I don’t know. I’ll be totally honest. I don’t know. I just know that it wasn’t time to quit yet. In the near future we’re talking [about] a spring tour. We’re talking [about] supporting this record, doing our best to let people know that it exists. If there’s interest, if it allows us to be part of the music business some more, then there will be another record on the same label that’s a more traditional Petra record, and we’ll take it from there, see where that takes us. And we’ll tour and we’ll spread the message as best we can. And when that slows down to a point where it seems you’re knocking your head against a wall, then we’ll ask God what’s next. So am I thinking years and years? I sure hope so, but I’m not thinking that right now… Who are we to say what God has in store? ... Don’t take anything for granted and just be available.Interview with Bob Hartman, founder and guitarist
What’s different about Revival?
This album is actually a praise and worship album, what they now call a modern worship album, which is of course in keeping with what we’ve done in the past as far as doing Petra Praise: The Rock Cries Out and then Petra Praise 2. This one is not called Petra Praise 3, it’s called Revival. It is a worship album and there are a lot of songs on there that are up-and-coming praise and worship songs from really around the world. Some of them are being sung a lot in some other countries and some are just catching on here in the U.S. so we’re hoping that by exposing them on our album that more people will be doing them.How did you go about song selection, since none are written by Petra members?
Jason [Halbert] and Dwayne [Larring] the producers, formerly with SONICFLOOd, are very plugged in to the whole praise and worship scene from around the world. In fact they travel out of the country quite regularly. They are really, I think, most responsible for bringing together the songs we were to choose from. They just had some really good songs and brought them all back to us and we listened and decided which ones we’d like to try and ended up using all of them, I think.I really like the title song “Revival.”
It is a really great song. That was actually the first one that we did. They had already been working with that song and had John [Schlitt] sing on it. That’s really more or less what got us the gig, because everyone felt that John sounded so good on that. We really decided to make the album around that song.
There’s a lot of good songs out there and when you do a praise and worship album, sometime it’s a lot easier to use the familiar and do a good arrangement of it. That’s what we had done on our previous two releases.What do you look for in a good praise and worship song?
We look for something that is very memorable, something that people want to sing. We look for songs that are already gaining in popularity, and there’s a reason for that. People may not be able to put their finger on what they like about a particular praise and worship song, but it’s usually the combination of what the message says and melody. And so we look for those with a more unusual melody, not a typical melody.
If you look at some of the songs on the album, there are some really cool things. Songs like ‘How Long’ and a number of the songs have a message that’s just a very relevant topic and easy to grasp, yet it’s not something that you’ve heard.What was the inspiration for the original Petra Praise?
That really came about through meetings with youth pastors. We were involved with a liaison [organization] between contemporary Christian artists and church. They are in touch with lots of youth pastors helping to bring contemporary Christian into the church in youth groups and so forth. Through our meetings with them, we began to see a need. We would ask them, ‘How can we as a band help you in what you’re doing in your ministry?’ We got a lot of feedback [indicating they] need a lot of help in the praise and worship area, because a lot of the kids just wouldn’t participate. We heard horror stories of youth pastors standing up in front of the group with a guitar and just dying. And we thought, ‘What if we took some of the songs they’re singing and sort of Petrafied it?’ You know, made it more rock, like just do rock arrangements on them. And, have more sing-along kind of songs, not a typical Petra release, but more of a sing-along. In fact, on our first praise album we had a songbook that went with it and also you could get just the tracks. If a youth leader wanted to put on a track of a song and have the group sing along with it without any vocals, he could do that.Petra Praise 2 was just kind of a continuation of that. We learned of course from Petra Praise 1, because it’s, you know, brand new territory. We learned some things and applied those things to Petra Praise 2 to kind of zero in a little more on what people liked and needed.
When you were approaching Revival knowing that it was going to be a praise and worship album, were you thinking in your minds, “Petra Praise 3” or not?
Good question. I think that we were thinking that this is a little bit different because we’re taking one more step towards what a typical Petra release would be. In other words, the tack in the first two Petra Praise albums was definitely a departure from the norm of Petra recordings, and we wanted to keep them that way. We wanted to keep them separate. This more or less says, ‘This is more in line with Petra. [This] is what we do.When you started Petra thirty years ago, did you think it would be around this long?
No. Definitely not. I didn’t have any idea that I would still be doing the same thing. I mean that’s a long time for ... I mean you just think of somebody working in one job. That’s a long time for that.So have you been surprised by it?
I’ve been continually surprised. I’ve lived in a state of surprise.What has been the key? Why is it thirty years later and you’re still as strong as ever?
Well I really believe it’s knowing ... having a mission because there can be so, so many discouragements to doing what we do and have done over the years. You come to those times, and it’s very easy to say to yourself, ‘Well I’m just going to quit and go do something else.’ And yet, the thing that keeps you from doing that is the believing that you’ve been called to do something. And that call is what keeps you… it keeps your hand to the plow, so to speak. Because you realize that if you’ve been called, then you have a mission, you have a purpose that God wants you to perform, and if you just quit, you’re letting down the Lord. There have been times when we have just said, ‘Lord, if this thing is going to continue, it’s just going to have to be a miracle from You, because in the natural, there’s no reason it should continue.’ And time after time after time, something has happened just in time, and the Lord has let us know that this is where He wants us.In thirty years of ministry with Petra, what has been the highlight for you?
Well there have been so many; it’s hard to pinpoint one. I think one would be the tour that we did with Josh McDowell. To me [it] was a real highlight in Petra’s ministry. One of the highlights. One of the biggest highlights. It was a tremendous tour; we saw so many great things happen. I think it was good not only for Petra and for Josh, but it was obviously good for the people who experienced that and heard the message that Josh had. And I think it was good for contemporary Christian music. It was the first time that something like that had happened, where a major Christian speaker had teamed up with a contemporary Christian artist, especially a rock artist, and really targeted the youth. Obviously the message was “Why Wait?” and you know that’s a message to youth. So this fulfilled his goals of wanting to reach the youth. For Petra just to be a part of it and see the Lord working night after night and to see how the church responded to that tour was really encouraging. I think it went miles as far as getting the church to realize what a tool contemporary Christian music can be.As a songwriter, what do you draw from for inspiration?
One of the things that I’ve always drawn from, believe it or not, has been my background in theology. That experience that I had actually teaching theology in the school where Petra started (it was a non-accredited two-year Bible school in Indiana). During the early years of Petra, I taught there for three years. That more than even being a student there, was a great learning experience and a grounding experience. I really believe that my lyrics show that I’ve drawn from that well over the years. That’s very important to me - to try to make Petra’s songs Scripturally-based and completely orthodox in their message… Personal experience is obviously the second part to that. As I apply the theology I’ve learned to my life and situations, that becomes an inspiration for lots of messages.What would you say to young people who want to enter music ministry? What kinds of things should they do or not do to have the same kind of ministry that Petra has had?
Well, I think that for me, the most important thing is that they really sit and find out from the Lord whether or not they truly are called to do this. Whether or not God wants them to. I believe firmly that God wants to control our lives and direct our lives. You know, the Bible says the paths of a righteous man are ordered unto God. I’ve always believed that right through from the time we first started because we needed to know, ‘God are you behind this?’ We had gotten so much opposition at the beginning that if we didn’t know that, we weren’t going to survive. I think for a young person that might have a talent - you know just having a talent isn’t really enough for Christian music. There needs to be some depth there, to their character, to their spirituality. If they’re going to stand up on a stage and represent Christ - which is what we Christian artists do, like it or not - we stand in front of an audience and sing a Christian song. Like it or not, the audience identifies us as a Christian, as a believer, as somebody who has something to say about following Christ. That is a position of responsibility that we have to accept. Sometimes I think that Christian artists want to skirt around that and, you know, kind of say, ‘Well, I’m not really called to be a preacher.’ But when you stand on stage and you declare Christ in a song, you are identifying yourself with Christ and people look to you as an example of a Christian. And because of that, I really believe there’s a big responsibility that comes with it.When Petra was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, what was it like for you?
Well it was a complete shock and surprise because Petra has always sort of felt like we never quite fit in to GMA, the Gospel Music Association. You know, over the years we just felt like we were the fifth wheel and the folks at GMA didn’t really understand who Petra was - what we did, why we were popular, any of those things. For them to vote for us to be a part of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, it was just a tremendous indication that they had seen what we’d done over the years, and they said, ‘This is good.’ And so for us, it was a tremendous award.And how about winning a Grammy too for Double Take? That was a huge thing too.
Yes, I can remember so well when we won our first Grammy it was the same kind of shock that I experienced with Hall of Fame, because I really didn’t believe that it would ever happen. You know Petra has had a sort of a rough “relationship,” if you will, with the Christian music business over the years. I characterize it that way, but people looking at it now would never come up with that. But having lived through it, I definitely feel over the years that we were misunderstood and sort of ignored in a lot of ways. But I’m certainly not crying my milk here. I’m not laying out that we absolutely had a hard row to hoe in getting industry recognition, which, of course, was never our goal. That was never at all what we were seeking, but it’s nice, you know. It’s nice when somebody says, ‘Hey, that’s a good album and we’re going to reward it with a Grammy or a Dove or whatever.’ So it’s just a great surprise to me when something does happen that’s great like that…It’s a great thing to have been around this long and see another one come along like that.Is part of it because of the longevity and diligence of following the call and enduring for so long?
I definitely think so. Yeah. Being around for a long time has really helped. I mean obviously, the longer you’re around the more people hear about you. We get testimonies all the time, constantly, of people saying, ‘You were the first Christian group I ever heard,’ or, ‘Your album so-and-so was the first Christian album I ever bought.’ We hear that constantly, all the time. That’s very rewarding because it says that we contributed to contemporary Christian music. We more or less brought somebody into contemporary Christian music. They may have bought hundreds of albums since the first one, and enjoyed the inspiration they gained from listening to contemporary Christian music. So to be maybe what you might want to call a trailblazer in that respect has been a great reward for us. We’re happy to have been a part that we have been in contemporary Christian music.So if it were all over tomorrow, how would you want to be remembered?
Well, I just want to be remembered. That would just be good enough for me. You know, people have a tendency to forget. You wait a couple of years between albums and people start to forget. I think I’d like to be remembered, I’d like Petra to be remembered as a band that stuck to their guns; a band that didn’t succumb to all the different pressures, but stayed true to their vision and mission and their ministry. And in each work, to be found faithful, and if that’s the case then I think we’ve done a very good job.