Rebecca St. James

On Music, Mentoring, and Miracles in Rwanda

 

Grammy Award winners donít usually quote Scripture during acceptance speeches, but thereís nothing usual about Rebecca St. James. Born in Sydney, Australia, the eldest of seven, Rebecca got her first taste of Christian music from her dad, a Christian concert promoter. At 13 she performed at the invitation of Christian music star Carman on his Australian tour, then moved to the U.S. and began recording at age 16. Her aim in life was not Grammy Awards, but to live for Jesus. Mark Moring of Campus Life calls her music ďhip and innovativeĒ but believes ďitís her underlying commitment to Christ and her unabashed proclamation of Godís love that primarily attract the listener.Ē That commitment sees her performing on stage at Franklin Graham Crusades, volunteering behind the counter at a student coffeehouse, or climbing down past manhole covers to share the Gospel with homeless children in Romania. Sheís been called the most influential woman in Christian music and her voice is being heard by teens and their parents who pack out her 200 concerts a year. ďLive radically for God,Ē she tells them. ďRead the Bible. Pray. Stand up for what you believe in and make a difference in your world.Ē We caught up with Rebecca in Nashville where she talked about accountability, missions, and an old mentor some readers may remember.

Phil: Tell me a bit of background, Rebecca. You are living in Nashville? Are you married?

Yes, I live here and no, Iím not married.

I will avoid all the standard questions you get about that. I understand youíre a native Australian.

Yes. Iím part of a really strong Christian family, which was quite rare because there are not that many Christians there. Iíve heard statistics as low as 5 to 7 percent of the 20 million people. Itís a very secular world so having that Christian heritage was amazing. I had really strong parents in that they were really showing me Godís love from an early age. Then when I was 14 my dad really felt God calling the family to America so we moved to Nashville, Tennessee where he had been offered a job. About two months after we moved, his job fell through when his boss just ran out of money for the work my dad was doing. So we were now on the other side of the world from all our family and friends and we had no car, no furniture, we were sleeping on the floor, six kids in the family at the time and my mom was pregnant with my sister. We had never been through anything like this before and didnít know what the next step was. So we just sat on the floor as a family and we prayed and we asked God to provide for our needs, everything from money and food to a car. We often saw miracles happen, sometimes on the same day we prayed for something an answer would be given, things like a random check coming in the mail that would just cover our bills by a couple of dollars or groceries would get dropped on the doorstep. A Sunday School class found out we had no furniture and they delivered truckloads of furniture. A home-schooling family let us use their car for as long as we needed it. Somebody paid so that my little sister could be born in a hospital. We donít know who that was. When these amazing things happened that really gave me as a fourteen-year-old something to think about. I got signed to a record label at 16 so that really gave me a testimony.

How did it happen?

Iíd done a lot of singing back in Australia. Iíd been singing in a Christian rock band at my school and done a bit of recording. Iíd recorded a demo tape at 13 that a Christian artist named Carmen heard and he asked me to tour with him. My dad was his concert promoter so Iíd known him from other tours as well. Dad wasnít so sure about his little girl going on the road but he was the promoter of that tour so we went. After that I did a little praise and worship album back in Australia and when we moved to Nashville I sang some of those songs at youth groups. A man who was working at a record label came and saw me sing at my church.

What surprises you most about some of the things that have happened?

Itís all pretty surprising to me. I think at 15 you only have the capacity to understand so much about what signing a contract might mean, though I did grow up around the whole music scene. Iíve never felt like Iím the best singer in the world. There are far more talented people out there. But it was a situation where Iíd said to God at about 12, ďI donít know exactly what I have to give you, but hereís my talent. Hereís me and I want you to use my life.Ē It was around that time that he started to lead me into music, so I think everything in how it has happened and the huge journey that itís been has had an element of surprise. Probably the challenges of life in the spotlight have definitely surprised me. The glamour that some people picture when they think of somebody in music was definitely removed from my thinking before I even started because Iíd been around the scene. But at the same time I donít think I knew it would be quite as challenging as itís been at certain times too.

What has been one of the most rewarding things about all this?

Probably looking out on crowds and really seeing people connect with God, people being lost in worship. Hearing stories about how people are now in ministry because they responded to an altar call at one of my shows. People who several years ago gave their lives to God and now theyíre following him or theyíre in ministryóthatís really cool. Or I hear about people who saved sex for marriage because they heard me talking about it or they heard my song Wait for Me and now theyíre married and theyíre so glad they waited. Itís those stories of lives changed that are really very, very powerful things.

When I was a teenager I had a few records by a lady by the name of Evie. Do you know what happened to her?

She became a wife and mom and after her kids grew up she became involved in a Christian television ministry. Iíd met Evie in Australia when I was about 2 when she was packing out the Sidney opera house. Then about six or seven years ago she waltzed back into my life when she came to one of my shows in Florida because she lives there now. She has since become my mentor and she is an amazing woman of God. I love her so much. Sheís been so life-giving to me. God has really used her to bring encouragement and renewal. Sheís one of those people whoís just so full of joy and love, sheís a gem. So actually weíve been doing some shows together recently, mother/daughter events where we both sing and share from our hearts about certain topics that are in my books. Topics that women are wrestling with today. We talk about the hope that we have in God, the beauty of his way. Itís been pretty sweet.

What is your message to teen girls?

The biggest think Iím focusing on right now is Godís love for them and for all of us because everything else in the Christian life comes from that. We can get into a very legalistic place where weíre just doing it out of almost religiosity but the essence of the Christian life needs to be lived, if itís going to be true, from the knowledge of Godís extravagant love. There are other huge messages that Iím speaking to girls about like purity and modesty and finding that inner beauty that comes from time with God. But all these things really do come, if theyíre going to be lived out in the truest way, they come from knowing that weíre loved. Then you will honor your body enough to live in a way that glorifies God and youíll honor God with your actions in things like modesty. Thatís probably my big think right now.

The evangelical world recently saw another leader fall. What steps do you take to guard your heart?

I like that question. I think it needs to be asked more of leaders. For me there are a couple of things that God has given me that have really helped in this purity stand. I travel with my family and thatís always been the case. My dadís always been my manager. My entire family used to come on the road and fulfill different roles. Now consistently my dad and two brothers at least and when weíre on a full tour probably 3 or 4 siblings and my mom will come, so thereís always major accountability with family being right there. They know me and Iím the kind of person who has a hard time hiding the truth. I love living honestly and being straight up with close friends and family about whatís going on in my life. I think itís the most free and joyful way and leads to strength when youíre vulnerable and youíre willing to be open and weak before close people in your life. So Iíve been intentional about that, being honest with Evie, my mentor and a couple of close friends and family. I live with my brother when Iím back here in Nashville.  So thereís a lot of built-in accountability there and I think that also just having daily time with God. Prayer is a part of my life, also reading books that are challenging me because I think when youíre reading and sitting under good teaching, Iím at church whenever Iím home. And those books and that right teaching prick your heart if youíre not in that right place. Thatís another level of accountability that Iíve submitted myself to. I really want to honor God with my life. That is so my heart and thatís why I invite this kind of accountability. I really donít want to go down a path that is not towards God. And also I donít want to cause all the people watching me to grieve and to hurt because of my actions but I want to point them toward God by the way that Iím living.

What books are you reading right now?

Iím about to start a book called Life on the Vine by Philip Kennison. We just finished Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonheoffer and Iíve also just started Battlefield of the Mind by Joyce Myer. Iím also reading Let Go by Fenelon. Itís just changing my life.

So youíre not reading one of mine?

You have to send me one.

How do you find time to be quiet with God?

There are some times in my life when I do better about having quality quiet time and there are other times when the silence is just scary and thereís just too much there and Iím too tired emotionally to recognize what is happening in those silences. When I see that happening I see that as a warning sign that I need to start also speaking to my accountability partners. Sometimes Iím better about the disciplines and sometimes Iím not so good. The whole schedule thing, honestly Iíve felt out of balance for a reasonable amount of 13 years of ministry and I think any leader if theyíre honest would say they struggle with balance because there are huge expectations from everyone in your life from family to people that youíre leading to your team around you or the congregation or the audience. Itís just so hard to balance that and to say no when you need to say no. I feel like Iím still just learning about that. Itís kind of a work in progress.

You were just in Rwanda. Tell us about it.

That came about with my partnership with Compassion. I love their ministry. Iíve been to India and Equador and met the children that my brother and I sponsor. So Iíd seen their work before. Then I met my sponsored child in Rwanda and was just so blown away by how much it means to these kids to be sponsored. He told the film crew that meeting me was the best day of his life. Itís because Iím his sponsor and he loves me so much. But Rwanda also went through genocide about 12 years ago and I expected to find a place that was broken at every level and to sense huge emotional devastation still. And obviously, when you hear people tell the stories thereís a lot of brokenness but I was actually really surprised by the amount of healing that has taken place in these peopleís lives in such a short time. The president of Rwanda is a Christian and heís instituted this no-revenge policy and encouraging people to forgive instead of taking revenge on those who killed their families. Because of that forgiveness I believe a lot of healing has taken place in that country. It turned out to be quite an encouraging trip not only on the level of meeting my sponsor child but of realizing that where thereís forgiveness thereís healing. Thatís on multiple levels, with God, with people, where thereís forgiveness thereís healing. The Rwandan people taught me that.

Madonna and other celebrities have adopted children from Africa. Why the recent interest?

One of the reason Iím so passionate about talking about Compassion in every one of my shows is because itís a real, legitimate arm of the caring love of God. Itís really working. A lot of people question sponsorship ministries because they donít know if the money is actually getting to the kids. But Compassion is so solid and has been for many, many years and I just love it. But I also think itís important for people to go and to do as well. I recently read The Irresistible Revolution and although I didnít agree with everything in the book, the jist of it was that we should take very seriously Jesusí call to love and the second greatest commandment being to love your neighbor as yourself. And to make it practical, not just to send money off somewhere but to actually go and do. He doesnít feel that on the last day Jesus will say you ministered to me personally when you sent off that money to UNICEF. Heís saying when you gave me the cup of water, when you visited me in prison, when you do it for those who are hurting you do it for me. So I think the checks to Compassion and UNICEF are important, but also going on a missions trip. It might not be to Africa, but it will change your life and the lives of the people there. I want to step up myself and be more hands on in practical ministry and I want to encourage others to be that way too.

When all is said and done, what would you like to be remembered for?

Iíd like to be remembered as a woman who passionately loved God and people. If because of that love I drew people to God, I will have lived a successful life.

Where to from here?

This coming year weíre touring quite a bit. Iíll be doing a Christmas tour with Brian Litrell, formerly of Backstreet Boys whoís got a Christian album out so weíre doing a couple of weeks of Christmas touring here pretty soon. We are also touring with Delirious next year and Iím very excited about that, love their stuff. Also doing some more dates with my mentor Evie and then headed back to Australia and New Zealand for a couple of shows, so weíre really touring prettily heavily. The albumís been out about a year now so hopefully weíll be talking about a new album at some stage but weíre not moving towards that just yet.

I almost forgot. Anything you want to say about  your most recent album? Go ahead and plug it.

It is an album that really focuses on the love of God. I went to LíAbri in Switzerland a couple of years ago and God really did an awesome work in my heart during that time. I really felt him speaking to me about his love, that thereís nothing I can do to make him love me more or less, just to rest in his love. I love that little community there with people from around the world. A lot of the subjects that I broach on the album are from my time at LíAbri but the biggest theme is the whole passion to share the love of God. The title If I Had a Chance to Tell You Something comes from a song called You Are Loved. Lyrically, itís biblical, itís vulnerable, itís real, itís challenging to live out the Christian life intentionally. Thereís a song about having compassion for the hurting, a song about community, a song about surrender to God, so it covers a lot of different aspects of the Christian life. Musically itís pop/rock; itís got a couple lighter moments, a touching ballad kind of song. But I think itís very relevant to a lot of different age groups and the message is relevant to us all.

Is there anything else I didnít ask you that I should have? I'm getting a little older now, you know, so those kind of questions save a guy.

The only thing I think I could speak to is that I speak to teens all the time about purity. I have a song to my future husband, telling him Iím waiting for him and asking him to wait for me too. One line says, ďI want to be now and always faithful to you.Ē I think the song is not only relevant to teens and single people. I believe itís relevant to married people of all ages because thereís such an attack in this day and age on purity. Itís everywhere, itís rampant. I really would love to encourage every leader to be committed to God and guard our purity. The enemy is prowling like a roaring lion to kill and destroy us. One of the biggest ways he can destroy our credibility is in the area of purity. If weíre indulging in impurity he can shoot us down. Letís commit to being accountable and putting ourselves under authority so that people know whatís going on in our lives.

God continue to make you an incredible blessing, Rebekah.

Same to you.

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