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Interview: Rebecca St. James

She's anything but usual. Rebecca St. James quoted Scripture during her Grammy Award acceptance speeches, and there's a reason why.

Grammy Award winners don't usually quote Scripture during acceptance speeches, but there's 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.

Rebecca St. James

Mark Moring of Campus Life calls her music "hip and innovative" but believes "it's her underlying commitment to Christ and her unabashed proclamation of God's love that primarily attract the listener." 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. She's 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. "Live radically for God," she tells them. "Read the Bible. Pray. Stand up for what you believe in and make a difference in your world." We caught up with Rebecca in Nashville where she talked about accountability, missions, and an old mentor some readers may remember.

Phil Callaway (PC): You left Australia as a young teen, did you find instant success in America?

Rebecca St. James (RSJ): [Laughs.] My dad had been offered a job in Nashville, Tennessee. But two months after we moved, it fell through. So we were on the other side of the world from our family and friends with no car and no furniture. We were sleeping on the floor, six kids in the family and my mom was pregnant with my sister. We sat on the floor and asked God to provide for our needs. And miracles happened. A random check would come in the mail that would barely cover our bills, or groceries would get dropped on the doorstep. A Sunday school class found out we had no furniture and delivered truckloads of it. A home-schooling family let us use their car for as long as we needed it. Someone paid so my little sister could be born in a hospital. We don't know who that was. When these amazing things happened it helped me see that God really cared.

PC: You were signed to a record label at 16?

RSJ: I'd done a lot of singing in Australia and a bit of recording. I made a demo tape at 13. Carman heard it and asked me to tour with him. Dad wasn't so sure about his little girl going on the road but he was the promoter of that tour so he was there. When we moved to Nashville I sang for youth groups worship songs I'd recorded in Australia. A man from a record label heard me sing at my church. That's how it started. Today my father is my manager and my five brothers manage the stage, lights, back-up vocals, and a Compassion International booth.

PC: What has surprised you the most?

RSJ: All of it. I've never felt like I'm the best singer in the world. There are far more talented people out there. But at about 12 I said, "God, I don't know what I have to give you, but here's my talent. I want you to use my life." Soon afterward He led me into music and that journey has always had an element of surprise. The challenges of life in the spotlight have definitely surprised me. The glamour that some people picture when they think of a musical career has certainly been removed from my thinking.

PC: What has been most rewarding?

RSJ: Looking out on crowds and seeing people connect with God in worship. Hearing stories about people who are now in ministry because they responded to an altar call. People who several years ago gave their lives to God and now they're following Him or are in ministry—that's really cool. I hear from people who saved sex for marriage because they listened to my song "Wait for Me" and now they're married and they're so glad they waited. Those stories of lives changed are the most rewarding.

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

RSJ: I think that question needs to be asked of more leaders. I'm single and I live with my brother when I'm back in Nashville. I always travel with family members so there's major accountability. They know me. I love living honestly and being straight up with close friends and family. I'm intentional about accountability. It's the most free and joyful way. Vulnerability leads to strength. I seek to have a constant time with God too. There is such an attack today on purity. It's everywhere. It's rampant. Every Christian leader must be committed to God and we must guard our purity. The enemy is prowling like a roaring lion to destroy us. One of the quickest ways he can destroy our credibility is in the area of purity. Let's commit to being accountable and putting ourselves under authority so that people know what's going on in our lives.

PC: Your album title is, If I Had One Chance to Tell You Something. Tell us about it.

RSJ: I went to L'Abri in Switzerland a couple of years ago and God really did an awesome work in my heart during that time. I felt Him speaking to me about His love, that there's nothing I can do to make Him love me more or less, just to rest in His love. My biggest passion is to share the love of God. There's 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. The title song was written about a childhood friend of mine named Daniel. I found out that Daniel had fallen away from God and that he'd been abusing drugs. I asked myself, "If I had one chance to tell Daniel something, what would I say to him?" I would tell him, "You are loved." It's a message my generation needs to hear. 'No matter where you've been and what you've done … you are loved.' From this song came the album title–and really the key theme of the project. Yes, we need to stand in awe of God and be blown away by His power. But it's really His kindness and His love that draws us to Him.

PC: When I was a kid I had a few records by Evie. Any idea what happened to her?

RSJ: I met Evie Karlsson in Australia when I was about two when she was packing out the Sydney opera house. About six or seven years ago she came to one of my shows in Florida. She has since become my mentor and is an amazing woman of God. I love her so much. God has really used her to bring encouragement and renewal. She's so full of joy and love. She's a gem. We've been doing some shows together recently, mother/daughter events where we both sing and share from our hearts about the issues women face.

PC: What is your message to teen girls?

RSJ: They need to understand God's love for them because everything else in the Christian life flows from that. We can get into a very legalistic place where our faith just becomes religion but the essence of the Christian life needs to be lived out from the knowledge of God's extravagant love. Once they understand and accept God's love they can receive the other messages that I'm speaking to girls about like purity and modesty and finding that inner beauty that comes from time with God.

PC: You were recently in Rwanda. Tell us about it.

RSJ: That came about with my partnership with Compassion. I love their ministry. I met my sponsored child in Rwanda and was just so blown away by how much it means to these kids to be sponsored. Rwanda went through genocide about 12 years ago and I expected to find a place that was broken at every level. And obviously there's a lot of brokenness, but I was surprised by the amount of healing that has taken place in these people's lives in such a short time. The president of Rwanda is a Christian and he's instituted this no-revenge policy and people are encouraged to forgive instead of taking revenge on those who killed their families. The Rwandan people taught me that where there's forgiveness there's healing.

PC: Madonna and other celebrities have adopted children from Africa. But what can the rest of us do?

RSJ: Joining with Compassion is certainly part of the answer. Some question sponsorship ministries because they don't know if the money is actually getting to the kids. But Compassion is solid and has been for many, many years. It is a legitimate arm of the caring love of God. I also think it's important for people not just to send money off somewhere but to actually go and do. Consider going on a mission trip. It will change your life and the lives of the people there.

PC: What books are you reading right now?

RSJ: I enjoy reading books that challenge me. I'm about to start a book called Life on the Vine by Philip Kennison. We just finished Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonheoffer and I've also just started Battlefield of the Mind by Joyce Myer. I'm also reading Let Go by [Francois De Salignac De] Fenelon. It's been changing my life.

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

RSJ: I'd 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.

Phil Callaway is the editor of Servant magazine, author of a dozen books and a popular speaker. His web site is: www.philcallaway.com.

Originally published in Servant Magazine, Issue 77, Winter 2007.

 

 
 
 
 

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