Q & A: Ishmael
Ishmael has spent the last 50 years writing more than 400 songs and sharing the good news of Jesus with children. He’s authored eleven books and is now a deacon at Chichester Cathedral. Editor Ruth Jackson spoke to him about prioritising children, all-age services and clinging to God through suffering.
Ruth Jackson: What was your experience of God as a child?
Ishmael: I had a very good experience growing up. I was brought up in a Christian community and it wasn’t until the age of about 15 that I rebelled. I got a job on a farm and suddenly went from being with all believers to non-believers who were doing and saying different things than I’d had in my Christian community. It all looked quite exciting and I became quite extreme in my sin, although I’d always call myself a Christian because I didn’t blaspheme! An unbeliever asked: “How come you call yourself a Christian and yet you’re worse than the rest of us?” And I just went home one Christmas – I was very drunk – and I prayed: “God, I’ve tried everything to extreme, but found no satisfaction and purpose for life so, if you can change my life and give me a reason for living, I’ll try to live the rest of my life to please you.” That night God really did something in my life and for the last 50 years, I’ve been trying to keep my side of the bargain.
RJ: How did you go from agriculture to children’s ministry?
I: I felt God was calling me into the ministry. This is before there was any full-time Christian travelling musicians in the UK. I was told I’d never survive doing it, but I really felt God was calling me to do it. So, I just went on the road with the guitar, started travelling around doing door-to-door work in the daytime and just telling people about Jesus, singing in youth clubs. Nowhere to live, no income – just doing it because I believe God called me to.
In the early 70s, I was in a folk duo and then a punk band. Spring Harvest was coming up and I felt God calling me to work with children, so I said to the executive of Spring Harvest: “I believe God has called me to work with children” and they said: “You’re a punk singer. What experience have you had?” I said: “None, but I just believe I’ve got a calling.” They gave me a year to work with the 8 to 11s and I’m still doing it now.
RJ: Why do you think children’s work is so important?
I: When we started, children were very much in the background. It was so dated and flat and we wanted to bring something different to children. When we first did Spring Harvest, I remember thinking: “Why should the big top have all the best music?” So, I started bringing musicians into the children’s venue. Most of the band was made up of Delirious?. The music suddenly changed from playing a keyboard or acoustic guitar to a rock band at the front and the children loved it. We were able to put over the Christian message and scripture songs while using that style of music. It really was upgrading the place of a child. We used to have a big slogan that said: “Children. The Church of today. The leaders of tomorrow.” People have realised they’re not just on ice until they get to 15. These children are little Spirit-filled beings that can be used by God as much as any adult.
I believe the best worship leader in your church should be with the children, not with the adults, because the adults can worship without music. Children have to be taught. I believe our Bible teachers shouldn’t just be teaching adults, they should be teaching children by communicating with them. We’ve got people sitting in church congregations with wonderful gifting but who won’t work with children. We’ve got to change this because children are special and precious, and they deserve the best of what we’ve got because we want to keep hold of them. Why are we losing so many children from church? Because they’re not respected, and they’re not trained. We are often babysitting children rather than coming in as Bible teachers and training them.
I remember a big event where I asked this little girl: “What’s God calling you to be?” And she said: “I’m going to be an evangelist.” I said: “OK, so you preach tonight instead of me.” She was about 10 and she was very happy to do it. We had a few hundred children there and I said: “You preach and I’ll just stand next to you and support you.” And this little girl got up and preached and she was absolutely fantastic…All the children listened and afterwards I said: “Where are you going?” She said: “Well, I’ve done it.” And I said: “No, you haven’t. You want to be an evangelist. Now you give people a chance to respond, so get up back up there and give them a chance to become a Christian.” And then all these kids came forward! God used this little one when she was young. I guarantee she’ll be a preacher somewhere now. She just had the anointing and you could see right from the word go; it didn’t wait until she’s 15.
RJ: What’s different about children’s ministry now compared to when you started?
I: There’s some great things happening now. Friends like Dougie Doug Doug and Heather Thompson are doing a wonderful job. But some modern children’s songs are lacking in depth and quality. We should always give children scripture. We want to give them something to hang on to or something that’s really deep in worship and powerful, which they can enjoy with simple melody lines. The other thing that worries me is the use of screens. Kids spend loads of time looking at screens, and I just want to get them back into live stuff and see the power of God work through that.
RJ: You’ve written hundreds of songs. How do you come up with fresh ideas?
I: I was never writing songs unless I was doing an album – I’d sit down and write 30 or so songs for it. I always test them with a group of children. If they can’t sing them within two listens, I drop the song. We wrote some of our songs on stage!
And I think the fun element has got to be there, but you can have fun and still be teaching. I never worry about professionalism, because I want the children to see a friend at the front, not a musician. Children, generally speaking, love music. I’m not a guitarist. I’m certainly not a singer. I’m God’s joke! All these years ago God called me to do something I can’t do. I’m doing something that I’ve never felt confident in, so all the time I have to trust God’s going to help me through it, and do it. Songs communicate, and whether I’m singing in a prison or a children’s group, I’ve got to choose a song that I know can communicate with the people there and that they can join in.
RJ: How do we do all-age well?
I: It’s the hardest service to prepare for, because everybody becomes selfish! Everyone needs to know that we’re going to do some stuff that will suit the boys and girls, something suitable for the youth, and something for older people. But we’re all here together. You’ve got to bring fun elements into it too.
The whole thing about an all-age service is everything has got to be simple. No long prayers. No long sermons. No song sung more than twice. It’s a fast-moving service. It’s different than the average Sunday morning service. The music has to appeal to all. If I were to do hymns or modern songs, I’d make sure they have very strong melody lines so the children can sing them. There needs to be plenty of action, plenty of movement. Get the children out the front, get them to sit down again and get somebody else at the front.
RJ: In 2008 you were diagnosed with leukaemia. What impact did that have on your faith?
I: All I’d ever seen was supernatural healings, especially with children involved, and I thought anything to do with hospitals or medics was God’s second best. When I was diagnosed, they said: “If we don’t start treatment straight away, you could be dead within two days.”
It was a very tough time and the first thing God said was: “Are you willing to die? Ready to die?” I was lying in a bed all by myself. I had done loads of funeral services, but I'd never asked myself that question. But then the Lord seemed to say, “Are you ready to live?” And I said: “Well, I’ve just got ready to die, so I’m a bit confused now!” I had three years of chemotherapy. My hearing is dreadful because my brain can’t pick up words now because of the chemo. I had a throat operation as well, but nobody seems to notice because my singing sounds the same! I’ve got the greatest respect for medics now, and how God uses medication as he uses supernatural means. I’ve had to learn ever such a lot and eat a lot of humble pie as I’ve gone through this process.
RJ: How do we talk to our children about difficult things like suffering?
I: It is hard to talk to children, but it’s hard to talk to adults as well, because…they’ve lived longer and their brains can understand it a lot more. Adults find it much more difficult to understand why certain things happen. One thing I hate is people saying when God answers their prayers that God is good. God is good even if he doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want him to answer them. With children, I would say exactly the same. Sometimes your prayers are going to be answered in the way you’d like them to be. Sometimes they’re not, but all the time we’ve got to trust that God is in this and is working for the good – even if we don’t understand it. I tell children, God never minds you questioning things – King David spent most of his life questioning God – but he always wants us to trust him and love him.
RJ: What are you up to now?
I: I’m part of a cathedral! My wife and I have both been ordained into the Anglican Church now. There came a time about 15 years ago when the songs were getting far too professional, far too complicated. We were getting concerts instead of worship and I just thought: “This really isn’t for me, but I want to keep being used by God.” My wife asked if we should change churches – not that we have anything against any of the churches we’ve been in, we love them all; it was me that had the problem, not the church – and she suggested we try the cathedral in Chichester. I found a new walk with God, because I was taught to be quiet and meditate. To be still, to know that God is there. The liturgy has really helped me soak things in. I’m repeating scripture and there’s all sorts I’ve learned from being in the cathedral as their evangelist. I’ve been here for twelve years now and I love being freed up to travel up and down the country and do these little concerts, sharing what God’s done. I preach at the cathedral, but I think my main job is to go around and just be friends with everybody. I go around, mix with people, befriend them and sit down and listen to what they’re going through.
RJ: Is it helpful to introduce children to being quiet, and mediation?
I: Definitely. When we’re talking about quiet with children, it’s obviously going to be very short. But in prayers of intercession, for instance, I say to children: “We’re going to pray and have just a moment of silence. If someone you know is ill, I want you to mention their name before God in silence” and let them be silent for a minute or two, but obviously not for long extended periods because they’re children and they’re going to be belting around the place in no time!