A Talk With Petra's John Schlitt

By The J Man

"Christian music's going in a lot of different directions right now, and it's confused."

Crosswalk.com Entertainment Channel - It's always been a dream of mine to interview artists who have seen Christian music literally "grow up" to be what it is today. That dream was partly fulfilled when I interviewed John Schlitt, lead singer of Petra, in Nashville recently. We talked about Petra's beginnings, the heart of artistry, and Petra's new ventures on Inpop Records.

J Man: In the beginning, Petra wasn't even received by some of your peers. What did it feel like, and how did you get past it?

John: Well, even though I wasn't at the start of Petra, through the years I felt their pain! And the first 14 years that I wasn't a part of [Petra], there was a lot going on. Actually, for the first 10 years, they're weren't a band. They were just a group of guys who did records every once and a while. They used their music to go to churches and coffee houses. I wouldn't call it just a hobby, but at the start it was part-time. Petra really went full time in 1980. Those first eight years were discovery for the band.  

J Man: What kind of advice would you give to someone in the music industry who might be experiencing the same type of criticism that Petra received?

John: Be honest to yourself. And by that I mean, your relationship with God. Your relationship with Jesus Christ has to be true between you and Him. If you can be honest with Jesus Christ, and be your best to Him.

Don't get me wrong, you're supposed to be the best [entertainer] and get His message to the masses, that's your job. But I think you're ultimate goal should be that you have that peace with God.

If you say you're going to do something, do it! And find out what you're doing it for. In other words, if you want to be in Christian music to become a millionaire, don't do it; be a Christian that goes into the secular market. But if you're doing it because you feel that you can see lives changed for Jesus Christ through a music style you love, then do that. And God will bless that. Your goal can't be to be rich. Your goal should be that you do what God put you there to do, and then God will make sure you're taken care of.

J Man: What do you think about where the Christian music industry is going? Do you think it needs to improve, do you think we're on the right track?

John: Christian music's going in a lot of different directions right now, and it's confused. There [are] steps being taken that are great, and there are others that are suicidal. I guarantee that God will take care of this. He'll shut the doors that everyone thought should be opened and open the doors that everyone thinks were supposed to be closed.

I think as a Christian artist, this should be your goal: If you get the chance to play the music God has laid on your heart, do it the best you can. With whatever budget you have, make sure every cent is spent wisely. If you call yourself a Christian rock band, then you better be the best that's out there, better than the secular market, 'cause God ultimately deserves the best. Even if you have one-tenth the budget, the Holy Spirit can help you through that. Through the Holy Spirit, all things are possible.

And you have to remember what Christian music was created for: To see lives changed and the Gospel go forth into the world. No, not every song on a record should be a three-minute sermon. But the vision of an artist and that person's ultimate goal should be that they see lives changed.

J MAN: Why was there a downsize of members in Petra?

John: In this situation we had a brand new record label, and Petra's been through a lot of changes the past five years since Bob [Hartman] left touring. A lot of changes, especially in guitar players, and we actually went through a change before [Revival] was built. [Inpop's] vision was, "We want the old guard with new producers." They think it will be the best of both worlds. The only question we had was, "What about our band that travels with us?" And they were adamant that they wanted just the old guard of Petra with new producers.  

So the goal of the downsize of the members on the CD was to get back to the basics of a pure Petra record and bring it up to the 21st century. This is Petra's twentieth record, and it's what the label wanted to do as the first one. I was up for it. Hopefully it'll be successful.

J MAN: Petra was performing modern worship when it wasn't "cool." What started the idea for Petra Praise records?

John: We started doing praise and worship in response to the kids and youth pastors, and they loved it. At the time we recorded Petra Praise, we were between record labels and neither really wanted to do it. Word agreed to do it basically as a signing bonus, but it wouldn't count toward the contract. It would just be a special project. And the CD sold better than the two before it, and they were hot. It was one of the best tours we ever did. Everybody was going, "Why didn't we think of that?" It was actually to fill the gap when kids would come back to church after a concert like ours and feel like traditional worship was boring.

J MAN: When someone walks away from a Petra experience, what type of message would you want them to walk away with?

John: If they're Christians, I want them pumped up! I want them spiritually pumped to live the Gospel after they leave. If they're not Christians, I want them walking out as baby Christians. That's ultimately Petra's goal, and that's what I want to see happen.