Seek Ye First: Interview with Karen Lafferty
Even if you don't know very many Scripture choruses or praise songs, there's a good chance you'll know "Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God." From the time it was written in 1972, the song has been a "hit" and has been incorporated into countless hymnals and albums. To its composer, Karen Lafferty, "Seek Ye First" has been a wonderful miracle which gives her daily joy.
In a dusty office in Amsterdam, Karen and I reminisced about the song and its impact. The Musicians for Missions group that Karen is currently involved with has bought an old "Seaman's Home" on one of the canals in Amsterdam, and they are busy remodeling the building into office, classroom, and recording space. We sip strong Dutch espresso coffee and talk about her life, her faith, her music, and her ministry.
Before we start talking about your music, tell us a bit about yourself.
I was raised in a Christian home, but like many young people I wanted to discover life for myself and did some drifting. I was working as a nightclub entertainer in New Orleans when a friend came to visit me and got me back on the right track. After that I began to write Christian songs.
Had you had much musical training?
I had a degree in music education from Eastern New Mexico University, which was really a degree in choral directing with a minor in oboe. After this turning in my life, I felt ready to begin serving in Christian music ministry. But when I applied for a position in that field, I got turned down. For a while I felt crushed by that closed door.
So, what did you do?
I decided to pursue entertainment for the time being—to try to be salt and light in the entertainment world. So I moved to California.
Because I was from a small town in New Mexico, and California was this weird and wild place, I did a lot of praying during that move: "God, if there are any Christians in California . . ." Of course, what I didn't know was that the whole Jesus Movement was really starting to grow at this time.
Soon I did find a church, Calvary Chapel, and at my first service I met a lot of other young musicians. I left the service that day crying with joy.
During my early days in California, I continued some of my entertainment jobs. In fact, some of the first people I led to the Lord I met in bars. But I still had a very strong desire to work full time for the Lord.
Calvary Chapel led you to your music ministry?
At this time "Maranatha! Music" was part of Calvary Chapel. It was very small yet and had produced only one album, An Everlasting Jesus Music Concert. At the chapel we had a special fellowship for musicians which taught us principles on how to serve through music. Most of us were especially interested in contemporary Christian music, music that would reach young people.
I stayed with Maranatha! Music for about eight years, working with them on various praise albums. I also did four of my own albums through them.
What brought you to Europe?
In 19731 was on a concert tour in Great Britain, Germany, and Holland with a group called "Children of the Day," and in 19781 visited Europe again on an extended tour. Thaf s when I really got the vision for Musicians for Missions.
I also conducted a discipleship training school in Europe in 1979-80 and began to sing regularly at contemporary Christian music concerts. Often I was the first person whom the audience had heard singing this type of Christian music. And I saw how effective it could be—even though I sang in English with a translation on an overhead.
When did you join Youth with a Mission?
In 1980, and out of that relationship came Musicians for Missions. Youth with a Mission is very involved with, the idea of cross-cultural missions. Even though we dealt with a subculture of young people who all liked the same kind of music, there were still many cultural differences. I felt I had to live outside of the U.S. to really learn what it is to be in another country. And under the umbrella of Youth with a Mission I was able to organize Musicians for Missions.
How do you spend your time now?
I'm spending too much time in administration, doing all kinds of arranging and scheduling. (We currently have twelve full-time musicians recording and doing tours). I feel that my strength is really in taking young musicians on the road and showing them by example what ministry is about. I hope to be able to spend more time doing that.
Let's back up for a minute. What was the origin of "Seek Ye First"?
It was back in 1971. I had quit my entertainment job and was trying to support myself with teaching guitar lessons. I had three students! When my savings were all gone and I had no money to make my car payments, I became very discouraged and confused.
One evening I went to a Bible study at church, and we talked about Matthew 6:33.1 was tremendously encouraged and challenged by the words about Christ's kingdom. So I went home, wrote the tune, recorded it on a tape recorder, and then sang this little descant part.
I taught the song at church the next week, and it caught on right away. The Lord really paved the way for me with that song. "Seek Ye First" has opened doors for me all over the world. And because it's in so many hymnbooks, about 40 percent of my mission support comes from that song!
Do you sing mostly your own songs now?
Not really. I do about 70 percent of my own songs. If I hear a song that really expresses what I want to say (but they've beaten me to it!), I'll choose that—especially now that I have so little time for song writing. I've just finished a new solo album— the first one in about eight years.
Are most of the songs you write Scripture songs?
No, they're not, although I put a lot of Scripture into my songs. My songs are usually about people and places and are written in language that people can relate to readily.
Have you written any "regular" hymns that folks back home in "First Church" might sing?
I've done a children's song that's been used on children's albums. But the few hymns that I have written are not well known. I write most of my songs for concerts.
Nothing you've done has become as well known as "Seek Ye First," has it?
No, and sometimes I say, "Lord, I need another hit!" Of course, I know how tempting it is to live only for the charts. And I believe that my goal must always be to do my best for the Lord, not just to be successful. If I have followed that goal and my song also happens to become a hit, thaf s wonderful!
Would you like to do more praise songs?
The praise-song tradition is wonderful, and I would like one of my next albums to be a praise album. I'd like it to be a combination of some pieces that are singable by anyone, with others that people might mostly listen to. Some of John Michael Talbof s albums are that way. You can worship in your heart with the songs, even though you might not sing along with all of them.
Some time ago Don Hustad wrote an article, criticizing the praise tradition for too much repetitious singing and not enough "content" Whaf s your reaction?
In music (as in many other areas), "we need it all." Once when I was going through a very heavy time, I sang parts of a song over and over: "I stand in the righteousness of Jesus, the Son." Those words were a source of tremendous comfort to me and helped me listen to the Spirit. So, there's a place for repetition. But there's also a need for content.
How do you deal with the issue of different musical tastes in the church?
I want to be a minister of the gospel and do it through music. So, I must be very sensitive to my audience, and I have to be careful that I do not cause offense. I do enjoy singing for all ages and for people with different musical interests.
If I'm asked to sing on a Sunday morning in a Lutheran church, thinking about my audience influences my whole presentation; from the way I dress to the songs I select, and sometimes the instrumentations I choose. I'll tend to begin with songs that are familiar to their tradition, and then I'll try to build bridges to songs they're less familiar with.
Sometimes I sing for young people from the streets of Amsterdam, and then I'll use songs that are much more pop-and-rock oriented.
Are there any musical styles that are taboo to the Christian?
That's a difficult question. I feel that instruments like electric guitars and drums and the rock tradition can be used very effectively in Christian music. But, because of associations with the drug culture, we have to have spiritual wisdom to use that medium.
One person who's handled that issue well is Glenn Kaiser, from a group called "Resurrection Band." Kaiser was a rocker, but after he was saved, he gave up rock music for two years. He later returned to rock as a means of reaching young people in their "language" with the good news. But he feels that the Lord "re-birthed" rock in him in a whole different way. If you go to a secular rock concert and then compare it to Resurrection Band, there really is a big difference.
Is this a question of how we can use our culture in our ministry?
Yes. I believe strongly in giving young people good alternatives in entertainment. Entertainment is sometimes a dirty word (you know—"I want to minister, not entertain"), but I think life should be entertaining. Life is supposed to be colorful. And we can give content and meaning to something that is entertaining.
Thay's the way I also approach a concert. I first do some light songs and get the audience relaxed and clapping. Remember, I'm from a cowboy culture, and I do some crazy and down-home stuff. I also think if s important to begin with the lighter material because I want to show young people that Christians are not just serious, heavy people.
But as the concert proceeds, I gradually start telling my own story and stories of other people. And I sing some very serious songs.
Bird in a Golden Sky, 1974
(Maranatha! Music); Sweet Communion, 1976 (Maranatha! Music); Life Pages, 1978 (Maranatha! Music); Country to Country, 1982 (Ministry Resource Center); Land of No Goodbyes, 1989 (MFM Productions). All albums are available through Musicians for Missions;
Kadijksplein 18; 1018 AC Amsterdam; The Netherlands.