Much has happened since we last checked in with Pastor Charles Jenkins of Fellowship Chicago a year ago.
Along with the choir’s performance at the 2013 Stellar Gospel Music Awards last January, the group was one of the two most honored artists at the Stellar Awards, with five wins for its album, The Best of Both Worlds, and its smash single, “Awesome.”
In a recent interview, Pastor Jenkins reflected on the last year’s achievements and looked ahead to new challenges.
I’m sure it has been quite an amazing adventure for you since the Stellar Awards. How has life changed after the popularity of “Awesome?”
It’s been amazing to move around the world and hear from people who have been impacted [by “Awesome”]. I was in the Bahamas a few weeks ago, and a lady walked up to me and said, “You saved my life.” A gentleman from Paris told me he had brain surgery and he listened to “Awesome” every day during rehabilitation. It got him through rehabilitation to be reminded of an awesome God who is with him in his valley season. It’s been amazing to hear testimonies of what God has done through the music. That’s what it’s all about.
Has the membership of the church been impacted by the success of Fellowship Chicago?
We’ve certainly seen lots of visitors, and I do attribute some of the increase, should I say, in parishioners, due to the impact of the music.
We do four worship services, and for the last three years or so, we have been in the process of expanding with the Legacy Project, right off 85th and the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago. It’s a fourteen-and-a-half acre area with a quarter-of-a-million square foot building that we own free and clear. It was given to us as a charitable donation by the Green Family who owns the Hobby Lobby stores. So we’re in the midst of it.
Pastor Charles Jenkins & Fellowship Chicago, ‘Awesome’
Has it been difficult to balance the responsibilities of pastoring with your music ministry?
I haven’t felt like it has been. I have an amazing church team, an amazing record label team, and an amazing Legacy Project team. At Fellowship, there’s a mantra: “Teamwork makes the dream work.” Pastor in Greek means “oversee”…and not “overdo.” I’m grateful to have a church family and leadership that have stepped up so I can step out on behalf of the kingdom and The Ship.
Do you feel that the popularity of “Awesome” has helped bring the traditional church choir back to the forefront of gospel music?
I think so. Initially, our goal was to make more music for the church to be able to sing on Sunday. Now I go to small churches, mid-size churches, and mega-churches, and hear that they are singing five, six, seven songs off of our album. There are many choirs that are now looking to record. I think the church choir got a shot in the arm, and we’re excited about it.
Do you feel any pressure to top what you have already accomplished?
I don’t. We want to do well, and Scripture expects all of us to bear much fruit and get results. The goal is the same with the next Fellowship Chicago project: to create music that people can sing and that will lead them God-ward and empower them personally. It’s the same mission.
Pastor Charles Jenkins & Fellowship Chicago, ‘The Fellowship Medley’
You recently held a songwriter competition and picked a winner. Tell me about that.
Before I got songs placed, I didn’t know what to do. It was very difficult to engage people and get instruction. I felt like, once upon a time, I was that guy, trying to figure out how to get into the gospel music business. So I decided we should open a door and be a blessing to someone else, to be a blessing to other songwriters who God has given a gift—and may not even know they have a gift—and need some help.
We had over a thousand songs submitted to the Inspired People Songwriting Contest, and we picked Taron Berry from Winter Garden, Florida. He’s an amazing guy who wrote a great up-tempo praise and worship song, “You Deserve All Praise.” He won $1,000, a publishing deal, a Mac computer, a slot on our next record, and of course, the royalties that will come from the song.
Out of the batch of a thousand songs, there were at least 50 super songs. Many of them could be really great songs with extra production advice, maybe a word change here or there, some sentence structure changes. As a result, our team came together and decided to start a publishing company. It will work directly with songwriters and help them on the production side to get their songs get to the next level. We’ll also help them get album placement. It will be connected to our Inspired People label and be called the Inspired People Publishing Company. We launched that on the back of the songwriting contest.
Tell me about the new single from Fellowship Chicago.
Our friends at Motown Gospel and the Inspired People team thought that “I Will Live” would be a good follow-up to “Awesome.” It’s in the same vein: an up-tempo, CCM-style worship song. The feedback around the country has been great.
Charles Jenkins & Fellowship Chicago’s new single, ‘I Will Live,’ from The Best of Both Worlds: ‘We want youth who think they might not make it to their eighteenth birthday, and other youth that just don’t care, to get those thoughts out of their heads–to say ‘I Will Live’ and not let what they see or experience wear them down,’ says Pastor Jenkins.
It’s difficult, of course, because many markets are still playing “Awesome,” but “I Will Live” is an anthem of life. So many people are existing but not living. We are also trying to use the song as a means of encouragement, particularly in such a violent culture as in the City of Chicago. We want youth who think they might not make it to their eighteenth birthday, and other youth that just don’t care, to get those thoughts out of their heads–to say “I Will Live” and not let what they see or experience wear them down.
What does the summer have in store for you and Fellowship Chicago?
We are going to spend the summer recording. The new album will be called Any Given Sunday. We anticipate recording a live worship experience across a number of Sundays, with the music sung by the choir and the entire church. We start teaching the brand new music for the album at choir rehearsal tonight!
Apart from the choir, I created a brand new artist called Inspired People. I’m taking Scripture and writing songs for them that will live in mainstream culture. Later this summer, Inspired People will release some of these faith-based songs to pop and urban radio.
We heard a stat that 80 out of 100 songs on the charts today contain sexual or sexually explicit content. Jesus invites us to be salt and light in the world; to be in it, but not of it. Inspired People, this new artist, will make music for the world, and Fellowship Chicago will make music for the church.
At the album release party for Charles Jenkins & Fellowship Chicago’s The Best of Both Worlds, gospel legend Karen Clark Sheard performs the disc’s final number, ‘Releasing My Faith.’ The Best of Both Worlds and its smash single, ‘Awesome,’ won five Stellar Awards.
Do you see these songs of encouragement and empowerment starting to cross over to the traditionally pop- or R&B-oriented radio stations?
CJ: Lots of urban programmers told us that their listeners were calling for “Awesome.” As “Awesome” saw a bit of success on the Urban AC charts, I anticipate that there will be at least a song or two on the next Fellowship Chicago album that will be purely Scripture, purely gospel in content, but have the potential to cross over.
For more information about Pastor Charles Jenkins and Fellowship Chicago, visit www.fellowshipchicago.com.
Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, radio announcer and author. His “Gospel Memories” radio program of vintage black gospel music and artist interviews airs live first Sundays from 3 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. on Chicago’s WLUW 88.7 FM, and streams live at the station’s website. Snippets of recent broadcasts can be heard online at the Gospel Memories Radio Show. Bob is also founder and editor of The Black Gospel Blog. Bob’s interview with Pastor Charles Jenkins was originally posted at The Black Gospel Blog on May 20.