Earlier this fall, a group of amazing musicians gathered at The Ryman Auditorium to play through Rich Mullins’ A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, note for note. Andrew Peterson, who pulled the show together asked me to write an essay for that evening’s program. This is that essay.
The house lights go down and a restrained whoop goes up. This is the best we Midwesterners are willing to offer, which, for us, is plenty. We take our seats on the cushioned pews as the local Christian radio personality walks to the mic at center stage. The spotlight wobbles on and searches the platform for a half second before getting a bead on the young man with the royal blue polo shirt bearing the station’s call letters. He’s got khaki pants, bright sneakers, a cool haircut, and energy to spare.
Rich walks out, alone. He takes a seat at the hammered dulcimer just to the right of the drums. He is wearing jeans and a t-shirt. No shoes.Russ Ramsey
The DJ tells us we are in for an amazing night of music and asks if we are excited. We say we are, but he says he couldn’t hear us. We tell him again, yes, we are ready for an amazing night of music. He makes a few jokes, gives away a couple CD’s, and tosses a shirt just like the one he’s wearing into the front row. Then without further adieu, he gives a slight bow to the side of the stage and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Rich Mullins and the Ragamuffin Band!”
Rich walks out, alone. He takes a seat at the hammered dulcimer just to the right of the drums. He is wearing jeans and a t-shirt. No shoes. His hair is long. Without saying a word, he picks up the thin spoon-shaped hammers and begins to play the unfamiliar instrument. The audience is mesmerized by the strange, beautiful, percussive sound. Then Rich leans in and sings, “I believe in God the Father, almighty maker of heaven and maker of earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten son, our Lord.”
As Rich sings through the rest of the Apostle’s Creed, his band takes their places, unnoticed until they come in at the chorus, where Rich sings “I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am. I did not make it. No, it is making me. It is the very truth of God, not the invention of any man”—a line he borrowed from the beginning of G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.
Simple orthodoxy. Jeans and a t-shirt orthodoxy. This is what Rich brought to so many people. And we needed it. There in the late eighties through the mid-nineties, when Rich was on the road, the American church was struggling to own a simple faith—an honest faith with room for struggle, doubt, and questions. Though I cannot speak for all Christians everywhere, I can say that many of the churches I knew felt a constant pull to present Christianity as the religion of the “put-together.” We wanted to come across as victorious, moral, right, trustworthy, well-dressed, and happy. Except we weren’t. And we were growing weary of the pressure to keep up the charade.
Rich was a Scripture-soaked voice crying out in the wilderness, “Drop the charade. Give up on the idea that you can impress God with your conduct. Accept the glorious fact that all you need to know about his affection for you can be found in the gift of his son.”
Getting people to admit they were more like fools than sages would take a patient, careful, loving hand. But this was his mission.Russ Ramsey
Almost every concert Rich performed was in a church. That was how Christian music worked in those days. Rich seemed to genuinely love the church. As much as he may have wanted to change it, he counted himself part of it. His gracious humor and obvious affection for his audience showed that he understood he was calling for the slow turning of a large ship. Getting people to admit they were more like fools than sages would take a patient, careful, loving hand. But this was his mission. So he showed up to work in his jeans and t-shirt, which I believe was a carefully chosen costume—an ironic put-on to help his audience receive his call to drop the pretense. With every song asked us to embrace a simple faith, read Scripture through the eyes of a child, and wonder at the majesty of God. Enough with the pretending.
I was in the room when the DJ welcomed Rich to the stage that night. It was during a time in my life when I was first beginning to own my faith. I was learning what it meant to take the name “Christian” and wear it in public. I looked to Rich for help, as so many others have done. A through-line in Rich’s lyrics was this idea that to own one’s faith was to own one’s struggles. The gospel would make no sense to the watching world if those who claimed to believe it strived to live as though they had no need of it. I needed to hear this message. I needed someone to give me permission to wear my need for Christ on my sleeve. Rich gave it.
I was in seminary when Rich died. His 1993 record, A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, was as important to my education and formation as a young pastor as any book on theology. I still listen to it often—and his other work too. I have not yet mastered the art of authenticity. Or empathy. Or humility. So here twenty years after his death I still return to the music of the bard in the jeans and t-shirt, not just for entertainment, but for help.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).