Michael Janke's Tribute to Petra

Like a whole generation of church kids, I grew up on Petra. Coming from a conservative Christian home (even more conservative at that time), I was not allowed to listen to "secular" music. So I listened to the Christian music that was popular. Amy Grant. Michael W. Smith. Carman (yes, Carman). White Heart. The Imperials. But, most imporantly, Petra. Petra's name literally means "rock," and to me that is exactly what they did. I will never forget the first time I heard the heavy bass drum beats that kicked off This Means War! I will always look at the cover of albums like More Power To Ya and Not Of This World and think they are the epitome of cool. I remember seeing the double record (as in vinyl) set of Captured in Time & Space in the store and wanting to buy it so bad. In high school, for one year at least, Petra was the be all and end all in my youth group - we all listened to Beyond Belief, and on our year-end video it is the only music on the soundtrack. "I Am On the Rock" was my favorite song. I listened to their records over and over and over and over again. I memorized their songs - you name any Petra song and I can play it in my head and it will sound just as perfect as the original recorded album version. I know where all the drum beats fall, all of the guitar riffs, exactly where John Schlitt cuts off an extended note. More imporantly, all of their songs impacted my life. Unlike a lot (most of) the kids I grew up with I never went through a serious rebellious phase. While I was not perfect, I never strayed from the authority of my parents or from the roots of my faith. I totally credit Petra as one of the main reasons for that. Their songs were my rock. They taught me the importance of prayer ("Get On Your Knees & Fight Like A Man" and "Stand In the Gap"). Reading the Bible ("Council of the Holy"). The power of worship ("Adonai" and "Somebody's Gonna Praise His Name"). In the hard times and the dark times they reminded me that it was not the end of the world, that greater purposes existed, and God was going to pull me through ("I Am On the Rock," "Dead Reckoning," "More Power To Ya"). Their music was a virtual soundtrack to my life, and though things eventually changed and in many ways I outgrew what they were eventually recording, the imprint they left on my life is nothing but significant, and I would not be who I am today without the ministry of that band.

Petra is also one of the most historically important Christian bands. Perhaps the most important Christian band. They are, to make an easy comparison, the Rolling Stones of CCM, though in terms of actual impact the industry they parallel the Beatles more than the Stones (though in a different manner than the Fab Four). There is not a great enough appreciation today for the paths that Petra trailblazed for today's musician. While contemporary Christian music was growing, Christian rock was an ugly or scary step-child. The church was afraid of it. Parents shunned and forbade it. Pastors spoke out against it. Christian bands were trying to minister to kids who only related to heavier music with a beat, but the church did nothing but throw stumbling blocks in their way. While Larry Norman is the grandfather of Christian rock, Petra, more than any other artist or group, kicked down those doors that otherwise hindered the growth and acceptence of the genre in the church.

It is true that Petra didn't really innovate a lot, musically. But that is not where their distinction and place in history really lies. They were edgy enough for their time. Certainly enough to raise the ire of conservative & legalistic congregations. What Petra did was similar to what a Jackie Robinson did in baseball. The band continued on in the face of persecution and criticism, conducted themselves with class, persevered, rose above, and outlasted their critics. They were the poster-child of this special kind of sin for men like Jimmy Swaggart, who would literally call them out and name their name from the pulpit, saying that the band's music was evil. Some even called them tools of Satan. Their concerts were protested. Their records forbidden. Here was a band out on the streets, working to truly minister and evangelize kids for Christ (these were the days when bands truly were doing it for purposes of ministry - the money and, yes, even the art, was secondary), and their brothers and sisters in Christ could only throw stones. But they kept on keeping on. Slowly the integrity of their lives and their ministry began to turn heads and change hearts. Slowly the church began to awake from its legalistic slumber. Slowly the band, and Christian rock in general, began to gain not only tolerance but acceptance. Eventually Petra and their peers "won." The naysayers fell by the wayside. Petra rose to the top - not only of the Christian rock mountain but of Christian music on the whole. When they released Beyond Belief in 1990 they hit their professional peak. They were the first band/artist in history to hit #1 on all four of the major Christian radio charts simultaneously (with "Creed" and "Love," charting at the same time and topping Rock, CHR, AC, and Insp). They were the first rock band to have a song nominated for Song of the Year at the Doves. And they were the first rock band to win Group of the Year (in 1991). It was recognition long deserved and validation for a battle-scarred career. They have since been inducted into the GMA Hall of Fame.

Because of Petra, and the band's peers, Christian rock finally escaped the stigma of being evil. Music should be judged on the individual merits of the song, regardless of genre (pop vs rock, Christian vs secular), and the barriers that Petra broke down to help that mindset to finally take hold in the church-at-large should be remembered and honored. Scores of Christian bands and artists today grew up on the music of Petra and were influenced by the band's music and ministry. Even those that were not, though, should appreciate the place of the band in the genre's history. It is a shame that in the mainstream music world the littlest of achievements is remembered and given its place in history while in the Christian music world pioneering artists like Petra (not to mention Mylon, Larry Norman, D&K, Second Chapter of Acts, Randy Stonehill, etc) are either long forgotten or even mocked. The name Petra is not a punchline, and anyone who finds it to be such only betrays their self to be ignorant and a fool.

It should be noted that Petra also had artistic chops. While Bob Hartman could write the easy rhyme or Christian cliche with the best of them, he also penned quite a few classics that stand the test of time. Songs like "Grave Robber," "Beyond Belief," "You Are I Am," "St. Augustine's Pears," "Don't Let Your Heart Be Hardened." He also was one of the best of a generation of men who wrote to convict and rebuke when necessary, and also showed a social conscience: "Rose Colored Stained Glass Windows," "Witch Hunt," "Hollow Eyes," "Homeless Few," "Hey World."

Whether you share the same love and devotion for the band that I do or not, it is inarguable that Petra, in its three decade long career, carved out a monumental place in the history of music - not only Christian music but even popular music in general. For so many years, Petra did mean rock. They also meant ministry. And it is especially because of that last point that I will always be grateful to them. Their music changed my life. And I am but one of the few who can say that about them. Thank you, Petra. Though the book on the band is now closing, the mark that you made is indelible. The legacy you leave behind, in the lives of the ones you touched, continues on.

Michael Janke's Guide to Petra · Return to Tributes Page

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August 17th, 1995 in Wichita, Kansas

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