In America’s heartland, the cornfields -- plowed under a season ago -- lay bare, cold and exposed, now transformed into frozen ground and fields of snow. For the acoustic rock band, blue sky nine, it’s their first road trip of the year, a 4-day, 2-city tour in Iowa in late February.
Scott Naylor, team leader and one of the guitarists for the band, travels in the lead vehicle -- a white Chrysler minivan. As his brown eyes survey the landscape, he looks forward to the two concerts in Iowa. He has meshed his passions for music and ministry. That’s the method he and the other band members use when they tell the message of God’s love and forgiveness before, during or after their concerts.
This is why Scott joined Keynote, the innovative and creative-arts ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, at mid-career in 2003. He came to Christ when he was 18 years old through joining a band that was made up of Christians -- everyone but him. Scott had similar interests, passions and backgrounds as those band members, yet they had a different outlook on life. He says, “They displayed a sense of peace and resolve that I didn’t have.”
Now he is hoping that God will use blue sky nine in the lives of people. They perform original songs as well as covers made famous by artists, as various as pop stars like John Mayer and 70s icons like the Doobie Brothers. The band sows broadly before many different audiences, hoping they will reap abundantly, in the spiritual sense. Blue sky nine wants people to move forward on their spiritual journey, ultimately toward Christ.
The band members arrive in Estherville, Iowa, Tuesday night; it’s just 2 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re greeted by Brett Fuelberth, Iowa Lakes Community College faculty member and advisor for the Christian group, Laker Life, who invited the band to come and help them. The band members quickly disperse to their host homes.
Every venue is like a new field. Today the new field is the Iowa Lakes Community College cafeteria. At 9 a.m. on Wednesday, it’s time to meet with Brett, then unload the equipment and run a sound check before the concert.
Soon it’s 11 a.m. The smell of comfort food permeates the cafeteria: fried chicken, as crisp as the air outside, and the salty, buttery cologne of mashed potatoes laden with gravy. As the students start flowing through the cafeteria, it smells like lunch, but sounds like a concert.
With this awkward moment in mind, Scott speaks up hoping to connect with his audience. One guy in an Iowa sweatshirt looks up casually as he crunches on his lunch. “It’s not every day you have a live band playing during your lunch,” Scott says. “We are blue sky nine and we were invited to come by the Laker Life Club. If you have any questions about faith or are looking for a great place for spiritual questions and conversations, they meet Wednesdays at 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. in room 74.”
So that the non-Christians in the room can connect with them, the Laker Life group members raise their hands to identify themselves as Christians. That’s why the band came: to help encourage the group and connect people to Laker Life. One of the main principles of Campus Crusade is that everyone would know someone who truly follows Jesus.
The music starts up again. Tapping her hand to her heart, Laura Piscitello matches the energy of the music with the lyrics from the Jon McLaughlin song, Beating My Heart. The dark-haired, lead singer for blue sky nine sings out the lyrics in her alto voice:
“There’s a sun coming over the horizon
I wanna know where it’s coming from
But doesn’t everyone
It’s like who am I and why am I here?”
After the concert, Ethan Ehrstine, blue sky nine’s Ravi Zacharias-quoting guitarist, talks with a student named Tanya. Before Ethan can describe repentance and invite her to follow Christ, two of Tanya’s girlfriends stop by the table. “It’s time to go!” a blond-haired girl tells Tanya.
The Christian group has tripled both in attendance and number of Bible studies since the band first played there 2 years ago; yet the band is not passionate about numbers -- they are passionate about people.
During the ride toward Fayette, Iowa -- the next tour stop -- Scott and Ethan discuss the conversations that Ethan had with 4 people, including a girl named Louisa.
“She was describing her beliefs and they didn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
“They never do,” says Scott.
“But she sincerely held to them,” says Ethan. “I wanted to go the next step, but I couldn’t get there with her. But what I am excited about is I know she felt heard and I think she felt like I really cared about her. And maybe we will hear from her on Facebook,” he says.
Scott replies, “And she knows who brought us in.”
Because it’s not all up to blue sky nine. They entrust the responsibility of what happens next to the local body of Christ and, of course, to God.
Randall Pahl, who is serving as one of the live sound engineers during the Iowa tour, is focused more on sowing and obedience than always seeing salvation decisions.
“If we take everyone in that room one step further [toward Christ], that is successful ministry,” he says.
“We trust that the Holy Spirit is working in people’s lives -- that we cannot see -- that we will never know about this side of heaven,” says Randall. “No one accepted Christ today and it was OK.”
The next evening in Fayette, a group of about 10 people circles up the chairs in the “green room” shortly before the concert at Upper Iowa University. The group consists of band members, members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Christian women from bible studies on campus. Scott and others pray: “Use us to touch those You want to touch -- And let the people know that You love them.”
After the concert, bassist and Philly-native, Dan Bongard, talks with 4 Nepalese students, 3 men and a woman. Dan asks them where they were from and how they ended up going to school in Iowa. He also summarizes the good news of God’s love and forgiveness and gives each of them a Would You Like to Know God Personally? booklet.
When he notices Kristen Jorgenson, a Christian woman who works at the school, he connected the students with her. “If you have any questions about what the booklet says, you can ask her,” Dan said as he pointed to Kristen.
Last year, the band logged more than 28,000 miles by traveling to 2 countries and 10 states with about 81 days on tour. They performed at colleges, prisons, homeless missions and for military personnel.
During a military chapel service in April in Ft. Knox, Ky., 14 men indicated on the response cards that they had placed their faith in Christ and even more knelt at the stage after the concert.
The road trip continues for blue sky nine. As Scott looks toward the horizon, there are blue skies ahead. He and the other band members want people to know God and have a relationship with Him -- even if it takes moving them forward one step at a time.