COLUMBIA — Attend any of the large gatherings for Catholic youth in the Diocese of Charleston, and you will see Wannabe Stephen.
The five-member band performs music that might be described as contemporary by some people, and praise and worship by others. Categories aside, the upbeat music always causes the middle- or high-school crowds they play for to stand, sing and shout lyrics praising God and extolling Jesus’s love.
That, said founding member and guitarist Joe Burgess, was the main goal when Wannabe Stephen first formed seven years ago for an event at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Chapin. The five musicians had been in youth groups together at St. Mary Magdalene in Simpsonville, and their initial performance at that retreat drew the attention of Jerry White, director of youth ministry for the diocese.
Now, Wannabe Stephen is at the forefront of contemporary bands playing music by and for young people in the diocese. Several parishes have contemporary groups featuring high school and college-age singers and musicians, and some perform at Masses especially geared toward youth.
Youth leaders who organize the bands and the musicians all said they have the same essential goal: to help young people grow closer to God through music they enjoy.
“Hopefully we’re making a difference in our events. We want to help the kids in their walk of faith, and their response in turn helps our own faith walk,” Burgess said.
Wannabe Stephen’s regular offerings include songs such as “Give Us Clean Hands,” “Trading My Sorrows,” and “No One Like You,” a song originally performed by Christian artists The David Crowder Band. The members do not perform any original songs. Wannabe Stephen only performs at periodic youth retreats and conferences, and does not hold separate concerts.
They don’t even practice together regularly. The musicians live on opposite ends of the state from each other, and two have young children at home. Drummer Mike Sylvester said the band only meets formally once a year outside of youth events, on Dec. 26, the feast day of St. Stephen. On that day, they might play music or just enjoy fellowship, he said.
“Since we don’t practice together often, it’s really amazing how the music works when we get to an event,” Sylvester said. “We just let it flow.”
The band’s name pays tribute to Stephen, the first biblical martyr, Burgess said. In Acts 7: 54-60, Stephen looks up and sees Jesus Christ standing at the right hand of God.
“I heard a talk that said as you stand and recognize someone you know, Jesus was recognizing Stephen because he stood up for Jesus,” Burgess said. “We wanted to stand up for Christ through our music.”
Sylvester said Wannabe Stephen’s playlist includes songs that they like, and those suggested by others. The challenge, he said, is to provide music that has spiritual relevance and corresponds with the activity at a youth gathering.
“The music can be used to help get them excited about what’s going on, about praising God, and then we also have songs that help calm them down and get them into a prayerful mode,” he said.
Contemporary bandleaders say they try to respond to the varying musical tastes of today’s Catholic youth. Sylvester said many young people prefer contemporary music, but he also sees more traditional tastes in the people he works with in youth ministry at St. Andrew Church in Clemson.
At St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken, the LIFE TEEN band performs a mix of contemporary and more traditional music, said director Marie Walton. The seven-member group includes singers and musicians, and they perform each Sunday at a LIFE TEEN Mass at 5 p.m. They also provide the music for a monthly “X-ALT” service that draws regional Catholic youth for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and group prayer.
“The goal is for the band’s music to speak to young people and draw them in,” Walton said. “We’re not trying to be the focus of the liturgy. The music is there to feed and enhance the liturgy.”
High school students perform alongside adult musicians in the contemporary band at Corpus Christi Church in Lexington. Youth minister Bryan Murdaugh, who has led the band for three years, said he tries to plan music that corresponds directly with the week’s readings and responses. He combines some original material with music from “Spirit and Song,” a contemporary hymnal put out by the Oregon Catholic Press.
Murdaugh said the band faces the challenge of having to please a congregation at a weekly 5 p.m. Mass that draws people of all ages, not just youth.
“Most of the people I actually get feedback from are not young people,” Murdaugh said. “They’re people who say they may not be so young, but they come because they enjoy this type of worship.”
Murdaugh said the contemporary band offers teen musicians and singers the chance to grow spiritually, and as performers.
“I think mainly they come because they realize if they participate, they can be more active in the liturgy and feel good about that participation,” he said. “They actually start to understand more about what’s going on in the liturgy. It’s giving them a chance to be more active and use gifts God gave them.”
“It’s a lot of fun, and it’s really helped me get closer to my faith,” said singer Megan Toohey, who has been with the Corpus Christi band since 2007. “It’s great to be using your talents to help reach out to others, to help them learn about their faith.”