His name will not be familiar to many, but mention The Waifs and there may be a glint of recognition. Josh Cunningham, as a member of the Australian folk roots band that shot to fame in 2003, is the owner of several ARIA awards and platinum-selling albums, and has done successful tours around the world, including as a support act for Bob Dylan in North America.
Cunningham was recently in Australia to promote The Waifs’ latest album Temptation. But perhaps unbeknownst to some, also found time to record his first independent Christian album Into Tomorrow, with wife Jackie.
Into Tomorrow is made up of songs that “are simply telling a story, my testimony of the things that God has done in my life,” says Cunningham.
This “story” was largely the result of a chance meeting he had with a stranger on a plane in 2005, which changed his life dramatically. So much so, in fact, that today, newspaper articles about Cunningham are still talking about it: his “new-found religious faith.”
The story, according to Cunningham, however, is perhaps not quite so new, since it has its true origin in his upbringing.
An answered prayer
Cunningham grew up in regional New South Wales with parents who were Seventh-day Adventist Christians. After his family stopped attending church when he was 10, Cunningham says he “entered into that teenage phase of life without a religious or Christian framework, and I was pretty happy about that.”
It was skateboarding initially, but soon Cunningham found his passion in the guitar (he makes his own) and music. He wound up in a number of bands, eventually becoming a part of The Waifs when he was just 18.
“I was living a bit of a dream; touring around the world, making albums and living a lifestyle that a lot of people look at and envy,” says Cunningham. “I was satisfied and fulfilled for a time, but during my early 30s, I began to think that there’s more to life than just this. . . . Life’s not just about fun; there’s got to be something deeper.”
His search for something more was punctuated by a succession of people who he met and spoke with over a period of two years. “ As I was touring around the United States with The Waifs, I kept running into random people in random situations who were witnessing to me,” Cunningham says. “I would meet people in checkout lines, at our concerts and even on planes, who would engage me in conversation about God and religion.”
During that time, people repeatedly gave him spiritual books, prayed for him and encouraged him to read the Bible. While Cunningham didn’t think too much of it initially, it didn’t take long before he began wondering about these incidents.
“Thanksgiving, 2005, I eventually realised that these encounters were not at all the product of ‘chance’ when I met a complete stranger on a flight from Chicago to Denver who had a very evangelistic mindset. It was almost as if she sensed that I was a seeker and a person who needed to know the Lord."
“She was very intentional about sharing Jesus with me and our conversation immediately gravitated toward spiritual things. We shared a bus ride from the airport terminal to the rental car facility in Denver, and before parting ways she prayed with me and encouraged me to give my heart to God. It was a profound and powerful experience.”
That very night, in his hotel room, Cunningham’s life changed forever.
“I was in my room reflecting on the past two years and the events of the day, when I had a clear realisation that meeting these people had been no accident,” he says. “God had been going to great lengths to reach me and to draw me into a relationship with Himself."
“For the first time since I was a kid, I knelt by my bed and prayed. Back then it was just a routine but this time I felt that I was actually talking to God. I opened my heart and accepted Jesus as my Saviour then and there.”
Cunningham was so excited about his newfound conviction that he wrote an email home to tell his parents (who had returned to the Seventh-day Adventist Church some years previously). It was only then that he discovered they’d been praying for him, for the past decade, “that God would put people into my path to witness to me.”
“Musician-aries” Cunningham and wife Jackie
Influences and changes
How did his band take to his conversion and has it affected his music?
Because they’ve been together for almost 20 years, Cunningham says the deep family-like bond they share made it easier.
“They’d already been exposed to Christianity through my family, so it wasn’t a completely foreign concept to them. It was no great surprise when I shared the news of what had happened. They were very respectful and continue to be, for which I’m greatly appreciative.”
This acceptance is evident in his contribution to their latest album, Temptation. Two songs, including the title track, are strongly influenced by his beliefs.
“We get to play some of my gospel songs in the band, which is a wonderful blessing,” he says.
Cunningham is quick to point out, however, that the band is only a small part of his life these days. Since attending Arise Institute, a Bible college located in central California, in 2009, his focus and passion have centred on sharing the Gospel through word and song.
“I’m not just a musician anymore; I’m a musician-ary,” says Cunningham. “I recognise that the reason I have been blessed with musical ability is so that I can sing for God.” Not surprisingly, he admits he has only written songs of a spiritual nature since embracing Christianity. Into Tomorrow is a collection of some of those songs.
“I can only write when inspiration strikes and because I’ve made that decision to give my ability with music and songwriting to God, I think He’s honouring that and inspiring me with many songs that share His message of love.”
The album also features the piano and vocal skills of his wife and fellow “musician-ary,” Jackie, who he met at a church ministry event in July 2010.
A new song
“One of the purposes of Christian music is to spread a message, and that message has to reach not only those in the church itself, but also those who are outside its boundaries,” Cunningham says. “Music is a really powerful means of communication. A lot of people relate to it, but unfortunately, I think a lot of the music that we’ve typically used is of a nature that many people wouldn’t relate to.”
Cunningham is keen to promote and encourage new and original Christian music. “For a long time, we’ve had wonderful music that the church has traditionally used—I love hymns and always will—but I also think of Bible verses like Psalm 33:3 where we are encouraged to ‘sing to [the Lord] a new song.’ ”
Citing how the children of Israel sang the song of Moses as a song of deliverance after they were brought through the Red Sea, Cunningham believes that songs were an import-ant means of recording and preserving the deliverance experiences of God. “New deliverances elicit new songs and as God continues to lead and deliver us, we should have a constant source of material to sing about, a never ending stream of inspiration and an ongoing supply of ‘new songs.’"
“He’s given us that gift of creativity and I think He is delighted when we use it to glorify Him, to create new songs and new ways of singing His praise. My desire for Into Tomorrow is that it’s going to be exactly that—a collection of ‘new songs’ that will reach and inspire people and help to further God’s kingdom.”
Designed to be
Looking back on his life, Cunningham believes God had always been there guiding him, even when he wasn’t aware of it, and that it was God’s constant presence that has led him to music ministry.
“I have gained a lot of experience with writing, recording and playing music through the course of my life,” he says. “Now God is leading me to draw upon that as my talents are used in music ministry.”
Cunningham firmly believes he’s found his meaning in life.
“To have a mission, a message, a passion and a purpose is the most exciting thing to me. Previously, I had found meaning in music alone, but now I know that it’s much bigger than music for music’s sake."
“Music is and will always be a major part of my life, but my focus has shifted from playing the music of the world to playing music that’s actually giving praise, honour and glory to God, music that is sharing God’s message to the world.”
And it’s right there, Cunningham says, that he finds his meaning: “It comes from the fact that I’m a child of God; this earth isn’t my home; there’s a heavenly kingdom that’s coming soon. I was designed to be there—we’re all designed to be there—so my purpose now is growing in my relationship with the Lord and sharing Jesus with other people so that they can come to know and experience what I have and be there ultimately as well.”