Rock star to outreach pastor: Ray Lyell
by Marion Van Driel
The story of Ray Lyell’s life reads like a modern-day cross narrative of Joseph, Samuel and Jonah, with maybe a minor prophet or two thrown in for good measure. Lyell is an icon of Canadian rock music from the 80’s and 90’s, nominated for a Juno in 1990. He was a reluctant believer, lost all his material goods (twice), has heard God’s voice, questioned its authenticity, and through it all, had his life re-purposed. He’s toured in Australia, done mission work in India at great peril, coached some of Canadian Idol’s best singers, won song-writing and recording awards, trained with some of the world’s finest voice coaches, and led a centre for youth at risk. Just recently, he sold everything, and at God’s direction, moved to Vancouver from his Ontario roots. He’s on staff at Glad Tidings Church as a pastor of outreach, which includes being a part-time music coach for their music school, Aspire Music Academy (www.aspiremusic.ca).
Lyell’s journey of faith began when he was five. His mother told him the real Easter story, which, although they were not a church-going family, resonated within him. “I always believed,” he says, but as theirs was not a Christian family per se, he knew nothing about committing his life to Christ. After the death of his Uncle Ray (who was more a father to him than his own), he decided to investigate all the major religions, from Islam to Wicca and everything between. He noticed Christianity was the only faith that “paid everything forward”. Every other tradition was based on what people did. The Christian faith was based on a gift. In searching for truth, Lyell notes, “I discovered that Christ was the only one who did what He said He’d do. That carried a lot of weight with me.”
Ray Lyell grew up embracing a life of music and quit school to play nightly gigs at clubs with his band The Storm. “I thought to myself, . . . in three months I’ll make it big. Nine years later, we got a record deal,” he laughs. “I lived the life of a rocker,” he admits.
Lyell says that he always had a spiritual connection. One of the songs on his first album was called “I Find Peace in Your Eyes”, addressed to God. Lyell started to live according to his means. “When we got our first contract, we started doing really, really well. Before this, I’m eating macaroni and cheese in dirty hotel rooms, and now I’m starting to get cheques with six zeros. I thought this would never go away.” Then he heard a small voice saying, “I didn’t give you the talent to be spent this way.” He didn’t pay attention. He heard it again, and thought – this is crazy. It happened again over several months; still he ignored the warning. Then, “OK, this is it. I’m going to strip you down from everything you’ve been given.”
Losing it all – twice
Two years later, everything was gone. He’d survived a car accident that totaled his vehicle, his bike had been stolen, as were his guitars. He immersed himself in the other love in his life besides music – martial arts. His long-time trainer and friend talked to him about Christ. Lyell complained, “Stop bugging me. When I’m older, I’ll settle down and live a cleaner life. But right now, I don’t know how to do that. It’s impossible.” His friend replied, “Why would you wait for your clothes to be clean before you wash them?”
After praying the sinner’s prayer, Lyell became a nominal Christian. He married and had three children, and began his vocal school. When his wife was diagnosed with cancer, Lyell remembers “praying like I’ve never prayed in my life, . . . she got healed . . . I knew in the prayer, that she was going to live.”
Lyell became a prominent vocal coach, heading up a number of instructors he’d hired at his school of a few hundred students. Ultimately, the manager hired to help with the remarkable growth they were experiencing, embezzled the school’s funds. Lyell and his wife declared bankruptcy. Even in his distraught state, Lyell saw God working to bring them through.
In God’s grip
In their next community, the Lyells joined a church where “God got hold of me,” he says. He volunteered at the youth center for kids at risk, teaching guitar lessons and eventually managing the ministry. He became a local missionary and initiated a program called ‘God Talk’ for people unfamiliar with church-speak. He used secular music to bring the gospel in a coffeehouse relational setting. He mentored people online and travelled to India (having to be extracted from danger) and other parts of the world to encourage Christians. Throughout, God was preparing Lyell for his ministry at Glad Tidings.
A story overarching Lyell’s journey involves a black leather jacket. The first incident occurs some 20 years ago. Stopping on his way home at the grocery store across the street from his house, Lyell sees a man – dirty, a cigarette behind his ear, in a black leather jacket ripped up the back with the lining spilling out. He prays, “Lord, help him.” Lyell hears, “You help him.”
“What? Me help him? How am I going to help him? I’ve got no money.”
“You have a leather jacket in your closet that you never wear. Get it and give it to him.”
Lyell thinks, ‘I’m not going home to get a leather jacket for I guy I don’t even know. When I get back, he won’t even be here. This is my mind doing ridiculous things.’ After a few minutes though, he gives in, running across the street to get the jacket, returning just as the man is leaving. “Sir, I don’t want to offend you, but I have a leather jacket that’s in better shape than yours, and I’d like to give it to you,” handing him the jacket.
The man looks at Lyell scornfully. “I don’t want your jacket.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t want your jacket. Keep your jacket. I don’t want it.”
“No, please, have it…”
“I don’t want your stupid jacket.” The man exits the store.
Lyell throws in the jacket in his truck, and starts to walk away. “Okay God, he doesn’t want it.”
Twice more, God directs Lyell to give the man the jacket. Lyell follows the man. Each time, the man more vehemently rejects the offer.
Finally, “God, he doesn’t want the jacket.”
“I know. This is how I see you.”
Eventually, Lyell came to understand God’s message, “People are naked and they don’t know it. I want to clothe them.” The experience opened up two revelations for Lyell – that one day he would be clothing naked people, and that he, too, has a hard time accepting help from other people.
Fast-forward 20 years. Lyell is in Vancouver speaking with Glad Tidings on a matter of administration for missions. The church approaches him about whether he might consider coming to Vancouver as part of the music school and outreach. Lyell hesitates, “Maybe, we’ll see.” Driving Lyell back to his room on the cold night, the pastor stops the car, holding out his black leather jacket. Lyell is astonished at his question. “You might think this is a little strange, but I feel like I’ve got to give you my jacket. I’ve been praying about who I should give it to. Will you take it?”
Lyell laughs as he tells it. “What? Are you serious?”
He reveals his experience 20 years back.
“I’ll take the jacket.”
Singing seven nights a week in clubs early on in his career, Lyell’s voice began to exhibit the stresses of singing too high and too loud. He registered for voice lessons. “In those days, you didn’t learn how to sing rock, they taught you to sing opera,” he explains. For seventeen years he studied bel canto (Italian for ‘beautiful singing’), learning techniques to preserve and strengthen his voice. When he began to teach, Lyell realized many of his students were not interested in learning to sing opera. Lyell began to contact vocal coaches who trained all the ‘big stars’ of the day –the likes of Garth Brooks and Christina Aguilera – all the singers with the biggest names. He then trained with each of these coaches to garner their best teaching techniques in more contemporary genres.
Lyell believes that you need to earn the respect of people before you can speak into their lives. This is how his reputation and ability as a top-notch vocal coach brings great opportunity for outreach. He works part time as a vocal coach, part time as an outreach pastor – but insists that everything we do is outreach.