Every summer, Bill Drake tours with his international band in Hungary, where the themes in his songs resonate with people struggling to find hope.
A simple Google search brings up shocking statistics about the state of the next generation’s mental health. Depression, stress, anxiety and fear are only a few of the issues that profoundly affect young people today.
Singer-songwriter Bill Drake (US), who leads OM’s Catalytic Ministries Area, can relate. Throughout his “very dysfunctional elementary years,” music was his respite. “Music was an outlet for me to retreat into my own little world,” he described. “It was a therapy, and it was somehow able to help me carry my burdens.”
His natural talent led him to pursue music as young adult, playing in nightclubs and bars, but before he came to Christ, music also “made me suicidal because there was no hope in it,” he said. “You’re swimming in this sea of deep pathos, and yet there are no answers and there’s no hope; it can make you bitter, it can make you cynical. For a very, very few, they get very rich and popular, but for me, it just made me depressed.”
In the middle of this season, God used a series of songs by American pianist, singer and songwriter Keith Green to break through the darkness shrouding Bill’s soul. Captivated by Keith’s musicianship and his song writing, which were a similar style to his own, Bill listened closely to Green’s lyrics. “He had something to say, and he had purpose, and his lifestyle was consistent with what he was singing. So there was this cohesive message that was coming out of everything that he was doing. It was very compelling,” Bill described.
The group of friends who had shared Keith Green’s music with Bill also pushed him to talk to their church college pastor. During that conversation, Bill felt the Holy Spirit convicting him. Trudging home afterwards, through the cold snow and slush inherent to winter in northern Idaho, Bill considered his future. “It was a crisis of existence for me: why are you alive?” he remembered. When he reached his apartment, Bill knelt on the floor and said two words: “I surrender.”
From that moment, Bill said it was like he was able to breathe a full breath of air for the first time in his life. “I wasn’t being crushed by my sin and my rebellion or child abuse or divorce or death of parents. I was set free,” he said. “That became the fountain from which many of my early songs were written.”
Bill poured his newfound passion to connect his purpose for living with God’s plan for the world into his songs, embracing opportunities to play and record – first at Biola University in California and later, following a direct challenge from OM’s founder, George Verwer, around the world.
For more than a decade, Bill continued to make albums and tour globally, traveling with George and accepting independent opportunities to share his songs. “When I went to Eastern Europe, it seemed to be a part of the world that related incredibly well to my music and my testimony,” he explained.
Bill Drake Band in Budapest and beyond
Fifteen years ago, in partnership with Chino Valley Community Church based in California, US, Bill travelled to Hungary to perform with his band. Although the church missions pastor, who was half Hungarian, half Romanian, had some contacts in the country, he needed locals to line up additional venues for the tour. Attila Kapocs, who had recently become OM’s field leader in Hungary, stepped in to help.
“It was amazing,” Bill recalled. “We passed out over 12,000 pieces of literature at train stations; we were at coffee bars, we were in churches – it wore us out!”
Attila, who observed the audience’s response to Bill’s songs, knew there was potential for more. “Art is important for Hungarians,” he shared. “If you look at the capital and its architecture and the museums that we have, art plays an important role, and, in the postmodern or post-Christian Europe, art is one of the tools that can make people think. So if you use creative ways to share the message of the gospel, then that can really help people to think.”
Attila encouraged Bill’s band to come back the following year and, as tour manager, he took on the responsibility for scheduling the concerts. “And then we started to take off,” Attila said.
From churches to public squares to cultural centres to arts festivals to prisons to drug rehabilitation facilities to schools, the Bill Drake Band, in partnership with OM and Chino Valley Community Church, has spread the gospel through song in almost every sector of society across the country. With the lyrics translated into Hungarian and projected on a large TV screen, the message is accessible for people attending, even if they don’t speak English.
“The reason why it is still going strong after 15 years is that some of the core elements are still the same, like we do music and dance and evangelism and proclamation, but we change how we do it slightly and also we change the theme … [according to what] we feel is the need of the country or the churches,” Attila explained. Up to seven nationalities have been represented amongst the group of musicians and dancers – all united to share hope, the theme of the 2023 tour.
“Hungary is very pessimistic,” Attila said. “And then in the past years, you had COVID and then you had war in Ukraine, which is a neighbouring country to Hungary, and now inflation and skyrocketing prices for food and other things. So people who were pessimistic now have a reason to be even more pessimistic, and that’s why I think the theme of hope that we bring with this outreach is really important.”
Impacting the next generation
OM in Hungary partners with the Hungarian Evangelical Alliance, major protestant denominations in the country and other Christian non-profit organisations. The Bill Drake Band tours have also been a catalyst for ministry by introducing the organisation to additional local churches, different denominations and various Hungarian ministries.
In 2023, for the first time, through a contact made at a previous concert, the international band and accompanying dance troupe performed at seven Baptist Union Schools across the country. In Hungary, various schools are tied to different denominations, not for their religious influence but for financial benefits, Attila explained. Whereas other denominations had picked schools in wealthier areas to sponsor, the Baptist Union mainly chose schools serving underprivileged kids and those from Roma (gypsy) communities, he said.
While the variety of venues the band has encountered taught its members to expect the unexpected, the white-walled school gymnasiums and hard floors presented an especially tricky acoustical environment. Starting with a “big vacuous echo chamber,” Bill said the challenge continued in one particular school when the gymnasium filled with students, including three rows of standing-room-only at the back.
Despite the amped up music, Bill and the band struggled with the spiritual opposition they felt while they were playing, including rambunctious students who were heckling some of the tour’s dancers standing in the back. Then Himsha, one of the dancers who had grown up in Hungary but had never spoken in public before, walked to the front of the room to share her testimony. The second she began speaking – in perfect Hungarian – the room went completely silent.
“I just want you guys to know that I really hated going to school. I’m dyslexic, I struggle to read, I can’t do math because I mix up the numbers. The only things I know how to do are draw and dance. I want you guys to know that I went through depression and struggled to fit in. People would tease me. I can see here that you treat each other like that,” she began.
As Himsha continued to tell the students how Jesus had transformed her life, they listened quietly. Her impact was momentous, Bill described: “We had great musicians, great dancers, but that moment was the moment where those guys heard the gospel, and they heard it from one of their own: a 19-year-old dancer who’s dyslexic but loves Jesus.”
At another school, the situation was similar: another gym with less-than-ideal acoustics, another group of students causing disruptions during the concert. From the stage, Bill noticed one kid who seemed to be a ringleader for the troublemakers. While playing, Bill started praying specifically for that boy and, during his testimony, looked straight at him and said, “just like you.” From then on, the boy was silent.
After the concert, Bill motioned for the boy to come talk to him, along with Himsha, who had been translating for him after the concerts. “You’re a leader, and all those kids around you are following you,” Bill told him. “For the first part of the concert, you were making trouble, but then I noticed you were paying attention; I think you’re paying attention because the Holy Spirit wants you to pay attention. You were made for a reason. God has a purpose for you that goes far beyond what you think it is.”
At the same time, another dancer was praying with two girls who wanted to receive Christ.
Later, as the band were tearing down their equipment, the boy who had talked to Bill came back into the gym and asked him for an autograph and Scripture verse. Bill signed his paper and wrote 2 Corinthians 5:17-21, a passage that emphasises reconciliation and believers’ roles as ambassadors for Christ. At lunch, the school chaplain mentioned to Bill that the administration had been specifically praying for that student to be impacted by the concert.
The messages in Bill’s songs, along with the testimonies interspersed throughout the concert, addressed issues relevant to students: bullying, addiction to drugs and alcohol, peer pressure. “And then we also had surrendering your life to Christ and all these things that are important for this generation: Who should be the reference point for their lives? What is the truth? What is real value?” Attila explained.
“My favourite part is when I see that it's working. When we are beyond the rehearsal phase, when we are on the road set up for a concert and do it and then see that the messages are impacting lives. And then the gospel is preached because it's harder and harder to have an audience that is attentive. And here we see that 300 or 400 kids are in the room, and they are paying attention.”
And just like he did fifteen years ago, Attila, who is now a regional leader for OM in Central Europe, still sees potential for greater impact through the Bill Drake Band and the Arts at large: “We have to see that unfold in the coming years.”
In 2024, the Bill Drake Band plan to hold most of their tour concerts outside of Hungary, including in Ukrainian refugee camps in Poland. Pray for the logistics and those already working to set up the tour. Pray for people to come alongside and disciple the students who made decisions to follow Christ as a result of the concerts this year. Pray for the future development of an Arts ministry hub in Hungary that would be a place where dancers, worship leaders and visual artists would be raised up to engage with their communities in Central Europe, Eastern Europe and beyond. To listen to Bill’s songs or learn more about his music, visit https://www.billdrake.com