It’s 2 a.m. at the Waffle House in Cleveland, Tenn. and Todd Agnew has wrapped up a couple-hours stab at a ridiculously cheap breakfast. He has had a whirlwind day of driving in from Memphis, Tenn., setting up at Student Life youth camp at Lee University, performing an afternoon concert and leading worship.
Yet even with his busy itinerary, the troubadour graciously indulges a few more questions about his musical pursuits — or perhaps more accurately, how God uses such songs as a vessel to get young people revved up about their faith.
“I don’t pay all that much attention to myself,” he muses between a bacon bite and syrup swirl. “When they’re the questions about Jesus, I’m pretty good at [answering] those. But when it’s about Todd, I have tried to push away from that for so long. Part of it was probably a self-image thing.
Growing up, I wasn’t a very popular kid. I was awkward and never thought of myself as being very important. No matter what somebody sees on stage, I’m still this awkward kid who doesn’t know how to talk to girls or big groups.”
Although shy, he manages to come out of his shell to reiterate a message that has been driven home throughout the first two sessions of Student Life (a national, nondenominational organization). It’s a teaching about identity and what it means to find it in Christ rather than the world. His message rings particularly true with an auditorium filled with a thousand or so impressionable high schoolers.
“Part of my long-term calling is [to] help lost people get to know Christ,” he says unflinchingly. “I want to be forthright about that, and have them become who God made them.” The influence of society can be a distraction to those seeking that path, and even in Agnew’s case (whose CDs Grace Like Rain and the new Reflection of Something have spawned several hit singles), it can be incredibly difficult. But for the somewhat stocky, stringy-haired guitarist, the answer is to simply cut off ties from all possible hindrances.
During these few days hanging with teens, he has turned off the phone and packed his laptop. Like the kids checking out of their school routines, Agnew immerses himself in the camp experience, putting all his album obligations and radio reports on hold. Even when off the road, he will retreat in other ways, such as taking a trip into God’s creation or a ride on his motorcycle.
“There is something really freeing for me about putting my phone in my room and getting back to the basics of who I am and what God created me to be.”
At camp, Agnew reveals that he was adopted at birth. He credits his adoptive family with leading him to Christ and parallels their love to redemption.
“I share about the concept of salvation through the idea of adoption because I have a personal story,” he says. “[It’s an extension of] this concept we find in Ephesians about being predestined to be adopted. Adoption in the family of Christ is an amazing thing, just like it was for my adoptive family to take me in.” Despite not being raised by birth parents, Agnew learned of his Native American heritage, a nationality that has captivated his curiosity. Besides the vibrant culture, he became familiar with the philosophy and mythology of its people and traced their stories of strife.
“It’s not talked about as much, but it’s probably the most oppressed people group in the history of the United States,” he notes. “Not to belittle what any of the other races have gone through, but so much of what we identify them with now is alcoholism and poverty ? For me, there’s still that prayer [I’ll be used to] reach that culture for Christ.”
Agnew’s ties to that race — along with his humble lifestyle and desire to avoid the spotlight — have earned him comparisons to another talented tunesmith: Rich Mullins. Agnew has been a lifelong fan of the “Awesome God” composer and once spent a day with him.
“I think the things that remind people of Rich [in me] is just how God made me in the first place and what God has taught me in my life,” Agnew says. “He has taken us down some of the same paths, though I’m not near the artist that he was.”
Another one of Mullins’ most noted characteristics revolved around charity and his propensity to give away most royalty money. Considering Agnew has racked up chart-topping smashes such as “Grace Like Rain” and “This Fragile Breath (The Thunder Song),” it’s likely he is in solid financial shape. How does he handle cash?
“I try not to talk about money,” he quips. “God has a plan to be honored by how we spend our money. I don’t know that it’s up to me to decide what it is for anybody else. Since we’re talking about Rich, he once said, ?It’s just as easy being proud of being poor as it is being rich.’ I thought, ?Wow, you can give away your stuff and still have pride and God isn’t glorified by that!’ For me, the question has been based on what God has given me: How does He want to be honored by that?”
Returning to the Student Life environment, investment comes up again, but this time it stretches beyond monetary status. It is found in Agnew’s outdoor interaction with teens during recreation time, where he not only cheers on students, but participates on the front lines. And just like onstage, he’s firm, yet inviting when delivering a message of teamwork and trust in between a limbo contest and tug-of-war competitions.
“OK, I understand what it means to believe in God, but now how does that affect what I do at lunch, how I play recreation and how I interact with my friends?” he ponders. “This is my 16th summer leading worship for youth camp. There’s something about that time when you get out of the world’s influence and focus on Christ. He starts to flush the junk out of your life and you start to be able to hear and connect with the Lord better. You see that kind of power to influence kids’ lives — not my ability to influence, but you see what God can do in that amount of time. That’s something real special.”
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