When you have sold more than 10 million records in your career, figuring out a set list may pose some challenges. Or, as Newsboys drummer Duncan Phillips describes the situation: “a nice problem to have.”
Phillips spoke by phone recently from Olathe, Colo., where Newsboys had arrived for a concert after a 12-hour drive from Phoenix.
Newsboys’ current tour also is taking them to the headlining slot at the second annual OneFest Christian musical festival on Saturday at the Northern Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in Chippewa Falls. The festival runs Friday through Sunday, July 28.
Phillips, who joined the group in 1994, spoke about the calculus of mixing recent recordings, old favorites and surprises.
“As a band you’re always trying to play the new music because that’s what you’re excited about and that’s what you want people to be aware of,” he said. “Especially if they’re playing this song or that song on the radio, that’s what people want to hear.”
Perhaps, then, some of the performances may come from their new album, “UNITED,” which includes the song “Greatness of Our God.”
They also have numerous hits in their catalog that have made Newsboys — founded in Australia in 1985 — among the major stars of Christian music.
“You want to play some of the old favorites,” said Phillips, a native Australian. “You want to go back sometimes a little deeper and play some of those songs that maybe people aren’t expecting to hear that may have been hits 15 or 20 years ago. So we try to cover the whole kind of gamut as much as we can.”
In Newsboys’ case, the whole gamut comprises 18 or 19 studio records, by Phillips’ count.
“We do the best we can, and most people walk away not unhappy, let’s put it that way,” he said.
As a Christian band, Newsboys can claim popular songs that get crowds on their feet dancing as well as those that captivate a congregation during a worship service. A case of the latter is “We Believe,” which draws from the words of the Apostles’ Creed.
Asked about the popularity of “We Believe” in liturgical as well as entertainment settings, he replied: “You couldn’t want for anything more in that sense. I think as an artist you always want your music to connect. I think you’re lying to yourself if you don’t.”
While it’s not always easy to predict which songs will be hits, he continued, “Of course, you do get those special moments with ‘We Believe’ or ‘God’s Not Dead (Like a Lion)’ or ‘Born Again’ — you get these really special moments in your career where it goes way further that you would have expected.”
“We Believe,” which spent 12 or 13 weeks at No. 1, is in some ways atypical of the band’s music.
“We’re a pop show for the most part,” he said. “We have lots of production. We want to put on as big a show as we possibly can, but ‘We Believe’ is a really beautiful moment.”
While not at a fast tempo, the song underscores the joy Christians feel, he added.
“I think we should be the happiest, most joyful people on the earth,” he said. “That’s my opinion because we know how it ends.”
The song “God’s Not Dead” also has caught on in a big way. For example, Phillips said, a friend of theirs who is a missionary in Ukraine sent them a video of youths he was working with singing the hit in unison.
“(The) young teens knew every word to the song,” he said.
The “God’s Not Dead” film, in which Newsboys appeared, and its two sequels also have reached a large audience, he added. The movies are about how challenges of faith can be met, and the first film reportedly earned more than $62 million on a $2 million budget.
“I want to say every youth group in the country and in the world for that matter has watched that movie maybe several times and watched the whole trilogy,” Phillips said.
“And kids for some reason love that song. Whether it’s the ‘roaring like a lion’ bit, or I’m not quite sure what it is, but any kid over 4 or 5, that’s their favorite song.”
In short, he added, the song serves as an affirmation.
“I think a lot of times in our culture especially people of faith get so beat up in general at the moment, but I think with a song like that people can get in a room full of 5,000 people and they can all stand together in unity and make a declaration about their faith,” he said.
In their performances all over the world, Phillips said, they have found how their music can at times help forge unity despite doctrinal differences.
“I’m very proud of that fact,” he said, noting that the night before the interview the band played at a conference for the Church of the Nazarene.
“We played a lot of Catholic (events),” he said. “I’m very proud they see value in what we do. Protestant, Presbyterian, Lutheran — you name it, we’ve been a part of it.”
Such interactions have shown Phillips that any differences between faiths matter less than the common bond.
“So I don’t care who you are, what you’ve done, what your propensities are. …. We’re going to show you the love of Christ,” he said. “And I may not agree with everything you do or say or believe. But you know, it doesn’t matter. When it comes to celebrating our faith, those (differences) are trivial in the scope of eternity — they just ... don’t ... matter.”
Asked what lies ahead for the group, Phillips said he wasn’t certain, but he knows they still do have more to accomplish.
“I think sometimes there’s an element of keep on keeping on,” he said. “I think what’s happening now with our branding is that its become generational, so a lot of times two and three generations of families are coming and enjoying Newsboys. ... Mom and Dad know who we are, teenagers know who we are, little kids know who we are, grandparents know who we are.”
When not on stage, members of Newsboys spend time with a number of charitable causes. They had spent the week before the interview building homes for disadvantaged families in the Baja region of Mexico as a part of their God’s Not Dead Missions. They make such trips annually, bringing about 100 people with them and building three homes. The effort includes talking about their faith with those they help.
“We kind of have the attitude in as much as when you help clothe people, when you give people a real leg up, put a roof over their heads, then you have the opportunity or the right or the privilege of sharing Christ with them at that point,” he said.
Calling the experience “a wonderful thing,” Phillips added, “It warms your heart, but personally I think it’s Christianity 101 — go out to all the world, preach the gospel, help the widows, help the poor.”
The group also done many mission trips with ChildFund International, an organization that helps children living in extreme poverty.
“It’s a great reset for me,” he said. “Because we get so catered to, and it’s very easy. We live a lavish, wonderful, privileged lifestyle. And I don’t say that to be weird, I say that because that’s what it is, that’s the truth of it. But when we get to serve others, it puts it all back in perspective.”