Back in the 1970’s, Paul Ruehl and Russ Tkac played rock ’n roll in bars in Southwestern Michigan. At that time, the thought of leading worship or preaching in a Lutheran church never crossed their minds. They didn’t even grow up Lutheran. But today, Ruehl leads worship at St. Augustine Lutheran in Troy, and Tkac serves as pastor of Peace, Waterford. Read below to see how this came about.
Russ Tkac and Paul Ruehl met on September 5, 1961, the first day of first grade. They quickly became great buddies and enjoyed playing at each other’s homes. Like most kids from their generation, they saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9, 1964. Their lives changed forever. Both boys had to get a guitar and learn how to play. They took lessons and practiced. Then, during the summer of 1971, just before their junior year of high school, Ruehl called Tkac and said, “Let’s form a band.” They have been playing music together since.
By the time they were 18 or 19, they were not only playing in their band from high school, they also ventured out as a duo and started to have some success playing in bars that catered to acoustic music. This success made them hunger for more. When they were both about 20, Ruehl’s brother asked them to form a new band with the remnants of his band called Springwell, a very successful Detroit-area band. They felt like they had an invitation to rock-and-roll heaven. They went from a high-school-level band to a “real band” called Bad Axe. For the next ten years or so, Bad Axe played at bars and dances and anywhere else they could. Their band even had a nibble at the big time with Elektra-Asylum Records, but it never panned out.
A NEW FRIEND
Over the years, Tkac and Ruehl met and/or played on the same bill with many of the biggest names of their generation. The biggest name, by far, was Richie Furay. Richie was enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an original member of the Buffalo Springfield. He later went on to form Poco, another very successful band. Richie became a Christian in the mid 1970’s. He went on to become a pastor. Tkac and Ruehl played at Richie’s church in the mid 1990’s. Ruehl and Richie struck up a close friendship.
Neither Tkac nor Ruehl were raised in the Lutheran church. Both would have considered themselves theists, but neither knew Christ until Ruehl was introduced to real agape Christian love during his third year of college.
Ruehl formed his first Christian rock band in 1985 and has been playing Christian music since then. Of course, he couldn’t make music without his life-long buddy, Tkac. Tkac was not fully on board with the “Christian thing,” but his friendship with Ruehl was so strong, he agreed to record and eventually tour with Ruehl’s band.
They worshipped together for several years at a nondenominational church. Tkac, however, continued to dig into the Word and noticed the teachings and views of the sacraments of his church were at odds with what he was reading in the Bible. At a friend’s suggestion to check out the LCMS, he began to study the Book of Concord, Law and Gospel, and read Luther, Man Between God and the Devil, before visiting an LCMS church. He eventually joined St. John, Rochester, and discerned a sense of calling, which God confirmed in various ways. One of them was through his best friend Ruehl: “When I was considering ministry, I called Paul and asked him if he could see me as a pastor in God’s church, knowing I’d get an honest answer. Paul said, ‘If God can use smelly fishermen … he can use you.’”
Ruehl had no intention of following suit. After many years at his previous church, however, he felt an urge to move on. Tkac suggested he contact Pastor Paul Monson at St. Augustine Lutheran, as they were looking for a worship leader. Ruehl was skeptical. He was a rock ‘n roller from way back, and had been at a church with a very solid contemporary band. Changing worship style was not something in his future. Pastor Monson made one request, “Teach my people how to worship God.” Ruehl’s response was, “Be careful what you ask for, I won’t do things by half. The day you ask me to tone it down will be the day I leave.”
AN ANSWER TO PRAYER
Pastor Monson says, “For years, I’ve prayed that the spirit of David would rest on our church. David serves as an example of how God wants us to worship. Paul Ruehl is an answer to that prayer. He often jokes that he writes songs with King David. So, even if you don’t like the melody, you have to love the lyrics, because they’re divinely inspired! In other words, the lyrics come from the Psalms.”
St. Augustine, where Ruehl serves, offers both traditional and contemporary services. Pastor Monson adds, “I like to do contemporary worship that is theologically sound. So even our contemporary service includes all the basic elements of the liturgy–confession and absolution, Scripture readings, the Creeds, the prayers of the church, the Introit, etc. When Ruehl and I choose hymns and songs for a service, we take into consideration my sermon theme, the readings for that day, and the Introit. Some of Ruehl’s songs come directly from the Introit of the day. Psalm 6 and Psalm 134 are examples of that. Kyrie Eleison has a clear liturgical influence, as well. Sometimes we use it as our Kyrie in our communion service. Ruehl also wrote The Spirit of God during the Pentecost season, since he saw a need for contemporary songs about the Holy Spirit.”
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
The rest is history. The praise band at St. Augustine has recorded two contemporary CDs. Richie Furay sang on two of the tracks on the most recent one. Bob Seger’s former drummer and Meat Loaf’s former keyboardist played on the entire project. The cover art for their latest CD, We See the Lord (featured on left), was done by Gary Faszholz, art teacher at Lutheran High North.
Meanwhile, Tkac ended up at Peace, Waterford. He took advantage of the SMP program to become pastor at Peace after 30 years of selling pianos. Ruehl wrote There is a Friend for Tkac’ ordination service. And of course, Tkac played on both CDs Ruehl’s band released. Pastor Tkac says he loves the liturgy and uses setting three at Peace. In early spring, 2015, he went to Germany to play some bluegrass with LCMS President, Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison, at a free concert before the dedication of the Old Latin School outreach center in Wittenberg, Germany.
If thirty years ago someone would have said Tkac would be a Lutheran pastor and Ruehl would be a Lutheran worship leader, they would have had a great laugh and think it was a joke. The joke’s on them!
The CDs produced by the praise band at St. Augustine can be obtained by contacting the church at at 248-879-6400 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . The band also performs on demand; they have a portable PA and only ask for a free will offering.