Sticking With Who You Are Without Getting Stuck

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Two weeks ago I was lucky enough to be among 40,000 people at Georgia Tech for the Rolling Stones concert. The weather was perfect (after the rain moved through), the setting was great (Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field, home of Coach Paul Johnson’s Orange Bowl champion Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets!), the music was great (You Can’t Always Get What You Want, I Know It’s Only Rock and Roll, and Gimme Shelter), and the company was even better (my brother and his wife and my lovely bride, Julie). We had a great time.

It’s amazing that the Rolling Stones have been able to stick together for so long—more than 50 years and counting.  But what’s even more amazing is that what worked and connected first in the 1960’s still resonates so strongly in 2015. I know a lot of churches that would give anything to see the same success in 2015 that they experienced in the 1960’s.

So I thought I’d take a second to try to think about how they’ve done it.

First, longevity and continued health—for rock and roll bands and churches--takes hard work. One of the most striking things about a Rolling Stones concert today is how in shape they all are. All four of the core members are strong and lean and healthy. It's a visible reminder that each of them are committed and focused and all in, and it reflects a daily commitment to excellence that allows four men past retirement age—the oldest is 74—to perform in sold out stadiums all over the world. It’s not a stretch to say that 50 years in, each of the members are as committed to professional excellence as they’ve ever been.

Second, the Rolling Stones have come a long way presentation-wise since their days on the Ed Sullivan Show. They still play the same instruments, they sing the same words—it’s the same people with the same message. But the similarities between a 2015 Rolling Stones concert and a 1960’s concert end there.

Petco Park in San Diego/2015                                                                                     Ed Sullivan Show/1964

Petco Park in San Diego/2015                                                                                     Ed Sullivan Show/1964

Popular expectations have changed in the intervening fifty years. At the Ed Sullivan Show, men wore suits and women wore dresses—on stage and in the audience. The sets were orderly, the cameras were stationary, and if the performers danced it was deemed provocative. The lighting was straightforward and simple.

To those of us who grew up in “Ed Sullivan Show” churches, anything more substantial production wise can seem overwhelming, and anything that appears less formal can seem somehow sacrilegious. But to people who have come of age in the 21st century, an Ed Sullivan style presentation today can feel like black and white TV in a high definition world.

So the Rolling Stones have made some changes to how they present themselves and their message. It’s still the same people, same instruments, and the same music. But they’re not the same band they were 50 years ago, either. They’ve put on new clothes, added a more modern stage, updated their lighting, and added a few big screens.

Without changing the substance of who they are, the Rolling Stones have done a masterful job of continuing to feel current and up to date to all generations of their fans.

Finally, the trick to longevity is the ability to navigate change with authenticity. If there’s a magic to what the Rolling Stones are doing it’s that they’ve managed to stick with who they are without getting stuck.

And guess what? I saw people at the show wearing Rolling Stones t-shirts from 1981. I heard people talking about their first Stones concert in 1972. And there were (depressingly) LOTS of people there younger than me excited to see the Rolling Stones for the very first time. The Rolling Stones have found the right balance of change and authenticity to combine what’s best of the last 50 years with a sense of what’s possible for the next 50.

The Rolling Stones end most of their concerts with one of their most popular songs, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It was first recorded 46 years ago in 1969. It opens with a choir accompanied by piano and organ (sound familiar?) with a French horn thrown in for good measure.

At Bobby Dodd Stadium, the choir was the Emory University concert choir under the direction of Eric Nelson, who is also the minister of music at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. For a few minutes that night, classical organ music intermingled with notes from Keith Richards’ guitar and a leading director of sacred choral music stood next to Mick Jagger and more than 40,000 people from 18-80 sang along to every word at the top of their lungs.

It’s amazing what can happen when you find ways to continue doing what originally made you successful in culturally relevant ways. 

If the Rolling Stones can teach us anything, it’s that change—the right kind of change—is healthy and necessary for long-term success. Change might not always be what we want. But sometimes change is what we need.

See you Sunday.