To Backstreet (and Back) - An Interview with Burk Parsons, Part 3
I’ve heard rumor as well that you were the first person Lou Pearlman spoke to when he decided to begin another band he called ‘N Sync. Is this true as well?
Yes, let me explain. In one sense, the second offer I received from Lou Pearlman was harder to turn down than the first. I was eighteen, a senior in high school and, by God’s grace, much stronger in the faith, leading Bible studies and many to Christ. My family had purchased a successful cabinet shop and was doing well financially (Incidentally, I worked in the cabinet shop for a few years and loved every minute I had working with wood, except for the instance when I cut off two fingers from my right hand—still missing. Most days I would get out of school early and while in route to the cabinet shop 45-minutes away I listened to John MacArthur, Chuck Swindoll, or David Jeremiah, depending on the time I left school). My sister’s anemia had taken a toll on her and the family, but it had not turned out to be as bad as the doctors predicted it might be. Strangely, I was not as averse to the pop-music scene since I had recently come to enjoy some of the contemporary Christian music that was being produced (albeit a short-lived period). Lou called me at home, and I had not spoken with him since I left him and the guys that day at his home in 1993. It was now 1995. The Backstreet Boys had just started their first European tour, if I recall, and they were just getting to be known. Lou acted as if nothing had ever happened and asked me to come to Orlando to catch up and talk about the future. His offer was completely unexpected. That Saturday afternoon I visited him we met in his game room; he sat in his big chair and I sat on his sofa; he leaned toward me and said, “Burk, I’m going to give you another chance. I’m starting a new group, and it will be better and more successful than the Backstreet Boys. We now know exactly what to do and how to create a band that will rise to instant popularity.” He then said this (I was stunned): “I want you to be the first member of this group. We will build the group around you, and you will help us choose the guys in the group. You are no longer a minor; you will need to move to Orlando as soon as possible, finish school from here. I will get you a house, a car, a salary, and any thing else you need. Within a couple of years,” he promised, “you’ll be a multi-millionaire.”
He could tell I was excited. We spoke for a while about all that I was involved with at church and how this might be God’s second opportunity for me to fulfill my calling to be a witness for Him in the world. Lou had become quite a theologian. So, he gave me one week to think about it and told me to call him by the next Saturday.
It was simple. God had opened the door again, and this time several of the previous factors were no longer a part of the equation. It must be that God really wanted me to do this—after all, He had given me time to mature as a follower of Christ and He had now presented me with a venue for ministry in the world as a strong Christian (I am laughing at myself as I write this). What is more, at Sarasota Baptist Church, where I had become even more involved, going on staff as student-ministry intern a year later, many of the dear godly people there also thought this was another open door God had provided me to serve Him in the world. I was all set to call up Lou Pearlman and say yes, I’ll do it. Still, the same questions were running through my mind, over and over again: “How can I serve God and the world? God and fame? God and money? How can I sing those lyrics, dance, and shake for young impressionable girls?” My answer was simple, I can’t, but I know the Lord will sustain me in serving Him in the world if it’s His will. Of course I was seeking His will in all the wrong places. All I had to do, at any time, was look to the simple kingdom principles set out in His Word.
It was all sort of strange what happened the night before I was planning to call Lou. I went out that Friday night with an old dear girlfriend of mine, whom I stopped dating my freshman year of high school, because I reasoned, I wasn’t going to marry her at that time—a sweet girl who knew me well. We went to see the movie The Shawshank Redemption. I trust you’ve seen it—the movie has the tendency to set one’s mind in a certain mood, and I was in a sober mood that night. As the late showing ended, we walked out and got into my truck. We sat there (yes, we just sat there), and I began to talk about my life, and I began to weep. Within ten minutes, the parking lot had cleared, all except for one little car. Then one very big guy, dressed in black, came out of the theater alone. I was sad to see him alone. He walked around for about five minutes looking at the posters for the coming attractions. He then walked slowly back to his car with a sad countenance. After he got into his car, (It was about 1:00 am. It was dark, and there was no one else around but us sitting in the rear of the lot), he started his car and instantly loud booming music filled the air. He drove off slowly as he attempted to drown out his loneliness and sorrow with loud music. This is what went through my mind as I explained it to my friend: “I want to spend my life helping people like that, people who have no one, people who are lonely, sad, with no hope in this world.” I began to cry again, and I said, “how can I entertain the world if I am trying to help the world?” And with that, I knew what I needed to do. I called up Lou the next morning and said just about the same thing I told him two years prior. That was it. Within a year, Lou had formed the group ‘N SYNC (While the name ‘N SYNC was never mentioned to me, it was my understanding that was the group I would have been a part of). I met some of the ‘N SYNC guys a few years later at Lou’s house, just after one of their albums went platinum. They did, incidentally, make millions more than the Backstreet Boys had, and over the years the Backstreet Boys sued Lou Pearlman several times for various reasons. Several of the guys, from both groups, entered drug/alcohol rehab centers, and except for Justin Timberlake, I am not sure what any of the ‘N SYNC guys are up to these days.
How has God confirmed to you that you made the right choice in forsaking a career in music for a career in the ministry?
I could write a lot in answering this question (I’m smiling as I watch my youngest daughter out of the corner of my eye sitting beside me in her pajamas on this early Saturday morning). But I hope the following story will be sufficient in helping to answer your question. In 2000 not too long after Amber and I were married (Lou sent us a check for $150.00 for our wedding), I met with Lou and several of his managers at his restaurant in downtown Orlando. It was the first time I had seen him since 1995. Throughout our lunch together he was signing MTV contracts for his show “Making the Band” or whatever the actual name was. As we spoke, he wanted to hear all about my life and ministry; I believed then, and still believe today, that he really cared. Perhaps I am wrong. But as we spoke, a few of his managers were listening intently to hear the story about the stupid kid who passed up offers to be a part of the now rich and famous Backstreet Boys and ‘N SYNC. I felt as if they were laughing at me as I told the story (actually some of them did snicker a bit). After I told my story, much more briefly than I’m telling it here, one of Lou’s main guys said this to me, and I’ll never forget it. He said, “I grew up in the church and still have many Christian friends. I actually once thought I would be an Episcopal priest.” Then he went on to say, “You know, Brian Littrell, who took your spot in the Backstreet Boys” (and whose cousin, Kevin, took Sam’s spot in the group), “he always said he wanted to be in ministry too. He was in the youth group at First Baptist in Orlando, and he came in with big dreams to go into ministry, but that’s not what he’s doing now.” He went on to describe quite a bit about Brian, his new wife, and some of the reasons he got married. While I’m not going to give any other details than that, let it be sufficient to say that our Lord overwhelmingly confirmed, once again, that He had led me to make the right decision. I am certainly aware that Brian came out with a Christian album a few years ago, and I am also aware the Backstreet Boys are back, once again, on tour. The question that many Christians have not yet answered for themselves and their world-flesh-devil serving heroes is this: If our God is a holy God who commands us in the New Testament to come out from among the world so that we might shine as a light to the dark world in order to proclaim life, liberty, and Jesus Christ to that world, how can we actually serve God and the world, God and the fame our flesh seeks, God and money, God and self? Don’t forget, God doesn’t need us to have a big audience so that thousands or millions of people can like us so that they might get to like Him. Jesus with few in number, and He didn’t command them to gain the audience of the world by mimicking the world. He told us that His kingdom is just the opposite, and that the Gospel is what saves not our good looks, talents, or fame.
I have prayed for Brian many times over the years, but I have never met him nor communicated with him, and I hope that his profession of faith in Christ and his life serve to shine as a light to a dark world for the kingdom of God.
For years, hanging behind the door of my study was a framed picture someone had sent me of the Backstreet Boys when they appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine with their pants down, with the caption “Boys on Top” (catch the innuendo).
Under that picture were our Lord’s words: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his soul” (Matt. 16:26).
Read part 4, the conclusion, where I ask Burk how he came to minister alongside R.C. Sproul and about some of the things he has learned from Dr. Sproul.