SARASOTA -- The Rev. Bob Suter is a musician and songwriter with a message. It's a message of God's love and redemption that he prefers to give away, in the form of free CDs, T-shirts and concerts.
It may not be the best business model, but that doesn't concern the pastor of Crossroads, a United Methodist church in Sarasota.
"I give 90 to 95 percent of my stuff away. To me, getting the message out is more important," he said. "I have a job; I'm a pastor. I just love to play."
Suter, who grew up playing rock guitar in New Jersey, incorporates Christian and secular music into a
weekly contemporary service. He and the Bob Suter Band play at Christian venues across Florida.
He's been pastor of Crossroads since 2006. Suter says the church was stagnating while the community around them was changing. Membership dwindled, until the church lost its charter from the United Methodist Church.
Suter came in, established connections with the nearby colleges and began a number of outreach programs. Attendance began to grow almost overnight, he says.
"It was so obvious that not connecting with the community was why the church wasn't succeeding," he said.
Suter wants to combine ministry and music to help the smaller congregation.
"My wife and I really want to help the small church," he explained. "I think in our culture, we kind of celebrate everything big -- big is better -- and I think there's so much spirit and relationship-building in a small church, and it would be really cool to help them build outreach ministries and music ministries."
He says giving his music away is a deliberate decision: "That's pretty much where my heart is today. We just want to get the word out."
He notes that the Internet, along with the file sharing and outright piracy that came along with it, is a fact of life in the music business.
"I've had a lot of people say, 'why would you give stuff away?' I've decided to forgive people of their sins of piracy and give it to them," Suter said.
The strategy seems to be bearing fruit. Since he began offering music for free, people have taken notice.
"Internet radio stations have started playing my stuff. I'm getting 14,000 airplays a month," he said, and not just in the U.S. "We hit Romanian radio. I'm getting played once a week in Romania. It blows my mind. I'm in France, I'm in Australia, in the Philippines."
Suter has produced three CDs and a fourth is in the works. All original work, Suter says it's never been a problem finding inspiration for his songs.
"The hard part is, there's inspiration everywhere," he said, noting that being a pastor, there's no shortage of stories about people's real-life problems. "I'm inspired by the Lord ... by life itself."
Suter says he concentrates on issues anyone can relate to. He talked about losing his parents, which was the story behind "Pull You Back," one of the songs on his upcoming CD.
"I lost my mom and dad. You wind up years later thinking about your mom and dad and you realize that everyone says you'll get over it," he recalled. "Well, I never did. I never have to this day.
"And I think the message is not to try to get over it. Embrace it. Try to live with it and bring it to the forefront."
The bridge of the song:
I know that where you are, somewhere I will be.
And I know that where you are is where you really want to be.
I also know that someday, where you are, we'll be together.
But until someday, I'm just missing you.
On his website, www.bobsuter.com, fans can find lots to see and hear. Sign up for his newsletter and you can download rough tracks of new songs, concert schedules, even view video guitar lessons. And it's all free.
He says he got an email recently from a man who struggled to learn to play the guitar for years until watching his videos.
"He wrote to thank me, saying he had just played 'Amazing Grace' at his church for the first time," Suter said. "I'd rather get emails like that than order forms."
The Bob Suter Band plays, for free, the second Friday of every month 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Living Word Bookstore, 5421 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, where the band also give away CDs and T-shirts.
Crossroads UMC is at 4726 N. Tamiami Trail, south of University Parkway. Services begin at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
Jim DeLa, East Manatee/weekend editor, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7011. Follow him on Twitter at @JimDeLaBH.