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May 21, 2013

Jim Bailey: Gospel concerts both fun, ministry

Every now and then a performer in Christian music of whatever stripe is asked whether he or she considers their craft to be entertainment or ministry.

The late Hovie Lister, founder of the electrifying Statesmen quartet, used to answer: “Yes; yes. Next question.”

Bill Gaither, lifelong Alexandrian and founder of the popular Gaither Vocal Band as well as the Homecoming concert tour, likes to reply that they are asking the wrong person. “You should ask the people who buy the tickets and come to the concerts,” he says.

I’ve always described gospel music as entertainment with a message. Typically, gospel performers get the audience’s attention with popular up-tempo numbers, or high tenor and low bass parts, and slip in plenty of humor. GVB baritone Mark Lowry loves to leave his audience in stitches before he begins to slip in nuggets of profundity on the real meaning of life. And the concertmasters work their way into numbers that address the things that are really important to people caught up in their difficult journeys through a lifetime.

Admittedly, through history there has been a tendency on the part of many critics to debase anything that smacks of fun in the name of religion. The Statesmen, for instance, were considered cutting-edge for their time, and on occasion a disc jockey would smash one of their records on the air. Ernie Haase and Signature Sound faced criticism over their gyrations on stage as they appealed to younger audiences. And as newer genres of contemporary gospel musicians have crossed the cutting edge with daring strains of rock and heavy metal, criticism has continued to mount.

But Gaither may have the right idea. What’s really important is the impact of a concert on the audience.

Gauging that often comes from feedback received in the electronic media as well as handwritten communiqués. Concertgoers are not shy about sharing their experiences with the performers they have come to admire.

One recent e-mail received in Gaither’s office provides a perfect example.

Before a Homecoming concert in Milwaukee this spring, Bill was contacted by representatives of Shepherds College, a college in Union Grove, Wis., for young adults with intellectual disabilities. For one of the young men at the institution, to say he is a “Gaither fan” is something of an understatement.

“He requests Gaither songs in his classes and prays for ‘all the Gaithers’ on a regular basis,” said the college representative informing them of 22-year-old Sean’s prospective attendance at the concert.

Bill followed through, arranging for Sean to meet members of the Vocal Band backstage before the concert. Then during the concert, lead singer Michael English pointed at Sean in the audience while Lowry said, “We met a young man tonight. Sean, this song is dedicated to you.” The song was “He Touched Me.”

It’s safe to say the lasting impression left on this young man transcends questions of entertainment vs. ministry.

Jim Bailey’s column appears on Wednesday. He can be reached by e-mail at jameshenrybailey@earthlink.net.

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