Music and Megaministries

From the Ask Avery file, JM writes:

Question: The history of the Evangelical movement in America goes back to colonial times and before. However, during the baby-boomer generation, we have seen the rise of evangelists (Graham, Humbard, Robertson, Falwell, Swaggart, Baker, etc.) via electronic media. And while some of these mentioned TV pioneers have passed on, retired or been caught in disgrace, a new generation seems poised to take their place. However, unlike their wordsmithing brothers, the SGM ranks seem poised for collapse or implosion. The last decade or so have taken away Jake Hess, the Goodmans, the Cathedrals, James Blackwood, J.D. Sumner, Dottie Rambo and many other SGM heroes and heroines. And although some long-term groups remain, they are pale imitations of the SGM groups of 1950-2000. Is there any odd correlation to the rise, via the electronic media, of Evangelical ministers and their super-churches compared to the near extinction of a viable SGM community? Or am I trying to draw a parallel were none exists?

I suspect a really good answer to this would take a book, but what is blogging if not a license to give presumptuously glib answers to serious, difficult questions?

Here’s mine: understanding that there are far too many dimensions of this question to get into here, I’d say that yes, I do think the decline of southern gospel from its mid-century heyday is at one level a result of the same set of forces fueling the rise of megaministries (Dobson and Osteen and Meyer, Saddleback and FBC Atlanta etc) - the most important element being the mainstreaming of evangelical Protestant life in America society.

Southern gospel succeeded and appealed to people in its heyday not least of all because it was a way for certain subgroups of conservative Christians to cultivate a unique set of artistic and cultural traditions at a time when America’s vast expansion in the post-WW II, Cold War era was dramatically destabilizing old ways of living and the balance of power among traditional groups identities.

As the development of the identifier southern gospel in the 70s shows, the music has long been tied in the last half of the 20th century directly to a sense of preserving values or traditions that were perceived to be under attack – notionally by CCM, when the “southern” modifier started being adopted, but arguably this whole conflict could be read as a metaphor for the wider anxieties running through conservative, rural evangelicalism as the country became more secular and (sub)urban.

Of course a more gifted observer than I could easily trace a line from CCM straight through to the slick megaministers of today. For our purposes, though, it’s enough to note that southern gospel has largely been reactive for the last quarter century or so, acting as a traditional counterweight to the progressive sounds coming from the center and left fields of Christian music and culture. The range of styles within southern gospel aligns with the different levels of comfort within gospel music about emerging trends: from the NOT AT ALL COMFORTABLE crowd (i.e. The Inspirations) to the SOMEWHAT COMFORTABLE crowd (i.e. Perrys or Talleys) to the VERY COMFORTABLE crowd (i.e. LordSong, Martins).

And of course right in the middle is the Gaither Homecoming, which I’m increasingly convinced succeeded when it did because it split the difference between the hidebound traditionalists on the sg side and the unabashed progressives on the CCM side who were eager to make Christian entertainment look and sound as much like mainstream American entertainment as possible. Homecoming offered middle-class Christians familiar, feel-good Christian music in a package that conformed to the visual and aesthetic standards of broadcast-quality content everyone was accustomed to in the age of cable television. Homecoming managed to be BOTH traditional and innovative, and in some ways it created its own obsolescence by acclimating wide swaths of conservative Christianity to secular-style Christian entertainment.

And this is more important point in the rise of these made-for-TV, larger-than-life personalities and their vertically integrated product fulfillment operations – whether Joyce Meyer or Bill Gaither: they speak to the contemporary desire among a lot of Protestants today to be taken seriously by mainstream American society without feeling like they’ve surrendered core values or beliefs. And what better way to be taken seriously than by making Christian entertainment/ministry hugely profitable, powerful, and internationally syndicated? At least this is how I understand the emphasis on size and wealth and glamour and the cinematic style of these new multimedia evangelists.

Like I’ve said before, evangelicalism today is no longer “be like us,” but “we’re like you.” So it makes perfect sense that, for instance, Joel Osteen would take over the old Houston Rockets stadium, because his weekend services look and feel a lot like an NBA pregame show.

Where does that leave southern gospel? Well, the parts of the industry that see themselves as curators of a dying form of pious art will continue to die a slow, pious death, if never completely die off. But it seems pretty clear that a segment of the industry has already figured out which way the wind is blowing. “NBA pregame show,” after all, could easily describe your average EHSSQ show too (weren’t they even using a knock-off NBA logo for a while?). Meanwhile, Mark Lowry has created what amounts to Homecoming 2.0, and Greater Vision and Legacy 5 have figured out how to make a niche market out of the seminar and Bible-conference set.

The diversity of these strategies is the key to understanding the phenomenon. Evangelicalism has never been as monolithic as everyone thinks, but it is even less so now than ever before. As its styles and traditions diversify and proliferate, so will its soundtracks and accompaniment tapes, and it will matter less and less, I think, whether or not that music calls itself southern gospel, because the term really doesn’t reflect the kind of music or religious culture that exist anymore.

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  1. cdguy wrote:

    I think you’re right. Referring to your last statement, “southern gospel” is really not a good term to describe the industry today. SGM is so diverse, as you’ve described, that, when someone not familiar with the term were to asks “what IS southern gospel?”, it takes a lengthy explanation, as you’ve described, from the Inspirations, to the Perrys, to Lordsong, etc., and everything inbetween.

    But I thank God for that diversity. Most people have a wider range of taste than they realize. And many of us are (as Bill Gaither describes) “musical schizophrenics”. I gladly wear that moniker.

  2. Jake wrote:

    One thing we have to realize and accept — whether we like it or not — is that musical styles change over time. For instance, Fanny Crosby’s hymns were rejected by the church when she wrote them, because they were too “worldly” — yet over time they became standards. Now, with the decline of the hymn book and the rise of worship powerpoints, they are slowly heading in the direction of obsolete in more and more churches (that’s not to say there are plenty of people who still enjoy and use them). And if you trace music back over several hundred years, you find complete changes of style. We don’t sing today the way they did in the 1500s.

    Some feel that the “heyday” of SG music was in the 1940s and 1950s. If so, we are looking at 60-70 years ago. Music is different now, and it will continue to change, both in the “Christian” and secular venues. While there will always be those who like the “old stuff,” it no longer appeals to the majority of people.

    Those SG writers and artists who change with the times — and are often criticised for being too progressive or just too “different” — may well be the ones to survive, because they are willing to change with the times. I know some who read this still like the old 4-men-and-a-piano style, but in the American culture of 2008, that is becoming more and more obsolete. In a day of amplified music, orchestrations, high volumes, etc. with a growing lack of appreciation for 4-part harmony, it simply doesn’t appeal to many. That’s why you see the older crowd at SG concerts, and the young people are at “Christian rock” concerts. (I know there are exceptions, but this is generally the way things are headed.)

  3. Leebob wrote:

    Once while listening to Jericho in the mid 90’s I heard Dwayne Burke refer to what they were doing as “Southern Inspirational”. Alot of what I heard that night was not alot different from what I hear now days from Lordsong and Booth Brothers.

    Imagine that…we would now be talking about “SI” had that term taken hold.

  4. Irishlad wrote:

    Just sitting thinking about Blackwood/Statesmen pre Sg terminology heyday.Everyone loved them, no contempory crowd then,no sg crowd,no praise and worship adherents,they were all things to all men. Plain and simple… Gospel singers. Obvisiously white gospel hadn’t sub-divided but you still had your right wing/liberals, church folk/non church goers who enjoyed them. I think they were so popular because they were so ’secular’,meaning,their music/ministry ratio was probably 80:20. Brings big crowds in that does.

  5. Irishlad wrote:

    Having just read Deon Unthank’s article”Gospel musics dirty word”-which incidentally backs my previous post up to the hilt-,i will now change that music/ministry ratio to 95:5(the 5 being Bro Hobie going off on one).

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